Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Steely Dan-Brooklyn connection

For most people, Steely Dan are synonymous with the studio-bred meticulousness that permeated most California pop records of the 1970s. To this day, the irrefragably good "Do It Again", not to mention the circuitous "Aja" -- among many other songs -- continue to evoke the less than salubrious denizens of otherwise unimpeachable SoCal coastal towns, places like San Pedro and Huntington Beach. Long before American pop culture centered itself on the praxis of deconstructing the motivations of vapid models and pseudo-cult leaders, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were doing it with remarkable acuity.

But before the misanthropic duo embarked on their westward sojourn, Becker and Fagen -- who grew up in the New York suburbs and met as disgruntled students at Bard College in Dutchess County -- served as pioneers in another sense. Popular legend holds that they slummed it out in Brooklyn between 1969 and 1971 while pursuing their mutual dream of attaining success as professional songwriters; according to biographer Brian Sweet, only Fagen lived in the borough (in a President Street apartment with his girlfriend), while Becker stayed with his sister and grandmother in Queens. Although their stay was comparatively short, it was intensely prolific -- in addition to demoing dozens of songs (including "Brooklyn", which later appeared on their Can't Buy A Thrill EP), they toured as backing musicians for Jay & the Americans. Relations between the clean-cut band and the hippieish duo were acrimonious at best -- Jay Black (already ensnared in the gambling addiction that would drive him into bankruptcy) was fond of calling them "the Manson and Starkweather of rock and roll," while Becker and Fagen developed private in-jokes that left other band members on edge. Still, the twosome brought a new spirit to the group's tepid repertoire, adding Motown-style bridges to otherwise banal songs.

In addition to one song ("I Mean to Shine"), the most enduring contribution from the Brooklyn years was the soundtrack to You've Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You'll Lose That Beat, an obscure film starring Richard Pryor. While the music is far from the sophisticated jazz-rock of later efforts, instrumentals like "Flotsam and Jetsam" -- driven by Fagen's wah-wahed electric piano -- are underpinned by the same bluesy structures that characterize the more accomplished "Reelin' in the Years". The soundtrack is still available as an import -- or, for the more daring, on numerous file sharing sites.

For those who are interested, Steely Dan play the Beacon Theater this week.

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