Doing It Again

OK, not concept—that was the silly sci-fi of Fagen's Kamakiriad. Say instead that sex here is somewhere between controlling metaphor and shared obsession. The likelihood that the songs are fictions, based like most fictions on observation—the music business is a petri dish for such stories—doesn't mean they aren't also fueled, like most fictions, by personal experience. But who knows whose autobiography ended up where? Certainly not us exegetes. Although convention attributes all Steely Dan lyrics to Fagen, whose solo albums are far more literary than the plainspoken Becker confessional 11 Tracks of Whack,Becker is plenty verbal—his 1996 tour letters at www.steelydan.com set the band's sardonic public tone, full of false leads and backhanded putdowns of people you didn't know existed. And while Fagen married the formidable singer-scenester Libby Titus in 1994, Becker seems something of a man-about-town. So I can't escape the feeling that a lot of the content is Becker's even if the words and details aren't. This band isn't just a working partnership, CSNY sans applesauce. It's a collaboration at a very deep level.

Though the songs are fictions, they're also revelations—glimpses of middle-aged sophomores looking for validation and the kind of excitement they always held at a distance in the end. Far removed classwise from the petty loserdom of Katy Liedand Can't Buy a Thrill,they're full of heady infatuations and random acts of cruelty, self-interest, and self-hate, vicious cycles blowing hot and cold. Precise, hip, worried, waiting by the phone for a "negative girl" or brimming with pedophile delight at a runaway's cute sexy ways, Fagen always conveys the urgency of attraction. Whether the objects of his desire are young or not, a matter usually left unspecified, they got the juice, so that the metaphor is less being able to get it up than being unable to restrain yourself, which is the first thing fiftysomethings miss when their libidos begin to run down—and which is also the difference between a rote comeback and a near rebirth.

Those decades at the college didn't turn out like they planned.
photo: Frank Ockenfels
Those decades at the college didn't turn out like they planned.

If the price of making a good record is looking like dirty old men, Fagen and Becker have no qualms about paying. Long ago they began their careers as staff songwriters, and for all their jazzy proclivities, song is their element. Imagine the incredibly skilled and through-composed music alone and it's pretty annoying—Medeski Martin & Wood without that band's showoff eccentricity, which in this context would come as a relief. Contemplate the lyrics just as writing and they're also pretty annoying—the superannuated sex fantasies of the rich and neurotic. Put the two together and you have the stuff of great rock and roll that no one has ever come close to duplicating—not even worthy inheritors like Tom Zé and Freedy Johnston. Male computer nerds who've mastered a culture of affluence without making sense of their sex lives should listen up. They won't learn a damn thing, that's not really the idea. But they'll feel a little less alone.

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