Steely Dan Covers Up (11/14/77)

At a time when the last recordings by Lynyrd Skynyrd are on the airwaves—no one should miss “That Smell” and “I Never Dreamed” from Street Survivors—Steely Dan’s Aja, perhaps their most accomplished and certainly their most precisely managed album, is very hard to take. Ronnie Van Zant, the band, and (on “That Smell” especially) backing singers Cassie Gaines, Jo Billingsley, and Leslie Hawkins closed their part of the rock and roll story with some of the most passionate music to be heard from Southern whites since Joe South’s “Games People Play;” Steely Dan, in the persons of composer-autocrats Donald Fagen (has his name ever rung more truly?) and Walter Becker, are working with all their skill to keep passion at bay. Oh, they will write about it, as on “Deacon Blues”—but if Steely Dan cares for passion these days, it is by a very circuitous route. They seem to believe that one deepens emotions solely by suppressing them, hiding them, as if emotion nakedly expressed is emotion trivialized, emotion lost. This means that when a performer expresses an emotion, no one (that is, no member of an audience) can really appreciate or understand it. My feelings, one is told, are wasted on you, and I value myself too highly to cheapen those feelings by offering them to you for your response.

I like to think that as a road band Lynyrd Skynyrd found their ability to communicate passion—may have come to value passion as an idea—through their endless contact with audiences. Certainly, passion in rock and roll is an effect like any other; it must be contrived, a way must be found to make it coherent and get it across, but one must still tap reserves in oneself before the question of effect arises. Lynyrd Skynyrd, by the end, seemed to have completed a certain chord progression: You tell a bit of the truth, get it heard; if that bit of the truth is heard, you value it more deeply; thus you are encouraged to tell more of what you know; to do that, you go further into your­self.
Steely Dan ignores what others are doing
Steely Dan, mandarins of the studio, do not work this way. Their distaste for the pop life is famous—not merely for its labors and its trappings, but for the contact it entails—perhaps even for the idea of contact. But it is only on Aja that they have transformed that practical distaste into a full-blown aesthetic. The hero of “Deacon Blues,” a solitary, self-sufficient, self-pitying jazz player (no Charlie Parker, no genius, but a journeyman, or perhaps a character like that played by Gene Hackman in The Conversation: a man who plays for himself), is the one memorable figure to emerge from many listenings to Aja. This is no accident: he is its muse. Becker and Fagen see through this creation (what don’t they see through?), but this time around they identify with him more than they subvert his claims: that no one can understand him, or his music, and no one should if his music is to pass the ultimate test—that of sanctity. “I cried when I wrote this song,” says the artist. “Sue me if I play too long.”

Such tired, bohemian postures would represent no loss had not Steely Dan, on other albums, produced music as passionate, as terrifyingly exposed, as any of the decade: on “Any World (That I’m Welcome To)” and “Doctor Wu” for me, no doubt on other numbers for you. Certainly, there is distance in these songs: distance between the songs’ writers and the songs’ narrators, distance even between each narrator and the part of his self he wants to reach. But the point is that bridging that gap was seen as the essence of what it means to be human, to be fully alive. “Perhaps I’ll find in my heart what my head is saying,” Fagen sang on “Any World,” and I can still hear him on “Doctor Wu,” taking on the role of a junkie Vietnam veteran in full flight from himself: “All night long, we sang that stupid song/And every word we sang I knew was true.” Those words were true; rock and roll songwriting can cut no more deeply. The song’s music was of a piece with its words. Aja is Steely Dan’s “jazz” album, which only means it’s jazzy, but there isn’t a change on it half as affecting as the way Phil Woods moves out of his alto solo on “Doctor Wu.”

Perhaps daydreaming of the Steely Dan of a few years ago, I heard those signature lines from “Deacon Blues” differently (so, it seems, did a lot of other people): heard them as, “I cried when I wrote this song/Sue me if I played it wrong.” A much better line—rock and roll lyrics should be buried just so listeners can improve on them, or improvise around them—but certainly inappropriate for what “Deacon Blues” and Aja are all about. “Play too long” means the listener can’t keep up with the artist, can’t go with him all the way into his private, sanctified epiphany. There’s no way in the world this artist could ever “play It wrong”; who but he would know?

The joke, though, may be on the band: the music on Aja is so smooth as to utterly destroy the suggestion that its creators are harboring feelings too deep, too fragile, to be exposed; what I hear is a cover-up not of an emotional cauldron, but of an emotional void. On the other hand, the joke may be on us. It is, I think, because Aja is so cold—contemptuous of its audience—that the record is so listenable, or so programmable; I can’t remember when a Steely Dan LP received such pervasive FM airplay. But the jazzy patina of the album is so definite, setting it apart from everything else on the radio—it’s not just jazzy, it’s classy—and at the same time so restrained, so lacking in the extremes of the best jazz, in bold gestures of any sort—even the piercing highs that marked the production on earlier Steely Dan LPs have been cut off here—that -although one instantly sits up and takes notice when a tune from Aja comes on the air, one may nod off before it is through. And that’s not because they played too long.

Anyway, whatever happened to that song about the Congress of Vienna they’ve been promising?

Village Voice, November 14, 1977


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