Not long ago, I wrote an article about Steely Dan for The Wall Street
Journal. Originally, I wanted to write about the unique synergy between the
band and its fans. I didn't have a ton of space, however, and I found that I
couldn't talk about the fans without dumping the "news" part of the story,
"Two Against Nature." So I changed the point, with a lot of regret, because
I'd heard from some wonderful people in researching the first idea, and it
seemed like their voices should be heard. Then John Granatino, the Webmaster
at the Steely Dan Internet Resource, suggested I contact the Steely Dan
WebDrone about putting the original story online. The WebDrone was
enthusiastic, and here it is. This story avoids what I wrote about in the
Journal--what makes the music unique; everybody reading this has an opinion
about that--and talks instead about what makes the fan/musician relationship
EXCLUSIVE TO STEELYDAN.COM
A World Of My Own
By Robert J. Toth
Of all the sly jokes on "Two Against Nature," the subtlest of the bunch doesn't have anything to do with music.
Go to the back of the booklet, to the section where Walter Becker and Donald Fagen used to leave cryptic thank-yous for providers of "Weekend Knob Jobs" and instructions to observe "the RIAA curve." Now there's a nod to "the loyal fandom, who keep coming back for more."
That's not just an acknowledgment--it's the punchline to a joke that's been in the telling for almost thirty years now. Despite spending most of its salad days cloistered in the studio and not existing for close to two decades after that, Steely Dan has kept a remarkably loyal fan base--and attracted a crowd of new die-hards while the band was dissolved.
The music is what keeps them coming back, of course, and much has been said about its appeal. But, in talking to fans and Becker and Fagen themselves, a more complicated empathy seems to be at work, too--a "deep mystical soul synergy" between listener and musician. If Steely Dan is not quite like any other band, its hold on fans is not quite like any other band's, either.
To many listeners, Becker and Fagen are teachers--albeit once or twice removed--who provide a musical education along with their tunes. Their influence is so great, in fact, that fans turn easily into loyalists, defending the standard against all critics and keeping the band in heavy rotation even when newer disks crowd the shelf. And, while fans tend not to obsess over personal details about the duo, they see the music as a soul mate--the voice of songwriters who share their values of wit, cleverness and musical curiosity, with plenty of weirdness at the bottom of it all.
Being a Steely Dan fan means "you have to have a lot of patience and be a little bit nuts," says Pete Fogel, a music-booking agent and one of the guiding intelligences behind the fan magazine Metal Leg. "They are some very strange people."
"Part of the Steely Dan mystique is their irreverence and complexity, and that breeds a certain kind of fan base," says Jennifer Prewitt Kirby, a membership manager at a nonprofit and a longtime Dan listener. "A self-consciously intelligent, goony kind of fan base. I think they attract other types, too, but also genius lunatics."
Objectivity demands a couple of caveats. First, this is an anecdotal survey, not a comprehensive one. Steely Dan has sold millions of albums, and there are probably at least four or five buyers out there who didn't want anything deeper than, say, background music for getting down. Then there's uniqueness. Many "fandoms" would claim that their artist speaks to them in the same way that Steely Dan does. To pick just a couple of examples from popular music, Frank Zappa and Randy Newman have cultivated notoriously loopy and intellectual followings.
Fair enough, but there's one big distinction: Those artists often don't have the early influence on listeners that Steely Dan does. Most bands that position themselves as outsiders or ironists make the complexities the whole point of listening--so, if you're a fan, you probably came to the band with a well-formed musical consciousness to begin with. Becker and Fagen, first and foremost, are populists, making sleek, funky music anybody can groove to. Steely Dan fans usually start out listening young, and just digging the tunes--then come to a "eureka" moment.
"I got into the band incrementally," says Jim McKay, an information designer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who runs the Dandom Living Web site. "At first, in the early to mid-70s, it was the music my brothers and I listened to when we went fishing or cruising around Chicago. We heard 'Rikki Don't Lose That Number' and 'Deacon Blues' on the radio all night long. We enjoyed the cool sounds, but we didn't think with any depth about them."
Then, in college, "I had an epiphany. There was much more behind the music and the lyrics. There was a tremendous amount of craft to these songs."
When Rafer Guzman, now a journalist in Florida, discovered "Gaucho" as a thirteen-year-old, "I'd never heard such literate and sophisticated lyrics before. The cynicism and humor really spoke to me, even though I was too young to fully understand the album's theme of midlife crisis. ... Their songs are more like paintings or novels--one needs critical faculties to appreciate them."
If Steely Dan fandom has a collective musical biography, that's it. In interview after interview, the story's the same: They heard the music on the radio, through the walls, at a cool friend's place or--for a later generation--on their parents' turntables. And something just clicked, even if they didn't get the nuances at the time. When the epiphany came, and they did get beyond the surface, it was an experience that changed their musical lives. Listeners came away from Steely Dan with big, hungry ears.
"They were a critical part of my musical awakening," says Jennifer Prewitt Kirby. "I think that they put me on a path early in life to notice things like polyrhythm, complicated lyrics and excellent musicianship. In retrospect, I see them as a bridge to other genres, like Latin, funk and jazz."
Indeed, the discovery of jazz through Becker and Fagen is a common theme among fans. "As I learned more about the band's roots, I develop an appreciation for the Bop-era jazz artists--Parker, Coltrane and all the others," says John Granatino, an electronic-publishing manager who runs the Steely Dan Internet Resource.
Jim McKay devoured the works of Steely Dan session musicians, such as Michael Brecker, and also found inspiration in the band's jazzbo name-dropping. The cover of "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" on "Pretzel Logic" led him to Duke Ellington; "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" pointed to Horace Silver. And "when Fagen sang, 'I hear you're mad about Brubeck,'" he says, "it moved me to discover Brubeck's classic jazz album 'Time Out.'"
But even after the band helped broaden their horizons, fans were sure to keep it in their sights. For all the new music fans took in, Becker and Fagen stayed a standard. "As I grew older, I began to make distinctions between enjoyable pop and true craftsmanship," says Rafer Guzman. "That happens to all of us as we age, but Steely Dan serves as one of my personal benchmarks when I'm gauging the quality of songwriting.
"Even during my punk-rock years," he adds, "I stood by [Becker and Fagen] like a Christian martyr when my mohawked friends pointed at their albums in my collection."
And while fans might get tired of the records now and then, they always fell back in love eventually. People talk about rediscovering the albums after listening to other sounds for a while--and getting obsessed all over again. At times, the music seems to be more of a life companion, an actual presence, than a soundtrack.
"When Brian, my husband, got me the box set, I went nuts," says Jennifer Prewitt Kirby. "I go through Dan jags where I listen to them constantly for a few days, and then I put it down for a while. They seem to resurface in my life when they should."
A lot of the loyalty and love, obviously, comes from the early influence. Everybody keeps a soft spot for the teacher that first opened their eyes. But Steely Dan earned listeners' lasting affection in another way--playing the professor while speaking the language of the smartass rolling his eyes during the lesson.
"Dan fans are more likely to be square pegs in the round holes of our society," says John Granatino. "Dan fans identify with the outsider role. ... [Steely Dan's] music is the voice of the loner who sits in the back of the class."
Becker and Fagen "could make me laugh about some of the stupid realities of this world," says Jennifer Prewitt Kirby. "I feel safe knowing their music is in the world, because at least I know there is someone as demented as me out there."
All of which points to an interesting paradox. For most people, the outsider's appeal--obscurantism, disdain and irony--gets less attractive the older you get, and the further you move into the world. How come Steely Dan doesn't end up a teenage relic, a musical Catcher in the Rye? Simple: Becker and Fagen's coolness was never cold. Fans found honesty, even warmth, in the band's unwavering professionalism and sardonic voice.
"The Dan has never pandered to me," says John Granatino. "I don't feel manipulated by their turn of a chord or a leap in their narrative. There is none of the predictable tugging of the heartstrings one has come to expect in popular culture. There's a sense of genuineness."
Even Becker and Fagen's legendary seclusion made the connection between listener and musician more mature. "They were never really 'personalities,' like a David Bowie or a Johnny Rotten," says Rafer Guzman. "I prefer to think of them the way I think of many authors--the work is what's important."
Most fans would agree--yet, when the duo do come out from behind the speakers, they don't disappoint. Becker and Fagen's occasional prose on Steelydan.com, and their replies to fans' e-mails, deliver what one would expect--a combination of in-jokes and wry nudges. But underneath it all a visitor senses a genuine desire to communicate, or at least see what's out there.
In the early touring days, says Walter Becker in a recent interview, "you'd meet people and talk to them once in a while. But there's much less room for any kind of real interchange."
Now, he says, the Web has changed all that--and the experience has been an eye-opener. "Since my awareness of the Internet, I've actually had more direct communications from fans, and I've watched things on other Web sites," he says. "You get to see some of the things they're interested in. You get to see a number of these people are very creative and very funny."
"Yeah," Donald Fagen interjects. "They're funnier than we are."
Indeed, the Web has finally proved what listeners suspected all along--there's a special vibe among Steely Dan fans. Before the Net brought it into the light, the only evidence for this voodoo was the easy bond with other fans--a bridge between loners. Spot a Steely Dan album in somebody's stash, and you'd immediately know a lot more about him or her than you would about a fan of any other big, mainstream band. You might also be in for a long conversation about what the hell a "Custerdome" is (or, after "Two Against Nature," the identity of Dr. Warren Kruger).
"When I find [another fan], there's an instant bond," says Rafer Guzman. "And those people usually have tastes eerily similar to mine in other music and other areas of the arts."
Finding out someone is a fan "gives the person a little dimension and capacity for humor I might not have noticed before," says Jennifer Prewitt Kirby. "I feel like I could say certain things around this person and not be fearful of offending them or being misunderstood. After all, if they 'get' Steely Dan, they must be relatively hip to my sensibilities."
Pete Fogel goes even further. "I would have the utmost respect for their musical taste," he says, "and they would immediately get an invitation to come over for dinner."
Rob Toth, an editor at The Wall Street Journal, is a science-fiction writer in New York. He can be emailed here