UPDATED 5/28 9:52 a.m.
“Soon it will be too late
Bobbing for apples can wait
We know you're used to sixteen or more
Sorry we only have eight”
- “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies”, Steely Dan, Katy Lied (1975)
Neil Diamond once urged us to turn on our heart lights while we were all still basking in the glow of E.T. back in 1982. Meco took great, tacky pleasure in turning the Death Star into a spinning disco ball. Matthew Sweet even pasted a ‘60s-model Tuesday Weld on the cover of his album Girlfriend. And Morrissey was recently heard to name-check and personally identify with a notorious dead Italian neorealist. (“Pasolini is me/Accatone you’ll be/I entered nothing and nothing entered me.”) All of these pop star paeans to the cinema operate on one level of outrage or another. But leave it to Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the lovable misanthropes who constitute the glistening coal-black heart of Steely Dan, to wrap their jaunty ode to motion pictures around neither jubilant memories of Judy Garland nor the shadow drenched iconography of Bogart and Bacall, but instead the subterranean operations of a cheapjack pornographer and likely child molester named Mr. LaPage. The protagonist of “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” lures under-age patrons into the privacy of his no-doubt musty and/or murky den where he projects his 8mm films and yet feels compelled to apologize to his patrons (victims?) for the expected degradation in picture quality—and sorry again, kids, but probably no sound.
A fan of the Dan from the release of Can’t Buy a Thrill in 1972 (I still have my transparent yellow vinyl copy on ABC Records), I recently began thinking about their long history of songwriting specifically in terms of the movies, and the perverse little ditty from Katy Lied was one of the only direct references to the cinematic arts (or the degradation thereof) I was able to come up with off the top of my head (an exercise which was followed by a quick gaze through my stack of CDs as a brain chaser). The songs written together by Becker and Fagen often have vivid, sometimes self-consciously cinematic qualities—on The Royal Scam alone, the wrenching mad bomber standoff “Don’t Take Me Alive” evokes imagery, outrage and first-person delusion that recalls sources as disparate as Raoul Walsh’s White Heat and E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (and even Milos Forman’s movie of the same) while grounding its protagonist’s characterization in psychology far closer to the kind in which Paul Schrader was dabbling in back in 1975, when the album was released, and when Taxi Driver was being written and filmed. And the same album’s “Kid Charlemagne” paints a precise, unromantic, doomed scenario of losers running heroin that outstrips most of the movies that tried to deal with the same kind of subject matter while pandering to the youth market in the wake of Easy Rider’s box-office success. (“Kid Charlemagne” is better than Easy Rider too, I think.)
But Steely Dan’s references to the other popular arts have always been far more literary, musical or even topical in their obscurity, most of the time leaving nods to specific films and filmmakers to the likes of Morrissey or, from the Dan’s concurrent time and space, maybe the Edgar Winter Group. Much more for Becker and Fagen to insert references to Charlie Parker (“Parker’s Band”) and Duke Ellington, by way of their eerily replicant “East Side Toodle-oo” (both from Pretzel Logic), Reverend Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church, which was based in an upstate New York berg familiar to the writers (“I can see by what you carry/That you come from Barrytown”) or vocalists of minor repute (“Even Cathy Berberian knows/There’s one roulade she can’t sing”, croaks Fagen in “Your Gold Teeth II”). There are references to be found in the Dan lyric lexicon to Jill St. John (“Green Book”) and the Ingrid Bergman/Charles Boyer film Gaslight (“Gaslighting Abbie,” from Two Against Nature). The follow-up album, Everything Must Go, features a rare direct film title name check—to Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly-- in the same aforementioned track “Green Book” (“And here she comes very Kiss Me Deadly / My life, my love, my third hand rose"). One might conclude that Fagen and Becker have become a little more film-centric in their old age, but it’s probably more coincidence than conscious leaning—the breadth of material scanned and processed in a typical Steely Dan song from any period suggests that they are nothing if not purposefully eclectic in constructing the filters through which they see the world.
Becker and Fagen’s, but especially Fagen’s, contributions to the movies themselves have been even more spotty, in keeping with the band’s low profile during its heyday in the ‘70s and virtual 13-year fade-out between Gaucho (1980) and their first set of reunion concerts in 1993 behind Fagen’s second solo album Kamakiriad. Before departing from the roster of Jay and the Americans in 1971, Becker and Fagen, with guitarist Denny Diaz, recorded the soundtrack to a nearly forgotten film entitled You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It or You’ll Lose That Beat. The definition of a cult item, the movie was ignored upon the time of its release, another apparent artifact of Hollywood’s early ‘70s desperate courting of the anti-establishment demographic and, despite a cast that would seem to be ripe for exploitation in the era of DVD obscurities (including Zalman King, Allen Garfield, Richard Pryor, Liz Torres and Robert Downey, Sr.), it remains buried today. (The New York Times, in a rather brief capsule review published upon the movie’s release, called it “the latest example of youthful, charming iconoclasm that appears to be losing some of its charm” and said that “its heart is in the right place, but it does very little more than make charming jokes about the serious problems it zanily illustrates.”) I’ve had a beat-up vinyl copy of the soundtrack for 20 years or so, but I keep it more as an oddity in my Steely Dan collection. My feeling about the music is that it is best appreciated from a historical perspective—there are germs of what would come to sound like and be known as Steely Dan on the album, but it is most in embryonic, and sometimes annoying form. (These impressions are based on memories that are perhaps 15 or more years old, from probably the last time I listened to the record, but the attitude of the one review of the music I was able to find suggests my impressions were correct.)
Steely Dan’s visits to the movies over the next 20 years would be not quite as infrequent as midnight screenings of You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It…, but infrequent nonetheless. They had a huge hit providing the title tune to the likable 1978 comedy about the freewheeling world of radio disc jockeys (a considerably livelier one than the world I occupied while doing that job in the ‘80s) entitled FM. And after Gaucho Fagen made appearances with Dannish tracks on the albums for the movies made from 80s literary classics Heavy Metal (1981; “True Companion”) and Bright Lights, Big City (1988; “Century’s End). Those tunes were the only reasons I bought the albums they were on—and probably the only reasons why I saw the movies they were featured in as well.
Finally, one of the more interesting soundtrack compilations of the 90s came about because of Steely Dan, though with only a consultant credit to indicate their approval. The Farrelly Brothers loaded the soundtrack album to their hit comedy Me, Myself and Irene (2000) with that rarity of rarities, the Steely Dan cover. The album transcends oddity status thanks to a few inspired performances-- The Brian Setzer Orchestra pounding out “Bodhissatva,” Wilco’s bitter take on “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” and a welcome revisit to “Barrytown” by the Ben Folds Five. And though none of those top the originals, they carve out their own ground as good-natured facsimiles and revisions. The other tracks, by Smash Mouth, Ivy, the Push Stars, the Marvelous Three and Billy Goodrum, are less impressive, but at least they handily avoid embarrassment.
Donald Fagen and Steely Dan both have made, however, two specific literary contributions to film appreciation over the last 20 years that are worth mentioning. First, beside the contributions of Glenn Kenny and Anne Thompson and others, I will personally most mourn Premiere for the occasional column space given over to Donald Fagen writing specifically about movie soundtracks. His observations were lucid, detailed, evocative and full of smarty-pants connections to other realms of art and experience—kind of like the lyrics he penned for Steely Dan—and the column was, over the brief time it was published, one of my favorites, a real movie music nerd’s obsessions laid out for everyone to share. The only thing I was able to find online from this chapter in Fagen’s career was a brief, pithy and very funny encounter between the pop-rock-jazz iconoclast and one of his most iconoclastic heroes, Ennio Morricone. The interview, sans fez, can be read here.
The other Steely Dan foray into the world of film came much more recently, when the boys accused Owen Wilson, in an open letter to Owen’s brother Luke (”Hey, Luke!”), of plagiarizing the idea of his movie You, Me and Dupree from their ode to interfamilial lasciviousness “Cousin Dupree,” featured on the Grammy-winning Two Against Nature album. Posted on the Steely Dan Web site with an achtung shout-out to Wes Anderson, the letter, in a relentlessly sarcastic and equally relentlessly tongue-in-cheek which will be familiar to most Steely Dan fans, begins by greetng Luke with backhanded praise (“You seem pretty cool, even when you’re playing some pretty bogus parts in bad movies all the time—we realize that it’s not entirely your fault and that you’re entitled to have whatever low standards you want in terms of what’s cool to get involved with for the, you know, bread, or whatever.”) Then the authors move on to the the meat of the matter, purporting to alert presumably concerned brother Luke that is brother Owen has “gotten himself mixed up with some pretty bad Hollywood schlockmeisters” who conspired with the actor to graft a scenario lifted wholly from their song with no acknowledgment of its alleged source onto this new movie. And just like in a Steely Dan tune, the letter is not without its nonchalant references either:
“And, Luke, think of yourself, man. Do you want to go down as the brother of the Zal Yanovsky of the 21st century? Maybe this reference is a little obscure for someone of your generation (X? Y? Zero?), but it would be worth your while to look it up in some counterculture encyclopedia or something, because being the New Zallie’s brother is definitely NOT A GOOD THING to be.”
(Don’t worry; I looked it up for you, just like Luke probably did.)
The letter ends with a “heartfelt” plea to Luke to try to convince Owen to come down to the upcoming Steely Dan concert in Irvine, admit his plagiarism and apologize on stage. (“He wouldn’t have to grovel or eat shit or get down on his hands and knees or anything he’s not comfortable, but he would have to cop to the fact that what he and his Hollywood gangster pals did was wrong and that he wishes he had never agreed to get involved with this turkey in the first place… Is that so fucking hard?”). This smirking missive, written in mock hipsterese, sounds like something that’s somehow going to find its way onto a Steely Dan album in the future, maybe in the form of their very own twisted “Burn, Hollywood, Burn.” Or even better, for those of us who wouldn't mind continuing to poke at the Wes Anderson balloon, maybe Rian Johnson could turn it into a very entertaining movie.
I started thinking about Steely Dan in this context for no particular reason; I think I was probably jarred into active musing when I recently got word of the group’s upcoming U.S. and world tour schedule. It will be unique, even by Steely Dan standards, and it provided me with occasion to get excited, the result of which is the previous 2,000 or so words which you may or may not have read. In a nutshell, the tour is gonna go something like this:
The tour will be your basic multi-city package just like always. But if you are a Steely Dan fan in New York City, Boston, Los Angeles or Chicago or anywhere within traveling distance of those cities, you will have multi-night engagements from which to choose from two delectable menu columns—three consecutive “Classic Album (Plus) Nights,” which will consist of one of three classic Steely Dan albums in its entirety, plus additional favorites, each night (Rolling Stone reports that the albums will be Aja, Gaucho and The Royal Scam); and the fourth night in each city is being billed as “Takin’ It to the Seats Internet Request Night.” That’s right-- ticket holders for these shows will vote on the Internet to determine the set list for each show. So if you have a ticket for the New York request night show, it will be your fellow audience members you can blame, not the vast sea of interloping Dan fans stuffing the virtual ballot boxes, if you have to hear “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number” or “Do It Again” again rather than less immediately accessible tunes like, say, “Night by Night” or “I Got the News” or “Through with Buzz” or whatever else might tickle your fancy.
Now, I’ve already been to my one allotted concert per year—a good friend and I took in an acoustic Fountains of Wayne set in an intimate theater setting in January that was spectacularly good. But I think (I hope) an appeal to my wife for a ticket to the L.A. request night might not be immediately cast aside with a sarcastic guffaw. This has the potential, depending on how deep the Dan really goes (and how deep the Fan really votes), to be a Very Special Evening. What might compose my list of 10 requests (assuming I would get that many, of course)? Well, let’s see. How about:
“King of the World” (Countdown to Ecstasy; 1973)
“Monkey in Your Soul” (Pretzel Logic 1974)
“Bad Sneakers” (Katy Lied; 1975)
“Kid Charlemagne” (The Royal Scam; 1976)
“Sign In Stranger” (The Royal Scam; 1976)
“Here at the Western World” (outtake from The Royal Scam, appeared on the Greatest Hits collection, 1978)
“Home at Last” (Aja; 1977)
“Gaucho" (Gaucho; 1980)
“Godwhacker” (Everything Must Go; 2003)
And of course, “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” (Katy Lied; 1975), for the bow to the movies, however tacky and sociopathic, of course. But also for the opportunity to hear a live interpretation of the spectacular marimba-inflected waterfall of notes that introduce Fagen’s splendidly exuberant electric piano solo midway through the song. These notes cascade down like a rain of bright pennies delivered not from heaven, but from hell, and constitute for me perhaps the most musically transcendent moment in all of Steely Dan. (It’s an exuberance, in long standing Dan tradition, that is in stark, giddy contrast to the grim matter at hand in the world of the song itself.)
Two questions for the Dan Fans out there:
1) What other obvious cinematic references in the lyrics of Steely Dan am I missing?
2) What 10 songs will you request if/when you get your ticket to the “Takin’ It to the Seats Internet request Night”?
UPDATE 5/28 9:52 a.m.
Obvious movie references in Steely Dan that I forgot:
"Show biz kids making movies
Of themselves you know they
Don't give a fuck about anybody else"
(from "Show Biz Kids," submitted by Ian W. Hill)
"Now we dolly back, now we fade to black"
(from "Haitian Divorce," submitted by Edward Hegstrom)
And Joseph "Jon" Lanthier reminds us of "Peg" ("It's your favorite foreign movie") before providing links to Part 1 and Part 2 of his head-to-head comparison of the careers and perspectives of Steely Dan and Terence Malick.
Keep 'em comin'!