On Exploring the Minutiae of Steely Dan

James Toth reviews Alex Pappademas and Joan LeMay’s “terrific and irresistible” new book Quantum Criminals.

Back in February, Steve Albini briefly scandalized a niche corner of social media with a series of tweets about how much he loathes the music of Steely Dan. After the legendarily provocative engineer pledged to “always be the kind of punk that shits on Steely Dan,” Albini went on to decry the “human effort wasted to sound like an SNL band warm up” and the fruits of said effort, which he argued was created “for the sole purpose of letting the wedding band stretch out a little.” 

Earnest and incensed fans of Steely Dan’s world-shifting brand of sophisti-pop fuzak leapt at the bait — many straining to make “only a fool would say that” jokes. Predictably and accordingly, an almost equal number of Albini’s legion of fans weighed in to register their unwavering support for Albini’s right to make fun of things. 

Albini is a sharp guy, but it should probably come as no surprise that the author of “I Think I Fucked Your Girlfriend Once” would be immune to the charm and nuance of Steely Dan, a group perplexingly as beloved by the cocaine-and-Rogaine boomer demographic as by Generation Coachella. Perhaps the appropriate response to Albini’s trolling is not wrath or even exasperation, but pity. Clearly, Albini just doesn’t get it.

Alex Pappademas and Joan LeMay, the authors of the new book Quantum Criminals: Ramblers, Wild Gamblers, and Other Sole Survivors from the Songs of Steely Dan, definitely do get it. Intriguingly, the book’s chapters are named after the characters that populate Steely Dan songs, alongside LeMay’s accompanying watercolor portraits of same. But what may initially read on paper as a tantalizing gimmick is in fact an engrossing series of essays that innovatively chart the cosmology of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s musical universe.

For her namecheck in “Pearl of the Quarter,” avant-garde singer and John Cage associate Cathy Berberian is represented by a three-page chronicle of her life; Sayoko Yamaguchi, the Aja cover model and former face of Shiseido cosmetics, gets nearly two pages. 

At the outset, Pappademas and LeMay establish Steely Dan’s basic nuts-and-bolts trajectory: the authors dutifully cover Fagen and Becker’s early Brill Building song-for-hire gigs and subsequent failures, the duo’s formative stint as members of ‘60s pop group Jay & The Americans, the cruel fate of original Steely Dan vocalist David Palmer, and the group’s notoriously ditheistic relationship with rap music.

We also learn of Steely Dan guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s post-rockstar life as the chair of Congress’ civilian missile-defense advisory board (“presumably the only person with top level Pentagon security clearance who also played pedal steel on the Lemonheads’ It’s A Shame About Ray”), and the motivations behind the band’s employment of jazz greats and session-cat A-listers to execute their vision.

Distinguishing Fagen and Becker’s individual contributions to Steely Dan has always been a somewhat difficult task; like Lennon and McCartney, the duo wrote as a team. In Paul Zollo’s book Songwriters on Songwriting, Becker admitted to the author: “I think that our collaboration was so well integrated that we weren’t sure ourselves where one guy’s contribution ended and the next guy’s picked up.” 

This underscores an oft-neglected facet of the Steely Dan origin story: the ironclad and enduring friendship of two misfits. In discrete chapters on Fagen and Becker early in the book, Pappademas and LeMay examine the individual components within the central binary that comprises the ‘Dan, admirably providing a unique and fresh perspective on a band already well-served by various documentaries and books.

This unique perspective extends to LeMay’s striking watercolor portraits that accompany each chapter, each one vividly complementing the idiosyncratic and detail-rich nature of her subject band. She exquisitely renders Mr. LaPage, the narrator and debauched villain of “Everyone’s Gone To The Movies,” slumped in a chair with his eyeglasses appropriately askew and a box of Kleenex at his white socks. Later, LeMay’s illustration of the equally vile Cousin Dupree depicts him in a similarly solicitous pose mirroring that of Mr. LaPage, cleverly hinting at some heretofore unacknowledged familial relation between the two creeps.   

Not all of LeMay’s portraits are grotesqueries. Though she masterfully highlights the exterior qualities of the schnooks, pederasts, ne’er-do-wells, and coquettes that populate Steely Dan songs, she is equally adept at depicting characters that evoke our respect (Charlie Parker, Owsley Stanley, various members of the extended Steely Dan fraternity), wonder (Rikki, Buzz, The Gaucho), and fear (Napoleon, G. Gordon Liddy, The El Supremo). 

LeMay’s portraits are not caricatures, but rather figurative, pictorial renderings a la Charles Reid, emphasizing bold pigments and strikes of bright color, rendered with immediacy, depth, and technical skill. They are also guaranteed to delight any Steely Dan fan who ever tried to put a face to the names of, say, the ill-fated Babs and Clean Willie, or speculated about the likely sartorial preferences of a self-styled “major dude.” The work is above all naturalistic without forsaking a kind of underlying comedy. 

Which is appropriate, because Steely Dan is a very, very funny band. Becker, in particular, is represented in the book with savagely dry quips and bon mots about everything from his first impressions of Encino (it “had apparently been built sometime in the previous two weeks”) to longtime Steely Dan producer Gary Katz, who Becker suggests was hired by the band because he had a “certain type of mustache” that convinced them that “he would be a good underground producer.” Fagen, Becker’s equally sardonic foil, emerges as the more loquacious and anxiety-prone of the two. Quantum Criminals supports the claim that, in many ways, the Becker-Fagen dyad is rock & roll’s greatest comedy team. 

Pappademas is a writer with an appropriately Steely Dan-esque sense of humor and is as such a worthy chronicler of both the duo’s cutting, erudite wit and their various adventures in the studio and beyond. He describes “Third World Man,” the final song on Steely Dan’s final album for two decades, as sounding like the band is “crawling away from an accident.” Elsewhere he characterizes an embryonic ‘Dan, witnessed in live footage from the early ‘70s, as looking like “somebody passed out instruments and microphones to the guys in a police lineup.” Pappademas even nominates as the group’s thespian counterpart none other than comedian Larry David, another “highly unlikely star who smuggled a pungent and gnarled misanthropy into the national consciousness” (a description that could just as easily be applied to Steve Albini).

It is when Pappademas exercises his close listening skills, however, that his writing truly sparkles, as when he applies the same level of granular detail to Steely Dan’s music as the group applied to their own records. Like many music enthusiasts of a certain age, Pappademas is an affectionately pedantic type of fan. He spends an entire paragraph insightfully unpacking the musical events that take place within a mere seven seconds of “Show Biz Kids,” providing just the sort of easter egg-minutiae diehard fans love to debate deep within the nether regions of certain online forums. 

Later, Pappademas examines the infinitesimal variations that take place during the background vocal ad-libs and minute rhythm flourishes occurring in one stereo channel during “Peg.” It is very likely that even those of us who’ve heard these songs hundreds of times have failed to notice these things; Pappademas’ descriptions compel us to rush to our record players to confirm his findings. 

The exploration of such minutiae is well justified by the subject band. Pop music’s greatest paradox is that its primary attribute is also its greatest flaw: it is an aesthetically broad category of music designed to be remembered forever after being heard only once, but very often, once is enough. What does an earworm reveal to us after we’ve heard it a few times? What draws us back? 

One of the many reasons Steely Dan are so beloved by people with Imelda Marcos-like addictions to the acquisition of home hi-fi stereo equipment is the band’s ability to beat these very pop-song odds. Beneath the group’s notoriously dry, clean production and its indelible melodic confections are layers of jazz harmonies, experimental production decisions, and chords uncommon to rock music. Theirs is the rare kind of popular music that rewards repeat listens and encourages ever deeper dives. While Steely Dan is by no means the only musical group capable of this sleight of hand, they’re probably one of the greatest examples of a band elevating it into an art form all its own.

This Trojan horse aspect extends as much to Steely Dan’s lyrical preoccupations as their musical compositions. How many songs can you name about LSD kingpins, cuckolds, and mass murderers that can be enjoyed while browsing kitchenware at Target? 

Pappademas admirably addresses but stops short of belaboring the aspects of the band’s lyrics that modern listeners might find problematic. Of course, Fagen and Becker presciently anticipated such critiques by ruthlessly parodying The Self-Awareness-Deficient White Hipster in songs like “Midnight Cruiser” and “Deacon Blues,” songs marked by snarky indictments of the kind of guys who romanticize and exotify the struggles of black jazz musicians. The kind of guys — it must be said — who buy Steely Dan records. 

Indeed, Fagen and Becker’s lyrics are often slippery and ambiguous; as songwriters, they appear reluctant to confirm or deny a particular ethos. Even the countercultural rejection of rigid middle-class mores, as espoused by the gentlemen losers, charlatans, and bohemians that populate many of their songs, is more tacitly than explicitly condoned by our inscrutable narrators. 

It is clear Fagen and Becker are as attracted to as they are repulsed by the inherent vulgarities of the American dream and its numerous casualties, but one can reasonably assume they also find the whole enterprise pretty friggin’ hilarious. Steely Dan’s brand of existential 20th century disillusionment is presented as a kind of smug satire, one that profiles their lustful, impotent, morally craven characters with smirking skepticism rather than judgment. 

Could it be perhaps that it is this very ironic distance, so often mistaken for moral ambivalence, that gets Albini’s goat? Could any tune in the Steely Dan oeuvre be described as introspective, or be said to contain a message? The closest Fagen and Becker ever get to outright condemnation is when they skewer the trappings of bogus spirituality and its new age-y conceits, as on “Boddhisatva.” Tellingly, even this is written in first person, from the perspective of a duped acolyte rather than a skeptic. Steely Dan is the ultimate “just asking questions” band. 

Despite his work recording a veritable encyclopedia of legendary and successful indie artists, as well as a handful of rather uncool major label bands, Albini’s derision about Steely Dan’s work is likely rooted in a kind of anachronistic disdain for studio perfection, a pejorative synonymous with “sterility,” anathema to those who, in 2023, still self-identify as “punks” (it should be noted, however, that the irrefutably punk rock Minutemen had no such qualms). 

Quantum Criminals renders this critique shallow and reductive. Pappademas suggests that Steely Dan’s notorious quest for perfectionism has been largely overstated, the band’s easy-target fussiness perhaps willed into existence via the folklore and conjecture of the idealistic upstarts who’ve been waging a one-sided war against anything with a whiff of boomer excess since long before Ian paid the security deposit on the Dischord house.  

Sure, Becker and Fagen famously spent entire days painstakingly editing two syllables of a lead vocal, but they also knew when to let their freak flags fly. Though no one will ever mistake Steely Dan for Crazy Horse, Fagen and Becker placed a great deal of faith in the musicians they hired, and they trusted and encouraged collective improvisation in the studio. No specific bass or guitar parts for a Steely Dan song were ever written in advance; these duties were often left to the individual players to compose. The version of fan favorite “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” heard on 1974’s Pretzel Logic is a second take. 

Taste being subjective, Quantum Criminals nonetheless anticipates and nullifies complaints such as those made by purist cranks like Albini. Crucially, it is not perfectionism itself, but the desire for such that defines Steely Dan. Fagen and Becker were artists with impossibly high standards who inevitably fell short. 

“The story of Steely Dan,” Pappademas writes, “is only superficially about a band making the most impossibly smooth and flawless music the world has ever heard; it’s really about a band setting out to do that.” 

While I’m not quite ready to wholly embrace the notion of Steely Dan as Fitzcarraldo, it is merely one of many persuasive arguments in this terrific and irresistible book. 

(Photo Credit: Joan LeMay)

James Toth is an artist/musician/writer living in Green Bay, WI. He has written about music and culture for NPR, The Wire, Stereogum, Aquarium Drunkard, and The Quietus, among others, and recently completed a draft of his first book. He currently plays in the transatlantic rock band One Eleven Heavy.