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Steely Dan: Bodhisattva and the outfunking of The Skunk

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

Rob Steen

Bodacious cowboys. Snook-cocking hipsters. Coolest white dudes on the Seventies block. Steely Dan, aka The Dan, are the sneering machine smuggled into the mainstream by a pair of upstate, downbeat, snarky New Yorkers, Walter Becker and Donald ‘The Don’ Fagen: the Bodysnatchers in the Wry.

Their cinematic twins are the Coens, Ethan and Joel, the intersections between the Droll Duo and their equally untameable Hebrew soul brothers many. Rather than take the word of a man once known as Steeny Dan, witness Peter Kaufman’s Washington Post review of Everything Must Go (2003), The Dan’s narrowly appreciated ninth and final studio album: ‘They’re the Coen brothers of rock – wisenheimer wonder boys who win us over with their complete mastery of craft, even as they keep us at arm's length. Improbably, the Dan abides.’

The Dan and the Coens have similar obsessions: virtuoso hired guns (George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Larry Carlton, Wayne Shorter), exotic booze (White Russian, Cuban Breeze, Kirschwasser) and pitiful losers (Llewyn Davis, Barton Fink, Bernie Bernbaum, Charlie Freak, Babs and Clean Willie). In The Big Lebowski, The Dude hates The Eagles, whose jibe on Hotel California (‘They stab it with their steely knives/ But they just can’t kill the beast’) was a response to The Dan’s jab on Everything You Did (‘Turn up The Eagles, the neighbours are listening’). The ultimate slacker movie’s three main characters, moreover, share forenames with The Dan’s three best-known founder members: Donald, Walter and Jeff [Baxter]. Coming soon: Paul Giamatti and Jeff Goldblum in The Ballad of Wily Walt, Honky Don and The Skunk.

Even so, the need for a live Dan album – with or without Becker, who died in 2017 – takes some swallowing. Even in the digital age, can a stage rendition capture, much less enhance the immaculate, diamond-hard gleam of studio Dan? More to the point, is reproduction desirable? The short answers are ‘Yes’, ‘Not necessarily’ and ‘Afraid so’. Every reboot has been nipped and tucked. Nothing is sacred. And if I may sample Procol Harum, quite rightly so.

Ever since his deliciously sardonic liner notes for Can’t Buy A Thrill as ‘Tristan Fabriani’, The Don has been a formidably witty and incisive scribbler, as his 2013 memoir Eminent Hipsters affirmed. Hand him 50 words to encapsulate The Dan and he would offer something like this (or so I like to kid myself, on the basis of two brief encounters three decades ago): ‘Beat generation Cold War warriors hit paydirt in glamour profession with mildly snooty, wholly superior, shamelessly smartass, anti-pop bop. Boldly renouncing carnal obligations of touring for studio incarceration, our boyos aim for perfection and never miss by more than a foot. Yacht Rock, my anal passage. Limo Rock pur-leez.’

What continually fascinates this slavish fan is not the who, what, where or when but the why and how. How and why did an act boasting such deeply unpromising credentials shift so many damn units? My own conclusions are constantly shifting too.

One day I credit the lyrics, references to which make clever-clog dudes and dudettes from Zanzibar to Ashby-de-la-Zouch feel as cool as they do about quoting Seinfeld or The Dude. A week later I’m convinced Don and Walt’s creations simply hit the airwaves at the most propitious time, at the outset of The LP Age, when record companies encouraged the different and the cats, cool and uncool alike, thrived on curiosity. On other days, a more basic thought strikes: Don and Walt knew how to shake our tailfeathers and accordingly hired the best rhythm sections known to sessionkind.

Had Aja been released in 1967 or 1987 rather than 1977, never mind now, I cannot believe it would have sold as abundantly, never mind produced hit singles or inspired a host of tribute bands and hip-hoppers.

Then again, recently published ‘Are You Relivin’ The Years? How Steely Dan Became A Cult Favorite For Millennials’. In his erudite and eloquent analysis, Derek Robertson espied a transgenerational spirit: ‘Wry and detached, but in the way only a true-blue bruised optimist can be… its essence is present in nearly all of the discourse around the band, from the winking acknowledgement of encroaching middle age, to the sardonic cultural criticism… to an awed, almost jealous appreciation of their peerless chops and the lavish perfectionism afforded by a bygone and less stingy era of the music industry.’

Hence the demand for fresh meat. September not only yielded the first post-Becker release, Northeast Corridor: Steely Dan Live! (note the intentional sardonic exclamation mark) but an onstage delivery of The Don’s cracking maiden solo album, The Nightfly (1982), ably up-grooved by another band, The Nightflyers. Interviewed by Rolling Stone, Fagen said he was making progress on a follow-up to 2012’s warm and occasionally sentimental Sunken Condos.

Drawing on Stateside gigs in 2019, anticlimaxing with Joe Williams’s somewhat morose A Man Ain’t Supposed To Cry and marginally favouring the hornier Mark II quartet of albums over the more guitar-based Mark I quintet, Northeast Corridor is the best and least ragged live Dan album, bootlegs included. That said, it would be more accurate to bill The Don’s accomplices as The Steely Dan Band, their collective name since Becker’s death. Northeast Corridor would have reflected this had he had his way, but Live Nation insisted on the brand name. ‘I think people understand that it will never be quite the same without [Walter],’ Fagen acknowledged to Variety, ‘but we still have a great band.’

There are two deliciously weird aspects to this. For one thing, Steely Dan haven’t been a regular unit since recording their third LP, Pretzel Logic, in 1973. Having ditched Baxter, singer David Palmer and drummer Jim Hodder, Don and Walt began dragooning the elite: Carlton, Phil Woods and Bernard Purdie, Shorter, Joe Sample and Mark Knopfler. A summons from The Dan was akin to being invited for a screen test by Woody Allen: an honour, nay a privilege. The other curio? Most of the musicians who backed Fagen so supremely in 2019 have been doing so for most of this century. Northeast Corridor is thus the closest The Dan have ever come to being a conventional band.

And so to the highlight of Northeast Corridor, Bodhisattva, the swinging shit-kicker that launched Countdown to Ecstasy (1973), and arguably the most unDan-ish Dansong. Only Parker’s Band, a rip-roaring homage to the ultimate sax god, is in the same league.

More rockabilly than rock, and raunchier than anything else in the canon, Bodhisattva initially deceived the 15-year-old me into fearing that the radical musicality behind Do It Again (Denny Dias’s sitar solo still astounds) had been a fluke; that my new favourite band were assimilators. You can even find a scorchio of a live take on YouTube by The Best, a not altogether underqualified troupe boasting Baxter, Joe Walsh, John Entwistle and Keith Emerson.

Central to the 21st-century Dan, inside and outside the studio, have been guitarist Jon Herington and drummer Keith Carlock, the longest-servers alongside Freddie Washington (bass), Jim Beard (keyboards), Michael Leonhart (trumpet) and Walt Weiskopf (sax). Both strut their stuff brilliantly on Bodhisattva.

When I first saw The Dan, at The Rainbow in 1974 (for £1.50), there were two drummers, Hodder and Jeff Porcaro, and nowhere was that intensified power more keenly felt than on the set-starter, Bodhisattva. That he does the needful alone says all you need to know about Carlock’s fire and feel.

If Herington’s Herculean task has been to refresh the parts first vinylised by the likes of ‘Kid Charlemagne’ Carlton, Elliot ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ Randall and Jay ‘Peg’ Graydon, he proves himself in dazzling fashion on Northeast Corridor, picking up each gauntlet with style, grace, respect and immense flair.

Given how intrinsic his own deft arpeggios became when The Dan returned to the stage in the 1990s after a two-decade hiatus, the one compensation of Walt’s absence has been the thrusting of this slender, studious-looking picker into the spotlight, allowing him to reap his overdue due. Nimble, versatile and the definition of clarity, Herington always adds a fresh flourish.

A Bodhisattva being an enlightened being on the path to Buddhahood, think of the eponymous recording as Leonard Cohen after a night on the Peruvian marching powder. It is probably the lone Dansong whose verses aren’t worth remembering, not least since there’s only two, each repeated, each pivoting on the lines ‘Can you show me/ The shine of your Japan/ The sparkle of your China’.

The studio version was driven by the seemingly telepathic twin guitars of Baxter (walrus lookalike, hardened exhibitionist, future White House missile adviser) and Dias (bearded lumberjack, shy minor genius, future computer whiz). Horns enliven the soup on Northeast Corridor, ditto The Don’s own jaunty joanna, but it’s still the duelling guitars that matter. Connor Kennedy deputises bravely for Dias; Herington outfunks The Skunk.

What, then, of The Don’s ‘dry white whine’, as rock critic Nick Kent put it? These days we’re talking seasoned Mateus Rosé, breathy but still emitting seductive tones of Brother Ray [Charles]. Reinforced by trusty backing singers – including Carolyn Leonhart, Michael’s sister – the voices merge and mesh. Indeed, the girls do much of the heavy lifting on Bodhisattva.

No matter. ‘Am I losing my steel?’ Thus did The Don half-grin, half-growl when we met in Manhattan in 1991. I’d had the gall ask him whether, having emerged from the hell of writer’s block, he was content to cruise instead of bruise. Whereupon he identified the peer he had no intention of becoming: Paul McCartney. I’d plainly needled him into expressing one of those thoughts that are best left unsaid. If our paths crossed now, I would offer reassurance: tempered steel is no bad thing.

The curtain may have rung down on the Droll Duo, but the remaining Man of Steel, however rumpled his cape, still has the power to transport us into the vicinity of ecstasy.


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