by Rick Cornell
Steely Dan was my kudzu band, growing with me as I grew up in the ’70s and always seeming to find ways to wrap itself around parts of my life. Of course, growing up in a small town in upstate New York— a suburb of a suburb of Binghamton, with a population of about 500 and exactly zero stoplights—I had no idea what kudzu was.
But I’m sure Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen knew. Those guys knew everything. This was a case of opposites attracting: Becker and Fagen were edgy, worldly, wise geniuses, and I was a naïve dumbass who was as complicated as an episode of Murder She Wrote. And their music took me places—from Boston, Biscayne Bay and Barrytown to William & Mary, Haiti, Vegas and even the occasional place where kudzu grew like, well, kudzu.
I loved the tunes, too. Still do, as they maintain the power to transport me back to a terrain where music and adolescence conspired to form indelible memories. So, Steely Dan, by my years...
The entry point, as I was in a phase where I’d dutifully record Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 in a spiral-bound notebook every Sunday night, and both “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” cracked Casey’s list. I knew nothing about Steely Dan—it could have been just a guy, not a band—but both songs made an impression, especially the latter. It was as catchy as it was impossible to sing along with. That fella Dan sure could sing briskly.
A few years, Countdown to Ecstasy and Pretzel Logic went by, and this is where the relationship really took off. I rode my bike to the mall—or more appropriately for such an important, spiritual place, The Mall—with some friends. It was a solid 12-mile trek complete with a traffic light. At The Mall’s record store, I bought Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam, a crucial purchase, for sure. I hadn’t calculated how tricky the return ride of pedaling while balancing an LP in one hand might be. I made it, though, and celebrated by playing “Kid Charlemagne” 12 times in a row. I thought it was the coolest song ever, and that was even before appreciating the Owsley/Merry Pranksters backstory.
The unbelievable happened: I was the 10th caller into WAAL—Binghamton’s proudly rockin’ Whale—and I won a copy of Steely Dan’s Aja a full week before it was released to the general public (or, as I proudly realized, the people who werecallers one through nine). I didn’t my license, so a buddy drove me over to the studio to pick up my prize during our lunch period. Later that afternoon, I had the album with me before football practice and quite a crowd gathered at my locker.
Don't get me wrong: I had a perfect childhood, high on parental love and support and low on angst. But it’s a 17-year-old’s right if not responsibility to be miserable, at least on occasion. It was a chilly, rainy late-winter morning, and my parents and older sister were fighting about something, loudly enough for me to find it upsetting. I retreated to my room, put on Katy Lied, and proceeded to stare out my window with misty eyes at the slow drizzle. As “Black Friday” (another history lesson) ended, Becker and Fagen and the rest of the hopelessly hip crew eased into “Bad Sneakers.” When they hit the “And I’m going insane/ And I'm laughing at the frozen rain” part, I had to laugh at the coincidence and my manufactured drama.
A bunch of close friends jammed into a Chevette, fueled by Old Milwaukee and the rapid approach of graduation. About four beers in, as was our habit, the singing started. The Jethro Tull songbook was a favorite along with, of course, Steely Dan’s: “Bodhisattva, won’t you take me by the hand.” “I’m never going back to my old school,” (As it turned out, one of our pack did go to William & Mary.) “Are you with me, Doctor....?” “No, I’m never gonna do it without the fez on.” A particular line from “Show Biz Kids” was deliciously ripe for shouting.
It was a tradition that was in its seventh year: I’d give my dad a list of records at Christmas, and he’d buy two or three for me. That Christmas, Gaucho was under the tree, memorable for, among other things, being the first album with a double-figure list price. It was still sporting the $10.99 tag to back that up. My dad wasn’t overly comfortable in record stores. I mean, there was this one visit per year, and his discomfort level no doubt peaked the year Alice Cooper Goes to Hell topped my want list. My poor handwriting, coupled with his lack of musical knowledge outside of classic country, had once led to my getting a live 10cc record instead of the Tower of Power concert LP I’d requested. But the willingness of my dad, who passed away six years ago, to enter the record story fray annually for the cause is one of the 1,000 things I miss about him.
So, yes, my row’s going to be awfully crowded at the big Steely Dan show tonight at Durham Performing Arts Center, with Casey Kasem, Tony, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, a Chevette-full of guys now balding if not bald, Steve Gadd, my dad and others joining me.
Oh, Becker and Fagen, won’t you take us by the hand?
Look for Rick Cornell's review of Steely Dan's show in Durham on Scan tomorrow .