It’s been nearly five decades since Steely Dan released its breakthrough hit, “Do It Again.” (Are you humming it now?) Few would dispute the band’s influence or popularity — all told, it has sold more than 40 million albums worldwide — but with “Major Dudes,” Barney Hoskyns delivers a 300-page block of solid evidence of the musical and lyrical brilliance that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the originators of Steely Dan, unleashed on the world beginning in the 1970s.
The book — featuring essays, reviews and interviews about and with Fagen and Becker — covers the duo’s pre-Dan years through their solo careers and ends with Walter Becker’s death in 2017. It shows how the band was shaped by American radio and television in the 1950s and early ’60s, before escaping the suburbs for Manhattan. There, Fagen and Becker imbibed jazz and took on a Beat-infused style of dress and attitude. After playing college gigs at Bard, they toured with Jay and the Americans and then relocated to Los Angeles, where they perfected their “brand of ruthless cool,” a style that made their albums, from “Can’t Buy a Thrill” (1972) to “Gaucho” (1980), instant classics.
Unlike a straight biography about the band — or even a memoir — “Major Dudes” filters the group’s rise through its interaction with journalists. As such, it offers a more critical take. The interviews are compelling and revealing (if at times repetitious), showcasing Fagen and Becker’s secluding habits and snarky put-ons. Becker, especially, is fluent, funny and prescient. One statement, from a 1976 interview with Michael Watts, in the magazine Melody Maker, stands out. Watts asks Becker whether their music might “be generally symptomatic of the times” Becker answers, “In terms of cynicism? Oh, I dunno. I don’t think these are particularly cynical times. You just wait to see what’s coming up! I’m inclined to think that things are going to become far more pessimistic.”
Readers expecting opinionated writing from rock journalists won’t be disappointed. In his review of the 1975 album “Katy Lied,” John Ingham writes, “When I first received this album, it engendered dispassionate dislike, but the more I play it, the more I become merely ambivalent.” Another critic mentions the band’s “gang-war instrumental break,” and another that “the band doesn’t exactly look like they jumped out of Modern Romance magazine.” Writing about Fagen’s 2014 memoir, “Eminent Hipsters,” Ian Penman says the book is “actually ‘On the Road’ with Alvy Singer.’ ”
Fagen and Becker’s lyrics have been described as cynical and sinister, and the artists themselves as “sociopaths masquerading as benign dictators,” a reference to their perfectionist methods in the studio. Regardless of whether one agrees with these assessments, Becker’s prediction about the future was correct. The lone shooter in “Don’t Take Me Alive,” from the band’s 1976 album “The Royal Scam” has, sadly, become a regular headline today.
The interviews also uncover a great deal about the influences that shaped Fagen and Becker’s art. Fiction was a big one — both on the style and content of their songs. As young men, Fagen and Becker read the iconic writers of the ’50s and ’60s: John Barth, Terry Southern, Thomas Pynchon, Herman Hesse and, of course, William Burroughs. When singing, Fagen says he becomes a song’s “character,” or acts as the “narrator” of a particular story. The song “Everything You Did,” also from “The Royal Scam,” stings like a Raymond Carver three-pager.
I think, too, the surreal novels of Nathanael West, another author the duo admired, must have influenced their work. West’s collection of freaks, cons, cowboys and unpredictable women in his 1939 “The Day of the Locust” predates Steely Dan’s own collection of freaks, cons and gauchos by 33 years. Even Fagen’s desire — comic, perhaps — to write a song about the Congress of Vienna seems to echo West’s fantastic scene involving a failed Hollywood reenactment of the battle of Waterloo.
Unfortunately, the book, which unfolds chronologically, loses momentum (and possibly the reader’s patience) by needlessly repeating already-stated facts throughout the text. We understand that Fagen hearing Becker play blues guitar in an empty room at Bard College in 1967 is the second-most important howdy-do in rock history — July 6, 1957, St. Peter’s Church, Woolton, Liverpool being the first — but that doesn’t mean we want to repeatedly read about it.
That said, “Major Dudes” does effectively show how Fagen and Becker soaked up, skewed, and reformatted American images, habits and mismanaged dreams and made a groove out of them. In their songs, the “old, weird America” — to piggyback on Greil Marcus’s phrase — becomes the new, weird America, shining forth in urban present-tense, and on into the future, even into other worlds. Although some readers might fault “Major Dudes” for its dearth of longer essays that place Fagen and Becker in a wider cultural context, the book does give us plenty to read and think about. I have no doubt we’ll be thinking about and listening to Steely Dan until “California tumbles into sea.”
Sibbie O’Sullivan, a former teacher in the Honors College at the University of Maryland, has recently completed a memoir on how the Beatles have influenced her life.
Edited by Barney Hoskyns
Overlook. 319 pp. $27.95