But in the summer of 1974, the sounds of AM radio were beginning to sound monotonous, carrying with them a faint whiff of garbage. For every glorious song like George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” and Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (not to mention his deliciously nasty “The Bitch is Back;” who knew at the time that he was referring to himself!), there was a piece of utter dreck like Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died” – a song that I hesitate to even mention, for fear that I’ll wake up some evening unable to get it out of my mind. It was an era of channel-changing, and in that regard there weren’t a lot of options.
So where does Steely Dan fit into this tale?
That summer, I spent a lot of time at my friend Richard’s house. They had a pool, they had a ping-pong table, and they had a really cool stereo system (at the time, we had a piece of furniture with a Magnavox record player in it). I had just finished the 8th grade, Richard had just finished his sophomore year in high school, and his brother David had just graduated and was preparing to head off to the Air Force Academy. David’s friends also hung around a lot that summer, and we would take turns challenging each other to one-on-one, two-on-one, and two-on-two ping-pong matches.
And all the while, our soundtrack was two albums by Steely Dan. “Can’t Buy A Thrill,” the debut, and “Countdown to Ecstasy,” their sophomore effort. Their masterpiece, “Pretzel Logic,” had just been released, but no one had bought that one yet. And when I say that our soundtrack was Steely Dan, I mean that was pretty much all we listened to, all summer long. The rest of the guys hated Elton John, so even though I had just forked out the dough (not insignificant at the time) to buy “Honky Chateau” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” I had to listen to those at my house.
Of course, I had heard Steely Dan before that. “Do It Again” and “Reeling in the Years” were both big AM radio hits, and a new song – the magnificent “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number” – was just beginning to hit the airwaves that June. But at the time, that was literally the extent of my exposure to the band. So songs like “Bodhisattva,” “Razor Boy,” “My Old School,” “Dirty Work,” “Fire in the Hole,” and “Changing of the Guard” sounded like the greatest thing since sliced bread. And they opened up for me a whole new world, one that could be found only on FM radio. And while I would remain a fan of much of what I heard on the AM side of the dial, I would never go completely back.
Sometimes with music, timing is everything.
Flash forward to the late spring of 2003, literally a lifetime away from that long-ago summer. Steely Dan is back, although looking little like the band that hit a 14-year old boy’s psyche by storm two decades earlier. The tale of how Steely Dan evolved in the latter part of the 1970s is not a tale that needs to be told here. Suffice to say that after 1980’s “Gaucho,” Donald Fagen and Walter Becker decided to close up shop, and go their own ways. Fagen recorded infrequently, Becker less than that. They did some Steely Dan concerts in the mid-1990s, started up a Web site, and engaged in a hilarious (and ultimately successful) campaign to get themselves inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And then, just after the turn of the century, they released an album, “Two Against Nature.” It was great, and sounded like they literally had picked up right where they left off.
Three years later, they released “Everything Must Go.” According to Wikipedia, it has been the least successful Steely Dan album ever released, the only one which has failed to be certified gold. It didn’t get very good reviews; in fact, Robert Christgau, a long-time admirer (and one who gave the previous album an “A”), hated it, saying “Dying in Stereo, nothing left to say.” And that is the entire review!
So naturally, I think it’s great; good enough to select it as #19 on my list of the Top 25 albums of the decade.
On first listen, I’m not sure I thought the album was that strong – in fact, I’m sure that I didn’t. But one thing I quickly became certain about was the album’s final song – the title track. And that’s where the timing thing comes in. At the time, I was working in the Governmental Affairs office for the California State University system; in fact, close to beginning what would turn out to be my 13th and final year there. A week or so before the album was released, the results of a state audit of the University was released. I’ll spare everyone the gory details because they don’t really matter, but suffice to say it was a very bad audit, and one that made the University look very bad. And it quickly became topic #1 in the state Legislature, and it’s probably fair to say that we pretty much got our asses kicked for the remainder of that entire legislative session – which didn’t end until mid-September.
Given everything that was going on at the time, it was only natural that I’d gravitate towards the lyrics of “Everything Must Go:”
It's high time for a walk on the real side
Let's admit the bastards beat us
I move to dissolve the corporation
In a pool of margaritas
So let's switch off all the lights
And light up all the Luckies
Crankin' up the afterglow
'Cause we're goin' out of business
Everything must go
Talk about your major pain and suffering
Now our self-esteem is shattered
Show the world our mighty hidey-ho face
As we go sliding down the ladder
It was sweet up at the top
'Til that ill wind started blowing
Now it's cozy down below
'Cause we're goin' out of business
Everything must go
And let me tell you – that is exactly how we were feeling at that moment. So this song, and this album, was exactly what I needed to hear.
Listening to all of it again, I can see why some thought it was nothing more than an exercise in pop – something that Becker and Fagen could pull off in their sleep. But hey, what can I say – sometimes, an album just clicks for you, and you can’t explain it. All I know is that I really, really liked it – “Green Book,” “Pixeleen,” “Lunch with Gina,” even the first-ever Becker vocal on a Dan album, “Slang of Ages.”
And as I said before – sometimes with music, timing is everything.