It’s sad that only when someone dies do we feel driven to talk about them. I guess its only natural that after someone you admire passes that you want to explore their past work and see if maybe you’d missed something. For me, with Steely Dan’s Walter Becker passing away last week I wasn’t going back to see what I’d missed about the Dan while the guy was alive. I’ve loved the duo of Becker/Fagen for over 20 years now and have dug into the Dan discography more times than I can shake a stick at. I’ve never got tired of the Steely Dan discography. Never. Not once. I can’t even say that about the Beatles, the Kinks, or even JHubner73 stalwarts Wilco. Steely Dan have always intrigued me(once I “got em”.) The mixture of sci fi-meets-beatnik-meets-downtown derelict lyrics, subtle funky rhythms, and intricate jazz breakdowns were the things of late night drives, young man contemplation, and stoned conversations. Theirs was a confection of William Burroughs, 50 years of jazz history, and burnt out 60s disillusionment turned into sardonic 70s pessimism.
It was a biting and beautiful thing.
No, what I was going after this past week was digging through that decade of Dan and finding what I might’ve overlooked. I hadn’t really overlooked things, but I never truly appreciated Steely Dan as a “band”. I was always drawn to the later records that were Becker/Fagen- conducted affairs. The revolving doors of wizard-like studio musicians that Don and Walter would direct into meticulous solos and takes. Records like Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, and Aja were my jams. They felt like these alternate universes where lowlifes and degenerates ruled the city streets. Each song felt like stories half written by Jim Thompson and half written by Philip K. Dick with the music arranged in the spirit of Wayne Shorter’s Juju. That was what initially brought me in. But the last few years I’ve been drawn to the first half of their career. Can’t Buy A Thrill isn’t played a whole lot by me, though it does have its charms(“Turn That Heartbeat Over Again”, “Only A Fool Would Say That”, and “Fire In The Hole” are standouts.) For me, Countdown To Ecstasy is the record that truly introduced the world to Steely Dan. It led to the excellent Pretzel Logic which was the last album to feature the original 5-piece band of Becker, Fagen, Denny Dias, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and Jim Hodder. Countdown To Ecstasy was their most rock and roll record. It’s gritty, out there, and holds within it a cast of characters Robert Altman would be thrilled to put on screen.
When you open an album with a hyper speed boogie number called “Bodhisattva”, a track that boast serious guitar solos, keyboard solos, and lyrics like “Can you show me the shine of your Japan/The sparkle of your china, can you show me“, you’re not just laying down the grooves just to jam. The definition of Bodhisattva, for those that don’t know it, simply states: “(in Mahayana Buddhism) a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings.” Fagen and Becker were never ones to write simple lyrics. They were out to tell a story each time out, and when you throw literate lyrics over top a serious jam like this you’re bound for greatness.
Then they follow that with the excellent “Razor Boy”. “Will you still have a song to sing, when the Razor Boy comes and takes your fancy things away/Will you still be singing it on that cold and windy day?” Put to to jazzy vibes and Baxter’s beautiful pedal steel playing, this song is the perfect example of how well Steely Dan could create these subversive songs and make them fluffy radio friendly. Look at a hit like “Peg” which subtly refers to the business of the porn industry(“done up in blueprint blue/it sure looks good on you“) or their biggest hit “Hey Nineteen” referring to “the fine Columbian“(I’m sure they were referring to a cup of coffee.) “Razor Boy” is a nod to drug addiction under the guise of some street punk carrying a blade. It’s really quite genius.
“The Boston Rag” is another stellar track that showcases Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s guitar wizardry, courtesy of his pedal steel. There’s an ominous vibe here that Fagen lays on it with his vocals. “You were Lady Bayside/There was nothing that I could do/So I pointed my car down/Seventh Avenue“, Fagen sings over a seriously tight groove. There’s a grimy downtown vibe in this track. For an album that was recorded in Colorado and Los Angeles there’s some serious New York vibes here.
One of my favorite jams is “Your Gold Teeth”. It’s just an all out barn burner. I never truly appreciated this song till many years later. Fagen’s keyboard work on this is absolutely brilliant. Victor Feldman’s percussion work also makes this song burn brightly. Absolutely brilliant.
One of the most biting tracks opens side two. “Show Biz Kids” is Steely Dan’s ode to stuck up LA kids blowing mom and dad’s money and generally not giving a shit about anyone else but themselves. He says as much in one of the lines, “Showbiz Kids making movies of themselves, you know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else.” There’s talk of a “Steely Dan t-shirt” and “shapely bods”, and one of my personal bits of favorite lyrical gold “After closing time/At the Guernsey Fair/I detect the El Supremo/From the room at the top of the stairs”. You can almost see Fagen’s smirk as you listen to this track.
“My Old School” was I think the only long lasting radio track, something you still hear on classic rock radio from time to time. It’s another great story song about a drug bust at Bard College when Becker and Fagen were students. I seriously don’t know how this wasn’t a hit song back in 1973. It’s a great tune with a earworm of a melody and excellent storytelling.
“Pearl of the Quarter” for years was one of my favorite Steely Dan songs. The story of a prostitute and the “John” that fell for her. “I walked alone down the miracle mile/I met my baby by the shine of the martyr/She stole my heart with her Cajun smile/Singing voulez vous“, Fagen sings over some beautiful pedal steel and melancholy piano chords. I remember being in a dive bar in town 20+ years ago and going to the jukebox and seeing Countdown to Ecstasy in it. I happily dropped an abundance of coin in the slot and played this track more than a few times. I got plenty of jeers, but the one guy sitting by himself singing along to his bottle of Micheloeb was enough to make it all worth it.
“King of the World”, an ode to the last man on earth is a sci fi rocker that closes the record on a uptempo groove. Complete with synthesizers, jazzy drums, Becker’s excellent bass playing, and more of Baxter’s great slide playing. Lyrically the band paints a portrait of a dead world with the guy that pulled the shortest straw, aka the King of the world. “No marigolds in the promised land/There’s a hole in the ground, Where they used to grow/Any man left on the Rio Grande, Is the king of the world/As far as I know“. I think these are probably some of the best lyrics on Countdown To Ecstasy.
Surprisingly(to me, anyways), while this album was highly regarded by critics and fans it didn’t yield much in the hits department and was seen as a disappointment by the record label. Of course they’d follow this up with the monster that is Pretzel Logic only a mere 7 months later and from that point on they would put out one stellar record after another until 1980 when they would take a 20 year hiatus until 2000s Two Against Nature.
Though they would inevitably go on to make better albums, there’s something about Countdown To Ecstasy that makes it stand out in the Dan canon. Maybe because it’s a “live” album, written for a rock and roll band to perform. Maybe because there’s a heavier sci fi slant here that makes the record seem like more of an outlier. Or maybe it’s the grittier, street-sweaty manor of the songs here that makes Countdown To Ecstasy a record I find myself going to as of late. I guess it doesn’t really matter what it is that keeps me coming back.
If the Razor Boy approves, then that’s what matters.