El Supremo : For The Love of Steely Dan’s ‘Countdown To Ecstasy’

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 was never one to write simple lyrics. He was out to tell a story each time out, and throw his literate lyrics over top a serious jam like this and 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 Fagen’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 Fagen 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.

I wanna be your holy man

DSC04358Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam is one of those albums that I will never tire of. To me it’s the quintessential Dan record. From opener “Kid Charlamagne” to closer and title track “The Royal Scam” Fagen and Becker hit every mark. Other than Can’t Buy A Thrill, depending on the day of the week any Steely Dan album can be my favorite. Today, it’s The Royal Scam.

I didn’t always have a love and admiration for these New York beatnik jazz lovers. There was a time before 1995 I thought of Steely Dan to be a bunch of squares, man. A bunch of hippies playing glorified elevator music that the stoner guy down the street would play on his 8-track in his dirty living room at 1am contemplating how his life went to shit. Yeah, really. I can remember some oldies radio show used “Reelin’ In The Years” as it’s theme song and that really put the final nail in the Steely Dan coffin for the 16 year old me. It was the opening music for moldy oldies. Forget that. I wanted my Skid Row, Rush, and any other plethora of Shrapnel Records’ roster. Or anything I heard on the syndicated radio show Metal Shop every Friday night on 95.3 WAOR out of Niles, Michigan. Steely Dan was old guy music. “Jazz rock”. Pfft. Forget that. Well, around 1993 or 1994 a good friend of mine, we’ll call him Jason(cause that’s his name), fell hard for Steely Dan. I couldn’t believe it. Seriously? I would listen when it was his turn to play a CD and pretend I was intrigued. I wasn’t. Then in 1995 he made me a mixtape of all his favorite Dan songs. This seemed like a reasonable way to get to know this band I hated. I’d put it in and listen as I picked up my apartment while my wife(then girlfriend) was working. Pretty soon the tape made its way into my truck’s cassette player. Then it made its way to my boombox at work. Pretty soon, I knew what was coming up after each song. I had it memorized. Favorites were “Pretzel Logic”, “Monkey In Your Soul”, “Black Cow”, and “Through With Buzz”. As I listened to these songs I realized just how NOT square these cats were. In fact, Donald Fagen’s lyrics could be downright subversive and once I started reading up about them and finding out how Fagen and Walter Becker were huge fans of the 50s jazz scene and beat generation writers(including Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg) it all made sense.

At first glance their music seems timid, dorky even. But upon further inspection there’s some rather intricate music being made. Time changes, chord configurations, and some of the tightest drum parts I’ve ever heard. Honestly, Steely Dan had some of the funkiest rhythms put to tape back in the 70s. No joke. It’s a fact. Lyrically Donald Fagen is singing about seedy characters; drug dealers, prostitutes, criminals on the run, perverted old skeezers, and three ways. Plus there’s ample references to science fiction and spoiled rich kids doing what they damn well please. Their lyric sheets read like a cross section of Jim Thompson, Jean Shepherd, William S. Burroughs, and Ray Bradbury.

So once I realized I loved Steely Dan I began collecting their albums. In 1997 I received Citizen Steely Dan for my birthday and enjoyed everything they ever put to tape. Then in 2008 when I started collecting vinyl again Steely Dan’s discography was the first thing I bough in its entirety. The Royal Scam has become my overall favorite album of theirs. The whole of side one is an all-out classic. “Kid Charlamagne” and it’s funky rhythm and story of a chemist-turned-drug dealer sounds like a certain TV show that was kind of a big deal about something similar. Supposedly the song was inspired by LSD chemist Owsley Stanley. “The Caves Of Altamira, “Don’t Take Me Alive”, “Sign In Stranger” and “The Fez” round out side one and make me very happy every time I hear it. Side two has the one-two punch of “Haitian Divorce” and “Everything You Did”. “Green Earrings” sports some badass drums and an even more badass guitar solo by Steely Dan semi-regular Denny Dias. Title track “The Royal Scam” closes things out with Larry Carlton classing up the joint with another amazing guitar solo. Pretty much every song on this album is spot-on and shows the Fagen/Becker musical partnership as strong as it ever could be.

Sure, Aja seems to be the quintessential album in most fans’ eyes and ears, and on certain days of the week(usually Friday nights)I’d agree. But tonight it’s all about The Royal Scam.