Like coffee, Steely Dan is a bit of an acquired taste. I grew up in a household where, for a few years, there were only two CD’s in the house: The Beatles REVOLVER and A DECADE OF STEELY DAN. That greatest hits compilation gathered quite a bit of dust. The appeal of a band like The Beatles is instant and able to transcend age and experience. The appeal of a band like Steely Dan is…a bit more complicated.
To be fair, I never gave Steely Dan more than a causal listen before casting them off as “lame.” I must say, the band has a certain reputation among rock fans, many write them off as “dad rock”, self-indulgent, and worst of all: boring. One of my all-time favorite comedians, George Carlin, even has a pretty funny joke that has the lameness of the band’s fans as part of it’s punchline. Another factor at play in my inability to fully enjoy Steely Dan was my own ignorance of jazz. Steely Dan, unlike most rock bands, are more jazz-influenced than they are blues-influenced. Jazz is a funny thing, and like coffee (and Steely Dan) a bit of an acquired taste.
And so, I remained ignorant of the greatness of Steely Dan until my second-to-last year of college. I was driving home from school one autumn afternoon when I heard “Reelin’ In The Years” on the local classic rock radio station. I’m sure I’d heard it before, but I must not have been ready because that afternoon I was struck-dumb by the song.
“Reelin’ In The Years” is awesome for two reasons: the blazing guitar work and the incredible delivery of the lyrics. The guitar work is exceptional, so much so that guitar god Jimmy Page has been quoted as saying that the guitar solo in “Reeling In The Years” is his all-time favorite solo. That’s mighty praise. Singer Donald Fagen has gone on to sort of roll his eyes when it comes to the song, calling it “Dumb but effective.” And I guess it’s effective, like a shotgun’s effective when fired within a foot of it’s target. To be fair, “Reelin’ In The Years” is a great blunderbuss of a song compared to the more nuanced work Steely Dan produced over their long run. I guess the fact that it’s more of a straight-up rocker is part of the reason it’s the most-played Steely Dan song on classic radio today.
“Reelin’ In The Years” would be an noteworthy if all it consisted of was Elliott Randall’s out-of-this-world solo-but then there are the song’s lyrics, which perfectly match the quality of the guitar work. Like all of Steely Dan’s best songs, “Reelin’ In The Years” is equal parts bitter and wistful. “Reelin’ In The Years” is accusatory and at the same time filled with a sad-sort of desperation. Steely Dan’s lyrics are famously opaque, but on “Reelin’ In The Years” the band is a bit more on-the-nose obvious than usual, without the usual literary flair or West Coast double-talk found in most of their songs. I think that’s another reason why the song is so popular on classic rock radio: it doesn’t take a PhD in English to figure out what the hell the song is about.
All the best lyrics in the world don’t mean anything if the delivery is off, though. The lyrics, though a bit dumbed-down as far as Steely Dan songs go, are delivered spectacularly. They come come fast and furious. There’s so much venom in Fagen’s voice as he spits the words out, his voice barely keeping up with the wailing guitar. The amount of information, the sheer volume of emotion and narrative conveyed so perfectly and so quickly it’s downright Dylan-esque.
The song ended and I switched off the radio. I went home and got online and started reading about the band, trying to figure out which album I was going to buy first. A month later I went back home to visit my parents, before I left I found that dusty copy of A DECADE OF STEELY DAN. Without asking, I slipped the album into my duffle bag and have never looked back. I never thought I’d be a Steely Dan fan, but I am.