Saturday, October 25, 2008

reelin'

Looking over some of the posts I've written over the last few months, I've come to the realization that my notion of the Great Collapse remains somewhat amorphous. Part of this is of necessity since the historical phenomenon itself is comprised of many diverse events and sets of circumstances, and trying to unify them conceptually is a complex bit of business. And unlike the use of historical terms like, say, 'the Gilded Age' or 'the Antebellum South,' which refer to precisely demarcated time periods, I haven't offered much specificity in terms of when the Collapse started or when it ended. I was thinking that it might be useful to make a distinction between the Collapse itself and the fallout from the Collapse, but even there the causes and consequences bleed into each other. The Rural Turn, for example, was a symptom of the Collapse but also part of the Collapse itself. This type of complication is something professional historians face all the time. I've merely stumbled upon the problem accidentally in trying to write about history in my own layperson's way.


If I hold my own hands to the fire, I'd say that the Great Collapse refers to the dissolution of the idealism first set in motion by the Baby Boomer Generation after JFK's election in 1960. The idealism consisted of a growing belief in equality for all and a reassertion of individual uniqueness and creativity over and against the stifling moral conformity of the 1950s. It took JFK's assassination for 60s ideals as we know them to take on lives of their own, and one difficulty comes in trying to grasp the way the 60s reached a peak with the civil rights and anti-war movements, but also showed initial signs of decay at the same time.





The Collapse gathered steam with the onset of the second half of the 60s. I've tried to show how this uneven and protracted phenomenon was captured in rock... The Beatles and The Who, among others, approached the Collapse with varying degrees of pathos and disillusionment. The Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Frank Zappa seemed somehow to know all along that 60s ideals would eventually disintegrate or morph into something more sinister. Bob Dylan, The Band, The Grateful Dead and The Byrds turned the Collapse into an occasion to escape into the countryside. Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne used the Collapse as an excuse to escape into themselves. Still others, like Bowie, Iggy, Lou Reed, T. Rex, and the rest of the Glam crowd, responded to the Collapse by engaging in sensationalistic artifice, debauchery and sexual experimentation.




My observations on the music of the Great Collapse started and will end with Steely Dan. Their 1972 debut album, Can't Buy A Thrill, is a definitive expression of post-60s disenchantment. The record's opening track, "Do it Again," is one of the greatest songs they ever recorded and forms something of a template for everything else on the record and even everything Becker and Fagen subsequently did during the 70s. The song's nasty snake-like beat and freaky electric sitar solo, along with its bad trip lyrics alluding to murder, hangmen, gambling and adultery, leave little doubt that the era of love and sunshine has receded into the distant past. With Nixon cruising towards easy re-election against a wimpy opponent, and the Viet Nam war lumbering further into the abyss, flower power became a quaint memory, and on songs like "Reelin' in the Years" and "Turn that Heartbeat Over Again," Becker and Fagen are only too happy to impose buzz kill on the remaining hippy believers. A World become one, of salads and sun, only a fool would say that.' Ouch...

But along with the social commentary on Can't Buy a Thrill, it's also important to emphasize how musically satisfying the album is. The phenomenal guitar playing from the likes of Jeff "Skunk" Baxter (now a right-wing national defense consultant), Denny Dias and Elliot Randall, perfectly complement the amazing songwriting prowess Becker and Fagen bring to the table. The infectious tunefulness of the songs easily compensates for any bitter aftertaste that might be left by the album's cynical post-60s vibe...




I go against the grain of most critical opinion in my view that Countdown to Ecstasy is a disappointment after the greatness of Can't Buy A Thrill. The songs are not as good and the album feels a bit thin with a mere eight tracks. Still, the record has some great moments in "Razor Boy", "The Boston Rag" and "Show Biz Kids," and the aftermath of the 60s is still very much on everybody's minds in "King of the World": 'No marigolds in the promised land, there's a hole in the ground where they used to grow.'




But Steely Dan only really became the outfit most people know as Steely Dan with their third album, Pretzel Logic. The album cover would have you believe that listening to the record will be a distinctly New York-ish experience. But Pretzel Logic actually represents the beginning of a decisive shift in Steely Dan's center of gravity away from the road and touring and into semi-permanent residence in the insulated recording studios of Los Angeles. The move to L.A. walked hand-in-hand with a much smoother sound. Even songs with flaming guitar solos, like the great "Night By Night," have a new mellowness about them. ...Pretzel Logic is where Steely Dan begin to embrace the fuzak that turned a lot of listeners off. But don't let the seemingly benign sound fool you. What makes the album so compelling is the way it uses infectious, M.O.R. sounding songs like "Rikki Don't Lose that Number," "Barrytown," and "Through With Buzz" as packages for acerbic social observations. This would be the band's approach for the remainder of the decade.

Starting with Katy Lied, all remaining pretense of following the normal rules of a rock 'n roll band went out the window. Steely Dan quit the road for good and were reduced to Becker, Fagen and whatever other session players they needed to create the atmospherics that are such an essential part of their sound. The song arrangements and musicianship on Katy Lied are flawless. Becker, Fagen and, one presumes, producer Gary Katz, continued to show off their impeccable taste in guaitarists, this time using Rick Derringer as well as Denny Dias and Elliot Randall. Although the rigid perfection of the music on Katy Lied left some listeners cold - John Mendelsohn of Rolling Stone wrote that he was "unable to detect the slightest suggestion of real passion in any of it" - the album is, in my opinion, the ultimate Steely Dan record, even though Becker and Fagen disavowed what they perceived to be its shoddy sound quality after the album was released in 1975. With songs like "Dr Wu," "Black Friday," "Everyone's Gone to the Movies", and "Daddy Don't Live in that New York City No More," Katy Lied is a perfect distillation of the rampant self abuse, paranoia and decadence so endemic to its own historical moment. And in spite of the frequently leveled charge of passionlessness, there's also a refreshing degree of warmth and yearning on tracks like "Any World (That I'm Welcome To)", "Bad Sneakers" and "Your Gold Teeth II." In any event, I've always felt that the alleged coldness of the Steely Dan enterprise ceases to be an issue if you approach the music as a soothing, L.A.-style echo of the post-Collapse era's drift into mellow pensiveness.


More on Steely Dan next time...

4 comments:

dan w said...

Felonius, my old friend--

How come, if Steely Dan's music is so "passionless," listening to it always makes me want to kill myself? I mean that, like, in a good way, of course.

Max Stevens said...

You've been telling me you're a genius since you were 17...but I agree with what you say entirely.

dan w said...

After reading your post, I re-upped and bought Can't Buy a Thrill on disc (a bargain at $7.97, remastered). The last, ultracheezy yawp at the end of Kings--"raise up your glass....TO GOOD KING JOHN"--made me miss you back here on the East Coast, brudda.

Max Stevens said...

Right back at'cha. I'll be there for the whole week over Thanksgiving.