July/August 2012
Peter Coviello

The Talk That Does Not Do Nothing

Fighting Over Music (Often Drunkenly, With the Same Person, For twenty Years) Is A Valid Critical Enterprise; It Is Also a Type of Love Song

Discussed: Dylanishness, The Million-Petaled Flower of Steely Dan’s Uncoolness, Coke-Binge Obscurantism, Gradual Overcoding by a Minutemen Cover, The Land of Undead Dreams, Abject Betrayal, Intermingling Enthusiasms, Bourdieu as Applied to Hipsterism, Argots of Appreciation and Invective

Fair warning: this is not to be a wading into the deeper waters of Steely Dan esoterica. I’m not going to parse the weird bleakness of “Charlie Freak,” explain the boom on Mizar-5, unravel the time signatures of “Your Gold Teeth,” or take up your evening “speculating for hours on the meaning of a certain enigmatic question in the lyrics of ‘Any Major Dude,’” to steal a phrase from Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. Nor do I have much of technical interest to share with you, about the harmonic intricacies of the solos of Larry Carlton and Skunk Baxter, or about the Dylanishness of Donald Fagen’s diction and phrasing, and even less about the precise quality of the impress of mid-century American bebop on the early-’70s pop ambitions of this one band. Sorry. Instead I want to tell the story of a long fight I once had about Steely Dan—a fight that turned into something else.

The mise-en-scène of this fight will be, I think, familiar to many of you. It was significantly after midnight. You would not at this point have called us extremely drunk, but sobriety had in truth been forsaken some time earlier. My friend John and I were in his basement just then, foraging among the varieties of finger food that had gone unconsumed at the party he’d thrown. And here at the tail end of a day that began with his child home sick from school, and that somehow devolved into the project of playing, with this child, the complete discographies of a number of ’70s bands in reverse-chronological order—at the end of this day and this night, we were listening to records, and fighting about them. The question before us was simple: which is the greatest Steely Dan record? Very few among us, I am betting, will have no knowledge of this kind of talking, or would fail to recognize its characteristic features and form: its cheerful counterfactuality, its ambulatory indirection, its easy shuttling between a style of largely absurdist speculation and sudden pockets of very serious assertion.

John was the ideal coconspirator for this kind of fighting, for a multitude of reasons, only two of which I’ll mention: he and I had by this time been talking this special kind of talk for better than twenty years, and there are few people in the world for whom I feel a love as comprehensive or as detailed. I’ll return to that conjunction—talking, love—in just a moment.

But first: Steely Dan? Steely Dan? Listen: I know. If only because to those disinclined to the band, such disinclination typically takes the form of an ardent and vocal dislike (rather than, say, indifference), I do not need to have explained to me the million-petaled flower of Steely Dan’s uncoolness. Here’s what I say to the haters: fair enough. I do not need to be persuaded of the jazz-nerd preciousness of much of the affection for this band, of the tedium of some of their coke-binge obscurantism (or of its explication), and least of all of the irritatingness of the particularly male, particularly boy style of hyper-appreciation that surrounds them: those exquisite parsings of the finery of technique, execution, and mastery, or of the academic nuances of influence and pedigree. (Like many of you, I have been that boy.) The phrase yacht-rock gets at the self-satisfaction and the pretense quite nicely, I think—and gestures, too, toward the almost total lack of propulsive, uncoiled fury in their catalog: of rocking—and so needs little elaboration. Preciousness, pretense, production value, and a certain rocklessness: not much to wonder at in the absence of any real through-line of Steely Dan’s influence in the otherwise omnivorously cannibalizing world of post-punk and indie rock, where so many of my most ardent affections, and John’s, continue to reside. (Post-rock would be an exception here, at least on some points, though I don’t take much of it to be marked by the aesthetic of Steely Dan.)

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Peter Coviello is a professor of English at Bowdoin College, where he talks mostly about Whitman, joy, Mormon polygamy, and American literature. His newest book is Tomorrow’s Parties: Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth-Century American Literature.

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