Steely Dan: An Appreciation (or, from Hugh McCracken to Steely Dan to Curious George and Back)

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Today on Facebook a musician friend of mine posted a notice that a guitarist named Hugh McCracken had passed away today. I didn’t recognize the name, but his friend and fellow guitarist Steve Khan posted a tribute in which he noted that McCracken had played on hundreds of tracks–and that “I often feel that his essence could be summed-up by his playing on Hey Nineteen by Steely Dan.” So of course, after reading that, I had to listen to Hey Nineteen with new ears. Because I’m guilty of not always knowing what musician played what part on what song.

I first heard Steely Dan in the 1970s, on the radio. In those days, radio wasn’t so strictly stuck on all that “format” bullshit. Which was great, because you couldn’t categorize Steely Dan. Here in New York, I heard them on black stations like WBLS, on jazz station WRVR (thanks to deejays like the great Les Davis), and on white rock stations like WNEW-FM. That was an era when artist creativity defied categorization. In fact, up until the late 1980s, to my nephew Kevin, myself, and all our friends, you were a candy-ass punk if every tune on your album sounded alike! We considered that we got our money’s worth when no two tracks on an album sounded like we expected them to. This is one reason I still enjoy music from that time: because there was so much ORIGINALITY. I’m spoiled and proud of it!

So yes, I loved Steely Dan, and yes, I’m listening to them as I write this post, singing at the top of my voice—after plugging in the grownup speakers because the music is so full and rich that you gotta hear every juicy drop! Do It Again, Ricky Don’t Lose That Number, Peg, My Old School, Bodhisattva, Hey Nineteen, Bad Sneakers, Deacon Blues, Aja–all full of clever lyrics blended with expert music.

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My Steely collection. As you can see, I was able to snag some at bargain prices! (click to enlarge)

At the time, I just enjoyed the songs, oblivious to any details. Later, after buying the albums, I would realize that Steely Dan was not a static band: it was master musicians Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, surrounded by an expert roster of rotating musicians from the jazz and rock world. I remember listening to East St. Louis Toodle-Oo and assuming it was just another of their quirky ideas… only to discover (years later, from simply taking a closer look at the credits) that the tune was a 1920’s classic composed by Duke Ellington.

Like many bands of the era, there came a time when Steely Dan broke up. Or better said, when they stopped recording under that name. (In 1982 Fagen released a solo album, The Nightfly, which I enjoyed.) Which made it especially exciting to me when in 1990 I saw an ad that “The New York Rock & Soul Revue Featuring Donald Fagen” would be performing at the Beacon Theater in New York! So I got myself a press ticket and went to the show. As I later wrote in a Billboard review, on that gig Fagen surrounded himself with quality musicians, just like in the Steely Dan days, and it was a delight to witness.

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My 1990 Billboard review of The New York Rock & Soul Revue Featuring Donald Fagen (click to enlarge/read)

At that concert I was highly impressed by the backing band, Curious George, particularly the way in which they were able to deliver all the Steely classics. The keyboardist/bandleader, introduced as Jeff Young, had an unforgettably powerful voice. A short while later I got to meet him at his NYC home studio, where he gave me a demo cassette filled with his band’s great music. On it, my favorite was a tune called Working My Way Downtown, which I played to death.

Fast forward to one recent day. The thought popped into my head: wonder where Jeff Young is now? A quick Internet search led me to–you guessed it–Facebook! I sent him a private message starting with “You probably won’t remember me, but…” and mentioning (and including a photo of) that cassette to refresh his memory. To which he replied “Of course I do!” and informed me that would be sending me some more recent CDs to update me.

Two CDs arrived. One was Pure Herringbone, recorded just a few years ago. To my amazement, one of the tunes on it was… Working My Way Downtown!

Jeff’s website features a video of himself playing–with Steely Dan!–in a 2006 concert. Too bad I missed that one! But like I said, they surround themselves with the best.

So rest in peace, Hugh McCracken. Your music lives on–and brings back memories that keep on giving.

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The Little Brown Record Player

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My nephew Kevin and I grew up together. Looking back, it makes sense that even though he was four years younger than me, he influenced my musical tastes. Still, my pride wouldn’t let me tell him that until we were adults.

One Christmas, when he was in his early teens, his parents–my brother and sister-in-law–gave him a portable record player. This was huge. Because the only way you could play a record in our house was in the living room, on the hi-fi: a long, sleek, polished wooden piece of furniture whose top slid open to reveal the record player within. You gently placed the record on the platter (or stacked, under the arm, as many records as you wanted to play), and when you turned it on, the record would gently drop onto the platter, the needle would drop onto the record, and the sound would come from the speakers built into the front of the cabinet. And you BET’ not scratch their records!

(Damn. Having to describe this makes me feel OLD.)

Anyway. Kevin’s new record player looked like a brown suitcase. But when you opened it, the base was a turntable and the lid had speakers built vertically into each side. And when you turned it on? Well, dear reader, that is when I discovered what heaven was, because I was now in the grownup world of STERE-ERE-EREO (as the announcer used to say on WBLS, our soul radio station)! It absolutely delighted me that on some records, you could hear different sounds coming out of each speaker. I craved this, and was never ashamed to position my head between the speakers of the little brown record player to get the full effect.

From then on, I was hooked. I made a rule that any stereo I owned must have separate speakers. I became very snobby whenever I listened to music—I almost wouldn’t respect it unless I heard distinctly different sounds coming from each speaker. I found the first-ever album I bought, Barrabas, to be so well stereophonically engineered so that to this day, I use its first song, Wild Safari, as the test album for any new stereo I get!

And the best part was, we could now listen to *our* records away from the grownup’s collection in the living room–and from that day on, we did! Unfortunately, there is no photo of the little brown record player, so it only exists in my memory. But its legacy is very much fully present.

The cover of Barrabas, the first album I purchased with my own money. To this day I have no idea what this image meant!

The cover of Barrabas, the first album I purchased with my own money. To this day I have no idea what this image meant!

 

The back of the album jacket, which reveals that the band was from Spain.

The back of the album jacket, which reveals that the band was from Spain.