Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Companion
Edited by Barney Hoskyns
The Overlook Press, 2018.
Reviewed by Vic Perry
“You can always look in the Steely Dan Listener’s Companion,” says Donald Fagen, helpfully answering a question about a lyric in an expansive 1977 interview with Sylvie Simmons originally published in Sounds, a British music paper. It was a good joke, but maybe Fagen just saw the future. Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Companion is a collection of previously-published articles dating from the band’s emergence in 1972 through the death of Walter Becker in 2017.
Editor Barney Hoskyns has intelligently drawn upon British and American coverage to fill this book, which produces some jarring effects at times—I often ended up checking what country an article had emerged from to catch on to the assumptions at work. The cross-pollination is welcome. The worlds of American and British rock music criticism have mostly been kept separate from one another, a situation that was reasonable enough before the internet but that needn’t and shouldn’t continue.
Steely Dan have had a presence on the radios of North America almost continuously since 1972. In Britain they were comparatively obscure until around 1976, as the contemporary coverage in this volume shows. In some ways Steely Dan are the mirror image of fellow rookie-class-of-72 band Roxy Music. Both bands were arty and hyper-literate critical favorites, both achieved instant popularity and steady radio play in their home countries, both were acquired popular tastes across the Atlantic.
The early reviews of Steely Dan albums included in Major Dudes are not particularly interesting except for the badness of one particularly dumb review of Katy Lied that complains about the “dearth of lyric content” (!). Surprisingly, given the cliché that rock critics pay too much attention to lyrics, there is little serious delving evidenced in the ’70s writings into what is happening in the songs. The critical coverage gets better (in the sense of “more thoughtful”) as time goes by, and the selection of reviews of the neglected solo material makes me want to try harder to get into that stuff than I have (I really like some songs on Sunken Condos, and I know I like at least one Becker song without necessarily being able to name it).
In terms of providing listener guidance to what the songs are “about,” Becker and Fagen were their own best critics—not in the sense of criticizing themselves, of course, but in pointing towards more intelligent interpretations. Interviewers naturally asked about Williams S. Burroughs; Becker and Fagen steer the conversations to Vladimir Nabokov, a truer influence. It became something of a running joke for me, while I read this book, to see how often writers repeated that Steely Dan were well known for not doing interviews, or for being “difficult” interview subjects. This book is full of interviews from 1972 on, consistently. Hoskyns has done a fantastic job of compiling them, and they are the greatest strength of the book. Not only do we get to hear a lot from Becker and Fagen at all points in their careers, we also get to hear at length from Denny Dias, Jeff Baxter, and Gary Katz.
I don’t want to end without naming my favorite pieces. Wayne Robins, who went to Bard College at the same time that Becker and Fagen did, reminisce with them about Their Old School in 1974. The interview-heavy pieces by Sylvie Simmons and Michael Watts from the mid-70s are full of interesting moments. Robert Palmer sympathetically captures the joyless mood of the Gaucho sessions. Ian Penman treats Fagen’s excellent book Eminent Hipsters with the thoughtfulness it deserves. David Cavanagh intelligently eulogizes Walter Becker. Both pieces included by editor Barney Hoskyns are excellent—this is a fan’s book to be sure, but not a fawning book. This won’t be the last Steely Dan listener’s companion, but he has set the bar very high.
I want to thank Scott for letting me become a contributor to this site. Every couple of weeks or so I plan to review something that seems relevant to the conversation. I’ll start and possibly stay with book reviews: lots of interesting books hit my local libraries all the time and I feel like they just come and go without the right audience (that’s you, visitors!) finding out about them.
P.S. Read the rockcritics.com interview with Barney Hoskyns, published in 2001.