The Things You Think Are Precious I Can’t Understand

(Pictured: Steely Dan on ABC-TV’s In Concert, 1973.)

When Steely Dan’s “Peg” hit the radio late in 1977, I fell in love. I got Aja for Christmas that year, and over the next few months, I bought all of the other Steely Dan albums. One of the first things I bought after I got my first CD player was the compilation A Decade of Steely Dan; I digitized the whole Dan library with Citizen Steely Dan in 1994. Seeing them live in 2000 was a bucket-list event; seeing them twice since then (plus Donald Fagen’s Dukes of September group with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald once) was icing on the cake. Counting the many bootlegs, I have something like 600 Steely Dan tracks in my music stash. They’re my favorite band of all time, is what I’m saying. And they have been my favorite band for nigh unto 40 years now.

So when I got the opportunity to write about a new book called Steely Dan FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About This Elusive Band, I leapt at it.

There are many, many volumes in the FAQ series, published by Backbeat Books. They are aimed at obsessive fans such as I, people who are presumably interested in “all that’s left to know,” beyond what we already know, about the bands we love. But because author Anthony Robustelli doesn’t try to prioritize what’s worth knowing about Steely Dan, his book ends up pushing even an obsessive fan over the brink of frustration.

Irrelevant tangents abound. For example: sometime around 1970, a friend of Becker and Fagen’s, Richard Lifschutz, got the idea of writing a musical that would have included some of the duo’s early songs, which existed at that time only as demos. He finished the book for the musical, Walt and Don read it, they didn’t pursue the idea, and that was that. But it takes Robustelli two pages to explain what I just did in two sentences. He includes an unnecessary detour into the history of rock operas (Tommy, Godspell, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar) and a followup on what became of Lifschutz, a guy whose life story would be of interest only to members of his family.

(Robustelli also makes the dubious contention that the unproduced musical, Ego, was actually the precursor to the current fad of musicals created from existing pop songs. Precursor in that it happened before others did, yes. Precursor in that Ego could have had the tiniest bit of influence leading to their creation, you gotta be kidding, dude.)

If you think you might want to read Steely Dan FAQ, be selective. The chapters on individual albums and tours are the most worthwhile. Your mileage may vary on the ones about Becker and Fagen’s early years—this is one place where pointillist detail is helpful in fleshing out character, but there might be too much for some readers. Skip the ones profiling session musicians, which cover absolutely everybody who ever played on a Steely Dan project in positively numbing detail. I flipped through the chapter detailing Becker and Fagen’s appearances as sidemen for other artists and took a hard pass. These chapters suffer most egregiously from the book’s main problem: a surfeit of detail, and an unwillingness, or an inability, to differentiate between what’s worth knowing and what isn’t.

If Steely Dan FAQ exasperated me—a Steely Dan super-fan—it’s likely to do the same to more casual fans, and even faster than it did it to me.

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4 responses

  1. Great choice of titles for this post.

    I’d like to go back in a time machine and drop a copy of this book on the laps of circa-1975 Becker & Fagen, just to see what they’d say.
    ” ‘All that’s left to know’! Well, Don’s favorite color is red, and he likes fall days, tomato soup and meeting new people.”
    ” ‘This elusive band’! Has anyone looked for them behind that old building that used to be the laundromat?”

    1. Also, that ’70s photo captures an important aspect of Steely Dan that unfortunately got lost over the years:
      Becker is the one guy on stage without a vocal mic.

  2. Lonnie was the kingpin
    Back in nineteen sixty-five
    I was singing this song
    When Lonnie came alive…

  3. […] of Tiny Tim that tried too hard to turn its subject into someone more important than he was, and a Steely Dan reference book that tested the patience of a super-fan. Joel Selvin’s book about Altamont was a million […]

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