Although we tend to associate “creativity” with “freedom,” the truth is that most of what we call art is conceived and realized within structural limitations. Until Dada, paintings were limited to the canvas; poetry has many limiting structures, like the fourteen lines of a sonnet or the seventeen sounds of a haiku; and music is loaded with bucketfuls of structures. Of all those self-imposed limitations on musical structure, few modern forms have proved as durable as the three-minute pop song.
Pretzel Logic is said to be Steely Dan’s “attempt to make complete musical statements within the three-minute pop-song format,” at least according to Rolling Stone. As is usual with Rolling Stone, the statement is not quite accurate. The songs are shorter compared to the tracks on the previous album, Countdown to Ecstasy, and Fagen and Becker sometimes stick with the classic format of Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge (Middle Eight), Verse, Chorus. At other times they respect the time limits but mess with the expected architecture, and in the best songs, they stretch the time to four-plus minutes because the song simply demanded greater length: I never want to hear the single version of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” although I would only lose thirty-two seconds of music in the process. To me, everything in the original composition is essential, and that is one real strength of Pretzel Logic: there is little wasted time or space.
Fagen and Becker were not particularly happy with Countdown to Ecstasy because they felt they didn’t have the time between tour dates to do some of the tracks justice. While it’s not as bad as they make it out to be and is noted for increased integration of jazz values into their music, the songs tend to be long and less focused than what you hear on Pretzel Logic. The satiric bent on Countdown to Ecstasy can sometimes come across as biting and bitter, while the word I would use to describe Pretzel Logic is exuberant. The skeptical-cynical view of American culture remains in place, but the performances are infused with energy and intensity—probably the direct result of feeling they had the time to get things right (and maybe a little bit of the white powder). There are some misses, but those misses are usually experiments that didn’t quite work out, not the result of indifference or time pressures.
The aforementioned “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” opens the album, a song where a modern version of Romeo pleads with a skittish Juliet to eschew convention and keep the wild times going or at least tuck the idea in her back pocket. The regrettable single version cuts out one of my favorite parts: the introductory passage played on a strange-looking chromatic percussion instrument called a flapamba, played by Victor Feldman. I don’t know why exactly, but I find the sound of this instrument incredibly exciting; it’s like how I imagine an orgasm sounds inside the body. The post-flapamba introductory bass line gets attention for its echoes of Horace Silver’s “Song to My Father” (albeit in a slower tempo), but what I love here is the beautiful simplicity of the arrangement: the restrained piano, the foreshadowing of the hook with the guitar and the steadiness of the bass line. Donald Fagen’s vocal is appropriately pleading, alternating from a tone of regret and desperate hope, and the transition to the chorus features a very clever chord sequence. The chord shift on the second line of the chorus adds to the build, and the resolution back to the root is effortless. The dynamics are marvelous, Jeff Baxter’s guitar work provides the edge, and I can’t say enough about Donald Fagen’s nimble piano fills. “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” is a splendid integration of jazz, Latin, rock and funk influences, setting the perfect tone for the rest of the album.
“Night by Night” lands more on the funk side of the spectrum, with its sharp, sassy cuts, shimmering horns and precise bass patterns. Jeff Baxter again pushes the edges with guitar work that almost screams. The closing instrumental section provides an excellent comparison to the work on Countdown to Ecstasy: on that album, the instrumentals seemed to drag at times; here, you don’t get enough. The lyrics are about the kill-or-be-killed world of the streets, a world with a set of values completely at odds with the world of the music consumers who bought Pretzel Logic in droves:
It’s a beggar’s life, said the Queen of Spain
But don’t tell it to a poor man
‘Cause he’s got to kill for every thrill
The best he can
Everywhere around me
I see jealousy and mayhem
Because no men have all their peace of mind
To carry them
Well I don’t really care
If it’s wrong or if it’s right
But until my ship comes in
I’ll live night by night
Steely Dan pours it on with “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” a lyrically thematic extension of the conversation begun in “Reelin’ in the Years.” Fagen and/or Becker must have run into many women who thought the world of themselves, but instead of looking askance at this woman with the “superfine mind,” the lyrics are more tender and empathetic. The acoustic guitar strum provides a nice backdrop, and the guitar run between the major sections is sweet and lovely. While “major dude” seems a quaint term for those from later generations, the most obscure reference is the lyrics is to something called a “squonk.”
Have you ever seen a squonk’s tears? Well, look at mine
The people on the street have all seen better times
Wikipedia clears up the mystery for us:
The earliest known written account of squonks comes from a book by William T. Cox called Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods, With a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts (1910). Cox’s account is reprinted in Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings (1969).
The legend holds that the creature’s skin is ill-fitting, being covered with warts and other blemishes and that, because it is ashamed of its appearance, it hides from plain sight and spends much of its time weeping. Hunters who have attempted to catch squonks have found that the creature is capable of evading capture by dissolving completely into a pool of tears and bubbles when cornered. A certain J.P. Wentling is supposed to have coaxed one into a bag, which, while he was carrying it home, suddenly lightened. On inspection, he found that the bag contained only the liquid remains of the sad animal.
While the Borges connection hints of pretentiousness, at least we can thank Steely Dan for providing us with one hell of a Scrabble word.
Fagen shifts to a Dylan drawl on “Barrytown,” a song written in pre-Steely Dan days about cultures within cultures. Barrytown is a locale in New York near the place where Fagen and Becker went to college, and at that time there was a Catholic seminary at the north end of the town (in the 70’s, the place would be bought by the more exotic Unification Church, further heightening the difference between townspeople and religious professionals). Rather than narrow the scope of the song to a difference between seminarians and the plain folk, Becker and Fagen universalize the lyrics so that Barrytown could apply to any place in a America that contains class or lifestyle differences within its borders—literally anywhere. In every place I’ve ever lived, people form a gestalt about various towns and neighborhoods and apply stereotypes to the people in those enclaves. When I lived in San Francisco, Pacific Heights was Snob City; when in L. A. you knew that everyone in Baldwin Park and Pomona belonged to a gang; and in Seattle all the “bad people” lived in the Central District. What is dramatized in “Barrytown” is the visitor who comes from “that other place” and is distinctly unwelcome in “our territory.”
I’m not one to look behind I know that times must change
But over there in Barrytown they do things very strange
And though you’re not my enemy
I like things like they used to be
And though you’d like some company
I’m standing by myself
Go play with someone else
I can see by what you carry that you come from Barrytown
The narrow-minded territoriality of the human race is a universal tendency with destructive and corrosive consequences, and there are few songs that capture those dynamics as effectively as “Barrytown.”
“East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” is an Ellington-Miley composition that was Duke Ellington’s first big hit in 1927. The dark opening motif is one of the most compelling themes you’ll ever hear, and despite the shift in mood to something more suited to the foxtrot as the song progresses, it’s that rainy-day theme with its exquisite tension that lingers in your mind. While I have a definite preference for the original because I adore old ’78’s and Bubber Miley’s knockout muted trumpet solo, Steely Dan does a more-than-credible job with the piece. Jeff Baxter captures echoes of Miley’s tones on his guitar solo, and the combo performing on this track is Ellington-tight.
In bygone days, that would be the end of side one, and side two doesn’t quite measure up to side one. “Parker’s Band” is a pretty limp tribute to Charlie Parker, especially coming on the heels of a faithful reproduction of Ellington. The lyrics are okay, recalling nights at the Savoy, Parker’s stay at Camarillo and a pun on the word “dizzy,” but the musical structure hardly reflects the complexity of Parker’s signature dexterity with chord structure. “Through with Buzz” is a strange fragment of an idea that is never fully developed in the minute-and-a-half length of the track and the strings seem terribly out-of-place. The title track mixes the lyrical structure of a blues piece with a repeated couplet at the start of each verse, but time-travel theme never really clicks (the reference to Napoleon in particular comes out of nowhere) and the exuberance that marks most of the album is dampened. My favorite track on side two is “With a Gun,” but that’s primarily due to the anti-gun bias reflected in the lyrics. The western touches in the arrangement are perfectly appropriate, but musically speaking, the song is a little boring. “Charlie Freak” has more fascinating music, with a minor-key melodramatic feel, but never really grabs me. Pretzel Logic ends with “Monkey in Your Soul” is a funky dance number with a strong groove and smooth horns which proves to be a relatively strong closer to one of my favorite Steely Dan albums.
Fifteen session musicians were used on Pretzel Logic, a number that would grow significantly on future releases. While the session musician approach has its virtues (professionalism and versatility, for example), it does have a major weakness in that you lose the intuitive connections musicians can form when they play together over time—connections more likely to lead to magical combinations that take the music beyond the score. From here on out Steely Dan would be the Fagen-Becker show down to the tiniest detail, and musicians would be hired to make specific contributions to the jigsaw puzzle of the founders’ vision. The approach seems to echo Alfred Hitchcock’s relationship to actors:
There is a dreadful story that I hate actors. Imagine anyone hating James Stewart . . . I can’t imagine how such a rumor began. Of course it may possibly be because I was once quoted as saying that actors are cattle. My actor friends know I would never be capable of such a thoughtless, rude and unfeeling remark, that I would never call them cattle . . . What I probably said was that actors should be treated like cattle.
Unlike Hitchcock, Fagen and Becker respected talented musicians. Like Hitchcock, they had a clear idea of what they wanted to achieve and were very exacting in managing the process of getting there, personal feelings be damned. You had to be good to work with Steely Dan, and you can hear the results of their unique approach in Aja, my last review in the series (for now).