Steely Dan is a dildo. That isn't a jab at one of our favorite sardonic 1970s rock groups. It's the truth. The band Steely Dan is named after a strap-on.
Its namesake wasn't just any dildo — "Steely Dan III from Yokohama" appeared in William S. Burroughs' sexually vivid novel Naked Lunch. Not a lot is known about Steely Dan III. Beyond describing its use in an act of heterosexual sex and glossing over the histories of its predecessors, Burroughs depicts just one unique trait of the rubber toy: It squirts milk. Thus, there's no clear connection between the band and the lactating appendage but that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were devoted fans of Beat Generation literature.
Burroughs' effect on Steely Dan went further than inspiring the band's name. The author also influenced much of the band's lyrical and musical approach. From its intricate and unorthodox structures to its heavy-handed irony, the band emanates the Beat principles Burroughs championed. But it's the band's storytelling that really resonates aspects of the tortured, twisted, paranoid author.
For one, its narrative method is much the same. Burroughs and Steely Dan tell tales from the perspective of fictional personas who draw real-world inspiration from their authors' actual lives. Naked Lunch follows narrator William Lee's physical and psychic wanderings as he samples sex and intoxicants in gluttonous fashion through the exotic places Burroughs himself visited. Meanwhile, Steely Dan often and willingly includes personal anecdotes in its lyrics, even addressing a love interest by name in "Rikki Don't Lose That Number."
The writers also emphasize abject characters and narratives.
Burroughs' fictions are filled with degenerates. The tales are demented and depraved. Vices are depicted with equal weight as virtues, and they're often valued much the same. Steely Dan, likewise, makes moral deviance its primary subject. Sex, drugs, and criminality are its lyrical go-tos. Its best love songs discuss incest, infidelity, and pedophilia.
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Consider "Everyone's Gone to the Movies." The song begins with xylophone chimes and Wurlitzer whirs in an inoffensive melody. And yet Fagen sings a scenario far from PG, as Mr. Lapage beckons kids into the his den for some good, old-fashioned, probably pornographic cinema. "Come on, come on," he says. "Soon you'll be 18. I think you know what I mean. Don't tell your mamma, your daddy or mamma. They'll never know where you've been." Blissfully ignorant parents rejoice at their newfound freedom from parenting: "Everyone's gone to the movies; now we're alone at last!" Elsewhere, Steely Dan won a Grammy Award for the incestuous "Cousin Dupree," an upbeat pop song that details one cousin's desire to kiss and canoodle with his blossoming young relative.
In "Charlie Freak," Fagen tells the tale of the titular character, a hungry, homeless drug addict who meets an untimely end in an overdose funded by the narrator himself. In an apparent act of kindness, the narrator buys Charlie's ring so Charlie can then buy some food. Chuck instead scores drugs and dies. The song is not without an ambiguous moral ending. Upon hearing the news, the narrator rushes to the dead body to replace the ring on Charlie's cold finger — either out of respect or to rid himself of responsibility.
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But perhaps "Do It Again" best connects the band with William S. Burroughs. The song is all about fucking up over and over. It revolves around the lowly characters and base behaviors so essential to Burroughs' work. It seems to even allude to Burroughs himself.
In 1951, while drunk and high on any number of substances, Burroughs shot and killed his similarly intoxicated wife, Joan Vollmer, in what he termed a "William Tell act." Though the pair was suffering substantive marital woes, Burroughs claimed it was an accident. He was charged with culpable homicide, convicted in absentia, and given a mere two-year suspended sentence. The event would go on to torment yet catalyze his career.
"Do It Again" discusses vengeance, infidelity, and gambling, with an undercurrent of the more primitive concepts of ego, addiction, and desire. The first verse tells the tale of a man who shoots a petty thief because he stole water. Despite the crime, the killer is set free and put back on the street to go back, Jack, and do it again.
Steely Dan, w/ Elvis Costello and the Imposters. 7 p.m. Wednesday, August 12 at Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre at the S. Florida Fairgrounds 601-7 Sansburys Way, West Palm Beach. Tickets are $30 to $275