How do I love Steely Dan? Let me count…a whole lot of stuff and such.

Sometime in the spring of 1977 (probably), my mother found herself in a suburban Philadelphia record store. Maybe it was the (now long-since-gone) Sam Goody store on Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore. We were living only a short drive away in Havertown at the time, so why not?

My then-39-year-old mother rarely payed attention to music playing in stores, and she was heavily into her Cat Stevens/Neil Diamond phase. But for some reason, on this day, the music coming out of the ceiling speakers caught her attention.

She asked a store employee who the artist was.

“Steely Dan” was the response.

Not normally impulsive, my mother bought a copy of Steely Dan’s 1975 album Katy Lied on the spot.

Forty years later, and more than 42 years after its March 1975 release, I still have that album.

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A few years earlier, I had begun to listen for hours on end to Philadelphia’s WIFI-92 FM, a mix of top 40 and rock album tracks (meaning, they would play Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” even though it had never been released as a single).

By the time I was ten years old, and my mother was impulse-buying Katy Lied, I had at least a passing familiarity with Steely Dan standards like “Do It Again,” “Dirty Work” and “Reelin’ in the Years” from the 1972 album Can’t Buy a Thrill, “My Old School” from the 1973 album Countdown to Ecstasy, and “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number” from the 1974 album Pretzel Logic. I was probably not as familiar at that time with tracks I would later come to love (“Kid Charlemagne,” “Don’t Take Me Alive,” “The Royal Scam”) from the 1976 album The Royal Scam.

And the magisterial Aja, which would dominate the worlds of pop and rock for years to come, would not be released until the following September.

No, in the summer of 1977, as my mother and I were recovering from her recent separation from my father and our move from a three-bedroom house to a smaller two-bedroom apartment, it was songs like the propulsive “Black Friday” and the laidback “Bad Sneakers” that were in heavy rotation on our newly-purchased stereo system.

From the album’s liner notes, I learned that Steely Dan was actually the singer-songwriter duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Fagen sang and played keyboards and saxophone, while Becker—who died on September 3, 2017 at the age of 67—played bass and guitar. They employed a wide range of studio musicians (including many future members of Toto) to play on their albums.

Becker died at his home in Maui, Hawaii. In 2001, a college friend of mine and I often frequented the bar at a Philadelphia-area TGI Friday’s. We became friendly with a young woman who tended bar there. One day she told us about the time she had been on Maui “with Steely Dan” enjoying some particularly potent “Maui Wowie.” She may well have meant the late Walter Becker.

My mother often made the same mistake, thinking there was a person named “Steely” Dan. I would remind her that it was actually a group, but I do not recall explaining that “Steely Dan” was originally the name given to a metallic dildo in the William Burroughs novel Naked Lunch.

The Katy Lied LP (“long-playing record”) and a handful of radio staples—including “Peg,” “Deacon Blues” and “Josie” from the ever-listenable Aja, and the title track from the 1978 film FM (a serious guilty pleasure)—were the sum total of my Steely Dan knowledge for the next three-plus years.

In November 1980, Steely Dan released Gaucho, their first new studio album in more than three years. The first single released from Gaucho was the shimmering “Hey Nineteen.” It had such a pure, clean sound that I quickly bought the single, which I still have to this day.

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I became equally fond of the B-side, a live recording of their 1973 song “Bodhisattva,” featuring one of the truly epic band introductions ever.

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This was just as I was beginning high school, and my musical horizons were rapidly expanding. In fact, I became such a frequent visitor to the renowned used record store Plastic Fantastic in Bryn Mawr that I was one of the only customers allowed to pay with a personal check.

It was there that I bought used copies of Can’t Buy a Thrill and Aja in around 1983, having already taped “Reelin’ in the Years” off the radio in February 1982.

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Just bear with me while I present a brief history of 36 years of “mix” making.

In August 1981, I had just bought a dozen or so new LPs, including (relatively) recent releases by Steve Winwood, The Moody Blues, Foreigner, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Fleetwood Mac and The Cars. (Side note: I still regret selling my original vinyl copy of Foreigner 4), and I decided to put my new (monaural) tape recorder to work.

By which I mean: I would put on an album, put the toner arm down on the start of a track, put a stereo speaker next to the tape recorder and hit “RECORD.” This required absolute silence during the playing of the track, of course.

But when I was finished I had produced a 60 minute Maxell cassette containing 15 or so tracks (the cassette and its clear plastic case are long gone, so I am relying upon my memory) that I cleverly called My Stuff. The tracks were grouped by artist (an average of 2 tracks per artist) in no particular order.

That first labor-of-love “mix” cassette was only the beginning. Over the next 35 years, I would produce 309 such mixes, getting progressively more sophisticated both in terms of technology (a series of beloved Walkman portable cassette players, Dolby noise reduction, high-end turntables, CD burners, digital CD burning, downloads) and the ordering of tracks (tracks should have a clean musical “flow,” no back-to-back tracks by the same artist except on rare occasions, alternating “new” tracks with “reruns”).

Originally, mixes were a mish-mash of tracks from my personal collection, LPs and cassettes borrowed from friends and relatives, and songs taped off of the radio (or, for a handful of “video” mixes, off of MTV or VH1). I spent countless hours in the summer of 1985, my first summer home from Yale, flipping back and forth between radio stations, creating Summer ’85 Vol I-VIII.

That fall, I began to abandon the piecemeal nomenclature, as I christened an October 1985 mix cassette Stuff and Such Vol I. With few exceptions, every mix cassette from then through the May 2003 Stuff and Such Vol LXXXIX followed that naming convention. In August 2003, with the bluntly-titled CD Stuff Vol I, I abandoned cassettes entirely.

Over time, mixes shifted from primarily “one-off” creations (recording new favorite songs to play on my Walkman, filling in the rest of the cassette with old favorites) to carefully-planned multi-cassette productions, following my own evolving set of rules, specifically intended to be played on vacations or other long car drives. By 2005, I had permanently switched to creating playlists on my computer and rapidly burning those onto a CD; this meant that rather than being limited by time to at most four cassettes, I could create and burn as many as 12 CDs at one go. And by 2014, I had abandoned CDs entirely in favor of simply creating iPod playlists (each corresponding to a CD, as I liked to alternate “rocking” with “mellow” CDs) I could play in my car through a cassette adapter.

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When I graduated from high school in 1984, one of my two yearbook quotes was this line from “Reelin’ in the Years:”

The things that pass for knowledge/I can’t understand

When I arrived at Yale that fall, among the dozens of LPs and 45 RPM records I brought with me were the three Steely Dan albums listed above, as well as the “Hey Nineteen/Bodhisattva (live)” single. Thus, I could record the tracks that open Side 1 of Can’t Buy a Thrill (“Do It Again,” “Dirty Work,” “Kings”) onto Yet More Good Stuff Vol I in January 1985. Among the tracks I taped off the radio for Summer ’85 Vol I-VIII were “FM (No Static At All)” and “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number.”

When I moved from Philadelphia to Boston in September 1989 to attend my first doctoral program (the one I left ABD after six years), I already had created 56 mix cassettes containing 919 unique tracks covering 1,121 total “slots.” The six Steely Dan tracks, each occupying only one slot, accounted for 0.7% of all tracks and 0.5% of all slots[1]. Those six tracks put Steely Dan in a 10-way tie for 32nd and those six occupied slots put them in a six-way tie for 44th, and were far above the overall artist averages of 2.6 tracks and 3.2 slots. Thus, when you only look at the number of tracks finding their way on to a mix cassette, Steely Dan was already one of my 40 or 50 favorite artists. Throw in the three LPs and one single, and they may well have been ranked even higher.

Early in 1990, I bought my first CD player, which meant I needed to start acquiring CDs. So I joined Columbia House (or was it BMG Music?), and I received my 11 or 12 CDs for one cent (plus shipping and handling). I do not recall which CD I was later required to buy at a 200+% markup.

One of those CDs was the compilation A Decade of Steely Dan. Interestingly, when I next recorded a Steely Dan track onto a mix cassette (Stuff and Such Vol XVI; April 1990) it was not from that CD. Rather, it was “Josie” from my vinyl copy of Aja.

And that was it for the next nine years in terms of Steely Dan. I would play Decade from time to time, but Steely Dan somewhat faded into the background for me as I spent most of my time listening to Boston’s pioneering alternative station WFNX (101.7 FM) before abandoning listening to music on the radio altogether around 1997.

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In January 1993, I began to muse on what my favorite songs, albums and artists were, and I realized that I had a seemingly straightforward quantitative way to answer the question: tally up all of the times a track had appeared on a mix cassette.

The logic was simple. The more I liked a track, the more times I would have recorded it onto a mix cassette. And the more tracks from an album I had recorded onto a mix cassette, and the more slots those tracks occupied, the more I liked the album. And the more tracks appearing, and slots occupied, by an artist, coupled with the number of albums I owned by that artist, the more I liked that artist.

Voila!

The reality was not quite that simple, but I spent a very entertaining week or two compiling a list of every track appearing on each mix cassette (starting with the Boston Drive mixes, as I had not bothered to bring the previous 56 mix cassettes to Boston with me[2])

The end product was a list of my 100 favorite tracks; a corresponding Top 50 albums and Top 75 artists no longer survives.

However, here is where Steely Dan ranked throughout the 1990s, as this became an annual project:

  • #51 in January 1994 (favorite track “Josie”, favorite album Aja)
  • #50 in Summer 1995 (favorite track “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number)
  • #58 in Summer 1996 (favorite track “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number)
  • #42 in Summer 1999 (favorite track “Kings,” favorite album Can’t Buy a Thrill)

In August 1997, I treated myself to a brand new Panasonic turntable, and I began to rediscover my vinyl. One album I pulled out was that copy of Katy Lied my mother had bought 20 years earlier.

I know this because in March 1999, “Doctor Wu,” the last track on Side 1, became the first new Steely Dan track to appear on a cassette mix (Stuff and Such Vol LXVI) in nearly nine years. While I no longer have copies of the charts, I recall that in 2000, “Doctor Wu” became the first Steely Dan track ever to crack my Top 100, somewhere around 85 or so.

I must have continued to play that album side often, because the next new Steely Dan track to appear on a mix was its third track, “Rose Darling” (Stuff and Such Vol LXXXVIII; May 2003).

That fall, inspired by a recent VH1 “Steely Dan Storytellers” performance, I purchased a CD copy of The Royal Scam, my first new Steely Dan record in more than 13 years. In November 2003, “Don’t Take Me Alive” and “Kid Charlemagne” appeared on CD Stuff Vol IV and Vol V, respectively. “The Royal Scam” then appeared on CD Stuff Vol VII in April 2004.

Meanwhile, in late December 2003, having purchased a powerful new computer complete with the latest copies of Microsoft Excel and SPSS (my preferred statistical software package), I embarked upon my most ambitious project yet to determine my favorite tracks, albums and artists. I gathered together the 54 of the original 56 mix cassettes I still had (or still had a record of) and set to work creating a brand new Excel workbook compiling every piece of information I had.

This is how I calculated that, in January 2005, Steely Dan was now my 18th favorite artist overall.

Over the next ten years, I would record an additional seven Steely Dan tracks on various CD mixes: “Black Friday” (March 2006), “Time Out of Mind” (April 2008), “Deacon Blues” and “Hey Nineteen” (December 2008), “Peg” (June 2012), and “Aja” and “Midnite Cruiser” (May 2014).

As of August 206, there were 19 Steely Dan tracks (0.6% of ~3,380[3]) occupying 33 slots (0.5% of 6,338) across the 309 mix cassettes, videos and CDs, well above the artist averages of 3.5 tracks and 6.5 slots. In fact, Steely Dan is in a four-way tie for 16th in tracks and in a three-way tie for 19th in slots.

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Since 2005, I have not performed a complete analysis of my favorite tracks, albums and artists, mostly due to a lack of time to regularly update the Excel workbook.

However, there is a quick and dirty way to assess how much I like Steely Dan, relative to other artists, based on the data I do have entered: multiply each artist’s number of mix cassette/video/CD tracks or slots by the number of albums I own by that artist.

A quick word about owning “albums.” A few years ago, I “cleaned” my iTunes data by obtaining, for each track (n=9,500, as of this post), its correct title, the studio album (or single) on which it was released (as well as an image and number of tracks), its position on that album, its year of release, and its “genre.”

For example, having just purchased from iTunes the four tracks on Gaucho I had not already owned, I now own five complete Steely Dan studio albums. I also own two tracks each from Countdown to Ecstasy and Pretzel Logic, as well as the FM title track and the live recording of “Bodhisattva.” That makes an additional six tracks. If we assume that a typical album has 10 tracks that would be an additional 6/10, or 0.6, albums. That means that I “own” 5.6 Steely Dan albums.

Multiplying 19 by 5.6 yields 106.4, which ranks 14th overall, making Steely Dan one of only 15 artists to crack 100 (Genesis, at 2735.4, laps the field). Similarly, multiplying 33 by 5.6 yields 184.8, which ranks 19th overall.

By a variety of measures, then, Steely Dan still ranks somewhere among my top 20 artists.

And that ranking might improve slightly when I next compile lists of my favorite tracks, albums and artists.

Of the 39,499 total track “plays” on iTunes (or my iPod) since I bought my current computer in January 2013, 492 were by a Steely Dan track (n=49). This ranks 4th overall, behind only Genesis, Miles Davis and Stan Ridgway, my top three artists overall. And while all 9,500 tracks have been played an average 4.2 times over this period, the average Steely Dan track has been played 10.0 times, which ranks 11th (among the 327 artists with 10 or more tracks).

This surge in plays is led by five tracks among my 300 most played: “Doctor Wu” (20 plays, tied for #236), “Midnite Cruiser” (29, tied for #93), “Aja” (35, tied for #55), “Hey Nineteen” (48, tied for #26) and “Deacon Blues” (53, #20).

Basically, the more Steely Dan I play, the more I love Steely Dan.

Rest in peace, Mr. Becker.

Until next time…

[1] From these mixes I created a six-cassette “best-of” collection of 136 tracks (including nine “new” tracks) called Boston Drive Vol I-VI. The only Steely Dan song to make the cut was “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number.”

[2] I relied on my memory to give an album credit for any listed tracks appearing on those original 56 mix cassettes that had not either appeared on Boston Drive or been recorded on a subsequent mix cassette.

[3] I have not yet completed the data entry for the 150 tracks appearing on eight CDs I created in August 2016. However, I estimate that 75 of the 150 tracks are “new.”

One thought on “How do I love Steely Dan? Let me count…a whole lot of stuff and such.

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