The eternal paradox, and 'Quantum Criminals,' of Steely Dan
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Steely Dan is a paradox. As writer Alex Pappademas puts it, it's a "cult band whose catalog ... includes at least a dozen enduring radio hits" — two guys who continually found a way to "embed blue-ribbon misanthropy in music designed to go down as smooth as creme de menthe." And like many great paradoxes, there's more to learn about the band the longer you spend considering it. This is true even if you only know a few of those enduring hits. You might recognize the chorus of "Dirty Work," for example — but did you know that the man singing lead vocals on that track, David Palmer, once played a high school show alongside The Velvet Underground — its first under that name? Did you know that "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" was written for the wife of a faculty member at Bard College, where Steely Dan's Walter Becker and Donald Fagen studied? Or that one of MF Doom's earliest solo tracks samples the opening song on Aja?
In the new book Quantum Criminals, Pappademas and artist Joan LeMay give a roadmap to the Steely Dan extended universe through the lens of the characters at the heart of the band's songs. Alongside Pappademas' explorations, LeMay's paintings render touching portraits of Steely Dan's influences and inheritors, and speculative illustrations of the personalities who populate its world. Their book uncovers the vast constellation of lyrical references, artistic influences and social and political contexts surrounding the band and its music. In this interview, Pappademas and LeMay answered a few questions about their personal histories with Steely Dan and how Quantum Criminals came to be.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Marissa Lorusso: In one of the book's opening chapters, Alex details his evolving relationship with Steely Dan's music, from mild distaste to somewhat ironic engagement to sincere appreciation — a path he says has been followed by many Millennial and Gen Z fans. Joan, what's the story of your relationship with Steely Dan — did your fandom follow a similar road?
Joan LeMay: Listening to Steely Dan is, honest to God, my first musical memory. Growing up, my parents had a very limited record collection — a stack about five inches wide or so. In it was the entire Steely Dan discography (later to include [Donald Fagen's solo debut] The Nightfly; no other Fagen solo records nor any Becker records made the cut), plus lots of Linda Ronstadt, a couple of James Taylor records, The Best of the Doobie Brothers Vol. II, Carole King's Tapestry and Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick. At 2 years old, I was what one would call a tall baby. I would reach for things. And I'd get 'em, too. I clearly remember the day I was able to reach the turntable, my tiny arms at full stretch above my head, and heft an LP upon it until the peg snapped into the hole. That LP was Can't Buy A Thrill. I liked it the most out of all of my parents' records because of the colors on the cover. I plopped down on our diarrhea-brown shag carpet and was pleased. It seems unlikely that I would remember this so clearly, but I was reading the newspaper at that age — I peaked early.
How did you decide to approach a book about Steely Dan this way? Why tell the story of the band through the lens of these characters — and what inspired both of you to approach this project as an illustrated/written collaboration?
LeMay: In 2020, I got back into the practice of making fanzines. I made two issues of a zine called Mug Club — I asked people in the arts to send me a photo of their favorite mug and tell me a story about it, and I'd paint the mug. The paintings and stories were a way to explode the banal/micro into the sublime/macro and serve as a connective creative project in the midst of lockdown. After those, I started making a fanzine called Danzine wherein I planned to paint all 240-something characters in the Steely Dan universe. I got as far as drawing the cover, making a character spreadsheet, doing a few sketches and posting about it on Instagram, partially as a way to keep myself accountable for making the thing.
Esteemed writer/director Jessica Hopper, one of the editors of the University of Texas Press American Music Series and this book's doula, texted me and said "Joanie? That's not a fanzine. That's a book." Before I posted my thing, she had been talking with Alex about what kind of book he might like to write for the press and he'd responded by pitching a book that was "Bluets, but Steely Dan" ... and she put us together.
Alex Pappademas: Bluets is a collection of short pieces by the incredible poet and nonfiction writer Maggie Nelson that walk the line between autobiography and criticism and prose poetry. I had been reading a lot of Nelson and other nonfiction writers who work in a really pared-down, aphoristic mode and when Jessica and I started talking about me doing a Steely Dan book for UT, I said I wanted to do something really piece-y and fragmentary like that. I don't know that there was any specific Steely Dan-related reason I wanted to do it that way; I just liked the idea of writing these micro-essays where each one would be its own thought about Steely Dan and their music and their place in pop culture/American culture, and themes would build and accumulate the way they do in Nelson's work, or Jenny Offill's or some of David Shields's stuff. By the time Jessica roped Joan into this project, I had an outline for what would have been a Bluets version of this book, but a lot of it was pretty sketchy — like, "Chevy Chase" would be a line item on the outline, or "Dan and Race" or "Perfectionism." I mulched on this for just over a year, on and off, before Joan even engaged. And then we didn't get to the proposal until September 2020 — deep COVID times. Book was done almost exactly one year from that date, but I'd say most of the writing took about seven months.
Once we merged the idea for Bluets-but-Steely Dan with Joan's idea to paint all the characters, it necessitated a change in my approach; instead of making a deck of cards and trying to assemble them into a narrative it was about seeing how much you could hang on the idea of an individual Steely Dan character and how to use those characters to frame stories that illuminated Steely Dan's legacy in some interesting way.
The chapters in this book give such deep studies of the personalities who populate Steely Dan's songs (and, by extension, of the musicians who brought them to life). Did your relationship with any of these songs change while writing about them, illustrating them, or otherwise getting inside the heads of these characters? Did you learn anything about the songs that genuinely surprised you while working on this project?
LeMay: I learned so much. On our weekly calls, Alex always excitedly ushered me into the entrance of several wormholes he'd been traversing, and it was a constant delight. Thinking deeply about what these characters were wearing, what they might've been doing in the narrative beyond the narrative, thinking about their environment, how they held their faces, how they held their bodies — it was an immersive way to listen. I'd had ideas in my head about so many of the characters because I tend to think visually, but there were lots of fantastic surprises, like when we dug into Cathy Berberian, for instance. I'd never looked up what she looked like before.
Pappademas: I think what surprised me the most as I dug deeper into these songs was how much empathy Donald and Walter seemed to have for their characters. It's not something they're usually given credit for — the idea people have about them is that they're always snickering amongst themselves, making fun of the people they write about, but I think that's actually more true of somebody like Randy Newman than it is of Becker/Fagen. I think there's always a real sense of humanity's plight underneath whatever coldness or archness is more easily detectable in their work on first blush — even when the people they're writing about are doomed or deluded or depraved, you don't get the sense that they're judging these characters, most of the time. There's an attention paid to the human longing that motivates people to these weird actions and they don't judge the longing, of, say, the guy who's hung up on a sex worker in "Pearl of the Quarter" — whereas Frank Zappa, given the same storyline, would absolutely write about what a moron that guy is.
Steely Dan's lyrics are famously somewhat cryptic, and Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were quite averse to having their lyrics read as straightforward personal narratives. It's clear that so much research went into illuminating these songs, but there's also a healthy dose of creative speculation, too, both in how the subjects of the songs are described and how they're depicted.
LeMay: The only characters I painted that weren't 100% creative speculation (and really, less speculation and more my personal interpretation) were those having to do with actual, living people, like Cathy Berberian, Jill St. John and G. Gordon Liddy. I had a folder on my computer called "DAN CASTING GALLERY" full of images of people in my life, found photos, '60s and '70s fashion catalogs, advertisements and sewing pattern packaging. I painted from a melange of those images mixed with things that had been in my head forever, as well as from a ton of photos of my own body posing in different ways for reference. The most important thing to me was getting the humanity — the profoundly flawed humanity — of these characters right.
Pappademas: And it works — I try to get across that humanity in the text, but having Joan populate this world with real human faces made the finished product into something greater than I could have gotten to on my own.
Anyway, my answer to the question above is that when I'm writing criticism, for sure, but also when I'm writing reported pieces, I feel like there's always an element of creative speculation in what I do. It's just more or less constrained by facts depending on what kind of piece it is. Even if you've sat in a room with somebody for hours you're ultimately imagining their inner life based on what they've told you, and sometimes on what they haven't told you. In terms of Quantum Criminals, yeah, Steely Dan definitely tried to discourage any attempt to read these lyrics autobiographically — and the fact that all their lyrics were composed by (or at least credited to) two writers was their first line of defense against that kind of reading, because even when they're writing in the first person you're conscious that the "I" in every Dan song is to whatever degree a fictional character and therefore a distancing device. But I think it's human nature — or at least it's my human nature — to intuit the opposite and look for places where the art seems to correspond to what we know to be the contours of an artist's life. Because the other thing about Steely Dan is they liked to obfuscate; the fact that they rarely owned up to their music having an autobiographical component (with certain exceptions, notably "Deacon Blues," which they admitted was pretty personal) doesn't mean it wasn't autobiographical. And at times — as with "Gaucho," a song about a duo torn apart by a third party who might be the personification of drugs or other forms of hedonism, recorded for the album Donald made mostly without Walter because Walter's addiction issues had pulled him away from the band — the correspondences became too tempting to not explore. Which is what happens when you write cryptically; it's human nature to decrypt.
I don't know; I guess I'm doing the same thing Taylor Swift's fans do when they decide that some opaque lyric is an Easter egg about this or that relationship of hers, or what A.J. Weberman was doing when he decided "The sun isn't yellow, it's chicken" was Bob Dylan confessing to faking his own death, or what the people who think The Shining was Stanley Kubrick exorcizing his guilt over faking the moon landing. The difference is that I think I'm right and I think those other people are all nuts, because I'm in my bubble and can't imagine the view from theirs.
Finally, what do you hope readers — be they longtime devotees, newly converted fans or Steely Dan skeptics — take away from Quantum Criminals?
LeMay: I think that in a lot of ways, this book can be read as something that's about the ridiculous cacophony of what it is to be a person in the world, striving to do something you're happy with. In a lot of other ways, it is a real invitation to truly dive into what you love with reckless abandon — to dream about it hard, to see and hear and appreciate the small details and the big ways you feel as a result of giving yourself the gift of paying attention. I hope that readers come away from the book thinking about all the ways they have yet to enjoy not just Steely Dan, but anything that moves them.
Pappademas: I hope people come away from this book thinking about how, even though perfectionism can undo you as an artist and any book about how to make your art will tell you that over and over, there's still something noble and useful about aspiring to perfection — that there's magic in the falling-short but also in the reaching-for. I also hope these stories inspire young people to say no to drugs.
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