Illustrations by Joan LeMay/Courtesy of the College of Texas Press
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Steely Dan is a paradox. As author Alex Pappademas places it, it is a “cult band whose catalog … contains a minimum of a dozen enduring radio hits” — two guys who regularly discovered a solution to “embed blue-ribbon misanthropy in music designed to go down as clean as creme de menthe.” And like many nice paradoxes, there’s extra to study in regards to the band the longer you spend contemplating it. That is true even when you solely know a couple of of these enduring hits. You may acknowledge the refrain of “Soiled Work,” for instance — however do you know that the person singing lead vocals on that monitor, David Palmer, as soon as performed a highschool present alongside The Velvet Underground — its first beneath that identify? Do you know that “Rikki Do not Lose That Quantity” was written for the spouse of a school member at Bard School, the place Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen studied? Or that one in every of MF Doom’s earliest solo tracks samples the opening music on Aja?
Within the new ebook Quantum Criminals, Pappademas and artist Joan LeMay give a roadmap to the Steely Dan prolonged universe via the lens of the characters on the coronary heart of the band’s songs. Alongside Pappademas’ explorations, LeMay’s work render touching portraits of Steely Dan’s influences and inheritors, and speculative illustrations of the personalities who populate its world. Their ebook uncovers the huge constellation of lyrical references, inventive influences and social and political contexts surrounding the band and its music. On this interview, Pappademas and LeMay answered a couple of questions on their private histories with Steely Dan and the way Quantum Criminals got here to be.
This interview has been edited for size and readability.
Marissa Lorusso: In one of many ebook’s opening chapters, Alex particulars his evolving relationship with Steely Dan’s music, from delicate distaste to considerably ironic engagement to honest appreciation — a path he says has been adopted by many Millennial and Gen Z followers. Joan, what is the story of your relationship with Steely Dan — did your fandom observe an identical street?
Joan LeMay: Listening to Steely Dan is, sincere to God, my first musical reminiscence. Rising up, my dad and mom had a really restricted report assortment — a stack about 5 inches large or so. In it was your complete Steely Dan discography (later to incorporate [Donald Fagen’s solo debut] The Nightfly; no different Fagen solo data nor any Becker data made the minimize), plus a number of Linda Ronstadt, a few James Taylor data, The Better of the Doobie Brothers Vol. II, Carole King’s Tapestry and Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick. At 2 years previous, I used to be what one would name a tall child. I’d attain for issues. And I might get ’em, too. I clearly keep in mind the day I used to be capable of attain the turntable, my tiny arms at full stretch above my head, and heft an LP upon it till the peg snapped into the opening. That LP was Cannot Purchase A Thrill. I appreciated it probably the most out of all of my dad and mom’ data due to the colours on the quilt. I plopped down on our diarrhea-brown shag carpet and was happy. It appears unlikely that I’d keep in mind this so clearly, however I used to be studying the newspaper at that age — I peaked early.
How did you determine to strategy a ebook about Steely Dan this fashion? Why inform the story of the band via the lens of those characters — and what impressed each of you to strategy this challenge as an illustrated/written collaboration?
LeMay: In 2020, I acquired again into the apply of constructing fanzines. I made two problems with a zine known as Mug Membership — I requested individuals within the arts to ship me a photograph of their favourite mug and inform me a narrative about it, and I might paint the mug. The work and tales have been a solution to explode the banal/micro into the chic/macro and function a connective artistic challenge within the midst of lockdown. After these, I began making a fanzine known as Danzine whereby I deliberate to color all 240-something characters within the Steely Dan universe. I acquired so far as drawing the quilt, making a personality spreadsheet, doing a couple of sketches and posting about it on Instagram, partially as a solution to preserve myself accountable for making the factor.
Esteemed author/director Jessica Hopper, one of many editors of the College of Texas Press American Music Collection and this ebook’s doula, texted me and mentioned “Joanie? That is not a fanzine. That is a ebook.” Earlier than I posted my factor, she had been speaking with Alex about what sort of ebook he may like to put in writing for the press and he’d responded by pitching a ebook that was “Bluets, however Steely Dan” … and he or she put us collectively.
Alex Pappademas: Bluets is a set of quick items by the unimaginable poet and nonfiction author Maggie Nelson that stroll the road between autobiography and criticism and prose poetry. I had been studying plenty of Nelson and different nonfiction writers who work in a very pared-down, aphoristic mode and when Jessica and I began speaking about me doing a Steely Dan ebook for UT, I mentioned I wished to do one thing actually piece-y and fragmentary like that. I do not know that there was any particular Steely Dan-related purpose I wished to do it that approach; I simply appreciated the concept of writing these micro-essays the place every one could be its personal considered Steely Dan and their music and their place in popular culture/American tradition, and themes would construct and accumulate the best way they do in Nelson’s work, or Jenny Offill’s or a few of David Shields’s stuff. By the point Jessica roped Joan into this challenge, I had a top level view for what would have been a Bluets model of this ebook, however plenty of it was fairly sketchy — like, “Chevy Chase” could be a line merchandise on the define, or “Dan and Race” or “Perfectionism.” I mulched on this for simply over a yr, on and off, earlier than Joan even engaged. After which we did not get to the proposal till September 2020 — deep COVID occasions. Ebook was completed virtually precisely one yr from that date, however I might say a lot of the writing took about seven months.
As soon as we merged the concept for Bluets-but-Steely Dan with Joan’s thought to color all of the characters, it necessitated a change in my strategy; as an alternative of constructing a deck of playing cards and making an attempt to assemble them right into a narrative it was about seeing how a lot you would dangle on the concept of a person Steely Dan character and the way to use these characters to border tales that illuminated Steely Dan’s legacy in some attention-grabbing approach.
The chapters on this ebook give such deep research of the personalities who populate Steely Dan’s songs (and, by extension, of the musicians who introduced them to life). Did your relationship with any of those songs change whereas writing about them, illustrating them, or in any other case getting contained in the heads of those characters? Did you study something in regards to the songs that genuinely stunned you whereas engaged on this challenge?
LeMay: I discovered a lot. On our weekly calls, Alex at all times excitedly ushered me into the doorway of a number of wormholes he’d been traversing, and it was a relentless delight. Pondering deeply about what these characters have been sporting, what they may’ve been doing within the narrative past the narrative, eager about their setting, how they held their faces, how they held their our bodies — it was an immersive solution to hear. I might had concepts in my head about so most of the characters as a result of I are inclined to assume visually, however there have been a number of unbelievable surprises, like once we dug into Cathy Berberian, as an illustration. I might by no means regarded up what she regarded like earlier than.
Pappademas: I believe what stunned me probably the most as I dug deeper into these songs was how a lot empathy Donald and Walter appeared to have for his or her characters. It is not one thing they’re normally given credit score for — the concept individuals have about them is that they are at all times snickering amongst themselves, making enjoyable of the individuals they write about, however I believe that is truly extra true of any individual like Randy Newman than it’s of Becker/Fagen. I believe there’s at all times an actual sense of humanity’s plight beneath no matter coldness or archness is extra simply detectable of their work on first blush — even when the individuals they’re writing about are doomed or deluded or wicked, you do not get the sense that they are judging these characters, more often than not. There’s an consideration paid to the human longing that motivates individuals to those bizarre actions they usually do not choose the longing, of, say, the man who’s hung up on a intercourse employee in “Pearl of the Quarter” — whereas Frank Zappa, given the identical storyline, would completely write about what a moron that man is.
Steely Dan’s lyrics are famously considerably cryptic, and Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have been fairly averse to having their lyrics learn as easy private narratives. It is clear that a lot analysis went into illuminating these songs, however there’s additionally a wholesome dose of artistic hypothesis, too, each in how the themes of the songs are described and the way they’re depicted.
LeMay: The one characters I painted that weren’t 100% artistic hypothesis (and actually, much less hypothesis and extra my private interpretation) have been these having to do with precise, residing individuals, like Cathy Berberian, Jill St. John and G. Gordon Liddy. I had a folder on my pc known as “DAN CASTING GALLERY” filled with pictures of individuals in my life, discovered images, ’60s and ’70s style catalogs, ads and stitching sample packaging. I painted from a melange of these pictures combined with issues that had been in my head perpetually, in addition to from a ton of images of my very own physique posing in several methods for reference. Crucial factor to me was getting the humanity — the profoundly flawed humanity — of those characters proper.
Pappademas: And it really works — I attempt to get throughout that humanity within the textual content, however having Joan populate this world with actual human faces made the completed product into one thing larger than I may have gotten to by myself.
Anyway, my reply to the query above is that once I’m writing criticism, for certain, but additionally once I’m writing reported items, I really feel like there’s at all times a component of artistic hypothesis in what I do. It is simply kind of constrained by details relying on what sort of piece it’s. Even when you’ve sat in a room with any individual for hours you are in the end imagining their interior life based mostly on what they’ve informed you, and generally on what they have not informed you. By way of Quantum Criminals, yeah, Steely Dan undoubtedly tried to discourage any try to learn these lyrics autobiographically — and the truth that all their lyrics have been composed by (or a minimum of credited to) two writers was their first line of protection in opposition to that type of studying, as a result of even once they’re writing within the first individual you are acutely aware that the “I” in each Dan music is to no matter diploma a fictional character and due to this fact a distancing system. However I believe it is human nature — or a minimum of it is my human nature — to intuit the alternative and search for locations the place the artwork appears to correspond to what we all know to be the contours of an artist’s life. As a result of the opposite factor about Steely Dan is that they appreciated to obfuscate; the truth that they hardly ever owned as much as their music having an autobiographical part (with sure exceptions, notably “Deacon Blues,” which they admitted was fairly private) doesn’t suggest it wasn’t autobiographical. And at occasions — as with “Gaucho,” a music a few duo torn aside by a 3rd get together who is perhaps the personification of medication or different types of hedonism, recorded for the album Donald made principally with out Walter as a result of Walter’s habit points had pulled him away from the band — the correspondences grew to become too tempting to not discover. Which is what occurs once you write cryptically; it is human nature to decrypt.
I do not know; I assume I am doing the identical factor Taylor Swift’s followers do once they determine that some opaque lyric is an Easter egg about this or that relationship of hers, or what A.J. Weberman was doing when he determined “The solar is not yellow, it is hen” was Bob Dylan confessing to faking his personal dying, or what the individuals who assume The Shining was Stanley Kubrick exorcizing his guilt over faking the moon touchdown. The distinction is that I believe I am proper and I believe these different persons are all nuts, as a result of I am in my bubble and might’t think about the view from theirs.
Lastly, what do you hope readers — be they longtime devotees, newly transformed followers or Steely Dan skeptics — take away from Quantum Criminals?
LeMay: I believe that in plenty of methods, this ebook might be learn as one thing that is in regards to the ridiculous cacophony of what it’s to be an individual on the earth, striving to do one thing you are proud of. In plenty of different methods, it’s a actual invitation to actually dive into what you like with reckless abandon — to dream about it arduous, to see and listen to and admire the small particulars and the large methods you are feeling because of giving your self the reward of paying consideration. I hope that readers come away from the ebook eager about all of the methods they’ve but to get pleasure from not simply Steely Dan, however something that strikes them.
Pappademas: I hope individuals come away from this ebook eager about how, regardless that perfectionism can undo you as an artist and any ebook about the way to make your artwork will let you know that again and again, there’s nonetheless one thing noble and helpful about aspiring to perfection — that there is magic within the falling-short but additionally within the reaching-for. I additionally hope these tales encourage younger individuals to say no to medicine.