Opinion | The Wondrous Mysteries of Steely Dan

A new book has taught me that I don’t mind a lack of clarity as much as I often suppose.

It’s the weird and wondrous “Quantum Criminals: Ramblers, Wild Gamblers and Other Sole Survivors From the Songs of Steely Dan,” an upcoming book by Alex Pappademas with illustrations by Joan LeMay, published by the University of Texas Press. I’ve been a Steely Dan fan since college. They have always been, and always will be, my go-to band when I want to hear something harmonically delicious, rhythmically mesmerizing and smart.

But damned if I have known what a lot of their lyrics mean, and that constant perplexity is in fact part of the charm of Steely Dan. Not always knowing quite what a song is referring to lends a sense of wonder, even edge. For patness, we go to something deathlessly perfect in its own way, like Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” — no mystery there. There’s more going on in another song that gets people moving in the same way, Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September”: In such an upbeat song, why that autumnal and even pensive month?

In that case, the answer is probably just that “September” happens to rhyme with “remember.” But Steely Dan, as often as not, simply leaves us hanging. In “Quantum Criminals,” we learn that this is deliberate, with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker sometimes taking a page from the science fiction writer A.E. van Vogt. The author cherished constantly inserting what he called “hang-ups” into his prose, references with no explanation, designed to summon readers’ imaginations, in ways that would presumably evolve with the passage of time.

The Steely Dan classic “Deacon Blues” declares this the age of the “expanding man” — a line that has always itself been a tad quizzical. But in that spirit, “Quantum Criminals” has expanded me in forcing me to seek consistency in my tolerance of opacity.

I don’t always succeed. It strikes me as deeply weird and contingent, for example, that it is normal to sit through hourslong opera performances in a language other than one’s own, and supertitles only help a little. Yes, some operas are less susceptible to translation than others. But I suspect that if we rolled the dice again and almost all operas were performed in America in English, very few people would wish that we could instead hear them in their original languages. (Do any fans of “The Threepenny Opera” and its breakout song, “Mack the Knife,” pine for the original German?)

I also feel that some of the especially opaque passages in Shakespeare’s plays should be modestly adjusted to accommodate the fact that English has changed enough over the past 500 years that, too often, one can barely get even the gist of his meaning in live performance. (Reading the plays is a different matter.) For Shakespeare, “generous” meant “noble” — a fact that neither context nor good acting can get across. Onstage, I would sub in “noble,” just as I would use “precision” where Shakespeare uses “curiosity” and “authority” where Shakespeare uses “faculties.”

Yet I am realizing that with Steely Dan I have always been of a different mind. In “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again,” where the song warmly beseeches “Oh Michael, oh Jesus / You know I’m not to blame,” Michael and Jesus are what van Vogt would call hang-ups — they are not specific references. I’ve always found that moment in the lyric pleasantly and passingly earnest, and that’s about it. And it has never bothered me. Nor has the song’s cryptic counsel to “turn the light off, keep your shirt on.”

The sour little rant “Through With Buzz” never specifies who this Buzz is; he has apparently taken the protagonist’s girlfriend. It’s fun in the book that LeMay gives us a painting of “Buzz,” which seems to nail him, more or less, but then so many other renditions could as well. (I didn’t think of him as middle-aged!) The weirdness of the song compounds in that it runs only a minute and a half and is accompanied by a string ensemble à la Eleanor Rigby. The book also teaches us that the protagonist of “Kid Charlemagne” is the sound engineer and drug cooker Owsley Stanley III, who pops up in Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” The famous line in the song, “Is there gas in the car? / Yes, there’s gas in the car,” refers to Stanley often being on the run from the law.

“Quantum Criminals” fairly drips with information like this, and I have drunk it in eagerly — while being surprised by how little I have minded not knowing it. And, in some ways, almost not wanting to know it. The obscurity becomes a kind of poetry, perhaps in the sense that many intend when they say they process Shakespeare less word for word than for a more general sense of beauty and allusion.

We fully comprehend, after all, much less of what we even say ourselves than we might think. We bear the brunt, but do you have any idea what a “brunt” is? You can leave someone in the lurch — but try drawing me a picture of a “lurch.” Many of us go fuzzy inside remembering “The Catcher in the Rye.” But I openly admit that I had long forgotten (until I just looked it up) that the title refers to someone in “the rye” protecting children from danger. I just knew that the title’s sequence of syllables sounds pleasingly like poetry and nature and perhaps rye bread, and also reminds me of being 16 years old.

The writing in “Quantum Criminals” is often arresting and always engaging pop-music journalism, worthy of a nightly sampling of a song or two at a time. “Babylon Sisters” is “an oppressive marvel — a hot, still room of a song, as dense with foreboding as it is with tricky harmony.” This perfectly captures that grim, sticky prowl of a song. Another dead-on passage notes that if we put a recording on a deep-space probe that meant “We were a species that despite our failings and frailties managed to create smooth yet sarcastic jazz-inflected rock music loaded with obscure cultural references and a pervasive sense of nostalgic/escapist yearning,” then “we can and should explain Steely Dan to the star-children with one song and one song only, and that song is ‘Deacon Blues.’” Legions of Steely Dan fans would agree: I entered this chapter waiting for an especially elegiac tribute to that very song, and the authors did not disappoint.

But overall, “Quantum Criminals” is a reminder that one can be massively fulfilled by language one doesn’t fully comprehend. I can’t wrangle it with operas and Shakespeare plays — yet, at least. But there are times when you just let the brunts and lurches and rye-catchers flow by, and it’s part of what makes art, and life, wonderful.

John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

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