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June 22, 2018

Barney Hoskyns' Playlist for His Book "Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Companion"

Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Companion

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Companion collects interviews with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker along with commentary about the band and reviews of its albums. Barney Hoskyns has curated a collection of journalism that serves as a Steely Dan biography when taken as a whole.

The Brooklyn Rail wrote of the book:

"Hoskyns has judiciously gathered a lot of perceptive thinking, especially admirable because of how unmusical most rock critics are and how complex the Dan’s music is."


In his own words, here is Barney Hoskyns' Book Notes music playlist for his book Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Companion:



For Major Dudes Only: The Rock Snob's Steely Dan

I've eschewed the no-brainers ("Do It Again," "Dirty Work," "Reelin' in the Years," "My Old School," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," "Kid Charlemagne," "Aja," "Peg") and instead gone for the true connoisseur's choices – or, more simply, the Dan classics I happen to love the most.

It will surprise some that it's so Gaucho-heavy, but I've always maintained it's close to being their best album (read the late Ian MacDonald's brilliant analysis in Major Dudes if you disagree). And yes, I've even found room for a track, "Bad Sneakers," from the deeply unloved Katy Lied.

1 "Kings" (Can't Buy A Thrill)
Third track on the Dan's remarkable first album, "Kings" is a trenchant and tightly funky dissection of political/monarchical power, piano-based and sung in Donald Fagen's uniquely droll sneer of a voice, joined by the sassily soulful L.A. trio of Clydie King, Venetta Fields, and Sherlie Matthews, aka the Blackberries. "While he plundered far and wide," Fagen and the 'berries sing of Good King Richard, "all his starving children cried…"

2 "Razor Boy" (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Here's Fagen in more wistful mode, with plaintive jazz chords (and Victor Feldman's vibes) serving as the platform for a cryptic song of reproach and warning ("when the razor boy comes and takes your fancy things away"). Though the second verse borders on the apocalyptic ("the coming is so close at hand"), the mood remains elegantly melancholic and even finds room for an exquisite "Skunk" Baxter pedal-steel solo.

3 "The Boston Rag" (Countdown to Ecstasy)
Hot on "Razor Boy"'s heels comes one of the Dan's most infectious anthems, a song that drops us seamlessly into the troubling world of "Lady Bayside" and "Lonnie the Kingpin" – Steely Dan's patented demi-monde of drug casualties and passé dance steps.

4 "Night By Night" (Pretzel Logic)
One of SD's funkiest pieces, "Night" starts like a '70s TV cop show, then struts over choppy clavinet and oozing horns as Fagen tells his story of hand-to-mouth street survival and the urgent need to cash in this "ten-cent life" of "jealousy and mayhem." Irresistible.

5 "Any Major Dude Will Tell You" (Pretzel Logic)
One of the last times we hear an acoustic guitar on a Steely Dan record, the slinky song of reassurance that bequeaths its name to our Dan companion kicks off deceptively like the Eagles. But Frey and Henley never wrote words like "You tell me your superfine mind has come undone" or "Have you ever seen a squonk's tears? Well, look at mine."

6 "Bad Sneakers" (Katy Lied)
Katy Lied may not be greatly loved – and may have been sonically screwed up by a technical cock-up – but it still boasts delightful songs like this vignette about a chump in trouble who wants to go home to New York City from L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. "Sneakers" is also the first time we hear the auxiliary vocal tones of Michael McDonald on a Dan album.

7 "The Royal Scam" (The Royal Scam)
One of Becker and Fagen's most powerful statements of struggle and injustice, the last (and title) track of their 1976 masterpiece is as ominous as it is indignant, pivoting on the on-beat of its thumping funk groove as Fagen bewails the fate of Puerto Rican immigrants "hounded down/to the bottom of a bad town."

8 "Black Cow" (Aja)
The audiophile's album of choice was kicked off by the sparse funk of this epic plaint about a faithless femme fatale in Manhattan, sung by the dupe "who must make everything right" when she "staggers homeward." The playing by the arsenal of session maestros (Larry Carlton, Chuck Rainey, Vic Feldman again) is exceptional, and the anguish of Fagen's protagonist all too real.

9 "Home At Last" (Aja)
By contrast to "Black Cow," this reboot of Homeric wandering is suffused by longing and the tantalizing possibility of arrival at a homeland that's just out of reach. Drummer "Pretty" Purdie anchors the track, while guitarist Carlton offers one of his trademark, curlingly acute solos. And yes, that's still the Blackberries backing Fagen up on those pining vocal lines.

10 "Babylon Sisters" (Gaucho)
If Aja hinted at Californian decadence, the sometimes-maligned Gaucho reveled in it. Picking up where "Black Cow" left off, "Sisters" was the slickest Dan track yet. Cerebral funk about the beautiful people of Malibu – the "show folk on the sand" – the six-minute classic encapsulates the miasmic glamor of L.A. life at the tail-end of its most debauched decade.

11 "Hey Nineteen" (Gaucho)
Rather more playful than "Sisters," Gaucho's second track was also its first (hit) single. It's the song of a wealthy Scarsdale playboy attempting – with the aid of "Cuervo Gold and fine Colombian" – to charm a 19-year-old female blissfully ignorant of who Aretha Franklin was. Simultaneously funky, funny, and ever-so-slightly pathetic.

12 "Gaucho" (Gaucho)
Possibly Becker and Fagen's greatest song, Gaucho's title track is the smoothly glossy but heartbreaking song of a wealthy gay man whose lover – a "nasty schoolboy with no place to go" – is canoodling with a "man from Rio." Over elegant piano chords (Steinway and Wurlitzer), Fagen's slowly unfurling vocal lines detail the abject humiliation of the sugar daddy who watches the rival in the "spangled leather poncho" he's borrowed from the boyfriend. Immaculate.


Barney Hoskyns and Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Companion links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Brooklyn Rail review
Houston Chronicle review

Largehearted Boy playlist by the author for Joni: The Anthology
Largehearted Boy playlist by the author for Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock


also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
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Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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