During my mid-70s college days living in New Jersey, my ritual every Wednesday morning was to pick up a copy of the Village Voice on my way to school. This New York City alternative weekly that cost me 75 cents (I think) back then was more valuable than any of my textbooks. Although it was rare that I read an actual article in the Voice , the concert ads in its music pages provided exactly what I was looking for. Back then, this was often the first places where new show listings and ticket on-sale dates were posted. Discoveries there would make a Wednesday as exciting as a Christmas morning.
There was however one other thing tucked within the music pages of the Voice that always caught my attention. That was the short and sweet, and often comically cynical, record reviews by noted critic Robert Christgau. (Later published in the Christgau Record Guide.) This fascinating feature was nothing more than a rating system accompanied only by a clever sentence or two from its author. It’s biggest influence on me, however, was not a review of any particular record. What got my attention was my curiosity as to why Mr. Christgau compared records to Steely Dan more often than seemed to bear any logic whatsoever.
At this time, to me, Steely Dan was just a band that had a couple of catchy AM radio hits (“Do It Again” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number) who certainly hadn’t caught my fancy as a band that I needed to check out. However, all that changed in 1976, when about a year after its release, I took a chance at a local record shop on a cheap cut-out copy of their fourth LP, Katy Lied .
I had just started my first real job and was working hours where I got home early enough to take a pre- dinner nap before going out at night with my friends. My first listen to this record was during one of my planned sleep sessions in my bedroom at my parents’ house where I still lived. But I didn’t fall asleep during that first listen. And for several weeks thereafter, my fascination with this record had me listening to it every day after work. I soon began to realize that Christgau might be on to something.
After some touring in their early days, Steely Dan was now no longer a band but instead the working muse for the duo of Donald Fagan and Walter Becker. But one thing was for sure, on record they were somehow able to work with the best players in the business and the musicianship on their records was always top notch. Notable on Katy Lied were the first Dan appearance of the razor-sharp guitar of Larry Carlton on “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More,” Jeff Porcaro laying down the beat on drums, and the inimitable backing vocals of Michael McDonald, also making his Dan debut on this record. There was no mistaking Michael’s unique voice on the choruses of “Rose Darling.”
Playing aside, what really grabbed me on this record and turned me into a major Steely Dan fan were Fagan’s subdued yet inviting vocals and the bewildering and almost absurd lyrics. While Fagan and Becker were college mates at New York’s Bard College, they certainly didn’t look like the “big men on campus.” Let’s face it. They looked like two nerds who smoked pot all the time and only left their rooms to go get a pizza. But listening to their cryptically cool lyrics made you feel like you were being let into their hip world of cooldum. Even after I got to know every line of every song on Katy Lied , I had no idea what they were singing about. But I didn’t care. The imagination (Or was it inspiration?) behind the peculiar people, places and predicaments in these songs was remarkable.
Song after song, Katy Lied is a musical fantasy that develops in your mind with only the close-up photo of a katydid on the cover to guide you. In that respect, it isn’t much different from the other Steely Dan records. And that makes me ponder why for me this record, which failed to produce a hit single, stands out above the rest of their efforts. Was this influenced by the fact that this was my entry point to the Dan’s LPs?
This train of thought leads me to my fascination with the song, “Doctor Wu,” from which the album takes its title from one of its lines. It is a mysterious musical masterpiece that captured my imagination and ran like a screenplay through my mind. Who was Katy, who was this doctor, and what in the world were they up to? It was mystifyingly vague enough to create a different fantasy every time I heard it. Fagan’s fab vocals and the strong playing (including a great sax solo by Phil Woods) on the song were bonuses.
While “Katy” (as I like to call it) led the way, one thing that makes this LP great for me is that there seems to be something special on every cut. It could be music like the rolling guitar into on “Black Friday” that stirs your senses until it explodes into the chorus. Or it could be the lyrical nonsense that challenges your brain to make sense of things such as a song about “Bad Sneakers” or trying to figure out characters like Rose and Snake Mary in “Rose Darling.”
Lest we forget that It wouldn’t be a Steely Dan record if things didn’t get a little creepy, that brings us to the weird Mr. LaPage who we meet to the tune of the island-syncopated sound of “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” that kicks off side 2. I’ll quit here since there’s so much more that I can go on about these mysterious songs. I will leave those for you to discover.
Katy Lied is a record I just wouldn’t want to live without. It’s also rare for me in that it is one of those LPs that I always play by starting with side one, track one, and when it’s done, get up and turn it over to side two and play it to the end. It just begs to be played in its entirety.
OK, I too have lied. I have been tempted listened to “Doctor Wu” on its own, and in fact, that’s what I’m gonna go do right now!
All night long
We would sing that stupid song
And every word we sang
I knew was true