When I was a sophomore in college, a few friends and I moved into an off-campus house that was everything an off-campus college house should be: decrepit, moldy, almost comically uncared for. Among many small, revolting incidents that took place, there was an evening in which I sat, sober and alone, reading a book in the dingy living room — only to be interrupted when maggots began to drop from the ceiling like windblown mulberries. A stray, worm-eaten cat that we named Skeevy often moseyed through our front door to scavenge through our garbage in search of tuna cans. I once watched a roommate drop a piece of toast, butter-side down, on the kitchen floor. He then picked up the bread and, without a second thought, smeared the butter into the linoleum with his sock.
Yes, those were the salad days. One of my fellow dirtbags and I shared a bunkbed in the house’s unfinished basement that was freezing in the winter and slug-ridden in the summer. But we were proud of our little dungeon, and we decorated it in typical collegiate fashion: faded tapestries, a wire-spool table, posters of Mick Jagger and M.C. Escher and Michael Jordan. Dixie cups filled with fermenting tobacco spit sat on seemingly every surface, and hardly a day went by without one being knocked onto the floor.
I describe this scene not to dredge up misguided nostalgia or revel in the boozy grossness of it all. (Well, maybe a little bit.) I describe it for the contrast it offers to a quirk of the three years I spent in that squalid place: my roommate in the basement — who I will not name here, but who remains one of my closest friends — loved Steely Dan.
This may not seem particularly earth-shattering now, but in the late ’90s — a time when shitty, Puffy-fied hip-hop and “modern rock” were dominant, at least among my peers — Steely Dan sounded as if it came from some awkward alternate dimension, a galaxy where everyone wore BluBlockers and danced like pudgy moms. Steely Dan sang breezily about Babylon Sisters, whoever they were, imploring them to “shake it.” They worried that Rikki would lose that number, sounding like asexual lounge lizards while doing so. Whenever this strange, almost aggressively cheesy music oozed from our basement speakers — and it was pretty often, as Gold was one of my roommate’s go-to compact discs — I didn’t know how to react. Even the worst music of the day — Sisqó or Ma$e or Creed — had a personal precedent; it at least resembled, in some way, something I could like: James Brown, Wu-Tang, Black Sabbath. Steely Dan, however, was like nothing I’d ever heard, and not in an enticing way. It seemed to be the worst of jazz and the most boring of rock rolled into one mutant, bad-sex package. It sounded like what sad aliens might listen to when they got around to masturbating.
Yet I otherwise respected my roommate’s taste in music. He wasn’t some fleshy weirdo who danced naked to Aja, at least so far as I knew. When not subjecting me to Gold, he listened to albums that paired perfectly with our surroundings: Blood on the Tracks, Coltrane’s Sound, Animals. He was a good guy, gregarious, fun to be around. Yet there he was on the ratty scavenged couch that we’d dragged down the basement steps, lip full of Skoal, Coors Light in hand, happily nodding his head as “Deacon Blues” filled the room. What was going on here? How could he like Steely Dan? How could anyone?
Over the next few years, my interest in music became more focused on the present. Radiohead became important to me, along with other artists — Beck, Modest Mouse, El-P — who, for the most part, pushed the Floyds and Zeppelins of my college years well into the background. Reaching into the past for an artist became increasingly rare for me — and the idea that I’d reach back for Steely Dan, of all bands, would have made me choke.
But about four years ago, that’s exactly what I did. Like all moments that defy understanding — witnessing a child’s birth or spotting a U.F.O. — I remember it with perfect clarity: I was at a flea market, rummaging through a bin of old three-dollar records. As I flipped through the titles, Steely Dan’s Gaucho caught my eye. I noted it and kept going, past the Loggins & Messina and Kenny Rogers albums. But as I browsed, I gradually became aware of a nagging little voice. “Go back,” it said. “Go back to Gaucho.”
For some reason, I listened. I flipped my way back to Gaucho and pulled the record out. There was the cover, in all its awful glory: a strange bas-relief illustration of a man and woman, slow dancing, bordered by a nauseating greenish gray. It was still in its original wrapper, a sickly film of plastic that was unpleasant to the touch. Gaucho was offensive to my eyes, my fingers, and probably my ears. There was nothing appealing there.
Maybe that’s why I bought it. It was the same impulse that makes people eat habañeros or take shots of Everclear. Its very ugliness propelled me to say, “Oh, why not,” pull out a five-dollar bill, and hand it to the vendor. He nodded knowingly as he fished around for change.
“That’s a good one,” he said.
“Yeah, I know,” I nodded, wondering if I’d gone insane.
When I got back home and put it on, I didn’t really like it. As they had 13 years before, Steely Dan still sounded defiantly lame, still made me think of Reno and corny pick-up lines. But — this is crucial — for the first time, I didn’t hate it. Steely Dan’s fans gush about the band’s perfectionism, musicianship, and sly lyrical darkness, but my new, grudging appreciation had nothing to do with those things. What I found was that Gaucho led me to a place that I was ready to explore.
I had rejected that place as a 19-year-old, when I was eager to prove myself both socially and sexually. But I was older now, married, with a mortgage and dependable slippers. Suddenly, Steely Dan didn’t seem so bizarrely foreign. Their songs’ weirdly lecherous languor now lined up more precisely with something inside myself. Had I been single and forced out to the bars, I would have been closer to the corny-line lounge lizard than the college hero that I had never really been. Unlike nearly every other artist I’d actively listened to, Steely Dan didn’t come to me. I had come to them, merely by getting older.
Still, it’s not as if my house became a shrine to Donald Fagen. I didn’t buy any more cheap records, didn’t download any other albums, and only listened to Gaucho every month or so. It was only after burning a few of my father-in-law’s Steely Dan CDs — Can’t Buy a Thrill, The Royal Scam, and Countdown to Ecstasy — that I actually came to sort of like the band. Can’t Buy a Thrill, especially, was an album that I found I could listen to without being in an odd or perverse mood. I didn’t love Steely Dan — not even close — but the disgust I’d felt for them 15 years before was nowhere to be found.
This shift, as minor as it is, has been unlike anything I’ve experienced as a consumer of popular culture. Like most, my tastes have lost some edge as I’ve aged and become a dad: it’s hard for me to imagine myself enjoying, say, Hubert Selby, Jr. or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as I did in my early 20s. But I haven’t gone full Sting either, and, until I reassessed Gaucho, I’ve never come back to an artist that I once declared cornball. Nicholas Sparks seemed awful to me in 1996, and I’m pretty sure he’s awful now. The same goes for The Family Man, Elizabethtown, and Matchbox 20.
Or at least I think it does. Because of Steely Dan, I can no longer be sure. What they’ve given me — along with “Peg” and “Dirty Work” and, yes, “Deacon Blues” — is a way to embrace the awful creeping softness that comes with middle age. The self-consciousness I felt when my roommate put on Gold all those years ago — that they’re-all-going-to-laugh-at-you feeling I still get when I dance at weddings —–is gone when I hear them now. Nobody cares what I listen to, and they never did anyway. I’m now free to admit that, sure, Steely Dan is a little cheesy, but there’s nothing wrong with that. What the hell. I’m a little cheesy, too.