A new book on Steely Dan is for hardcore fans. Luckily, they are legion

Jim Hodder, Walter Becker, Denny Dias, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan pose for a portrait in 1973.
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It all starts with Jack, the guy who goes gunnin’ for the man who stole his water and somehow avoids execution because the executioner has better things to do with his time. As Alex Pappademas writes in his wry, playful but deeply incisive new book, “Quantum Criminals: Ramblers, Wild Gamblers, and Other Sole Survivors From the Songs of Steely Dan,” “Jack is both the first Steely Dan protagonist and the archetypal one. He’s a loser strapped to the karmic wheel, forever slipping out of one trap set by his own dumb desires and into another one, rescuing doom from the jaws of salvation.”

This might be news to the casual listener of “Do It Again” (1972), who perhaps just likes the easygoing groove and that wandering sitar solo. But “Quantum Criminals” wasn’t written for that listener. This is a book for Dan obsessives like me, who treat every track like a cryptic, jazzy short story, a Raymond Carver joint with crazy chord changes. We pore over the songs and the albums through infinite listens, enraptured by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s music and perhaps more puzzled by their words than we’d care to admit. Who are Chino and Daddy G. (“My Old School”)? What is that Hoops McCann guy up to (“Glamour Profession”)? And, is there gas in the car (“Kid Charlemagne”)? OK, that one actually gets answered. Yes, there’s gas in the car.

For us, this book is a gonzo helping of music criticism dessert, a hot fudge sundae with extra sauce. It has the same detached passion as the music it dances with. “The narrator of ‘Any Major Dude,’” Pappademas tells us, “is telling you he’s a major dude himself without coming out and saying it, because a major dude is cool and cool don’t advertise.” Or, in contextualizing the lecherously nostalgic first-person narrator of “Hey Nineteen”: ”If this song took place in 2023, the Dandy would be misty for 2010: ’Hey nineteen — that’s Katy Perry.’”

“Hey Nineteen” is actually the first Steely Dan song I remember hearing. It peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1981 and was a staple of the Top 40 radio I voraciously consumed as a child. I would have been 10 when it came out. I liked it because it sounded bouncy. Then my sister, two years older and probably too wise for her age, explained that the song was about some skeezy grownup dating a teenager, using alcohol and drugs — “the Cuervo Gold, the fine Columbian” — as a sexual lubricant. My young mind could not process this information, nor could it reconcile such abhorrent adult behavior with what I was hearing on the radio. I still thought it sounded bouncy. But I was scandalized, and properly intrigued.

I couldn’t have realized at the time that “Hey Nineteen” represented a sort of Steely Dan specialty: the upbeat, even peppy account of bad human behavior. It’s a rich source of tension that reaches its apotheosis in “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies,” from the 1975 album “Katy Lied.” The song rides a Caribbean jazz lilt as it introduces us to Mr. LaPage, a grown man who passes the time showing cheap porn movies to young teenagers (“He’s always laughing, having fun/Showing his films in the den”). Ick.

Here, as in many tracks, Steely Dan blurs the line between rock and literature. As Pappademas writes, “Mr. LaPage is clearly a monster, but by leaving out even a trace of condemnation and implicating themselves in the horror they’re describing, Donald and Walter are asking us to do something more than rubber-stamp the open-and-shut case that child molestation is a bad thing. It’s on us to formulate an ethical response to what we’re hearing.”

Pappademas isn’t the only Dan completist in these pages. Each chapter is accompanied by deadpan paintings from the artist Joan LeMay, character sketches to go with the character sketches. Napoleon, featured in the song “Pretzel Logic” (“I have never met Napoleon/But I plan to find the time”), is depicted in a white Steely Dan baseball cap. The El Supremo, who sits “at the top of the stairs” in “Show Biz Kids,” becomes a blank-eyed, mustachioed goon in a stained, sleeveless white undershirt. (Pappademas describes him as “the nebulously mobbed-up creep who lurks in the shadows of every rock show no matter how ostensibly communal, counting the money after closing time, and doling out some insulting fraction of it to the so-called artists”). LeMay’s creations stare back at us as we flip through Pappademas’ musings, bringing shady customers to tangible life.

Fagen, Becker (who died in 2017) and Pappademas are kindred spirits, smartass, sharp-eyed observers of life’s El Supremos — a description that suits other Dan fans as well. “Quantum Criminals” is like a secret handshake between two covers. The best part is that it illuminates details the rest of us may have glossed over for years.

Which brings us back to Jack. As Pappademas writes, “His name might not even be Jack. It might be Jack as in ‘Buddy ‘ or ‘Mac.’ Jack like the Jack who has to be told to hit the road. Jack as in ‘Chief’ or ‘Boss’ or ‘Sport.’”

“Quantum Criminals” provides a welcome excuse to spend valuable time considering such questions — and then do it again.

Vognar is a freelance writer based in Houston.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.