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Los Angeles Review of Books: Eight books on Steely Dan

The term “gaslighting” has returned to the popular lexicon over the past decade, when as recently as the turn of the millennium it had fallen into near-complete disuse. It was then that I first heard the word myself, in the context of a Steely Dan song from 2000, “Gaslighting Abbie.” Not only did I have no idea what it meant, I had only the vaguest sense of who Steely Dan were. But I was, at least, in the right place: a university-district high-end stereo shop, the kind of audiophile’s sacred space that has provided countless “Danfans” their first proper experience of the band — that is, of the band’s records, played back on a sound system of high enough fidelity to do justice to the enormously costly, complex, and time-consuming labors of recording and production that went into them. “Gaslighting Abbie” alone required 26 straight eight-hour days in the studio to get right.

Jez Rowden includes that fact in Steely Dan: Every Album, Every Song, a volume of Sonicbond’s “On Track” series from 2019, whose charge is to provide brief descriptions and assessments of every album and song recorded by the act in question. Though at least by avocation a critic, Rowden approaches this endeavor in a spirit of near-pure enthusiasm. No fewer than five times does he deem a song a “winner”; another he introduces as a composition “regarded by many as their worst, although I like it a great deal.” Indeed, he seems never to have heard a Steely Dan–related recording he didn’t like. This is a common condition among Danfans, as is his tendency to venture occasionally into the wilds of interpretation. On that level, his book fulfills the same function as exegetic fan sites like Fever Dreams, once the go-to source for help with the band’s never-straightforward lyrics.

It was on Fever Dreams, 20 years ago, that I found an excerpt of an interview in which Steely Dan’s leader-masterminds, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, explain the nature of gaslighting. The word came, Fagen said, “from the classic film Gaslight, and to gaslight is what Charles Boyer did to, who was it? Ingrid Bergman or someone…” In any case, Boyer’s character “tried to convince her that she was insane by moving things around in the house” and (adds Becker) “constantly turning the lights lower and lower.” Steely Dan’s references, on which Becker and Fagen seldom deigned to elaborate so straightforwardly, constitute a rich cultural nexus. The online Steely Dan Dictionary, the fruit of another Danfan’s obsession, offers entries on gaslighting and much else besides: the Andria Doria, black cows, Cathy Berberian, the Haitian divorce, Jill St. John, kirschwasser, the Studebaker Lark, the College of William & Mary.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.