STEELY DAN: REELIN’ IN THE YEARS

Steely Dan: Reelin' in the Years
Steely Dan: Reelin’ in the Years by Brian Sweet
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

With this book, author Brian Sweet provides a great service to hardcore Steely Dan fans and also to those who are curious about the artists behind the music. As Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have never been very comfortable discussing themselves, Sweet fills in the historical blanks with a clearly voluminous research base and a tenacious attention to detail in his writing. Moreover, the volume has been updated several times; in each successive edition, Sweet reels in the intervening years.

This strategy of issuing updated editions is unfortunately a weakness, as it results in a patchwork effect. The first part of the book (from its beginning through the chapter on Fagen’s “The Nightfly”) is much better organized and written than the chapters that follow. Perhaps under the spell of Fagen’s increasingly morose outlook on life, Sweet seems to lose his enthusiasm for his subject, and the tone of the writing accordingly becomes increasingly bleak. Sweet also seems to lose interest in editing, as run-on sentences and sentence fragments start to appear in the later chapters. Interestingly, the index is not keyed to the current pagination, as if it were not updated to reflect a new edition.

Although there is fascinating information in this book, the sheer volume of facts eventually makes it seem more like a data dump than a biographical account. If another author were to take on this book’s subject, she or he would be better served by taking a literary nonfiction approach. The Steely Dan story certainly has its own narrative arc and numerous subplots. Fagen himself recently made use of them in Eminent Hipsters, his recent “art-o-biography.” It is telling that Becker and Fagen refused to be interviewed or contribute to Steely Dan: Reelin’ in the Years. It appears that Sweet took Becker’s advice literally when he approached this problem: “‘carry on as if Donald and I were dead.'”