Happy 45th Anniversary to Steely Dan’s third studio album Pretzel Logic, originally released February 20, 1974.
The shadiest thing I have ever witnessed was in October 2016, on the tail end of The Dan Who Knew Too Much tour, what would be Walter Becker’s final Beacon Theatre residency. My friend Matthew & I were in the balcony, and not far from us, a man was loudly complaining about the show starting late. And I mean he was screaming it.
“Ten minutes, Don!” he yelled as the band launched into “Godwhacker.” “You’re gonna make me miss my bus!” he proclaimed with “Razor Boy.” “Thanks a lot, Don, I missed my bus!” he whined along to “Black Friday.”
Donald Fagen turned to the band. He wiped his brow and took a drink and muttered something to them. He and Becker exchanged a look.
Then he turned back and played the best version of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” that I have ever heard in the ten times I have seen Steely Dan live (not counting Donald Fagen solo or with the Dukes of September).
“We hear you’re leaving, that’s okay…I thought our little wild time had just begun…”
The man stormed out.
Pretzel Logic turns 45 this week and I still have my father’s pressing of the album. It’s worn and a little muddy and it crackles, nowhere near the clean, slick sound of my first-edition, clear-vinyl pressing of Donald Fagen’s Sunken Condos, which sounds so good on my turntable, (lovingly named Walter, in honor of the Steely Dan co-founder). Dana Cudmore’s copy of Pretzel Logic moved from New York to Oklahoma and back to New York, from Park Place to Patrick Road and now to my living room, less than an hour from where I first heard it.
It hisses. It pops. I wouldn’t have it any other way. This was my introduction to Steely Dan, beginning a life-long obsession that, in many ways, defines me. Pretzel Logic is the band’s third album, it’s not my favorite, song-wise (that’s The Royal Scam), but it’s the one I love the most. It’s the last album to feature the original Dan lineup, including guitarist Denny Dias, drummer Jim Hodder and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. It also marks a transition in sound, delving even deeper into the band’s jazz influences, including active tributes to Charlie Parker and a Duke Ellington tribute.
I have lost count of the number of times men have tried to explain to me that “Rikki” is about writer Rikki Ducornet, despite Fagen’s continued insistence that it is not. There is almost a direct correlation between the type of man who would attempt to explain Steely Dan to me and the same guy who can’t remember which one of them just died.
“Rikki” also has what I am convinced is a marvelous handjob joke, “I have a friend in town / he’s heard your name / we could go out driving on Slow Hand Road.” Fagen is singing about his dick and you cannot convince me otherwise.
A lesser band would have a hard time following up the understated genius of “Rikki,” but this is Steely Dan, and you know it’s going to only get better. “Any Major Dude” is one of the sweetest songs in the Dan canon—Danon?—and speaks to the quiet friendships of men, a theme that plays throughout Becker and Fagen’s 50-year friendship. “Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you my friend / any minor world that breaks apart falls together again.” It’s immensely tender and understated, with a twangly, lilting bridge and Fagen’s softened vocals.
But it wouldn’t be Steely Dan without a song about society’s outsiders, and “Barrytown” does not disappoint. Supposedly about the Moonies Fagen used to see on the streets of the Dutchess County hamlet, not far from Bard College, a.k.a. Countdown to Ecstasy’s “My Old School.”
Finishing out the A-side, their cover of “East St. Louis Toodle-Do” is so weird and deconstructed that I was almost disappointed when I heard the Duke Ellington version.
More recent listens have really turned me onto “Parker’s Band” and “Pretzel Logic.” The latter is one of the few Steely Dan songs Fagen routinely performs with other groups in addition to the Dan; he’s played it with both the Rock & Soul Rhythm Revue and the Dukes of September, with Michael McDonald taking the third verse to croon “Where did you get those shoooOOOOoooooes?” Also, it’s about time travel. You have to love a band that writes a song about time travel.
And “Parker’s Band,” is an infectiously funky tribute to the jazz legend himself, placing themselves—and us!—on the Birdland stage. “Bring your horn along and you can add to the pure confection / and if you can’t fly you can move in with the rhythm section.” It’s the album’s brightest number.
I’m always a little surprised by the inclusion of “Through With Buzz.” It’s extremely short and sounds more like a polished demo than anything else they’ve put on an album. One can’t help but wonder if this should have been relegated to The Old Regime and “Let George Do It” or “Soul Ram” put in its place. But my friend Matthew and I used to sing this about our friend Ben, so I have a special place in my heart for it.
“Charlie Freak,” is perhaps the darkest song on the album, scoring high on the ranking of “Darkest Steely Dan Songs Ever Written,” right near “Janie Runaway” or “Dr. Wu” Not just content to write a song about a heroin addict, they set it from the POV of the man who bought Charlie’s last remaining, a gold ring, so that he could buy the fatal dose, a ring he gives back when he comes across his bagged-and-tagged body. The addiction references continue with “Monkey In Your Soul,” but at least the melody is more upbeat.
Darker waters were ahead for Steely Dan. Katy Lied (1975), perhaps their darkest album, would be released the next year, and Becker’s drug and legal problems would catch up to him just three years later, as they recorded Aja (1977). But Pretzel Logic is a sampler platter of Steely Dan delights yet to come, their ability to fuse blistering rock and smooth pop and unexpected jazz all into a sound no one else was making. Pretzel Logic is not their best album, but it’s a perfect introduction, a bridge of what they were and what they would become.