Kelly Dwyer covers the NBA, alongside musical bits and comedy numbers.

Sunday, February 4, 2018 

Cleveland knows what the problem is

The issue in Cleveland is that it is different for the Cavaliers, this year. This isn’t the typical swoon, these aren’t the same clapbacks, this has not been a season like 2015’s, or last year’s, or the one they won. This doesn’t remind of Miami, the enmity is genuine and the basketball is ruddy awful.

LeBron James was this league’s MVP for a stretch of this season, but James Harden’s most valuable appearance on Saturday had almost no significance: Cleveland splats this way against the good teams, now, the Rockets led by as many as 35 before the victory became official.  A similarly-totemic Cavalier win could have sprung from James’ shoulders, even in this disarray, but he hasn’t been about that since Christmas.

Even images of LeBron and his team getting it right on Saturday, with James hounding both ends through career minutes 52,250 through 52,282, that woulda looked unsustainable. It would have scanned as treat with just enough permanence to outlast ABC’s time in Ohio, and these Cavs have earned that cynicism even if Peter plus the herd had run it right – what happens when Minnesota visits, on Wednesday?

The Cavs are excused from statement wins, currently, but that won’t stop the blockquotes. Kevin Love’s injury and the group’s plenty-for-now 30-21 record gives the group all the space it needs, but there are still going to be cameras and expectations at every stop and the Tomas Satoransky-led Washington Wizards to hold off. Cleveland still has to report to the building, when just about the whole of the NBA wants them to go away for a while.

"You've got LeBron James over there in that locker room. You know what I mean? What else the man need to do?" Paul said. "Don't take it for granted, man, don't take it for granted.”

That’s Chris Paul, a fella with a starting center that can get rim, condensing an off-and-regular season’s worth of thoughts into one comment delivered to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst.

The Man needs to act like one. Submitting to the thrill of exhibiting competent defense in games broadcast by either ABC or FOX Whatever would be a strong start.

LeBron James isn’t saving himself playoff gulps with every possession that he lets get away in January, or February. He isn’t cultivating fiber strength for June’s fadeaway three-pointers against the Warriors, when it comes time to let the Rockets or Spurs or Thunder run anywhere they want. He isn’t cannily playing the long game in response to a league that has demanded consistent excellence, with strong pretext, since he lined up to change things in 2003.

James is just poking through the year, this time. Too aware that even his most ferocious defensive effort wouldn’t mean a damn thing, even at home, in front of a team like the Rockets. Dr. Harden didn’t have to play well on Saturday – he missed 10 of 11 threes and turned it over four times – no star from a great team truly needs to exceed expectation to win against this version of the Cavaliers.

The Cavaliers can’t hide. That’s why each of the club’s explainers relies on what they know best, which is often the worst way to handle things.

Whether it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy or not is left for the next team to decide, but the spank of Isaiah Thomas’ way of doing things is now barreling through its fourth team since the summer of 2014.

At every stop the guard has had to explain in detail why the last team wasn’t having it, and he just spent a summer and fall and winter in Cleveland watching as everyone else got to play basketball, with Kyrie Irving off in Boston somehow developing MVP validity solely due to a uniform change.

That’s an inaccurate representation, but snipes and half-truths are sometimes a powerless person’s attempt at proud.

Suddenly, the too-short and shot-happy Cavs have an avatar, and Thomas makes it worse with every snort he sends at the sportswriters following each lousy performance. Isaiah’s played only 345 minutes this season, that’s two weeks for LeBron, Thomas has noticed Jae Crowder turning into a shell of himself and Isaiah can still see over the top of his coach, his words are not without meaning. He lost his sister a few months ago, he’s fighting for a contract and for his legacy and for something, anything, that will take him in without lingering caveat.

Decade-old creature comforts inspire Kevin Love’s irascible reactions, he sees every part of an amateur team that won’t be home for long when he decides to chuck a towel, and good on him. Somehow the Cavaliers turned the blue-eyed guy into the martyr, here, the NBA hasn’t excused a crumbled hand like this since Isiah Thomas arrowed his into Bill Laimbeer’s grinning face back in 1993.

They’re all waiting for the Cavs to make the Mad Lib move, for general manager Koby Altman to turn Brooklyn’s draft pick back into any number of Nets once traded away – say, 2012-era Gerald Wallace.  

Give Altman all the room in the world, no personnel chief has ever dealt with he’s working through, but he also has some credibility to earn. Plenty of GMs have led top-heavy teams with zero cap space and significant tax concerns. Only one of them, so far, thought Derrick Rose would help.

The pick is still at eighth, and the top ten in June’s draft is only full of prospects born during LeBron’s first year with underarm hair. If the Cavs explained to James at any point that the selection would be exchanged for a hypothetical 20-something stud, then this is on them. Most likely they didn’t, letting the sheen from we-chose-you Kyrie Irving transaction and the unrelenting promise of whatever to do the communicating for them.

These are the alerts that LeBron is used to, in place since Dan Gilbert shoved Usher onto the Cavalier sidelines just to prove that he could. Showing up in time to give LeBron the Yeah! compact disc for Christmas, all this stuff sounds the same anyway, when what he really wanted was Jesus Walks.

James’ passive/aggressive streak was treated to a finishing school, in this league, people like Dan Gilbert and Pat Riley are at heart more fearful than anything. You can read it on the risible red hats that they were gifted.

The NBA rules now apply to everyone in Cleveland, all at once, and nobody can handle it. The Cavaliers are beholden to the same extended schedule they helped shape, the transaction guidelines that they argued for, carping about the five-figure gift bags that they’ll leave in the limo. Gilbert was born on third base when LeBron James was delivered in Northern Ohio, and nobody is carrying him off this diamond.

Two paths remain, and the more likely one has the Cavaliers stuck with each other until spring. Beholden, for the first time, to similar experiences in waiting out the thaw.

FOUND A CURE

Every time this song comes on, I have to pull over to the side of the road.

(More to come.)

Friday, February 2, 2018 

Oklahoma City and Washington aren't over

It’s fair to say that the aughts got away from us, in defiance of all those Y2K goofs we had to wonder about. The NBA began and ended the decade with the Lakers as champs, no complaints there, but the league has had a tough time culling greatness from what led that dynasty. Weird, considering all the hours that Shaq, Kobe and Phil spent telling us How Things Should Be.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are part of this, they boast three faces that came of age in different parts of the Headband Era, the team’s triumphs and struggles are all TNT-documented, the hope is for spring while winter plays out the string.

The Thunder lost on Thursday to the Nuggets in a thriller, Gary Harris hit a game-winner while the whole of the internet cackled at Russell Westbrook’s inattention to detail, because look who decided to lose himself:

He’d stay there for several seconds, long enough for us to realize that Westbrook was just a rebound short of a triple-double. Thunder teammate Jerami Grant was on the wrong end of a no-call, referees aren’t going to whistle the home team for Roger Craig’ing through a visiting defender, and Oklahoma City lost a close one on the road to a very talented basketball team.

Russ hit a game-winner in Denver last spring, he can handle the screenshots. Just as annoying is the credible strain of reasoning that suggests Russell confident he can grab a carom off a shot taken with less than a second remaining, securing a triple-double in a year where nobody knows the score. He thinks that way, don’t question the diss.

What’s just as likely is Billy Donovan’s repeated insistence that his most mercurial player, the one that seems forever fit to jump at the sight of a flashing light, may have been asked to camp out in that lane.

Nikola Jokic could put the ball at the front of the rim from a hundred paces in pajamas and possibly pink eye, Stephen Adams wasn’t getting in the way of that, and some Thunder was going to have to deter things. It doesn’t mean that you forget about an entire person named “Gary,” but we know the impetus.

That’s just an option, Donovan probably insisted to his pillow on Friday morning, and not the structure. Russell Westbrook doesn’t come from a normal structure, though. He comes from the aughts.

It’s a video game decision, using ratings that go from 1-to-100 instead of the IRL follow-through, and I’m sure the feint has worked well for Westbrook in the past. Likely while playing as Kobe, and not Kwame, roaming after turning the zone option off on 2K7.

The Thunder have lots of that: Paul George is two years younger, they both remember what Carmelo Anthony looked like in that episode of Cribs:

“I don’t take baths. I don’t believe that males should take baths. The dirt is still in your bath.”

All Carmelo Anthony has ever represented is a desperate move. The league didn’t want another Glenn Robinson, when Melo entered in 2003, Big Dog about to play for his third team in as many years in 2003-04 and would be out of the NBA at age 32 after Anthony’s second season as a pro. There weren’t a lot of only-scoring forwards to go around back then, though, and by 2003 the NBA’s last three top draft picks had come from China, high school, and Cincinnati: Carmelo was the big college stud that the pros thought they were missing.

Even that took waiting out LeBron and Darko in the draft, but the glean was enough: Anthony’s association with James’ presumed greatness, and all that came from dancing with the mop-tops from Kansas on CBS.

It was enough for George Karl to keep coming back to the well, desperate for the quick hits that turned Anthony’s second-half of a second season into something magical, at last, for Denver. Emerging with bitterness enough to fill a book.

Enough for the Knicks to jump ahead of their own line in time to deal for Anthony, and it’s enough for the half-full in us to still categorize the Enes Kanter-for-Anthony deal as a grower for OKC. Kanter wasn’t doing anything but getting in the way on this club, anyway, you don’t need a guy that never misses shots.

The despair with Anthony is the same as it’s always been – when you hold the ball, you lose the potency that arrived with it. It isn’t that the basketball is meant to be shared, it’s that the rock is meant to be dangerous. You can’t catch up to a moving basketball, but basketball long ago caught up to Carmelo Anthony.

That doesn’t mean he still can’t score over the top of it.

The Thunder’s assistant coaching staff never found a moving Yugo that its legs could keep up with – Adrian Griffin, Mark Bryant and even Maurice Cheeks were more strapping than sprightly – they’re stuck sitting in front of something that will never sleep:

Oklahoma City gets by defensively with slaps and the collection of lost art, and the team’s work on the offensive glass is the only thing OKC’s offense leads anything in. They’re literally the best at cleaning up the mess.

Paul George is the mastermind in his peak, here, an abhorrent combination of Kobe and Ron Artest’s worst instincts come to life again working within a city with far too many available chicken finger entrees to count. He lunges at lacking confidence on both ends, gobbling up possessions in the defensive direction prior to nailing those release-button-at-top-of-jump Kobe Shots from outside.

It’s where he’s coming from. It’s where all of the Thunder are coming from save Nick Collison, who probably remembers the day his whole class stopped to watch Baby Jessica on TV.

The Thunder have an outrageous defense. Through injury it remains the kind that can force Nikola Jokic into his final option – tossing a Tom Henke Heave that curled into the hands of a teammate (only open because of that Wilson Chandler shove) 25-feet away from the basket in a tie game. Russell Westbrook was part of that, by hook or by crook.

The offense has enough to win a conference finals’ worth of playoff games, in most other Western eras, one 12-2 stretch at a time. Solving nothing but the stats that say we outscored you.

So, they’re all full of bad habits and bad imagery, the last generation that had to remember standard def. If the 1990s could steal a title in 2011, though, why can’t these Thunder give a push? Especially once the postseason schedule refuels the legs that have luckily remained ready and available so far.

If they still have stuff to figure out, that means we still have things to learn from them.  

YOU’RE GETTING A LITTLE TOO SMART

No political significance.

WASHINGTON

Kelly Oubre has had to get in Paul George’s face a couple of times this season, and it hasn’t worked out well – not much is going to touch PG in his prime.

Oubre’s younger, and the Thunder stars do prime the ball for so damn long, but that’s not why Kelly sprints with a smile. He runs because that’s what’s expected of his age, at this age, with these Sons of Iguodala. Oklahoma City’s crew, even in its first year, looks like it was grandfathered-in.

It’s why the Thunder looked so hapless in Washington’s rematch loss to the Wiz on Tuesday, especially down the stretch, the legs left the standstill shots in ways that have you worried about what sort of rest the Thunder stars will be allowed during the All-Star break.

Washington’s not sure if it wants the break to get here.

The team is rolling without John Wall, forever worried about Ernie Grunfeld’s next major decision; yet there appears more comfort in this than hand-wringing, among Wizards followers.

They’ve seen it before, the squad clung to a playoff berth in Gilbert Arenas’ absence in 2007, and it nearly made the postseason with Chris Whitney ably subbing for Rod Strickland in 1998. The movement that has resulted in Wall’s absence is just as familiar, because Wizards fans know good basketball.

This doesn’t make John Wall the bum, in this scenario, just another office mainstay that needed an earned rest. Some knees never scar over, you can also see the pain alongside the brio in Wall’s post-flush celebrations, and nobody should be expected to play this many damn games anyway. Buncha human oddities, out there.

Kelly Oubre wasn’t made a professional by clinging to the ball, he’s got no free hands left to pinch his nose because both arms are supposed to be o-u-T OUT on a belly-flop.

In this year, he’s Mike Riordan minus the miles.Washington is going to have some fun with this. They’re going to ask Markieff to be the only sedentary scorer while Bradley Beal tries to get 24 points in before his own wheels give out. Boards will have to be crashed, with Tomas Satoransky now breaking blocks at point guard, but defensive uptick from Wall’s shoddy-kneed contributions makes it all worth it.

For now, for barely February and maybe not March, but that’s what movement can create. And at the end of it they’ll get back to performing alongside a healthy John Wall that has watched every, single, second of this. A good guy that wants to play hard.

This is new, none of these players have ever been at 50-odd games by just the first days of February, and circling wagons aren’t stationary. If the Wizards are the team that nobody wants to catch up with – with Oubre and Otto Porter appearing the most unaffected – than you might have a stronger development than what we just saw in three Wall-less wins.

If John Wall’s new knees come back to meet a new team? The Wizards always thought they were on the list anyway, might as well let them in.

(More to come.)

Thursday, January 25, 2018 

Memphis has your Tyreke Evans solution


Everyone on the Grizzlies wants to be there, which is something we’re going to have to get used to. Outsiders can’t help but dig in, an encouragement that seems to run through the spine of Memphis.

The spirit will cross over, even in this interim year. The Grizzlies don’t lie down for full seasons, status demands they won’t settle even settle in on a few quarters. If J.B. Bickerstaff can’t make eye contact, Marc Gasol will.

Four wins in the seven most recent tries, a full Mickey Mantle jersey out of the Western playoff bracket with never enough to games to play. Nobody’s watching, but nobody ever has: Memphis is used to getting over.

The league the Grizzlies play in works a part in all this, it seems to need constant reminding of why the game is (this) close. Memphis is still the same place that got the pinched nose treatment from too many NBA-types in 2001, when it came time to tour and eventually debut the city as major degree and sound.

Pau had to be sent to the new team in Tennessee because he didn’t know any better, the kid probably couldn’t even handle the Hawks. Jason Williams was only traded into town as cosmic punishment, his Sacramento ways stirring Hank Iba to reach for a spare roll of Tums in the hereafter. And Hubie must have said something, to someone, to end up here after such a long time.

The league couldn’t turn it into an outpost, though, and Memphis wouldn’t allow for slumming.

The minute Pau got nervy, he was out. Allen Iverson’s attempts to use the team as his own, personal 24-hour fitness outpost were rewarded with a one-way Lionel Trains ticket in return – this place has been dealing with his booth-to-booth crap since the laws changed in 1969.

Tony Allen had no choice but to leave his associations up north. Zach Randolph was informed, almost immediately upon arrival, that the bush league crap he pulled in the Double-A stops in New York and Los Angeles was not gonna fly in Tennessee. Go buy a Charger, maybe even a Challenger, but get ready for work on Monday.

Everyone digs in, or it stands out. Memphis stands astride the part of the country where everything meets, where everyone shares, and it’s kindly requested of every visitor that they shouldn’t dare upset the balance. With bad vibes, or weak rotations.

The problem is that the great Grizzlies were capped even before things started. A top-ten payroll churned heavy in Grit and Grind’s first playoff season in 2010-11, and salaries in the max bracket tend to have rather high growth and sustainability. Everything always had to break right, for these Grizz, and the franchise decided that 2017-18 needed to be broken down into compartments.

You can tell. The hustle is familiar, but the punters need a scorecard, Randolph and Allen are gone, Mike Conley out for all but a dozen games with a bum Achilles. Chandler Parsons wears pre-torn jeans just so everyone can have a look at where the doctor has been.

Something or other cost David Fizdale his job earlier in 2017-18, J.B. Bickerstaff runs the team in comparatively anonymous fashion, and at half the league’s minimum salary, finally, Tyreke Evans has become the team’s most important player.

This recognition is hardly a dismissal of Marc Gasol – even at the age of 32, nobody fills nearly as many mop threads. In times of storm and stress, though, even the most overarching between-note contributions can pale in comparison to cold, hard, usage. Someone’s got to count this shit off.

Mike Conley grins in civvies, but he recently told David Aldridge that it’s proven tough to find joy in a basketball-less winter. The NBA isn’t as much fun when you don’t get to play in it anymore, and Mike sounds like a man who misses doing his job.

“If I’m not out there,” the point guard told Aldridge, “I’m just completely unhappy about everything else.” He turned 30 in October, and he’s aware that his life has curves now.

“I’ve lost something from this.”


Memphis hasn’t. Memphis has not. The team has won 10 games under Bickerstaff.

Sometimes guys are interims until something clicks and they shed the tag, and it wasn’t that long ago that the Grizzlies’ interim head coach was the NBA’s next great coaching prospect. Every job is available in this league if you stay on the job, and J.B. Bickerstaff is perhaps better suited to realize this than anyone else in this league’s history.

His father ran a team, Bernie straight up ran the top-to-bottom Nuggets for years, and for his troubles he was made the first coach in Charlotte Bobcats history – J.B. was his assistant. Nobody outruns an expansion gig, Bickerstaff and Son probably knew it the minute they showed up to Charlotte and saw Jahidi White trying to touch his toes.

Bickerstaff is aware of how much time is left in the season, how he’s got a culture to continue and a fuller Wikipedia page to develop.

After the half-there Spurs whupped the Grizz on Wednesday for San Antonio’s second win in as many nights, J.B. excitedly praised the Spurs for the team’s ability to “play for a higher purpose,” lamenting delicately the concept that “playing the right way” is at times “unique to the NBA.”

It isn’t, but the Spurs tend to stick out, and J.B. Bickerstaff has a lot of points to make in just two-thirds of an interim season. He’s got a culture that preceded him to steer, with Mario Chalmers as vicar.

Monday’s enveloping comeback win over Philadelphia allowed the coach a little projecting as reward:

“What you see happening now is a group of guys with one goal who feel as if their back is up against the wall. They’re a group of guys who feel like they’ve been counted out and they’ve been slighted. They’re a prideful group of tough-minded guys.”

Monday’s Sixer win was a borderline farce, a poorly-refereed run that spared no side. Philly hit its head on an exposed drain about midway through a 15-point lead – needless turnovers and actual NBA minutes lost to playing junk defense.

The Grizzlies cared thismuch. The club could have let the sneering Sixers and the shitty referee work get to them, prior to two and a half quarters of trying to get shots up, but instead the workers looked ahead.

Toward not letting anyone down. Tyreke Evans kept the game at a pro level, Marc Gasol was rousted late to help settle the stew, the lid was too big but nothing stuck to the bottom.


You’ve seen Tyreke before, back in Sacramento when he was gifted with all the looks he can handle, but this turn isn’t as craven. Bad habits remain but only briefly: Evans can’t stick and call for the ball in Memphis, Grizzlies won’t let him.

The 28-year old isn’t fully suited for the Gasol style, but that’s of no concern to anyone involved – his $3.2 million deal expires this summer. Evans has been trade bait all season, and surely some other team needs a Sprewell to sop up minutes off the bench, to take possessions away from reserve point guards on their seventh team.

Why not Evans?

He’s at 19.4 points in 31 minutes, cranking out an assist rate at Goran Dragic’s eyebrow level, shooting more three-pointers than ever and splashing at 38.8 percent. His turnovers have dipped sharply, marvelous considering the increased workload and unfamiliar movement. You try looking sprightly after a career spent on the Kings and Pelicans.

It’s a genuine rebirth, one that can’t be explained away by the preponderance of shots available. Tyreke Evans looks like an ex-Grizzly, already.


Nick Anderson was strong in 1997-98, piling on for 15.3 points in 29.3 minutes on an Orlando Magic team that averaged eighty-seven point one possessions per game under coach Chuck Daly. This year’s Grizzlies, ranked dead last in the NBA, average six and a half more.

It was a comeback season for player and team. The Magic’s legs had been deadened by Shaquille O’Neal’s departure, Anfernee Hardaway’s crumbling cartilage, and those four passes that Rony Seikaly endeavored in 1996-97.

Nick Anderson played 2163 minutes that season, Shaq’s first in Los Angeles, and he made 38 free throws in 93 attempts. This wasn’t just a case of the yips, left over from his goner turn from the charity stripe in the 1995 Finals: Nick knew that his stroke was difficult to begin with, Chicago from start to finish.  

Mindful of his range, Anderson started leaning left and firing long two-pointers. He used his butt and a bit of hang-time and, famously, dropped 30 on Shaq’s new team on a national network with just seven Seinfeld episodes left:

Those fin de siècle Magic weren’t rebuilding, they even won a pointless division title in 1999 with Anderson and Daly around. Nick played through his prime in Orlando before pairing up with buddy Jason Williams in Sacramento, following him to the end in Memphis. He never asked out of anywhere.

Tyreke Evans has the flu, now, and his team has a factor to figure out for someone else. A trading partner has to pair its own isolation instincts with Evans’ burgeoning insistence on playing like a Grizzly, because his next hit won’t come on a team that leaves him alone out there. Evans can’t help but hit the open man, not all his instincts sing Sacramento.

Is that worth the first rounder? No general manager wants to be on the wrong side of a deal for 30 games of Tyreke Evans, that joke is always going to dangle, but sometimes these springs are very much worth it. Especially if your culture isn’t confounding, Evans will respond well to a clubhouse’s sense of self.

The Grizzlies don’t figure to be in blow-up mode anytime soon. There’s too much to straighten out, so many voices involved that have been waiting too long, and two cornerstones that don’t figure to be easily transplantable.

The challenge is really for Tyreke, he’s warmed to the scrutiny as Memphis’ season dipped down the rankings, he doesn’t fit in seamlessly among this group of movers, but he looks to.

This would seem to bode well for a new address, a condo that you can rent through spring. With a new team, though, come marks that tick back to zero, Evans would be starting over with a game that needs some warming up.

The postseason moves those marks back to nil all over again, and for a player that was encouraged to lean into numbers from an early age, pick a level, the insistence on doing it all in one possession might get to him. All eyes on one shot, Tyreke, don’t drift too far.

Until anyone moves, though, understand that Memphis has settled him. The eye-contact works a possession at a time, the movement suits his progression.

Memphis keeps doing that to people.

DON’T EXPLAIN

The words, which Billie Holiday wrote, don’t matter. Listen to how she presents each of her notes, dexterous in ways that typically require ten fingers.

Each breath gives just enough to knock the ball in the pocket, and leave an angle for two more (that just the table can see).

The hits are so dry, and I don’t mean parched – free of reverberation, vibrato, nonsense, reflex. So helplessly lyrical.

Maybe that’s where the words come back in. Nobody knows how to handle any of this, better than her.

Sunday, December 31, 2017 

Every Steely Dan Song: Megashine City

(I listened to this song for the first time last week, after only hearing of its existence for years. Subscribers can get immediate mp3 access at TSA CHAT, I found it at the Trader’s Den.)

Conceived for but not on the road, ‘Megashine City’ seems ready if not right to close stadiums – this is from a demo reel, meant to prove the new bands’ mettle and test the agreeability of its songwriters.

Everyone comes off great. The song rollicks, it manages Ellington left-foot toe taps in two-guitar boogie form – its later, perfected form on ‘Bodhisattva’ takes nothing away from this anthem.

This is Donald and Walter, for the first time, in an honest-to-goodness rock and roll band. One that, unless they wrote in a break from the boogie, would keep on choogling.

The difference in the Dan from the rest is in another sort of commitment. From the back, no matter the skinsman, the bass guitarist would make sure the whole thing swung.

(LISTEN TO THIS SONG LOUDLY WHILE DRIVING CAREFULLY.)

An older Walter Becker would later fancy his early-LA status as one-half of “the Grateful Dead of Beverly Boulevard,” a remark that says a whole hell of a lot about him and also a little bit about his eventual band and its precociousness.

Especially toward the end of the song, when the lineup locks into a WAVE THAT FLAAAG charge that reminds that Don and Walt were proper, post-War, boomers. There’s some Dylan and Levon Helm’s left hand and the Velvet Underground in there, too. Had to be.

Jeffrey Baxter sounds as happy as I would be while forcing George Will to wait for a table he’d reserved months ago.

Jim Hodder might never be better; though cherubic enterprise, two pencils and reels of available and advance-paid tape would later ensure that he would have no choice but to be.

(We will explain that later.)

At the song’s conclusion, as Denny the distorted bebopper hits the last complicated chord, Skunk peels off a jazz run that should have those of a certain age giggle-hacking Wednesday, October 13th, 1982 volume four, number 79 into cold air.

The band would go on to attempt various iterations through the years, in demos we’ll get to because this is Every Steely Dan Song, but its live versions never made it to bootleg tape.

It was lost on me that this might be the last time I’ll ever hear a Steely Dan song for the first time, you read that sentence correctly, its music won’t allow for nostalgia or sympathy or reflex. And then Donald starts singing.

PREVIOUSLY

Do it Again

Sunday, December 24, 2017 

Every Steely Dan Song: Do It Again

The sound you hear to start ‘Do it Again’ is Victor Feldman playing congas, he isn’t a Steely Dan member and never officially became one despite being the only musician beside Becker and Fagen to play on each of Steely Dan’s albums recorded in the 1970s.

Steely Dan already had a very good conga player already in the band, guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter worked percussion on this song in a live setting but Walter Becker and Donald Fagen thought it best to track in Feldman, an English session player famous for his work on Miles Davis’ ‘Seven Steps to Heaven’ LP.

Songwriters Becker and Fagen weren’t ducking this twist, the first hit. The first song on Steely Dan’s debut album, the first single off ‘Can’t Buy a Thrill.’

After the demoing years charged him with supplying the lines necessary for the listener to identify the more orthodox harmonic structures in the duo’s driving songs, bassist Becker was finally freed to float with headphones on. Recorded within the months of earnest attempts to replace himself as his band’s lead singer, Fagen lives confidently within his double-tracks.

Donald’s not finished, if the temperature will ever let him tune up. Somewhere in the middle of the song, just after the radio said “enough,” lurks a deliciously inappropriate “plastic” combo organ solo no doubt egged on with Walter’s snorting encouragement.

It’s the type of instrument – never used again by the band – that would later sneer its way to great acclaim later in the 1970s, powering Elvis Costello’s Attractions and other lightly lads. Here, on Side One (Track One), it’s just a thing that sounds weird enough to be left on the side of the road after the carful was done with it.

Becker and Fagen spent the last fits of New York’s 1960s in Park Slope trying to make rent with pop tunes spun as earnestly as their souls at the time would allow. They backed Jay and the Americans on live dates and were paid in whatever was left over after the beaks did their worst. Steely Dan was pulling down on calculated gambles long before Encino saved its thumbs from the freeze.

After moving to Los Angeles the pair scored a tune on a Streisand album, they considered Denny Doherty and they wrote for John Kay. Becker and Fagen penned and later even performed ‘Change of the Guard’ in full view of Dias and his rosary beads, stating that they intended it for release.

‘Dallas,’ a country-pop soft release single sung by the tawny yet contained Jim Hodder, the band’s drummer, was hesitantly considered as Steely Dan’s initial offering. David Palmer was brought in to hit the Laura Nyro notes and to look a little like Roger Daltrey to the overserved.

Concessions were attempted, picks were rolled with. This was a duo that was not going to turn down subversively sporty cars (licenses had to come first), interesting girlfriends, and better gear – future accommodations had to be considered, and swiftly.

And they led everything off with, I don’t know, a bossa nova?

It’s six minutes long and Donald Fagen sings it with that voice and it’s a massive hit. If the admitted aesthete to launch for was midway between Word Jazz and Rubber Soul, then the Dan was well on its way.
The tagger at this point reads only in the 1970s! and it’s a kiss-off that I’ve listened to Becker, Fagen and Baxter all conclude with. To calm insistent interviewers and re-amuse themselves at the wickedness of how wondrously daffy it is that a song like this could become a chart-topper in 1972.

When anyone else of a certain age spits that line out, it falls a little flatter in its nod to an imagined decade where Richard Dreyfuss was the only male sex symbol, where Grand Funk never happened.

Like, at some point it’s got to become a Steely Dan thing, right? It’s not as if the rest of the top ten was filled with this strain of slyly-sung succor.

Denny Dias’ hands until recently had been playing a Barney Kessel-styled jazzbo log, the sort of wood you could endanger a Tiger Stadium transformer with. Dissatisfied with the setup, “an offense to eyes and ears alike,” Becker and Fagen peeled off enough advance to outfit Denny with a Telecaster and Marshall half-stack aimed at teaching jazz slides to the previously unaware.

Before Denny could play with his new toys, though, Becker and Fagen decided to strap him to a Coral Electric Sitar.

Not to be cool, that would have worked better in 1967.

Not to be accurate, because this song is a bossa nova, and that instrument doesn’t sound the least bit like a sitar.

Not because it would be easy, because electric sitars are impossible to set up and even tougher to record, only shitty AM radio producers have the patience for their typical sonic output.

And not because Denny Dias, otherwise confident in both his abandoned studies and the Billy Bauer Technique, had ever played an electric sitar in his life. Kustom payback for the guy that understood Becker and Fagen’s changes better than anyone in the store.

The handle spun cherries. In an era where sonic enhancement just meant stacking more speaker cones on top of the last ones you bought, Becker and Fagen knew when to leave the table.

It just lays down the scent, doesn’t it? Have a listen:

Jeffrey Baxter self-identifies as “Skunk” after a couple of expert runs to begin the tune, giving his baffle less than a minute before saluting Chuck Berry. You’re never too far away from some spiny vibrato from this guy, Skunk usually won’t let up until you leave the room and luckily it took Donald and Walter a few years to correctly read the joint.

Dias’ solo is astonishing, and it would have been comparatively lost on his new Dan Armstrong or his newer, eventually humbucker-outfitted, Telecaster. It would have been mush on the Kessel guitar, and 1972 wasn’t confident enough to record a Les Paul or ES-335 in a way that didn’t track as tacky to Don and Walt’s, so you’re left with what’s hanging around the shop.

You don’t hear those notes on anything but an electric sitar, and I don’t know if you’d call what comes out of Fagen’s Yamaha organ notes.

We’re one song in and Donald’s already clapping back to seventh grade, winter break, and whatever spacey sounds he could hear from the TV in the other room. (The Nightfly Lyte is always on, in everything that Donald Fagen does, and before this is all said and done I better see a good president put a medal around this man’s neck.)

The song is Traditional, an expert takedown by two guys that shouldn’t know better, but do. Becker and Fagen were somehow advanced experience, slid underneath the door at night when the air was thick with shit pot and, we’re told, calamine lotion.

The lyric would become a Steely Dan staple. An unhurried presentation, delivered by two guys who really want to get out of there.

Miniaturization can give you the bends, and that’s where a partner comes in. Someone to tell you that a character named ‘Jack’ – a weakass hotel alias given in lieu of this desperate, little man’s actual name – is the way to go.

When you submit the draft with confidence, you’re allowed to claim credit to a playing card all your own. This is what separates Donald Fagen and Walter Becker from the sorts of people that want to write in the voice of Oliver Barrett IV, or the Dalton Gang.

Debut track. It’s growing.

Kelly Dwyer covers the NBA, alongside musical bits and comedy numbers.