Dr. Wu

January 15, 2015 • 6:22 am

I’ve put up my two favorite Steely Dan songs before, but I heard favorite on my iPod while walking in to work, and thought I’d share it.  Anybody who wants to guess what it means is welcome to comment, for I have no fricking clue what it’s about, though drugs are clearly involved. (Typical of Dan songs!).

Have a listen to the unique rock/jazz fusion of this wonderful group in their rendition of “Dr. Wu” from the 1975 album “Katy Lied“. There are many interpretations, but lead singer Don Fagan has given some clues (see here). And the sax and piano are great.

Oh hell, I’d add another favorite, a song that doesn’t sound like anything in rock/pop: “Dirty Work” from the Dan’s first album, “Can’t Buy a Thrill” (1972). This one, at least, is comprehensible.

If you’re a Dan fan, you’ll want to read Smells like Pop‘s informative page, “Five unsually disconcerting things about Steely Dan.”

The Dan really shone only in the studio; their live performances pretty much sucked. I put up the original recordings because the live videos, with Fagan losing his voice, are not nearly as good.

29 thoughts on “Dr. Wu

    1. Is my understanding that the katydid insect is on the cover as a form of wordplay since the insect’s singing sounds like, Katy did, a reference to the woman in the song, Dr. Wu.

      “Katy lies, you can see it in her eyes”

  1. My favorite band of all time. I saw them in Boston a couple of years ago. Definitely better sound in the studio but still an awesome experience.

    1. I disagree, at least in the sense that their studio versions are always better than their live versions. I saw them in 96′ and IMO they sounded better live for many of the songs. When they played “Black Cow” and “Hey Nineteen”, I couldn’t believe how good it sounded. Also, the album “Alive in America” features live versions of their popular songs that to me, sound better than the originals. “Reelin’ in the Years” is one example.

      Of course, Walter and Donald are getting on a bit. They are still excellent and will remain so for a number of years, but perhaps it is inevitable that their live shows will not always be of the same standard as before. But the fact that Steely Dan has always been just Donald and Walter + the best session musicians they can find insulates them from the aging process somewhat. As long as Donald’s pipes hold up reasonably well, they should be fine for years to come.

      1. I recall reading an interview with Becker & Fagan where they said they stopped touring in the 70s due to frustration over the sound of their live shows. They began touring again in the 90s, they said, because technology had caught up and they could reproduce (or at least match to their satisfaction) their studio sound while on the road. So it makes sense that, when you saw them in ’96, their stage show sounded much better than it would have for someone seeing them their original incarnation.

  2. Slightly off topic. After reading this week how the lyrics and music of modem pop songs are pretty much the same and interchangeable, I decided it was time to introduce the munchkins to another “real” song from the era of real music. (This is normally met with eyerolls.)

    I put on Chuck Berry’s My Dingaling for my elementary school aged boys. Wow. First time in my life I have ever seen anyone literally and spontaneously fall to the floor laughing.

    And then the look of amazement when i said that that song was played on the radio. I imagine I’ll hear from the principal sometime today. “Do you know what your child was singing? “

  3. One of my favorite bands of all time. My best friend from High school edited a fan mag called Metal Leg while they were on hiatus from touring. He also played a crucial role in bringing Walter and Donald back together.

    Katy Lied is my favorite Dan album by far. Any World is an amazing song.

  4. I have great trouble making much sense of lyrics but I’ve heard that Dr. Wu is about a a lover, jilted by Katy, talking to his psychotherapist who is dating Katy.

  5. I saw them live about 7 years ago. They had a backup guitarist play some of the solos instead of Walter, but they did sound good. What was really great was Michael McDonald opened the show with a version of the Doobie Brothers and he came out to sing backup on Peg like on the original recording. They are going to be at Coachella this year.

  6. Bebop legend Phil Woods plays the alto sax solo. Woods (still alive and kicking) also soloed on Billy Joe’s Just The Way You Are. He was a ‘student’ of Charlie Parker and ended up marrying Parker’s widow.

  7. Steely Dan is my favorite band of all time. Best Albums, in order: Katy Lied, Aja, Countdown to Ecstasy.

    Three or four years ago, I was referred to a family physician, Dr Stanley Wu, here in Dallas. During the visit, I commented that I would bet he had heard a lot of comments over the years about the Steely Dan song Doctor Wu. I was really surprised that he had never heard of it.

    1. Not even a nod to my favorite, The Royal Scam? I’d never have become a fan if I hadn’t heard “Haitian Divorce” on the radio, immediately pulled off the road to the nearest record store, and bought the cassette on the spot.

  8. For fans of Steely Dan, I heartily recommend reading Donal Fagan’s memoir “Eminent Hipsters.” It’s very interesting, and he explains some song lyrics in it. My favorite explanation is about a newer song (can’t remember the name of it right now) which he wrote after watching a family member slowly die of Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s about a group of assassins trained to somehow get into Heaven to carry out a hit on God. The point is that if God can do anything, but yet lets people get Alzheimer’s Disease, then God is a psychopathic asshole who deserves to die.

  9. Thanks for posting about Steely Dan!

    For some reason, the album “Gaucho” seems to get better each time I hear it. I hated it at first, but now I love it.

    Best song on that album, to me at least, is “Third World Man”. In certain moods, it strikes me as one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.

    Overall though, my consistent favorite SD song is “Peg”. The bass line and Michael McDonald’s awesome and unique backing vocals really set this song apart. Also, although the lyrics are a bit cryptic, the eponymous Peg is probably some sort of porn star, so that’s a bonus.

  10. I didn’t care for Steely Dan in their time and my youth. Sometime around middle age, though, they became one of my favorites.

  11. Dr Wu is my altime favourite not only for the track itself but for the drummer, Jeff Porcaro.
    No longer walking the planet unfortunately but a great legacy to him.. one of many.
    Love the intro sequence especially and the lines “are you crazy, are you high or just an ordinary guy” this line resolves itself later in the track, that’s the only sense I can make of it.
    I have a music session come jam every week and Dirty Work is one we cover, very pairded back no keyboards, consequently it comes out slightly countryfied but we find it works.

  12. My favorite Dan tunes include “Bodhisattva”, “Your Gold Teeth”, “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More”, “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies”, in addition to those already mentioned by others.

  13. “I have no fricking clue what it’s about”

    I recall you also adverting, in a post not long ago, that “God only knows” what any of Steely Dan’s lyrics mean. I’ll have you know that there are, in this age of the internet, a number of websites devoted to parsing meaning from The Dan’s abstruse lyrics. (Cicero de domo sua, I’ve contributed a couple of ideas to one of these sites.) Point being that in seeking this meaning, as in all other matters concerning our physicalist universe, no divine assistance is available and none is needed.

    On the other hand, the thing The Dan has going on with the mµ major chord? Even the Lord God Almighty doesn’t get that.

    Great selections. The Dan rules!

    P.S. Obscure factoid: Before becoming Steely Dan, Becker and Fagan were members of the touring band for Jay and the Americans. Lead singer “Jay” Black used to refer to them as “the Charley Manson and Charles Starkweather of rock-and-roll” — which strikes me as a lot smarter and funnier line than anything that came out of his mouth while singing “This Magic Moment” or “Cara Mia.”

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