I knew of Steely Dan before 1989, but wasn’t familiar with much of their catalog. This was in the middle of the 15 year hiatus the band was taking, so it wasn’t as if there was a buzz about it, or that they were a regular presence in the “New Releases” section of the record stores I frequented. I had heard a few songs on the radio, but that was about it.
While everyone remembers John Cusack holding the boombox outside Ione Skye’s window and blaring Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” as the iconic music scene in Say Anything…, to me it was a different moment. For me it was John Mahoney singing happily along to Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.”
Maybe that’s because it signalled a much different point in the character arc than “In Your Eyes” did. As Mahoney, who plays the father of Ione Skye’s character, is driving along he’s celebrating. His over-achieving daughter has been accepted to a prestigious overseas study program, something that will look great on a college application and introduce her to all sorts of important people. He knows this but she doesn’t and he’s going to give her the good news.
In this moment he’s at the pinnacle of happiness. His daughter will go on to great things and everything he’s done will be worth it. What he doesn’t know at this point is that the lengths he’s gone to in order to provide for his daughter are about to catch up with him and ruin that relationship. So, right then, he’s doing what any middle-aged father would do to celebrate: Sing along to a favorite song on the radio.
Not being familiar with Steely Dan beyond a few songs here and there, I was intrigued by this choice. It was a little…esoteric, I thought at the time. At the time I wasn’t familiar with writer/director Cameron Crowe’s background to the extent I am now, so his choice of twisted, irony-laden AOR, art-school rock seemed unusual, certainly different than the “classic rock” that was emerging in the music industry at the time. A few years later, having read more about Crowe and seen more of his movies, getting a sense of his musical leanings, it made much more sense.
For years, this was a shibboleth among my friends. If you were at a bar and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” came on and you didn’t start singing it like Mahoney in the movie, you lost.
(Side note: It was also common to, when asked why you couldn’t go out on a particular night, respond with “I’M INCARCERATED, LLOYD!!!”)
I wish I could say I became an instant devotee of the band after that, but the reality is different. Steely Dan continued to exist in the background of my musical life for the next 15 years. Occasionally, while perusing The Crow’s Nest (a now-defunct record store in Chicago’s Loop) I’d consider buying Citizen Dan, the 4-CD collection of most all the band’s music through its dissolution in the early 1980s, but never pulled the trigger. Loved the songs on the radio, never dove any deeper.
That changed about three or four years ago when I finally decided to explore what I’d been missing on Spotify. Of course I was hooked and couldn’t believe I’d been missing out on. The hooks, the dark lyrics that contrasted with the smooth horn arrangements. Donald Fagen’s grizzled, gin-soaked vocals. And Walter Becker’s effortless, precise guitar and bass parts.
I’m listening to Steely Dan as I write this, just a few days after Becker passed away, and enjoying it all over again. As “Rikki” comes on I’m picturing Mahoney drumming on the steering wheel, looking around at traffic and bursting at the seams with pride in his daughter, pride that will set him up for a massive fall from grace only moments later in the movie’s story.
Here’s to Becker, one half of what Matty Karas in this morning’s MusicREDEF called a “two-man hivemind.” May the music he created never be dismissed as “yacht rock” again.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.