Don't mess with Steely Dan

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B-list actors, beware! Fail to show due respect to Steely Dan and you can expect the typically reclusive Donald Fagen and Walter Becker to go medieval on you.

Ask Owen Wilson, the star of "You, Me and Dupree," a film currently winding its way to the $2 Super Saver at a mall near you.

According to Wikipedia, Owen Wilson is older than his brother and fellow actor Luke Wilson, though such a fact feels counter-intuitive on its face.

In any case, Owen became the object of Mr. Fagen and Mr. Becker's mirthful wrath last week when the increasingly evil duo posted an "Open Letter to the Great Comic Actor, Luke Wilson" on Steely Dan's official Web site:

"Anyway, the reason we're writing, aside from the fact that there's no show today and we're stuck in this dump in Corpus Christi -- well, man, something kind of uncool has come to our attention and we've got to, like, do something or say something before the scene gets out of control and something even more uncool happens.

"This doesn't involve you directly, man, you seem pretty cool, even when you're playing some pretty bogus parts in bad movies all the time, we realize that it's not entirely your fault and that you're entitled to have whatever low standards you want in terms of what's cool to get involved in for the, you know, bread or whatever."

After an insulting, but hilarious preamble, Mr. Fagen and Mr. Becker methodically lay out their case that Owen Wilson's new movie "You, Me and Dupree" shamelessly appropriates "Cousin Dupree," the Grammy-winning song from their 2000 comeback "Two Against Nature."

"What we suspect may have happened is this," the pair write in their letter: "Some hack writer or producer or whatever they call themselves in Malibu or Los Feliz, apparently heard [our song] on the radio and thought, hey, man, this is a cool idea for a character in a movie or something."

It's hard to argue with the evidence. Mr. Fagen and Mr. Becker crafted a catchy song about a decadent layabout who, after a period of lusting in his heart, attempts to seduce his teenage cousin. Not many songs can give you the creeps and cause you to laugh at the same time.

Though not terribly original, Hollywood is nothing if not risk averse, so the references to incest were cut in deference to the "family values" crowd. Still, the studio kept the name of Mr. Fagen's and Mr. Becker's character, but didn't cut Steely Dan a check for brainstorming the movie's plot.

Because Owen played the title character, Fagen and Becker were particularly hot with him and demanded he make a public apology at Steely Dan's Irvine, Calif., show. (The band plays the Post-Gazette Pavilion on Aug. 30.)

"[If] this business goes unresolved," the duo warned, "there are some pretty heavy people who are upset about this whole thing and we can't guarantee what kind of heat little Owen may be bringing down on himself. ... Your bro may be creating an extremely retrograde reality matrix for himself with his whole sellout movie star game and there may be some righteous dues to pay. Amen."

With Iraq fragmenting into a charnel house at the rate of $8 billion a month and the Middle East unable to resist its calling as an arena of warring biblical tribes, I was ashamed to take any interest at all in such a slight matter.

But these are depressing times. Even the most conscientious among us need occasional distractions from the apocalypse unfolding before our eyes on our big screen plasma televisions.

While amused and sympathetic to Steely Dan's complaint, I've been a fan of the band long enough to know that Mr. Fagen and Mr. Becker are hardly guiltless when it comes to, a-hem, creative borrowing.

I had a powerful sense of deja when my college roommate played Keith Jarrett's song "Long As You Know You're Living Yours" for me back in 1981. I was so incensed that Mr. Jarrett had "stolen" the opening chords from Steely Dan's "Gaucho" that I picked a fight with my roommate, a total jazz slacker at the time.

"Dude, check the copyright," he said. When I did, I was crushed. Mr. Jarrett's album came out in 1974, six years before "Gaucho" hit the airwaves. Mr. Jarrett noticed the resemblance, too. He sued Steely Dan for copyright infringement. Now Mr. Jarrett has a co-writing credit and a share of the royalties.

Shortly after his court victory, Mr. Jarrett came down with a mysterious case of chronic fatigue syndrome that sidelined him for a decade. That's either the cost of crossing Steely Dan or a hell of a coincidence.

"Rikki Don't Lose That Number," arguably Steely Dan's most popular song, borrows heavily from Horace Silver's classic "Song for My Father."

There are other examples of thievery by Steely Dan that have slipped my mind, but "creative borrowing" is an essential part of the creative process.

Even Bob Dylan, the poster boy of originality in rock 'n' roll, borrowed liberally from "Confessions of a Yakuza," a novel by Japanese author Junichi Saga for his 2001 masterpiece "Love and Theft."

The question of influence and thievery is much more complex than Mr. Fagen and Mr. Becker are letting on in their puckish letter to Luke Wilson. They're having fun at Owen's expense, but the question is an important one.

Still, Mr. Fagen and Mr. Becker expressed themselves clearly on this issue with their first hit "Do It Again" in 1972:

"In the morning you go gunnin' / for the man who stole your water / and you fire 'til he is done in / but they catch you at the border."

Owen Wilson can't say he wasn't warned.


Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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