One rainy Sunday as “The Boston Rag” poured grandly and mournfully from four-foot-tall speakers in the den, she gave Becker and Fagen another chance. We spent the rest of the day listening to the Dan’s oeuvre, together.
As any major dude will tell you, recordings of Steely Dan can have profound effects, as noted above. Experiencing the band in concert is like flying to another world ... while time flows all around you in every direction possible. On Wednesday, July 16, Walter Becker, Donald Fagen, and the heady ensemble teleport into the theater of a local casino hotel.
Now, I lack the big, bad stereo system mentioned above and simply plug my smartphone into fancy postmodern speakers; they’re tiny but acoustically accurate and goddamned loud, too. I'm convinced they're reverse-engineered alien technology.
I usually start the listening day with Steely Dan, a band that writes and plays songs about the tragic poetry of American culture at twilight time. They also do things with jazz structures and harmonies, deconstructively alluring things, like adding 6ths and 13ths to chords, creating a musical tension in their compositions that's exploratory yet dangerously confident in execution.
These qualities, along with a propensity for creating slangy-
Listen, I know that’s a long time by human standards, by rock culture standards. But their longevity is not Triassic-era stuff filled with ancient, exotic cultural ferns and bald, instrumentally lapsed lizards. For all intents and purposes, it’s timeless music. It's as hep today as it was in 1979, as it will be in 2179.
Becker and Fagen are two of America’s most gifted musicians, and a brief tour of the group’s catalog is the perfect starting place for converting to Steely Dan. Fearful of public performance, these two hid away for years in their labyrinthine studios but ultimately triumphed in their returns as bandleaders of an indefatigable, 21st-century touring ensemble.
The band is named for a dildo from William S. Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch. The publication of this novel, subsequent charges of obscenity and a historic courtroom defense by new journalism guru Norman Mailer made the book required reading for mid-century America’s nascent avant-garde. Becker and Fagen were clearly no exception. Many of the worlds depicted and crooned over in the pair’s compositions are indeed Burroughs-esque, dark places where ecstasy, paranoia, life and death ebb and flow.
The intricate melodies and compositionally clever hooks on Can’t Buy a Thrill are especially cryptic and thrilling on “Midnite Cruiser” and “Brooklyn.” The music is supplemented thematically by cover art showing a particularly forlorn depiction of sex workers plying their trade somewhere in modern, urban America, a sordid interpretation of a title lifted from a Bob Dylan song about laughing and crying.
Countdown to Ecstasy and Pretzel Logic demonstrate self-conscious and complex jazz motivations replete with bop-generated solos and anomalous interludes addressing themes that may or may not be taken up again later. As imagined by Fagen and Becker, pop (or at least a pastiche of it) is hard at work in tunes about grifters, addicts, disillusion and redemption.
A post-nuclear New Mexico is considered on “King of the World,” and a homeless man has his dignity restored on “Charlie Freak.” Fagen distinguishes himself as a keyboard virtuoso with eccentric technique on “Your Gold Teeth” and “Bodhisattva.”
Katy Lied and The Royal Scam find the band pursuing elaborate, lush harmonics and arrangements, genre experiments and studio wizardry that snarkily mouthed “fuck off” to contemporaries like the Eagles and Boston. Becker’s sublimely moody and haunting arrangements come into stark focus on “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More” and “Don’t Take Me Alive,” making full use of the bassist’s deft sense of tone and Larry Carlton’s growling guitar.
Aja and Gaucho found the band facing the masses with lightened visions of Becker and Fagen’s experiences in America with a profound pop sensibility. Obsessively perfectionist, these albums yielded a handful of radio-friendly tracks that alienated some hardcore fans and ironically signaled a lengthy hiatus for Steely Dan in 1981. Becker went Hawaiian and farmed avocados, and Fagen tried on a solo career.
They came back together in the mid ’90s when Becker performed on and produced Fagen’s solo epic Kamakiriad. Afterward they commenced a short tour to test the cultural waters. Five years later and as a new millennium dawned, Steely Dan released Two Against Nature, a brilliant allusion to previous work and prelude to a series of tours that have effectively established Steely Dan as the most ass-kicking, rocked-out, jazz-trance-inducing act this side of Mezar 5.
The live act is comprised of an ensemble of some of the greatest living session and touring players on Earth including Keith Carlock of the legendary Wayne Krantz Trio on drums; Buddy Rich veteran and Coltrane acolyte Walt Weiskopf on sax; and session man and bassist Freddie Washington, a dude whose sound has been an integral part of recordings by Aaron Neville, Herbie Hancock and George Benson. La Tanya Hall, who is considered one of the foremost jazz vocalists of all time provides vocal collaboration throughout the evening.
Steely Dan visits Route 66 Casino's Legends Theater (14500 Central SW) on Wednesday, July 16, at 7:30pm. Tickets are available at bit.ly/steelyabq for between 50 and 130 bucks. “So throw out your gold teeth and see how they roll.”