It’s easy to hate Steely Dan when you’re an angry young person. The music is slick and perfect and the lyrics are mean and condescending. It sounds so adult. None of that reckless teenage abandon that makes rock and roll fun and exciting.
But you know what eventually changes your perspective? The Cuervo Gold and the fine Colombian…
These days I can’t even imagine not loving the Dan. Walter Becker and Donald Fagan are hilarious, and that’s something I didn’t pick up on when I was a kid. I even respect Michael McDonald now, which is something I never would’ve believed I’d admit. And it’s not some silly ironic enjoyment of “yacht rock.” They sound great. What’s not to love?
Clearly Bill Callahan and Bonnie “Prince” Billy feel the same way. Here, they take on Becker and Fagan’s tale of a suburban loser who wishes he was a hip jazz cat with a cool nickname, and it’s beautiful.
They got a name for the winners in the world
I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues
Callahan’s broken baritone embodies the character of the narrator perfectly. In the original version Fagan makes you smirk at the guy’s chutzpa, but Callahan makes you feel genuinely sorry for him. What more could you ask for?
A friend who moved out of state keeps tabs on what’s going on in Michigan as those moving from one place to another are wont to do. Whenever I’m in a hotel and get a copy of USA Today outside the door I always look at the weather for Illinois, even though it has been a long time since I lived there and I’m not likely to go back, so the climate is irrelevant. But still. . .
She sent me an email letting me know that Steely Dan is scheduled to play at the Meadowbrook Amphitheater this summer, which is north of Detroit.
When Walter Becker died on September 3, 2017, the proverbial last nail in the coffin of the band was hammered in place: requiescat in pace.
Of course, as seems to be de rigueur for musicians who were once on top of the world and are now trying to desperately stay at least near the bottom, Donald Fagen is having none of that, so he sued Walter Becker’s estate, and the band, such as it is, continues on. If “Steely Dan” was Becker and Fagen, and there is no Becker, then how is that still the band? Certainly it can be labeled as the band—unless that lawsuit comes out against Fagen’s wishes—and let’s face it: nowadays truth and falsehood seem to be exchangeable.
The issue, it seems, is the name “Steely Dan.” Or whatever that is.
The two had signed what is known as a “Buy/Sell Agreement” after the band formed in 1972, which essentially lets one member to buy the shares of the other, on behalf of “Steely Dan,” should there be a departure or death. The Becker estate wants Becker’s widow to have the shares.
It is worth taking a look back at the band, such as it was, as one could say that it has always been a duo with an array of supporting musicians.
The first album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, was released in 1972. It was followed with a series of annual releases: Countdown to Ecstasy, ’73; Pretzel Logic, ’74; Katy Lied, ’75; The Royal Scam, ’76; and Aja, ’77. There was a short break, as Gaucho didn’t appear until 1980.
In 1995 Alive in America was released. The next studio album was Two Against Nature, 2000, the same year another live album was released, Plush TV Jazz-Rock Party.
The final Steely Dan album was released in 2003, Everything Must Go.
Fagen had four solo albums: The Nightfly, ’82; Kamakiriad, ’93; Morph the Cat, ’06; Sunken Condos, ’12.
Becker had two: 11 Tracks of Whack, ’94; Circus Money, ’08.
According to steelydan.com, in 1973, “The band in various configurations tours the U.S. and Britain.”
Then there was something of a touring hiatus, it seems.
The site notes that in 1980 “Becker and Fagen go their separate ways.”
So the first tour had an assortment of musicians and seven years later, after that flurry of annual albums and then Gaucho, that was it.
That’s ‘Retha Franklin
She don’t remember
The Queen of Soul
It’s hard times befallen
The sole survivors
She thinks I’m crazy
But I’m just growing old”—Becker & Fagan, “Hey Nineteen,” Gaucho.
I suspect this may be the last time that I see Steely Dan in concert. And the reason is simple: They are growing old. And when you grow old—Fagan is 65 and Becker 63—things don’t work quite as well as they did as when you were young.
Fagan’s voice isn’t as strong as it once was. Becker availed himself of a chair on stage not long into the performance. Fagan’s voice actually got better, by and large, as the evening went on. And Becker got up off his seat sooner, rather than later.
Those guys have been performing those songs for a long time. And while practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, it does make better, which compensates for the loss in performance capabilities. More or less.
Mind you, it isn’t that this may be the last time because they are growing old and I somehow think that I’m not and consequently I don’t want to see gray-haired or hair-challenged, increasingly thick musicians. After all, I enter into that category, as well.
But I just wonder whether those two are going to continue against nature and continue to undertake the unnatural touring life for much longer.
And I must admit that were it not for an absolutely astonishing back-up band, who did much of the heavy lifting (especially Jim Beard on keyboards and Jon Herrington on guitars), it would have been a less-than-stellar evening’s performance at Ticketmaster prices.
This is something that truly puzzles me. Why do we go see bands like Steely Dan?
The last time they put out an album was 10 years ago. Everything Must Go.
The band has been putting out records since 1972. In 1980, Gaucho was released. Then, there was pretty much a Steely Dan hiatus until 2000, with Two Against Nature. There were solo efforts and the Alive in America recording (1995), but 1980 was something of an end point, it seems, as regards Steely Dan.
There was nothing older than selections from Gaucho played at the concert. There were all manner of the tried-and-true from the other discs. “Show Biz Kids.” “Deacon Blues.” “Peg.” “Reelin’ in the Years.” Etc.
So there we were, listening to 30-year-old musical selections, music that we’d all heard, literally hundreds of times.
Somehow this seems a little odd.
There were but minor variations from the way we were used to hearing the music. Which means that it was little different than what those of us who were at the Fox two years earlier had heard.
If someone said, “So, are you going to see an oldies’ show?” we’d be miffed.
But isn’t that what it was?
While the name of the band is, of course, Steely Dan, it could just as well have been Fagan & Becker. After all, those two are the only points of commonality throughout the band’s career.
It reminds me, in a couple of ways, of Hall & Oates.
In the cases of both sets, they are more successful musically together than they are apart. Sure, there are some good things on Nightfly as there are on Sacred Songs. But still, together is better.
And when John Oates steps up to the mic for a lead vocal, a bit of cringe sets in.
A bigger cringe sets in when Walter Becker goes to the mic.
He sang “Monkey in Your Soul” from Pretzel Logic. And something happened that I have never experienced at a concert. Never.
When he was done, there was no rousing round of applause. There was little applause at all. It wasn’t because it was horrible. It was just as if people weren’t really sure if they were done, if the song was over.
It must have been offsetting to Becker. Had I been under similar circumstances, I would have probably wandered off the stage not to return.
Two quotes from Fagan.
“We’re in Detroit, so we’re going to play the blues.” And they launched into “Black Friday.” Presumably, this has something to do with the bankruptcy: “When Black Friday comes/I’ll stand down by the door/And catch the grey men when they/Dive from the fourteenth floor.”
“Thank you. We really appreciate it. . .we’re getting old.” He was thanking the crowd for their strong ovation before kicking into “Kid Charlemagne”: “Could you live forever/
Could you see the day /Could you feel your whole world fall apart and fade away.”
She resembled Kate Hudson in Almost Famous: slight, lithe, sexy. Her hair fell in ringlets, but red, not blonde. She was no older than the 21 required to attend, and her ID may have been gamed. She moved to the music with both intensity and grace, with familiarity and joy. And she was dancing to Steely Dan playing “Reelin’ in the Years,” a song that was released when she and her husband or fiance—there was a flash on diamond on her left hand, and she probably would know it—were still unrealized, undoubtedly not even considered. But there they were with seemingly boundless enthusiasm.
Those two were an anomaly at the Motor City Casino, not with regard to their enjoyment and appreciation, but demographically. By and large, those who packed the venue appeared as though they would have just as easily been spending that Saturday night at a Class of 1977 high school reunion. The men were buldging and balding; the women were trying and sagging. “The weekend at the college / Didn’t turn out as you planned.”
Hey Luke Wilson – A letter from Steely Dan wherein they accuse Owen’s new movie of ripping off their “Cousin Dupree” (lyrics). “Your bro may be creating an extremely retrograde reality matrix for himself with his whole sellout moveistar game and there may be some righteous dudes to pay, amen.” Good to see they’re still getting high!
Recently on GloNo, the point was made that Steely Dan was arguably the best Drug Rock band of the 70s. While I won’t dispute the point, it raised another question in my mind: what happened to Drug Rock? What a long, strange trip it’s been…
Where are the blacklit rooms, adorned with florescent wall posters of Hendrix and Led Zeppelin? What happened to that guy who lived at the end of the block in his divorced parents’ vacant house – Doug, was it? – who always had the really good weed? The guy who drove the brown Nova with the bitchin’ Realistics in the back, and was always hanging around in the back of the school parking lot behind the tennis courts? Don’t tell me Doug didn’t pass the torch of knowledge to his younger brother, cousin, or nephew. Say it ain’t so! Don’t tell me that today’s American youth have no Wooderson-esque drug mentor, willing to provide his own ganja-laced Afterschool Special?
I DIDN’T learn it from you, alright?! I DIDN’T learn it from watching YOU!!
Yes, the days of the teardrop window’d conversion van are over. Whether your Drug Rock heroes are Steely Dan, Jimi, Led Zeppelin, or even Syd Barrett, the sad truth is that their legacies were beat up and left for dead by the excesses of the 1980s. She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie: Cocaine. Studio 54 begat disco, which begat New Wave, which begat the sharp angles and jarring colors of 80s pop culture. There wasn’t any room in this world of pink satin and skinny ties for the medium cool of a good bong hit. Do you think Bud Fox would’ve still jumped Darryl Hannah’s bones if he’d lured her with kind bud? Hell no! Greed is good. But not when you’re out in the forest preserve, passing the dutchie from the left-hand side. 70s Drug Rock was about those sublime moments of introspection, when you can see the inside of your mouth while realizing exactly why that side of the moon was dark. But the extended musical freakouts of 70s AOR didn’t jibe with the angular, hyperactive pop of the ensuing decade, and by the late 1980s gatefold LPs, concept albums, and 21-minute drum solos were only a memory.
But inevitably, the Sheen wore off of the 80s. The stock market had crashed, Republicans weren’t running the show, and Aqua Net was out of style. Across America, distortion was ringing, heralding the return of the guitar. But Drug Rock wouldn’t be resurrected by feedback. No, the only one who could ever save the Drug Rock vibe was…Dusty Springfield.
In 1991, “Cypress Hill” dropped with the unforgettable pairing of Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” and B-Real slurring “hits from the bong…”. Cypress Hill was all about the Mother Nature, and wanted everyone to know it. The album’s production was on par with 70s-style noodling, as well. Hazy beats combined with wacko sound effects and B-Real’s smirking, loopy delivery to create a new kind of Drug Rock that got all the kids hooked. The West Coast continued its dominance the following year with Dr Dre’s “The Chronic.” If “Cypress Hill” had brought back Drug Rock production, then the hilarious skits, thematic flow, and Parliament-style G-funk of “The Chronic” really got the 70s weed vibe back onto the high road. Listening to “Chronic” was like imagining Cheech & Chong fronting Parliament at a one-night only gig on the Mothership. Maybe now it was endo, but Snoop Doggy Dogg’s laid back drawl let everybody know it was the same vibe: a day not wasted is a wasted day. Tanqueray and chronic? Yeah, I’m fucked up now…
Unfortunately for weed (and music in general), the popular emergence of the G-Funk style did nothing to raise the bar of creativity. Legions of imitators followed Dre’s seminal work, and even Cypress Hill ran into trouble following up the grand tradition of its first release. Sure, everyone was smoking tons of weed, but the beats just weren’t that tight, and the music suffered.
Even more unfortunate is the state of Drug Rock today. A particularly disturbing side effect begotten in part by New Drug Rock pioneers such as Dre or Cypress Hill has been the formulation of the rap-rock movement, currently in vogue on Modern Rock stations and in undegraduate dorms throughout America. Groups like Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach, and Incubus seem more enamored of the 70s approach to formulaic guitar-based music than any vaunted Drug Rock history. In fact, their link to the demon weed is tenuous at best. Lots of lip service is paid to the drug, but the dynamics of, say, “Pretzel Logic” or “Aja” are a lot easier to zone out to than the he-said she-said bullshit of the Bizkit. The shit’s just too aggressive, man.
So maybe Steely Dan did deserve that Grammy, if only to please an older, paunchier Doug, who shed a lonely tear into his TV dinner as he thought back to the days of hanging out in the back of the school parking lot, polishing his Nova and listening to “Barracuda” as he separated the seeds from the stems…
Why you gotta do the Dan like that, guys? Arguably the best drug rock band of the 70s (other than Camel, right Phil?), with a sound that is always amazingly contemporary, even now. As we all know, Mary Jane never goes out of style. Sure, they didn’t deserve a Grammy, but who gives a shit? Those prick fucks in Radiohead wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for the Dan. Maybe, I think, you guys just haven’t smoked enough ganj when you’ve been in the presence of a really expensive, really good stereo system. What do you say we all go over to Tom’s dad’s place with a phat sack: An infallible recipe for changing your mind about Fagen and Becker.
The following comments re: The Grammys are from ML (extracted from an email to Johnny):
I mean come on, Steely Dan? Are you kidding me? Just because people were overlooked when their music was contemporary (meaning in the category of unlistenable 70’s music) doesn’t mean we need to go giving them awards 25 years later. Oooh, they’re soooo visionary man. Shut up. If the Spin Doctors get back together in 20 years and release an album should we give them the award in 2021? Who wins next year, Bread?
Come on, these two trolls don’t serve any purpose today but to drive arguments in bars about what is good music. I would venture to say that there isn’t anyone who is really into music who doesn’t run hot or cold on these guys. Sure, we all know people who say, ‘yeah, I like that one song’, but you know they don’t know what they’re talking about.
If you really like music you either give them a Grammy or you wish they’d just go back to their hole, and take that awful vocal sound with them.
Bottom line being anybody who cares about music feels strongly about them, great. But aren’t the Grammy’s supposed to be about a little more than that. Isn’t popularity and impact supposed to weigh in there somewhere? I’m sure [someone somewhere will] crow on and on about how that record has changed her life, but do you really think anybody will ever say, “man – that Steely Dan album from 2000 – that was it man. I heard that and everything changed.” Bah!