Steely Dan isn’t a band. It’s an institution.
Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the perfectionist, song-writing core of Steely Dan, have been working together for more than 45 years, along the way twisting jazz-based compositions into some of the smoothest, catchiest hooks and some of the darkest, most acerbic lyrics in pop music.
Steely Dan is a hard ticket to get. For almost two decades, the band did not tour at all, focusing on studio projects where Becker and Fagen were able to control the sound. The band appeared Friday at the Pearl at the Palms, perhaps the best place in town to fully capture the sound quality the songwriters demand.
It was, simply, an amazing show in terms of the demonstration of pop and jazz virtuosity. The highly professional performance was leavened by several extended monologues from Becker, the rootsy master of blues guitar to Fagen’s smooth keyboards and vocals. The performance was only a little interrupted by the desire of some audience members, especially one man labeled by Fagen as “weird dude,” to interact with the band.
Fagen notoriously has stage fright and it was clear that the last thing he wanted to do was hang out with a drunk from the audience, but hey, it’s Vegas. Pearl security ultimately ejected weird dude.
On the face of it, a band named for a mechanized metallic dildo from Yokohama featured in the William S. Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch wouldn’t be a candidate for huge commercial success, but the rich instrumentation of the band made it perfect for 1970s FM rock formats. The band’s first two real albums, Can’t Buy a Thrill and Countdown to Ecstasy, helped define the California sound of the early 1970s and dominated that AOR FM radio format for decades.
But the saccharine, almost oleaginous instrumentation in those and later albums hid the bitter reality of the band’s songs. Drug use and dependence, unrequited romantic obsession, sexual abuse, and the bitter disappointments of everyday life figure prominently in Steely Dan’s greatest hits, which were featured Friday night – as Becker told the audience, “no turkeys,” by which he meant no unfamiliar songs. A closer look at those songs illuminates the dark side of their heritage.
From Reelin in the Years:
After all the things we've done and seen
You find another man
The things you think are useless
I can't understand
From Do It Again, with a Vegas reference that got a big cheer from the crowd, despite being an introspective song of doomed failure that's hardly a positive song about Our Fair City:
Now you swear and kick and beg us
That you're not a gamblin' man
Then you find you're back in Vegas
With a handle in your hand
And there have been a lot of drug references over the years, which is notable for the fact that Becker and other Steely Dan collaborators have had substance abuse problems. Nonetheless, Time Out of Mind, a song from 1980’s Gaucho, features the line “chase the dragon,” a reference to opiate use; the song was performed Friday in Las Vegas.
These dark references don’t take away from Steely Dan’s continuing influence on American pop music. To the contrary, those acerbic aspects are what make them important.
Of course, as great as they are, Steely Dan also has to take some responsibility for a couple of pop music abominations. Michael McDonald, the late-era Doobie Brothers and solo singer best known for ruining any number of soul and Motown songs, was elevated to prominence as a backup singer on Black Friday, one of Steely Dan’s canon. And it is probably best not to dwell on Toto, the band that defined bland corporate homogeneity in the late 1970s and featured at least one former member of Steely Dan’s large fraternity of session musicians.
The California sound that Steely Dan helped define and popularize can barely be found in the modern pop landscape except in reunion tours and self-conscious indie rock references. The fact that Steely Dan still sounds fresh and important is testament to the fact that every genre has its champions that rise above what will ultimately be forgotten, even in an age of digital im/permanence. Every lyricist who spits out an introspective, self-referential line about personal failure or doomed obsession owes a debt of gratitude to Steely Dan. For that, as much as for the instrumental brilliance, the band will not be forgotten even as the band’s fan base gets grayer.