Is there gas in the car?

The answer, for Steely Dan, depends on your age

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click to enlarge DO IT AGAIN: Donald Fagen (left) and Walter Becker are on tour playing the Dan's best-known tracks. - Danny Clinch
Danny Clinch
DO IT AGAIN: Donald Fagen (left) and Walter Becker are on tour playing the Dan's best-known tracks.

A handful of concert reviewers around the country have complained that Steely Dan's current tour passes over post-2000 material in favor of a "greatest hits" format.

Me? I'm delighted.

Why would anyone want to hear "Cousin Dupree" over "Black Friday," or "Lunch with Gina" instead of "Deacon Blues?"

I suspect that the anticipated setlist — which also reportedly includes "Aja," "Peg," "Don't Take Me Alive," "I Got the News" and "Kid Charlemagne," among others — comes as good news to the folks holding ducats for the Steely Dan show at the Ford Amphitheatre.

Back in 2000, when word got out that Steely Dan was set to unveil its first new studio album in 20 years, I was amped. Being a major Dan fan in the '70s (and in all the years after, for that matter), I thought Donald Fagen and Walter Becker returning to the studio, their primary milieu, could yield inspired results. Instead, I found the album Two Against Nature almost insipid when compared to Steely Dan's catchy, complex, cunning, sophisticated, sly and largely glorious '70s material. When the CD bagged that year's Best Album Grammy, I thought it was a travesty on the level of Jethro Tull winning the first ever heavy metal statuette.

In preparing for this article, I had occasion to briefly revisit Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go (2003), and I hereby submit a revisionist view: The music isn't all that bad.

Still, by comparison, it's ...

OK, enough.

Because Becker and Fagen have chosen to concentrate on their back-back catalog, let us take a few column inches to consider it — and to praise it.

In the 1970s, Steely Dan was the rare beast that raised artistic stakes and reaped commercial rewards. One main thread of their brilliance was to create music that was both borderline avant garde and agreeably poppy. It was akin to stripping the "comeths" and "shalts" out of Shakespeare — high art made more accessible but in no sense dumbed down. When you heard Steely Dan's music on the radio, it sounded different, very different, but not out of place.

Meanwhile, they were tricking us — doling out jazz harmony, elliptical melodies and word puzzles fraught with inside jokes and obtuse cultural references. Their first hit, "Do It Again," runs on cool minor-7 chords and tells the story of a bad, hard-living hombre just a step ahead of his own personal apocalypse. "Now you swear and kick and beg us/ That you're not a gambling man/ Then you find you're back in Vegas/ With a handle in your hand," goes one verse. What a fine puzzle to a teenager in '72: I had to dig a little to discover that the handle referred to slot machines. It was like mining drug references in Beatles songs — only hipper. (It wouldn't be long before we were unearthing drug allusions in Steely Dan songs.)

The foundation for Steely Dan's trickster act is, I think, the chords. About 10 years ago, when my pre-teen son tried to be a guitar hero for about three days, I took him for a couple of lessons. While waiting in the store, I browsed through some music books, looking at the simple major-chord stuff by the likes of Nirvana and Aerosmith. Then I got to a Steely Dan book, and the chord notations read like Sanskrit (DMaj7/E, Bsus3/D#).

Steely Dan is often credited with inventing a chord type; it's called the "mu major." The most lay-friendly way to describe it is that an extra note is added to a three-note major chord. (For a more detailed explanation, punch "mu major" into Google.) It adds a splash of dissonance, a bit of bite. It's what announces with great flourish the instrumental break of "Aja." The point is that Fagen and Becker cobbled these lofty, jazzy chords into grabby pop songs.

Naysayers have argued that Steely Dan's music is sterile, stiff and prohibitively intellectual. I always heard it — the '70s stuff, anyway — as deeply soulful, sometimes sad, sometimes playful and almost always ironic in a crafty sort of way. To my ears, "Deacon Blues" is an eloquent, complexly emotional tale of a man flirting with loserdom. "I crawl like a viper through these suburban streets/ Make love to these women, languid and bittersweet," Fagen sings, sexual conquest growing stale.

This is the kind of stuff that apparently doesn't resonate with younger listeners. We'll call it The Steely Dan Divide. Other than the occasional musician and raging eclectic, I've never met anyone under the age of 30, make that 35, who has ears for one of my favorite acts. That same three-day-guitar-hero son of mine, exposed to a treasure trove of music from his dad, used to soak up all kinds of hip adult shit (Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Curtis Mayfield) as a preteen, but, man, he drew the line on Steely Dan. (Ironically enough, his name is Dan.) He likened it to — grrrrrrr — smooth jazz.

I suspect most folks across The Steely Dan Divide from me hear it much the same way. They can't detect the coy subverviseness in the music. They hear Fagen's oblique R&B singing as an effete whine, all that jazz harmony as so much pomp and fussiness.

What can I expect from people raised on post-punk and hip-hop? (Much of which I like, I hasten to add.) Steely Dan is not primal, blatantly passionate, reckless, angry, snotty or braggadocious. Steely Dan is not blatantly anything. The richness of their music lies in its subtlety, in its multi-textured meanings, in its artful (and sometimes incongruous) juxtaposition of words and sounds, in its carefully measured but exquisite instrumental solos (often by jazz greats like Wayne Shorter and Phil Woods).

Another reason that Steely Dan doesn't resonate with folks across The Divide is that it has not emerged as a particularly influential band. Not in terms of collecting musical acolytes, at least. Very few artists have made an attempt to absorb the Dan influence, let alone copycat. Who could keep up?

With other, seminal acts — The Beatles, Black Sabbath, James Brown, MC5 and dozens more — you can trace a lineage to contemporary bands, thus mitigating The Divide.

There is no Steely Dan of today, so when someone under 35 hears Pete Christlieb's sax solo on "Deacon Blues" and compares it to Boney James, I want to hit them, hard, but I understand, and I forgive.

I give up, too. No more crossing The Divide to prospect for converts. My fellow Dan-o-philes and I will continue grooving to "Bad Sneakers" and marveling at Steve Gadd's drum breaks on "Aja" and developing theories like "Gaucho" is actually an argument between gay lovers. And we'll do it together, as an elite club, into our 80s and beyond.

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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