Steely Dan Soldiers On

Have there ever been unlikelier rock stars than Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the duo behind Steely Dan? The unabashedly intellectual Bard College grads—in high school, they were probably the bookish kids dressed in black, smoking cigarettes behind the gym—have certainly never looked the part: Fagen, impish and skinny; Becker, more like a bearded college professor than the sybaritic rock star he actually was in the 1970s.

And then there’s the music, an engaging mix of jazz, rock, Latin beats, and pop hooks. Not to mention, this is a band that, during the zenith of the touring days of the likes of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, refused to play live. As for their name—well, look it up, this is family website. All in all, Fagen and Becker—brilliant lyricists—would surely dock for me deploying the cliché, but I can’t think of a better way to put it: Steely Dan broke the mold.

But perhaps most unlikely is that Steely Dan soldiers on, even after Becker’s death last September. What remains of the band played Wednesday night at the MGM Grand near Washington, D.C.—an oddly antiseptic venue for the Dan to appear in, and an ironic one, given that their first big hit (unplayed last night), laments an addicted gambler. The band is terrific—virtuoso drummer Keith Carlock deserves a special mention—as was the show, if a bit short, clocking in just shy of two hours.

Or perhaps it’s not strange at all. Because Steely Dan were never really a band, per se. Fundamentally, Fagen and Becker were songwriters and arrangers, hiring an ever expanding array of studio musicians to record their albums. (A bit like Brian Wilson, really.) Gaucho, their 1980 opus (the title track might be my favorite Steely Dan song of all time) features a reported 42 musicians. For a taste of how they made their albums, watch this short video about the recording of “Peg,” from 1977’s Aja. And try not to feel bad for the studio musicians, who had to deal with Fagen and Becker’s obsessive perfectionism.

Which is to say, Becker-less Steely Dan isn’t, for example, Kiss, which is rotating new members in and out of various slots, suggesting that that “band” will continue even after Gene Simmons has shuffled off this mortal coil. More than almost any other band, it doesn’t really matter who is playing Steely Dan’s music. And, unlike in Kiss’s case, there’s nothing cynical about that.

Not to say that Becker’s absence wasn’t noted. For one, Steely Dan is down to one guitar—the excellent Jon Herrington—a recognition that nobody could fill Becker’s absence. And in a particularly touching moment, Fagen played one of Becker’s solo tunes, the moody ballad “Book of Liars.” Other than that, the set featured a nice mix of big hits and deeper cuts. Fagen also allowed his cracking band to play two jazz tunes, at the opening and conclusion of the set.

Long live Steely Dan, whatever form it takes.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard


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