By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
By Ray Cummings
By Nicholas Pell
In an early episode of the online comedy series "Yacht Rock," Fagen is portrayed as a guy who wears turtlenecks in hot weather and speaks in grunting half-words that Becker has to translate for other people—the joke being that Becker and Fagen may be cranky aliens from the backside of the universe, but, boy, does their music sound smooth on the stereo. In a later episode, a guy playing Don Henley leans into a record player spinning The Royal Scam, tenses his brow, and snaps at the guy playing Glenn Frey: "Shhh, listen! Is that dark sarcasm?"
So we burrow into their zero-sum tales of antiheroes and shrug off the agreeable music. Or we revel in the expertise, the bounce, the reggae-lite and the sleek soul, but ignore how downright pitiable the characters are. The narrator of "Hey Nineteen" is a thirtysomething struggling through conversation with a fun-loving co-ed because he values the satisfaction of his penis over the health of his soul. The lyrics don't condemn him, but they don't support him, either. They're indifferent. He becomes carefully separated and immortalized—a glorious loser. These stories aren't just slogans and anthems. They are complex, and they do warrant discussion and rumination. But they don't need it as long as the music remains hot and tasteful. On the lyrics "She thinks I'm crazy/But I'm just growing old," half the room joins in.
The band metes out some free breadsticks and doggy paddles through a couple of songs. Some are so ferociously anticipated by the crowd that it doesn't really matter when the band plays them like clinicians. But most of Friday and Saturday's sets reveal muscles in the music that I never heard on record. "Black Friday" and "Kid Charlemagne" drive the fans to fits, and rightfully, and how. But the real revelation, to me at least, were the slowest, darkest ones: "Haitian Divorce," "The Royal Scam," the unhurried nightmare of "Third World Man"—songs that crawl through apocalyptic visions, each downbeat a crush followed by jets of fume. Live, they pulled weight more reminiscent of heavy metal than cocktail rocks.
On Wednesday, the band cancelled and rescheduled a show in which they'd been scheduled to play the entirety of 1980's Gaucho. In lieu of the concert, I visited my dad, the man partially responsible for my obsession with pop music. Waiting for the rain to calm down, he tossed his umbrella back and forth between hands. "Steely Dan, yeah." He looked out at traffic with the screwed-up face of someone who just saw mouse innards smeared on the sidewalk. "I never 'got' Steely Dan. 'You've been telling me you were a genius since you were 17,' " he continued, quoting "Reelin' in the Years." "It's what I like to call 'feel-bad' music. I only ever really liked 'Don't Take Me Alive.' The image of this guy locked in a room with a bunch of dynamite—that always seemed very Steely Dan to me."
After the performance of Aja on Saturday night, a young man in the row ahead of me shouts for "Don't Take Me Alive." He shouts for it after every song, louder each time. (Fagen finally responds to the hail of requests by saying, " 'Ribbity-bibbity-boppity-boo.' That's what it sounds like to me up here.") Finally, Becker plays a fractured, detached guitar figure. The young man rises, victorious, his fists in the air. An older man next to him, presumably his father, points to him, smiling, proud. Then Fagen sings the song, about a guy locked in a room with a bunch of dynamite. I know what you mean about feel-bad music, but Dad, the crowd likes it.
Steely Dan play the Beacon Theatre August 10–12