One evidently satisfied customer of Friday’s just-finished Steely Dan show addresses his three-foot radius on the 72nd Street subway platform: “Just straight music. No fancy crap.” He has just left a half-gilded room—the Beacon Theatre—where the lighting changed four times a minute and every other song concluded with 10 seconds of noodling. A room where the guitarists favored chords that appeared to require six fingers.
Steely Dan’s music—stubbornly perfect jazz-rock played by the ablest hands money can buy—is not particularly simple. Nor is it particularly friendly. Donald Fagen’s lyrics, for those who care to listen over the licks and fills, are usually about losers redeemed only by other losers, if at all. The music is vain in its complexity. It knows that it’s the smartest thing in the room.
This doesn’t seem to bother the fans, who respond dutifully and without subtlety. On hearing the opening piano figure to “My Old School,” the woman next to me is seized, ejected from her chair, instantly on her feet and already in mid-clap, gyrating. The moment has selected her. Tonight, it’s what she exists for.
At the beginning of the show, part of which is dedicated to a top-down performance of 1976’s The Royal Scam, the woman’s husband leans over to her and says, “The Royal Scam. You have to understand, this was sixth grade for me.” I look at the man and try to imagine him, 12 years old, staring at the album’s cover: a gothic cartoon of a wan Wall Street hustler curled up under a sky blotted out by clouds thicker than firesmoke, the surrounding skyscrapers crowned with the heads of snarling monsters. What does a 12-year-old make of that? What does a 12-year-old make of the insular, jagged music on the record, or the permanent sneer in Fagen’s voice? And why did he choose it over the buttered baked potato of AC/DC?
Nearby, a young dude in a ball cap, maybe 25, reacts to the onstage presence of Larry Carlton—the Grammy-winning guitarist and Dan collaborator, whose tight, flared pants are the male musicians’ only concession to sexuality—like he’s 90 minutes into a mescaline dose fit for two. On hearing the first notes of “Aja,” he stares at his hands and begins shaking. “OH, YEAH,” he screams, rising from his seat. “OH, YEAH!” As the song reaches its great pasture in which the players will solo, I can hear him begging from the edge of delirium: “GIVE IT TO LARRY!”
Steely Dan is in the midst of an eight-show run here; the following night’s show is dedicated to Internet requests. Apparently, enough demands have come in for each track from 1977’s Aja that the band plays it top-down, followed by a smattering of hits comparable to Friday’s post–Royal Scam set. Aja is a pivotal album in Steely Dan’s catalog—maybe their most famous, maybe their most innovative, not necessarily their best. Early Steely Dan songs, despite expert handling, have a rootsy, approachable quality to them. Not folk music, exactly, but something closer to folk than what they arrived at on Aja: ass-puckering precision, sweatless funk, soul music forged in Los Angeles labs. At the same time, Fagen, whose lyrics had always been cynical, started to sound just a little sympathetic. If there’s one incandescent character in Steely Dan’s lyrics, it’s the alcoholic saxophonist spiraling through darkness on “Deacon Blues”: “I cried when I wrote this song/Sue me if I play too long”—a sob story that I sometimes actually sob at.
Fagen—who has a cold and sings like it—thanks everyone for coming, but doesn’t smile once in two hours. There’s a can of Coke on top of his keyboard. Next to it, a box of tissues in a leopard-print cozy. Co-founder Walter Becker shivers, Jello-like and expressionless, but in the heat of the music, he appears to be working in private math. Fagen twists and lurches, crushed by unseen forces. As showmen, they’re distant and uncomfortable: They’re too busy slaving to their art to socialize. After Becker sings “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More” on Saturday night, Fagen mutters an aside about how Becker’s father does live in New York City, and how that’s funny. Or something like that—his voice is reduced to a hum under the applause. “The fathers of life are the joys of art,” he says by way of conclusion. “What?” asks the guy behind me. Someone next to him screams, “PLAY ‘KATY LIED,’ ” which is actually an album by Steely Dan, not a song.
It’s not clear how all these people found entrance to this music, or how it got so popular in the first place. Many of the male fans in the audience appear to be the kind of guys who would have given Fagen and Becker wedgies in grade school. Sometimes, I think fans of the Dan—I’m including myself here—listen selectively, and are more than happy to ignore the possibility that the band is talking over our heads. But I guess that if they were, we wouldn’t hear them at all.
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