Steely Dan Does It Again

Steely Dan wraps up its series of New York concerts (the Rent Party '09 Tour) at the Beacon Theatre this week proving that their music remains as timeless as ever.
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Steely Dan wraps up its series of New York concerts (the Rent Party '09 Tour) at the Beacon Theatre this week proving that Reelin' In The Years takes a lot longer with the passage of time.

These sparkling performances served as a time capsule for those who came of musical age in the 1970s. The Beacon bulged with the masses of midlife. Sitting in Dockers and loose-fitting jeans, with hair that had grayed and also disappeared, they came to reclaim the soundtrack that underscored all those broken hearts, parental fights, and awkward moments when life itself was a Royal Scam, intelligible only with Pretzel Logic.

The fans of Steely Dan once considered themselves cool in high school and complicated in college. The music of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen -- the band's founding fathers -- appealed to both misfits and intellectuals. There was wizardry in their word play and an abundance of irony that smirked at the self-conscious earnestness that passed for rock and roll during post-Watergate America.

While disco and punk engaged in their own class conflicts and rivalries -- symbolically represented by Tony Manero's white suit and Johnny Rotten's spiky orange hair -- Becker and Fagen transcended all cultural pretenses and political statements. And their fans wouldn't be caught dead listening to disco or thrashing around in a mosh pit, either.

All that mattered was the music itself -- the sweet spot fusion between jazz and funk, ornamented with those sinuous guitar rhythms, meticulous bass lines and dramatic drum solos.

Throughout the 1970s most bands took grooming tips from The Bee Gees while Steely Dan was rarely photographed. And when the occasional snapshot did surface, the band members seemed to be looking elsewhere, away from the camera.

In fact, they were not so much a band as a loose configuration of stellar musicians, orbiting around Becker and Fagen as if Steely Dan was its own Apollo mission -- not the kind that rocketed into space, but rather the one that owed its allegiance to Apollo, the god of music and poetry, himself.

Each Steely Dan album revealed an obsession with remaining original. Becker and Fagen tinkered in recording studios while other bands toured arenas. During a decade dominated by folk rock and heavy metal extravaganzas -- music that would later inspire valentines such as Almost Famous and parodies such as This Is Spinal Tap -- Steely Dan refused to play in front of live audiences.

All seven of their albums went platinum, selling 30 million records worldwide. Yet their fans never got a chance to see them play -- until only recently. For this reason the Rent Party '09 Tour, and its earlier incarnations, have been received as coming-out parties for the band and its fans alike.

And so Becker and Fagen now shuffle across the stage like a couple of jovial, slightly dangerous uncles who everyone looks forward to seeing on Christmas (actually, more like Hanukkah since they are both purportedly Jewish). They look worn, but no worse than the glistening grooves of a couple of vintage LPs.

What is it about the psychic pull that music exerts on the mind and the memories? Nothing else is as transporting or as physically locating as the songs that were played and listened to during transformative times. They are rite of passage lullabies heard over and over again in darkened bedrooms and on long stretches of highway where the horizon beckons like a future that keeps its distance.

My Old School may sound older nowadays, and the reasons for never going back are no doubt less important if not entirely forgotten. Yet the music of Steely Dan remains as timeless as ever.

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