Monday, August 3, 2009

Nothing But Blues And Elvis..And Some Really Bad Vibes





I have a lot of friends, and approximately 19 of them hate Steely Dan; Donald Fagen specifically. They hate him so much that when I arrived at my favorite watering hole, a place where everybody knows my name, and they're (almost) always glad I came, my casual mention of the evening's plan to see them perform at NYC's Beacon Theatre, prompted one friend to comment with the same warmth usually reserved for murderers and child molesters.

"Really? Are you f**king serious? I can't believe you. Oh my God! (His arms are flailing now and he is starting to pace.) What's wrong with you? Fagen is such a d**k! I hate him AND I hate that music. I once broke up with the hottest girl I had ever met in my life because she liked Steely Dan."

These were the words of just one man. My friend and the on-duty bar manager, stormed out of the place. (He stormed back 30 seconds later.) Another friend came over and asked, "What's up with him?" I said, "I told him I was seeing Steely Dan tonight." "Oh, I hate Steely Dan," she said ."It's ok if you like them." (Really? Doesn't seem it.) I also received an anonymous text from a Santa Rosa area code that said, "Who the hell still listens to Steely Dan?" (I'm not kidding) Needless to say, when I got to my $100 balcony seat, I was not in the mood for any of what followed. I was actually thinking, "Man, I hate Steely Dan AND that terrible watering hole."

The band played flawlessly, of course, opening with an instrumental called Teenie's Blues, while the main Steely Dans waited in the wings. The orchestra barely moved, except for the body parts used to get sound out of their instruments. The three back-up singers, with nothing to sing yet, swayed rigidly, as if they were mounted on poles. THIS is Steely Dan. Some see solid musicians recreating the perfection of the studio. Others, the haters, see aliens, with ice in their veins, and coal for souls. I do too, sometimes. Becker and Fagen's pretentious lyrics bother me more than the slick hired hands they call a band. (And nothing bothers me more than music snobs, by the way.) Still, it's hard not to love the 5 classic albums released between 1972-1977, the guitar solos that have become songs of their own, and the infectious riffs and choruses of so many of their FM radio hits.

Since my night was "Internet Request Night" of the Beacon Theatre residency, and not one of the evenings where they played one of their "major works" in its entirety, once Don & Wally took the stage, I was surprised to hear the band open with side one of "Aja," followed by side two. Fagen explained that the whole record was voted for on the internet poll, so "we figured, what the hell?"



I have to admit, I barely enjoyed it, partly because I was confused. The band had canceled "Gaucho Night" earlier in the week, so had the week been reformatted? Is my night now "Aja Night?" Am I overreacting? Some would say so. Still, I let this easy-to-hit curve ball, as well as the aforementioned tongue-lashing affect me. I focused on everything but the music, including one additional, less than pleasant event on my way to the venue. (Another time. Another blog.) Barely 9PM, and this night was just about unsalvageable.

Adding insult to injury, Fagen had lost his voice. If you closed your eyes, you may have thought it was Carol Channing singing "Deacon Blues." (Was "Gaucho Night" canceled due to Fagen's illness?) His voice was frail, and cracked at every chorus. The show must go on, but I was NOT amused.

"Kid Charlemagne," "Rikki...," "Any Major Dude...," "FM," "Doctor Wu,"--musically, it all sounded fine. Perfect, actually. But, I am afraid that on this particular Saturday night, it was something else I may have been looking for.

This is a review of the 1964 classic, "Five Live Yardbirds" from this month's Uncut Magazine:

"Visceral, sweat-soaked, live LP, recorded at a packed Marquee. Clapton's guitar is hard-as-nails, Samwell-Smith's bass runs are stupendous and the 'rave-ups' make your hair stand on end."


That is exactly what Steely Dan isn't. In their defense, that is not what they advertise themselves to be, especially since the band does not include a 20 year old Eric Clapton, or any other young guys playing raucous British blues. But THAT is what I needed after the shaky start to my night. Instead, I was surrounded by a bunch of guys with bored girlfriends and wives, playing air Fender Rhodes to "Babylon Sisters." I realize that it is unfair to blame the band or the enthusiastic audience for my lack of enjoyment, but it's my blog, and I'll cry if I want to. And I still don't understand why the crowd was going nuts. I don't care how much you love a band, Fagen barely showed up. Even if I hadn't been raked over the coals for most of the night prior, and got to my $100 balcony seat in the best mood, Fagen still sounded like crap. I asked the guy next to me what he thought. His answer, "I like when Fagen's fried."

What does that mean?

I prefer my chicken fried, not my evenings or lead singers.

At least they didn't do "Godwhacker."

23 comments:

charlie c. said...

'If you closed your eyes, you may have thought it was Carol Channing singing "Deacon Blues." '

Ouch! That freakin' hurts . . .

Anonymous said...

"If you closed your eyes, you may have thought it was Carol Channing singing "Deacon Blues." '

That's excellent. My favorite line of the entire blog/review.

I probably would have loved to hear AJA in its entirety - expecting it or not, though.

Noam Sane said...

Cole Porter's writing was also quite pretentious. That's why he's all but forgotten today.

soundsource said...

ok I was gonna say something witty or whatever but then I saw that comment about poor old Cole Porter (not the band I assume, who probably have been forgotten) and hey I'd hardly say he's been forgotten but I bet there's a bigger chance that 40 odd years on from their demise steely dan will just be a footnote. oh and that witty thing will have to wait for another comment, sorry bout going off but it's your blog and i'll oh whatever.

Anonymous said...

Great review!
I wish you did this for a living.

Sal Nunziato said...

So do I

Anonymous said...

What about all those contacts you must've had when you owned your shop?

Sal Nunziato said...

I am sure they are looking for work.

Anonymous said...

Are they out of work too?

Anonymous said...

The lyrics only seem pretentious if you feel inferior to either the principals or the intellectual content. Perhaps Steely Dan is over your head a bit. Your review was so pithy I cannot even waste time on a proper lambasting.

Anonymous said...

Just so you know, Sal i'm not the above anonymous.

Sal Nunziato said...

Who are you to assume that I can't understand something simply because I find it pretentious? Perhaps I understand it all too well. It's not really a secret. Even Becker and Fagen have been known to acknowledge the smug collegiate tone of their lyrics.

As for something going over someone's head, it would seem the jist and point of my piece clearly sailed over yours.

The "review" was more about my evening, than the merits of Steely Dan, who I paid good money to see.

Sal Nunziato said...

Sorry..gist! (Got a bit worked up, there.)

Anonymous said...

Sounds like your evening kinda sucked although in my opinion, Steely Dan on a bad night beats many other acts on their good nights, but that's just me.

On another note, this band certainly polarizes people and that alone makes them significant.

Michael in New York said...

I really like Steely Dan and they certainly had a run of three or four albums that is essential listening. But I've always thought of them as a studio act and heard they were notoriously weak live; isn't that why they didn't tour for ages? Soundsource, I assume Noam Sane is kidding about Cole Porter, though I wouldn't call his lyrics pretentious -- sophisticated, witty, cultured, playful, but not pretentious as in reaching for a faux intellectual heft. I've always considered Steely Dan to be consciously puncturing pretentiousness, specifically the collegiate sort.

Anonymous said...

Suck a big fat dick, Nunziato. Suck it nice. How's that for a bit of un-pretentiousness. Long Live The Dan.

Sal Nunziato said...

Let me get this straight...big fat dick...suck...hard. K. Got it. Long live the Dan. Woo Hoo!!

Anonymous said...

Now what's going on with folks writing about sucking dick? Everyone's entitled to their opinion about music, why get into gutter talk?

Anonymous said...

Upon reading the comments, I can't help but think it's funny that anonymous EITHER can't fathom that you're trying to tell him that you weren't knocking the music of Steely Dan , but rather pointing out that their performance on that particular night was problematic enough to keep them from being able to raise the evening above the circumstances, OR he simply can't abide anyone ever approaching a beloved band with a discriminating eye for the difference between a good, bad, or great night on stage. Sal, Anonymous, and I all agree that their music is usually great, but no band should be a sacred ( Black ?) cow whose every offering should be treated as if they could do no wrong. We're not music fans because we think all performances are equal, so none of us should be afraid of hearing that one of our personal favorites left someone else cold on a given night. No one should be told to suck a big fat dick because they had the nerve to point out that it Rseemed to us that the emperor seemed to us to have had no clothes.
I mean how can you be a Steely Dan fan , and not have a respect for people with strong opinions about music ? Do you honestly think Donald Fagen wouldn't have pointed it out if he had been to a show where the singer had lost his voice? He'd have pointed it out if the A string on the second guitar was a half-step out of tune, and you know it .

Noam Sane said...

Nice thread.

I guess this gets back to a comment I made regarding the fact the part of the fun we derive from popular music involves slagging bands or artists we don't like (which you discussed in a subsequent post, I'm honored by the way).

In retrospect, I think the fun really comes from the subsequent argument, such as that going on above (excepting the penis reference, of course).

There's nothing better than sitting across from someone who is as passionate and knowledgeable about music and just arguing for a few hours. You know - you can reference, say, Captain Beyond and get a laugh (rather than a blank look).

So, love Steely Dan or hate 'em, this kind of thread tickles me.

That said, Fagen had a cold and tried to pull off the gig anyway. Good on him. At the very least, you got some nice horn solos, watched one of the best rock drummers in the business, and were treated to one of the greatest, if overplayed, pop albums ever.

Roger Ebert has often commented on how ones mental state can affect his/her view of a film - so maybe your bio-rhythms were a bit down that day. If you'd gone back the next night, maybe you'd have had a completely different reaction. (For one thing, you would have seen Larry Carlton play the Kid C. solo - he was sitting in that night).

I'm glad Fagen/Becker are still around and working it, off-night or no, they are a sort of national treasure and popular music would be much duller without them.

Airman said...

I wish I had enough self control not to send that text to you...

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Michael in New York said...

Wait, when he told you to suck a big fat dick, was that supposed to be a bad thing?

By the way, I agree with Anonymous. No, not that one. The other one.