Musical reputations have cycles, oscillations, peaks and troughs. It can get pretty rough in the troughs. But no matter where in the culture cycle the music of Steely Dan is at any given moment (my street sense suggests that this has been a down period for their legacy; I have detected a kind of venom afoot that used to be reserved for the Grateful Dead alone), Fagan and Becker and their luxury fleet of sidemen will always enjoy the undying loyalty, gratitude and fervent advocacy of one particular niche audience: the ones we call “players.”
By this we mean not just anyone/everyone who plays an instrument well, but…you know, players, the cats: trained at Berklee and other elite Jazz Studies and Commercial Music programs (Purchase these days), or else self-taught with a chip on the shoulder, veterans of studio work and road gigs, the I-could-cut-this-turkey-with-a-dull-butter-knife players, hopping from singer/songwriter gig to singer/songwriter gig, maybe not even bothering to pretend that they like that sh*t anymore, but the fact is that only Wayne Shorter gets to live like Wayne Shorter. There are, at any given time, about 12 people in the world making a good living off the kind of music that the player wishes she could play for a living.
When their ears have druthers, players can like some pretty dubious pop music at times (Toto, for example). But among pop groups and singer/songwriters, Steely Dan is a Parthenon outfit: finally, a pop group with hits – many hits over many years – that is completely player-safe and player-certified. It is not just that the Dan commanded a slick and deceptively dissonant jazz harmony in pop and rock contexts in a way that was really startling and cool and right at the center of the musical action of the 20th century; it is not just Steve Gadd, Chuck Rainey, Larry Carlton, Skunk Baxter, Jay Graydon and you-name-it (Wayne Shorter, for example) played with great character and taste on their records. It is also that Fagan is in fact a wry, dark and legit post-Beat poet of some kind – a deceptively dangerous and discomfiting soul, if you really look into his lyrics. In other words, Steely Dan is one of the very few musically sophisticated groups of their era with lyrical content and personae that lived up to the sophistication and quietly revolutionary nature of the music. There’s Joni Mitchell, and who else?
The visionary novelist and cyberpunk William Gibson famously wrote, “I have always maintained that Steely Dan’s music was, has been and remains among the most genuinely subversive oeuvres in late-20th-century pop.” For this reason, I will go on record here that the Steely Dan music legacy will never get stuck, as some legacies do, in a permanent or purgatorial trough. Finally, at the end of the day, they were just too weird and formidable for that. Their music will always be divisive, always be misunderstood as slick and smooth; but it will never be insignificant.
The other thing about the Dan: Not everyone can play it. It’s hard. The Falcon hosts “Reelin’ in the Years,” an all-star Steely Dan tribute show on Saturday, July 8 at 7 p.m. The cast assembled includes some of the A-list area players, like the rock-star drummer Jerry Marotta, the great bassist and producer Scott Petito (who always seems to be at the center of these things), ace saxophonist Jay Collins, Rundgren sideman Jesse Gress, the awesome jazz guitarist/composer Matt Finck and many more. Be assured that these cats will not take it lightly.
The Falcon is located at 1348 Route 9W in Marlboro. For more information, visit www.liveatthefalcon.com.