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08.20.08

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Phaedra
Photograph by Danny Clinch

Sizzling like an Isotope: Using the best musicians in the industry to set fire to their dazzlingly smart lyrics, Steely Dan find no middle ground with listeners. You either love 'em or you hate 'em. It's frankly freaky.

Yacht Rock

Who else but Steely Dan could marry a strap-on to the perils of great Ulysses?


Lured West to play that irresistibly overflowing dosh-bash known as a Las Vegas private party, Steely Dan strangely enough end their national summer tour in Santa Rosa. Or perhaps not so strangely. I last saw them at the Mid State Fair, working outside in the fading 110-degree Paso Robles heat. This is a gig they reprised last month, so it's probably safe to note that the once elusive duo known only as a studio band are now more used to crowds. Of course, one of the great things about the Wells Fargo Center is that "crowds" becomes a less explicit word in its 1,600 seat confines.

According to Wells Fargo Center director of programming Rick Bartalini, Dan fans have been making special requests with their tickets and none of them has anything to do with being close to the stage. Rather, it's about finding that spot in the intimate hall where the sound hits sweetest. Naturally, those seats near the mixing board are way sold-out.

A Steely Dan show can have an air of mystery to it. Will they play even one hit or will they stick to the music that's most currently interesting to them to the exclusion of all else, as they did at the Shoreline Amphitheater some years ago? Will the frighteningly intelligent Donald Fagen deign to speak or will he just hunker down grumpily over his keyboards, pissed to be in the sticks? And please no, no please no, will Walter Becker please not be allowed to do a song from his solo career? (Alas, he has a new solo disc.)

I've seen 'em do it every way, though the Mid State gig, interrupted as it was by carnival sounds and amateurish fireworks from the surrounding fair, was curiously the most satisfying. With a full horn section led by the late Cornelius Bumpus and with a complement of gorgeous women singing backup so hot that it was the audio equivalent of the sway and give of unbridled breasts in a red silk shirt, Fagen and Becker gave the audience every hit. And there are a lot of them.

Funny thing about Steely Dan. Evidently, you either love 'em or you hate 'em, as we found out when we decided to mount a Steely-Dan-a-Thon in honor of their two-night Wells Fargo Center stand. Bruce Robinson remembers one of their first public gigs, Gabe Meline heartily blames them for the smooth jazz explosion, Leilani Clark confesses flat-out love, Karl Byrn explores how they're like Alice Cooper and certified sexologist P. Joseph Potocki traces the brave arc of dildo rock. Fun!

Steely Dan appear Tuesday–Wednesday, Aug. 26–27, at the Wells Fargo Center. 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. 8pm. $49.50–$149.50. 707.546.3600.


—Gretchen Giles

Night of the Living Dan

As hyped-up Hollywood showcase gigs go, this one in early 1972 was relatively low-key. For one thing, it was held at the Whiskey a Go Go and not the newer and trendier Roxy a little way up the Sunset Strip. For another, the invitation list somehow included the manager of a student-run radio station at a small college across town.

Never one to admire a given horse's dentistry, I was happily sitting at the front of the modest club's small balcony when the lights came down and the sounds of musicians settling into place curled out from behind the slightly frayed curtain. It rose as the drummer ticked off a beat and a stuttering guitar lick led the band into their opening number. Arrayed across the triangular stage, nearly obscuring the drummer at the back, was a front line of five musicians, including a tall, dour-faced keyboardist standing at the far right.

As the first song's chorus came around, the earnest lead singer was suddenly, gloriously surrounded by a wave of ringing voices as the full front five leaned into their microphones and filled the room with crisp harmonies. "Are you reelin' in the years?" they demanded. "Are you gatherin' up the tears? Have you had enough of mine?"

Those rhetorical musical questions, of course, remain unanswered. But there was no doubt, as the set unfurled, that this new band—with its odd mixture of pop hooks and complex song structures, wry, inscrutable lyrics and the slightly salacious in-joke name—was a crack performing unit. But no sooner had their debut album Can't Buy a Thrill scaled the charts than the supporting tour took its toll and the downsizing of the Dan began, with singer David Palmer the first to depart. (He re-emerged later with the worthy but overlooked Southern California band Wha-Koo.)

Steely Dan were a quintet for the 1973 Countdown to Ecstasy LP and tour, after which Jeff "Skunk" Baxter moved on to the Doobie Brothers, and from 1974's Pretzel Logic on, the "band" existed only as a studio collaboration directed by the famously exacting songwriting team of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.

Twenty-plus years after that memorable debut, the Dan duo regrouped and emerged from their self-imposed performing exile with a pair of summer tours that yielded Alive in America, the group's only official live recording. And there (despite a hoot of a Howl- inspired rant about the trials of their prior tour experiences in the CD booklet) it was clear that seven albums and a full generation later, Steely Dan were once again a crack live ensemble, still reelin' in the years.

—Bruce Robinson


And Get Out of Here

High school jazz band, 1991. It had been 15 years since Steely Dan were cool, which was eons to us but was like yesterday to our band teacher. He was always valiantly aiming for us to be the high school that played "cool" music, so there we were, stuck playing Steely Dan.

As the bass player, I should have relished the bass lines to "Black Cow" and "Peg," since both consist of flashy, gargantuan anchors for the indomitably polished tunes on the surface. But at 15, my bullshit meter went off. The songs weren't "cool." They used too many major seventh chords and ninth chords and something wanky called a "mu major" chord. They reeked of cocaine and polyester excess and icky sex parties thrown by people who don't know how gross they look. They were the soundtrack to Amway and EST and Mind Dynamics and a whole lotta other crap our parents were once into.

Steely Dan may not have been the birth of smooth jazz, but they were certainly its midwife into the world of commercial success, and if that's not enough to send them to the musical gallows, then I don't know what is. It's harsh, I know. But Becker and Fagen are used to people dissing them. After all, aren't the liner notes to Aja just about what a couple of assholes they are?

—Gabe Meline


Drugs in the Cabin

During a visit to London in 1998, my friends took me to the Bug Bar, a Brixton pub in the basement of an old church. With its dark atmosphere and intimidatingly cool clientele, the place was like a scene from a movie. The dance floor was packed. The DJ rotated among Michael Jackson, Prince and New Order when, suddenly, with the flick of a needle, he mixed it up. The sweet opening strains of "Peg," one of Steely Dan's greatest tunes, swept across the dance floor. Nobody stopped. Nobody laughed. The hipsters kept dancing. It was a completely un-ironic gesture. And it was something that I'd never before experienced in my punk-rock-steeped cultural life.

When I returned home, I found a copy of Aja on vinyl and listened to it endlessly, enamored with the smoothness, the musical virtuosity and the lyrical enigmas. What is Donald Fagen really singing about when he says, "Then the shutter falls / You see it all in 3-D / It's your favorite foreign movie"? The song gained even more cachet for me after I became obsessed with Michael McDonald, the world's greatest backup singer, and during an intense Steely Dan listening session, discovered that, indeed, he had sung the fabulous backup vocals on the chorus to my new favorite song.

Of course, there is an element to the music that brings to mind sleek sailing yachts, wide-framed sunglasses, cool linen against a thigh, a white wine spritzer held in a manicured hand. Drugs in the cabin. But I love this element as much as the music itself. It's like going into a time warp, one where the music was smooth and the lyrics were important.

—Leilani Clark


Can Buy a Thrill

Steely Dan reminds me of Alice Cooper. Along with such classic rock acts as Elton John, Deep Purple, Jackson Brown, Yes and Lynyrd Skynyrd, Dan and Cooper have been the subjects of a recent obsessive consumer binge of mine. Not satisfied with mere best-of discs, I've instead wrestled with the entire '70s output of these acts. This has often been a poor choice. Cooper, John and Purple recorded terrific hits, but their album filler is largely outdated. Browne has powerful content but stiff production, while Yes remain sonically bracing but feature irrelevant content. Skynyrd's great discs are tasty and substantial but clouded by the stigma of flag-waving red-neckism.

But the tasty and substantial Steely Dan catalogue carries no such stigma, no outdated production, no filler. In fact, their albums are almost too fresh and perfect, pulling off a weird, rare miracle of squeezing complexity from compromise. Their boogie-rock beats actually swing, the knotty guitar lines work like easy hooks, the arty jazz-fusion chords are sweet to follow and the obtuse lyrical allusions are full of candy.

Often, the thrills are lesser tracks, like Countdown to Ecstasy's "Pearl of the Quarter," where a timid pedal-steel guitar almost evokes a modern alt-country band trying to ape '70s-era Steely Dan. It's not all feel-good oldies, though; Steely Dan had some ill-defined thing for the homeless, from the scary track "Charlie Freak" to lyrics like "While your poor people sleeping / All the stars come out at night," from the cut "Show Biz Kids."

Mind you, to soothe a true classic-rock jones, I'll take Alice Cooper's single hits "I'm Eighteen" and "Be My Lover" over any Steely Dan hit any day. But the holistic completeness of Steely Dan's albums reminds me that I'm done with Cooper's albums.

—Karl Byrn


Dildo Rock

Tunesmiths Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have been chart-topping rockers for close to 40 years now. Since the drollmeisters will soon be laying down their smooth ironies here, it's long overdue to thrust beyond merely cataloguing their many hits and spats or ruminating over some arcane lyric's meaning.

The dildo's highest tribute no doubt is the heavy metal steam-driven device popularized in the 1959 Beat novel The Naked Lunch, writ large by gay trust-fund junkie William Seward Burroughs. Using Burroughs for titular inspiration, Fagen and Becker's Steely Dan conjures up rock 'n' roll's alchemical parallel universe—equal parts slick and clever, elegant and jazzy—impeccably produced, refined and eminently mature-person-palatable. Yet, the latest wave of dildo rockers might never have come to scream, wretch and thunder had they not Steely Dan's polished and finely tuned pretensions to object to.

And so on to Steely Dan's dissipated coevals. Dildo contemporaries abound, from Donovan and his psychedelic paean to electric bananas, to convict country-perv David Allen Coe's romantic tearjerker "The Vibrator Queen," to Van Morrison's irritable labeling of Jefferson Airplane wasteoid Grace Slick as "Daphne Dildo," to the Vibrators, a three-piece Brit punk band that's chug-a-drugged itself through 21 members in 32 years, to Wendy O. Williams, Courtney Love and other dead and doddering dildo rockettes, to the girl with ants on her face—an uncredited Jean Warren—taking on an aptly named Sex Pistol in the movie The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, with her timeless tease, "You, Steve Jones, are nothing but a walking dildo doing a good plumbing job."

Let's add S.F.'s beloved Tubes delivering both "Attack of the Fifty-Foot Dildo" and "Dithering Dildos on Dynamite Dope." And who can forget famed groupie Cynthia "Plaster Caster," mama of the gesso tribute to Jimi Hendrix, as well as to a spate of lesser rock gods' members, including Dead Kennedy Jello Biafra's and Kiss maestro Gene Simmons'. Moreover, what are Led Zeppelins, Rolling Stones and Yellow Submarines if not either festive gargantuan phallic probes and hepcat jargon for orbs ensconced within their baseload pouches?

Thanks in no small part to the shrill ream-graphic portrayal of Burroughs' own, the Steely Dan has long gone foreign. The Dildo Warheads, a self-described "grungy guitarrockband" from Belgium, vie with Dildo, a Mexican punk aggregate, for top billing, while Placebo, a London-based "androgynous glam version of Nirvana" (the very band which gave us the log-jam classic "Brick Shithouse"), might just leapfrog to the top of the international marquee with their 22-and-a-half-minute epic "Burger Queen/Evil Dildo."

This isn't to say that there's not plenty of good ol' homegrown dildo rockers here to choose from. Regrettably, Alabama's much grieved-for Stone Cold Dildo has left a distinctive glory hole in rock's privy wall. But there's still the anonymous-chick-fronted four-piece Rock and Roll Dildos, the singer gloriously wrecking her pipes to screech, "We are the future of dildo rock!" Then there's the alt band Maria and the Broken Dildos, Milwaukee's own punkin' Brutal Dildos and a pantheon of others that space does not permit.

So while ancien régime rockers Steely Dan will hopefully perform live in Santa Rosa, it's the amplified reactions they have wrought from the depths of our species' shared sexual psychosis which seems to keenly interest those who now really matter—namely, today's seething young adolescents. Because no matter your age, equipment or music preference, just like diamonds, dildos rock forever.

So while ancien régime rockers Steely Dan will hopefully perform live in Santa Rosa, it's the amplified reactions they have wrought from the depths of our species' shared sexual psychosis which seems to keenly interest those who now really matter—namely, today's seething young adolescents. Because no matter your age, equipment or music preference, just like diamonds, dildos rock forever.

—P. Joseph Potocki


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