Sunday 17 June 2018

Don 'n' Walter, still reeling in the years

Playing two massively anticipated shows in Dublin at the end of October, Steely Dan are the jazz-rock Holy Grail

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (right) of Steely Dan
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (right) of Steely Dan
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Music is not advanced metaphysics, and nor should it be. But on rare occasions, you can get something more profound perhaps than what is the norm listening to certain artists. (Insert your own favourites here...)

"I discover new things every time I put a Steely Dan record on," Mark Ronson said a few years ago. "I'm still discovering songs for the first time."

This statement is quite possibly true for many of us. There is a hardcore base of Steely Dan fans who analyse every lyric, every difficult chord change, for some complex muso meaning, or a clue to the search for their own particular Holy Grail.

I like to have a glass of wine and listen to the beauty of Brooklyn Owes the Charmer Under Me, or maybe Deacon Blues and the rest of the band's masterful 1977 album, Aja.

Dylan Jones in GQ magazine possibly went a bit over-the-top to make his point in 2014 that Aja was Steely Dan's high-water mark.

"You can keep your Zuma, your Neon Bible, your Back To Black, your Parachutes, and your OK Computer. You can even keep The Chronic. They might all be straight from the heart, but Steely Dan's Aja offers the delights of a world uncharted by pop groups, past or present. Those who hate the band call them sterile, surgical, cold...

"Which is sort of the point," added Jones, accurately enough.

"[Donald] Fagen and his band mate Walter Becker - fundamentally sociopaths masquerading as benign dictators - like to give the impression they're being as insincere as possible, the very antithesis, frankly, of almost everyone else in the music business."

There is a lovely if slightly ridiculous rumour that Loudon Wainwright III was once asked to join Steely Dan as the main vocalist but declined, and that Fagen only remained as the singer because the band could not find anyone else with the so-called "smirky feel" the music required. Read any of the band's interviews and it is difficult not to raise the required smirk.

Asked last year how he and Walter Becker had managed to be a team for so long - despite the break in the 1980s and very early 1990s - Fagen's reply was as slick and sophisticated and multi-layered and full of masterful wit as some of their songs.

"This question reminds me of an old Burns and Allen episode where Gracie threatens to leave George. He considers going back to what he was doing before he met Gracie and then realises that 'nobody buys hand-painted socks any more'."

Another, less recent example of the bedazzling wit was found in 1995, when they were asked by Mojo magazine why they decided to go back out on the road after 19 years.

The answers - heavily tongue-in-cheek - could have been ripped from the Marx Brothers...

Becker: "Well, clearly it was a mistake. We see that now."

Fagen: "Yeah. I'm gonna rescind the whole thing. Can we recall the summer tours of '93 and '94?"

Becker: "We're gonna send all the money back. In fact, anybody who has been to one of our shows in the past two years, if you would be willing to send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the offices of our business managers, we will cheerfully refund the price of your tickets. There is a $100 filing fee associated with our book-keeping costs, so make sure you include that."

Steely Dan's two shows in Dublin at the 3Arena in Dublin in October - the supergroup's first show in Ireland since 1996 at The Point - will arguably be the major musical event of the year, by one of the greatest acts of the 20th century. Two great nights of jazz-rock metaphysics await.

Steely Dan play Bluesfest 2017 with The Doobie Brothers on October 28 and 30.

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