Steely Dan ‘Jamalot—[a Lot!]—Ever After’: The Show Biz Kids Are Still Pioneering Music on the New Frontier
Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. ~ Percy Shelley
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
~ Arthur O’Shaughnessy, “Ode,” Music and Moonlight [emphases mine.]
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
~ Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
~ epigraph to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus
(originally in John Milton, Paradise Lost)
I was benevolent and good—misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.
~ the unnamed monster, to Victor Frankenstein
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for
an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night....
~ Allen Ginsberg, Howl
Look, we all go way back, and uh, I owe you from the thing with the guy in the place.
~ Ted Griffin, Ocean’s Eleven
I had fully intended to present a high-minded penetration of Steely Dan’s opening toke on their “Jamalot Ever After” tour; and, per the preceding epigrammatic head-notes, I still shall. Trust me. Or not. Because if I had wanted to go for the quickie ‘money shot,’ I would have prematurely, though pointedly, entitled this review: “Steely Dan Fucks Us Hard!” (And yes, Mesdames et Messieurs, they wholly did.)
Before essaying that more earnest effort, however: Since neither the recitation of comparatives nor a litany of superlatives suffice to ascribe the unbearable lightness of bearing witness—of being privy—to the Steely ones’ current live-in-performance mastery, let me instead begin by invoking this single, elongated evocative high praise: FUUUCK!
Of course, that particular expletive is, ahem, hardly mislaid here, given that we—well, or at least Don and Walt’s generation of sole survivors—know a “steely dan” originally was, c/o William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, the moniker for a dildo, and remains so c/o Steely Dan’s successful figurative iterations of this sobriquet.
Here, though, an extended “fuuuck” will indeed have to suffice, to supplant whatever I might and shall otherwise endeavor to convey vis-à-vis impressing upon us the musical-lyrical genius we have listened to for decades, then experienced live, and now gyrate to once again, as Messieurs Donald Fagen and Walter Becker ... and their ever-impeccable orchestral coterie have kicked out the jams at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon, to inaugurate the über-delectable for their “Jamalot Ever After” tour.
Jamalot? No. They jammed exclusively in this—the most recent, and still light years ahead of its time!—sweet-saucy-unsavory incarnation of nocturnal rhythmic emissions that is: Steely Dan.
Concert promoter and impresario Bill Graham’s singular honorific famously anointed The Grateful Dead thusly: “They’re not the best at what they do; they’re the only ones that do what they do.” Likewise, it must be said, of Steely Dan ... except that I should emphatically recommend that, not only do the Dan do best what only they do, but what is more—to crib writer David Wild’s witty if ultimately insufficient comment on the universe of Steely Dan’s obscurantist lyrics and landscape: “We often don’t know what the hell the people in the songs are actually doing, but we’re pretty damn certain that they shouldn’t be doing it at all.”
Wild’s observation, if pithy and perhaps accurate, nevertheless lacks a gravitas that comes, okay fair enough, not from always knowing what’s going on, but yes, from the capacity for intuiting the cultural zeitgeist and sifting through the intellectual and emotive sum-of-the-musical-lyrical-parts. For examples, protagonists in two of Dylan’s rhetorical inquisitions—“Like a Rolling Stone” (“How does it feel to be on your own?”); and “Ballad of a Thin Man” (“Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones? ... ‘Here is your throat back. Thanks for the loan.’”)—do not know what the hell is going on, but the singer/songwriter-as-narrator does want us to know ... does want us to figure it out ... wants us to grapple and to grok, and, perhaps with the less-odious, to reckon with “world-losers and world-forsakers” whom O’Shaughnessy observed in his latter-19th-century poem and who populate Steely Dan’s mid-late 20th-century (and now, too, their 21st-century) arch-visionary oeuvre.
For another example, there is a fullness of meaning in screenwriter Ted Griffin’s elliptical, rhythmic anapest (poetry-speak for: unstressed-unstressed-stressed metric foot), which reduces what must be a con’s (actor Elliot Gould’s) otherwise fascinating novel-of-a-story to its essential elements: “... from the thing with the guy in the place”—at once vaguely sinister and humorous, simultaneously utterly baffling yet somehow completely understood to the other cons (George Clooney, Brad Pitt) and those of us who grok not the words themselves, but the gestalt (context, rhythms, dynamics, etc.).
Thus, like the eponymous protagonist in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or Griffin’s con man, Donald and Walter adopt a needful, seemingly impenetrable façade; their lyric ‘antic dispositions’ ‘feign madness’ to “catch the conscience of the King” (and court—i.e., us), lest through some guileless candor they and we would betray ourselves easily, thus fall prey to any contemporaneous gallery of rogues who rule through robes ... and thence, as the unfortunate kin to wretches in Ginsberg’s jeremiad, neither hearing nor heeding our musician-poets’ clarion call, instead drag ourselves through the streets, certainly mad if not also starving hysterical naked. Thus too, like the poets of Shelly’s aphorism, Steely Dan confidently legislate; but like the oracular seer behind the veil in Dylan’s and Ginsberg’s narratives, Don and Walt’s agenda, however melodic, is assuredly more cryptic. They’ve been hip-deep observers of the long con from the get-go; and, ever more so with the vantage of several additional decades, Don and Walt, like Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days, have devolved from being hip- to now neck-deep in it. So, Becker must think given his commentary later in the evening’s proceedings, have we all.
In any event, Fagen and Becker’s dealers, killers, and myriad other post-modern roués who litter the Danscape would not be sole survivors, now would they, were they to overtly divulge their misdeeds a cappella. Such missteps would inexorably lead to exile, or to a takedown and a mugshot, or—if you’re a bookkeeper’s son who “crossed [your] old man back in Oregon”—to being holed up with a case of dynamite in an all-night standoff against a SWAT team. (Note: “Don’t Take Me Alive” was not on the Portland setlist.) We listeners-cum-confidants instead necessarily must delve into multi-layered cantatas (i.e., bare lyric plus musical strata) for resonances to make meaning.
Thankfully, Don and Walt have consistently provided rich imagistic veins full of metaphor, pun, wit, and wisdom—anodynes to the ‘angry fix’—to indulge and reward our mindful, earful investigations.
Exhibit A (... or, really, most any Steely Dan music-with-lyrics exhibition will do) in a pantheon of their antiheroes: the seemingly innocuous mellifluidity of “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies”—“a tune,” said Fagen six songs deep into the set, that “we haven’t done in a while,” and whose amiable moderate tempo belies the narrator’s observation of one Mister LaPage, whose own natural good-humor (“always laughing, having fun”) obscures, though barely and much less so than ne’er-do-wells in other Steely Dan songs, that this particular antihero is the neighborhood perv: a porno peddler and presumed pedophile.
But wait. Six songs into the set? That’s rushing ahead, isn’t it? (Yep, just like a man, eh!) Mea culpa. Alrighty then—first, some more foreplay:
Historically, our dildo-licious ensemble comprised Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, plus a revolving stellar cartography of luminous studio-session savants who meticulously co-conspired to convey the post-beatnik impresario duo’s delightfully dissolute lyrical sights and imagistic sounds via multi-layered tracks of instrumental jazz-rock, replete with moribund ironies, sardonic badinage, and the ubiquitous, lurking, enervated characters that peopled Steely Dan’s amoral shadow worlds.
Steely Dan’s present-day—and now, for the most part, long-standing—orchestral incarnation comprises a band of equally savvy-sinewy-sexy-and-sinister musicians and singers, with Mr. Becker holding down guitar rhythms and trading up lead-lines with a principal lead guitarist, and with Mr. Fagen inveigling us via alternately (com-)plaintive and imperative keys plus incisive lead vocals which underscore bullwhip-street-smart lyrics that continue to infuse Steely Dan’s, uh, poetic portrait-vignettes (I seem to recall reading, but perhaps not, that Walter called them “miniatures”)—and their inscrutable menagerie of wizened grotesques—with plenary, ever-evolving connotative insights that resist rooting in firmly established denotations but which ironically reward our efforts to root them. Thus, our listening adventures into the “willing suspension of disbelief that constitutes poetic faith” are seductively effortless vis-à-vis harmonious jazz-rock instrumental arrangements, while we are simultaneously challenged via the considerable efforts required to penetrate the lyrics’ symbolism or allegory ... or both ... or neither. “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Stage-laden accoutrements await to accompany the large ensemble, who, minus Mr. Fagen and Mr. Becker, enter the boudoir and, as house-and-stage lights dim, charm the anticipatory audience with a jazzy instrumental jam (from stage right: lead guitar, a four-horns section, drums, bass, grand piano, and Babylon sisters trio backing vocals) that promises an evening of up-tempo, sultry stylistic seductions.
From stage-right strolls Walter, taking up his axe downstage—alongside fellow lead guitarist extraordinaire Jon Herington. Behind the pair, upstage on risers, an effervescent quartet comprising Roger Rosenberg (baritone sax), Walt Weiskopf (saxophone), Michael Leonhart (trumpet), and Jim Pugh (trombone). Meanwhile, Donald saunters in from stage-left to assume the position at keyboards, his impresario mantle fronted, per usual, by an oversize photo, circa Harlem Renaissance, of Duke Ellington (the Steely Dan avatar?!) seated at the piano, girded by his own orchestra. Fagen sits downstage from the nonpareil Keith Carlock (drums) and the melodious Jim Beard (piano), and in between the wicked backbeat provided by Freddie Washington (bass) and, also on risers, the sine qua non triptych of Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery, Cindy Mizelle, and La Tanya Hall (backing vocals), who, throughout the evening’s affairs, provide sensual harmonies, including the outros to “Black Cow,” “Hey Nineteen,” and many more ... not omitting, of course, “Babylon Sisters” (“... You got to shake it, baby, you got to shake it, baby, you got to shake it”). Yes ma’am(s)! We all most certainly did do. (Moreover, early evening, Mr. Fagen turns the mike over to Ms. Leonhart-Escoffery, who performs dusky, revelatory lead vocals on “Dirty Work.” Yowzah!)
Sure enough, the cast assembled, the crowd fully attuned, the instrumental jam transubstantiates into the opening bars of “Black Cow” (“... so outrageous!”—band and audience concur), followed by “Aja.”
Wait! What? Black Cow > Aja. Could the gang be working through the Aja album?! Alas, ‘twas not to be. But not a whit of disappointment, though, as cascading horns and crescendo drumming of “Aja” provide both climax and denouement, and leave us squealing and humming in sweaty delight ... whereupon, following extended exultations in our ovations, Mr. Washington drops in his nasty bass-line to announce the third-coming with “Hey Nineteen.” Yahweh, Allah, Buddha, and Christ!—we’ve barely recovered, I am joyously near tears, and the night has barely commenced—hey, I’ve got some news: “... slow down, I’ll tell you when. I may never walk again!” But no. No. Don’t stop. And don’t slow down.
Still, let’s pause here for a moment to acknowledge that, whether you’re a Steely Dan aficionado, or generally a music aficionado, or a drums aficionado in particular ... or none of these, nevertheless you can appreciate the estimable quality of Steve Gadd’s drumming on the studio album version of “Aja,” in which you may clearly hear every nuance in his kit. How, then, is it humanly possible—or, rather, I’m here (hear!) to tell ya that, indeed, it happened just so—that Keith Carlock’s virtuous, dexterous precision throughout the evening, and not merely or especially during his take on the “Aja” outro solo, perfectly rendered every last syllable. For many, the short list of rock-drummers-extraordinaire includes Ringo Starr (The Beatles), Neil Peart (Rush), and for me the duo/dual dynamism of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann (The Grateful Dead), and, likewise, Rodney Holmes (Steve Kimock Band, et al.). Please consider adding to this or any other list of great(-est) drummers ever: Mr. Keith Carlock. Honestly. Wow!
Overarching the Steely narratives’ forlorn-aspirational or arch-villainous vendors are countless more estimable exemplars of the Dan’s stunning musicianship that serves as counterpoint to the sinister lyric with the savory melody and sexy beats, and the one-and-only Mr. Herington’s muscular, meticulous lead guitar. The band’s collaboration in melody, harmony, rhythm, pace, and poetry have fully seduced us, and wide open to the possibilities, down the rabbit hole we go! (Or, in this post-modern era of The Matrix, I should write that we gleefully swallow the red pill; or, in a concomitant post-modern era of Viagra, I should write, too: gleefully down the blue pill. Oh well, spit or swallow; “Aja” merely counsels us, “Throw out the hardware, let’s do it right.”)
Though we cannot quite resolve that misery has made Steely Dan protagonists ... and antagonists ... and agonists inexorably fiendish, nor, too, should we presume that some present or future happiness, however tenuous, might by turns make them virtuous. No. Donald and Walter, like Victor Frankenstein, have indeed erected the “Adam[s and Eves] of [their] labours”; and we should expect these piteous, if not pitiable, misanthropes to excoriate Fagen and Becker for being promoted, from clay of an undifferentiated alphabet, into molded metaphors: characters, with tone, setting, and narrative fates or follies of circumstance.
Perhaps. But what, then, is our part in this pageant of the irrevocably damned and irredeemable? Walter seemed to be asking that question (on this night more than any other? at the concert Seder table)—though his tongue was also at least planted firmly in cheek—when the band, prior to the outro chorus in “Hey Nineteen,” broke into a quiet instrumental accompaniment to Becker’s monologue. Walter approached the mike, welcomed us all to the moment, and then segued from government-weather-control to climate change to those lost seeds you’d likely find long-buried in the sofa lining (... hm, is he channeling Terence McKenna here?!), as you and the object of your desire try, in a world run down, to make the best of what’s still around (now invoking Sting?), and reach for that tasty tequila whose name Walter feigned he couldn’t quite remember ... what was it called? ... just as the female vocalists and band kick back in to full voice, launching incantatorially to remind him: “The Cuervo Gold, the fine Colombian, make tonight a wonderful thing.” Say and sing it again! And of course, as you already know, unless you don’t remember the Queen of Soul, they do so.
From there we were treated to Bad Sneakers; Black Friday; Everyone’s Gone to the Movies (after which Donald teased the Portland crowd: “So what’s new? There’s some kind of TV show about you guys, right?”); Show Biz Kids; Time Out of Mind; Dirty Work (again, with Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery handling lead vocals for a yummy, slightly more downbeat version from the studio original, in which she conveys just the right je ne sais quoi sultry musk to the narrative’s affairs when “... your man is out of town”—expertly done!). Then, Bodhisattva (Carlock kickin’ ass on the drums yet again), Babylon Sisters, and more. A bit later Walter introduces the band, at the last invoking his half-century friendship and musical partnership with Donald in clearly heartfelt terms. The audience, but for standing ovations having been relegated to wiggling in our chairs--de rigueur per indoor concert-hall seating—now were collectively on our feet and remained so, boogieing hard (well, many of us were) to the final handful of tunes: Josie, Peg, My Old School, Reelin’ in the Years, and for the finale, Kid Charlemagne. If I have not done justice to the brilliance of lead guitarist Jon Herington, Becker’s playing, and Fagen’s vocals, keys, and melodica, let their musicianship on these songs be set aside for the time capsule ... yes, ever after.
Those who are, per the “Hey Nineteen” wise, if lamented, dictum, “... just growing old,” do remember Steely Dan, but not nostalgically. There are bands whose names—whose members’ names—whose lyrics—are not merely imprints on dung piles of history, but who were, who are, who shall remain, to represent not only the zeitgeist at once sanctified both in our cultures’ and in our personal narratives, but also to stand for shibboleths: watchwords whose invocation evokes an unseen-unsaid but knowing wink-and-a-nod among the diaspora of, well, at least the terminally hip and their eternally hip progeny.
What must be the unparalleled pleasure, I imagine, to reside in such musical pantheons: to be the bands, or to be in the bands (or now, in successive generations, to be in the band that learns to cover the bands) who nightly inhabit the lyrical worlds of, say, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Carole King, James Taylor ... and, for at least one more example, who may immaculately re-conceive the Steely Dan catalog. For one stellar example, practice and foreplay in those years-long efforts are evident in the Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra. Who in our generations will pay tribute to the musical-lyrical genius in Steely Dan’s collective—as well as in Fagen’s and Becker’s solo—efforts?
As for me—just a Jewish kid from San Francisco Bay, with bad sneakers and, yup, a transistor (radio) ... ears and inner-sight-seeing exposed yet enslaved, attuned to whatever crumbs early-to-late ‘70s corporate radio imbeciles let sieve through “their” sanitized airwaves. No wonder Steely Dan’s subversions were cryptic. Amid all that commercial mindlessness, happy accidents treated me to the few bits of Steely Dan that successfully pierced the censorial FM: Do It Again, Dirty Work, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, Aja, Deacon Blues, Kid Charlemagne. Little did I realize then that behind the patina of putatively acceptable music for mass consumption (and sufficiently obscure lyrics to foil would-be censors) lay undiscovered countries of star-crossed characters snared in fateful milieus by choice or by chance; and that beneath those seemingly innocuous lyrical templates for post-modern-jazz-rock lay the lovelorn and forlorn, grifters and vipers “crawl[ing] through the suburban scene, mak[ing] love [to those of us aching to listen], languid and bittersweet.”
Ironically, perhaps the best thing I wholly unintentionally did was to take a several-years-long hiatus from listening to Steely Dan. By the time I left for college, they, too, were taking what turned out to be a decade-long break. So perhaps our intentions were not in synch, but somewhat overlapped. That hiatus turned out quite well for me. After all, I could have spent years hearing without listening ... to Dylan, The Dead, Steely Dan, et al. ... and then (i.e., now) mistakenly come to consider that music merely nostalgically rather than with a full heart and mind. Instead, again only as a matter of luck rather than too much a conscious choice, I did not reacquaint myself to Steely Dan until later in college and throughout graduate school, and yes, Ever After.
I know this sounds maudlin or cliché, but writers, poets, and singer-songwriters I’ve mentioned in this review, plus others, have genuinely rescued me from a calloused, mean-spirited world. Like Beckett’s tramps in Waiting for Godot, I have incessantly contemplated existential absurdities; and also like Didi, Gogo, and yes, Hamlet, too, I thought quite rationally about ending “the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” were it not that—ha!—like them I apparently lacked the courage in such convictions. Or perhaps I—may I say “we”—learn that mortality, not ironically, is forever. As Fagen croons in his latest solo effort, Sunken Condos, “They may fix the weather in the world / ... but tell me what’s to be done / Lord ‘bout the weather in my head.”
So to Donald and Walter here, and to many others in the musical universe, I can only continue to express simple, though believe me it’s a profound, thanks. Don. Walt. Peace and gratitude for making your joyful, soulful noise. You don’t know me. Hell, I don’t know you. But I’ve been deep into the music; and, like the man says: We go all the way back; and sure enough, I do owe you from the thing with the guy in the place.
What? Don’t fret. They get it. We don’t need a weatherman to know which way that wind blows.