reelin' in the decades
There are perhaps six groups that I would take the train to New York on a 90 degree day to see, but Steely Dan is certainly one of them, so when the invitation came--free tickets, at that--I was on my way. It's hard to explain why I like Steely Dan so much, although perhaps easier if you lived through the 70s. The 70s were a contrary decade, and Steely Dan were the ultimate contrarians. Everyone else did rock, so they toyed with jazz. Everyone else sang about love and fulfillment, so they sang about prostitutes, ne'er-do-wells, and aging men (thirty was old then) who tried to hit on college-age women, usually without success. Everyone else gave concerts, so they quit touring and became a studio band. Indeed, from the early 80s to the mid 90s they ceased to exist, altogether, finally coming together again to do new albums, give concerts, and otherwise amuse their many fans only in the last 15 years.
I saw Steely Dan on my fortieth birthday, in 1996, when they were pushing 50; now I'm 50-plus and they're 60 or so. In the 90s they were mixing their old classics with new materials, some of it actually quite good. This time they stuck mostly to the classics, doing a whole album ("The Royal Scam") together with hits from their other 70s albums. Whether because of the new, elaborate arrangements--there must have been 15 people on the stage for most of the show--or because sound systems have improved in the past 30 years, the songs actually sounded better than they had in the originals. When they launched into a double encore of "My Old School" and "Reelin' in the Years," two particularly sardonic, college-y ballads, the crowd of aging hipsters was on its literal and metaphorical feet.
On the way home I turned on my Blackberry and noted a strange coincidence. On the very night that police had to restrain protesters at several "town hall" meetings on health care, two aging, contrarian rockers had given a concert, in the heart of the radically chic West Side, with nary a security man in sight. What is the country coming to, I wondered, when rock concerts are safe and tidy and political meetings are dangerous? Perhaps people simply have a certain quotient of contrariness to express and they do so in different ways. Or perhaps the people at the town halls should listen to more Steely Dan.