When Steely Dan released its debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, 50 years ago, in 1972, who could have imagined that the band would be a marquee touring act in 2022? But here we are, and they are. This summer has seen the band traveling the Eastern Seaboard on its Absolutely Normal Tour, which concludes next week in Port Chester, New York, running from August 10 to 13.
In the beginning, Steely Dan’s references were deliberately obscure and their chord changes came from jazz, a stubbornly unpopular genre. If you wanted to get the harmony, the jokes, the attitude, you had to come to them. It worked. Co-founders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen named their band for a dildo in Naked Lunch, and that was just their opening move.
They were not into touring in their early years and stayed off the road as much as they could. By the time they stuffed Aja and Gaucho with extravagant assortments of studio greats, their albums seemed impossible to re-create. (Allegedly, Gaucho was the most expensive album ever made when it came out, in 1980.) Yet they went on the road in 1993 with killer bands that they would replenish year after year.
Even after Becker’s death, in 2017, the Dan went on. Fagen, the voice on the records, is 74 now, a gray eminence who has aged into these songs about lowlifes, grifters, players of sorts, ramblers, gamblers, Pepe with a scar from ear to ear. “They got a name for the winners in the world,” sang Fagen. “I want a name when I lose.” He is hardly losing when he packs houses with these songs of obscurity and alienation.
The hard-core fans didn’t get to see this band when their favorite albums came out. Now you can’t get Fagen off the stage. He shreds on keybs and keytar, and has preserved his voice impeccably, hitting every note from those 70s records. “Reelin’ in the Years,” a cruel Dylan-esque put-down single from their debut, is now a sing-along, a way of saying, “We’re still here.” Expect that one, along with “Hey Ninteen,” “Aja,” “Babylon Sisters,” “My Old School,” “Black Cow,” and a few surprises that will, despite the irony and dark humor, even move you.
As for Fagen, what seemed like hubris in his 20s has a certain reassurance now. “Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again,” he sang in 1974, but it’s even more true as the years reel in. When the band busts out “Kid Charlemagne,” with Fagen belting, “Is there gas in the car? Yes, there’s gas in the car,” who would disagree? —David Yaffe
Steely Dan performs in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on August 6; in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on August 7; and at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, from August 10 through 13
David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He writes about music and is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. You can read his Substack here