When you think of New Jersey music history, most people think of mainstream stars of different generations, such as Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi or Lauryn Hill.
Significantly less Steely Dan would say – which is a shame, even though such anonymity may have been born of some kind of design.
It’s been half a century since Passaic-born, South Brunswick-raised keyboardist, singer, and composer Donald Fagen welcomed listeners to the Dan’s musical land alongside longtime comrade Walter Becker, the Queens, New York-born guitarist who died in 2017 at age 67.
Most critical listeners of the baby boomer age and younger are no doubt familiar with a handful of Dan hits—perhaps right now you’re singing “Reelin’ in the Years” from 1972, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” from 1974 or “Hey Nineteen” from the 1960s. 80 for yourself.
But you may not be able to name the two maestros behind the tunes, or even take the photos of Fagen and Becker out of a lineup. (My late father, for as long as I can remember, thought Steely Dan wasn’t a band, but a bachelor – “Staaly Dan, I love him,” I can still hear him say.)
Fagen and Becker never appeared on the cover of any of their nine LPs, and were known to employ an ever-changing crew of studio musicians to ensure each of their jazz-rock compositions reached sonic perfection.
Steely Dan was never about them, it was about the optimal execution of a sound that combined polished chrome musicianship with an often disturbing biting inclination to the lyrics.
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It is a dedication to a musical ideal that transcends even its two architects. In a statement after Becker’s death, Fagen, now 74, vowed to keep going. “I intend to keep the music we’ve made together with the Steely Dan band alive for as long as possible,” Fagen wrote.
He has been true to his word, with upcoming appearances on the band’s “Earth After Hours” tour, including Thursday, June 30 at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel and Saturday, August 6 at the Borgata Hotel, Casino and Spa in Atlantic City. .
Fagen and Becker have been making painfully personal music for decades. With every note they told us who they were and where they came from.
“Walter and I both come from the sprawl that surrounds New York City,” Fagen told me in 2016. “Because we were jazz fans at a young age, we both grew up staring at the Manhattan skyline, the place where we thought the jazz boys were alive.”
The Grammy-winning Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sound is a stained glass window through which you can hear other music easily associated with New Jersey: the horn-drenched barroom romance of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes or pop-rockers Looking Glass, rendered with Count Basie’s sophistication, shot with the scrupulousness of “Born to Run” era Springsteen, and played with Les Paul’s innovative chops.
But it’s that skyline gazing that defined Fagen and Becker and revealed them as the quintessential soundtrack of frustrated hipsters-in-waiting, the sound of life in bridges and tunnels. (Not for nothing is the band’s latest album a 2021 live LP titled “Northeast Corridor,” a term many New Jersey Transit passengers are familiar with.)
The characters that populate Springsteen’s songs eventually escape New Jersey, escape cages on Highway 9, driving streamlined machines across the Jersey state line, and pull out of a town full of losers to win.
Steely Dan’s protagonists, on the other hand, are here with the rest of us. The narrator of 1977’s “Deacon Blues” dreams of becoming a big-city jazz saxophonist who will one day die in a whiskey-soaked car wreck, but in the meantime is left to “play like a viper by this suburban crawling the streets”.
The voluptuous star of ‘Hey Nineteen’ from the ’80s also sneaks out of town, settling in Scarsdale in New York’s Westchester County, and wondering, “Where the hell am I?” Papa, as the 1975 song “Katy Lied” goes, “don’t live in that New York City anymore.”
Fagen and Becker’s suburban snark with wounded soul is part of the work of fellow Garden State sage George RR Martin, the Bayonne-born author whose fantasy series “Song of Ice and Fire” made the HBO hit “Game of Thrones.” inspired.
Speaking in Jersey City in 2018, Martin, now 73, recalled seeing from his living room window the twinkling lights of Staten Island and ships from around the world passing through the Kill Van Krull Canal—an image that recalls to the stars of Fagen and Becker looks as much at the Manhattan skyline as at his own characters’ view of the Westerosi capital King’s Landing.
Both Steely Dan and Martin take a smart, educated approach to material that should feel like advanced studies. Fagen and Becker’s refined jazz is highly literate, as on “The Royal Scam” (1976) and his deep “Caves of Altamira”, influenced by Plato and John Keats. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” bases its high fantasy on the 15th-century history of the War of the Roses. (Not to mention the Grateful Dead Easter eggs found in both works, or the way they tended to take their sweet time creating critically acclaimed, best-selling masterpieces.)
If there’s still any doubt that the Dan is the quintessential New Jersey act, remember Tony Soprano is a fan (James Gandolfini’s rendition of 2001’s “Dirty Work” in a third season episode of “The Sopranos” is yet to be released). becoming a delight for over 20 years later).
And then put another spin on a defining Dan track, “Home at Last”. A second centerpiece of the band’s best album, 1977’s “Aja”, the track creates a tapestry of highways, coasts, and the blazing sun as the narrator returns to where he started: “The danger on the rocks is certainly over, yet I remain tied to the mast. Could it be that I have finally found my home?”
Fagen once told me that Asbury Park, a city with sun and coast accessible by highway, has a special place in his memory.
“Asbury Park was our family’s favorite for the summer holidays,” he said. “There was the boardwalk, plus that huge casino building where you could score cheap toys if you could grab it with that metal claw.”
Now, Dan-ologists can argue that the song really takes its cues from Homer’s “Odyssey.” But why not both? After all, in the Land of the Dan, an epic odyssey can take you from New Jersey around the world and back again – and the whole journey will sound perfect, just as intended, even if you can’t remember the captains’ faces.
Steely Dan plays Northwell Health at the Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, New York, on Wednesday, June 29, followed by: the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel on Thursday, June 30; the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in Bethel, New York, on Sunday, July 3; the Borgata Hotel, Casino and Spa in Atlantic City on Saturday, August 6, and the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York, on Wednesday, August 10, Friday, August 12, and Saturday, August 13. For tickets, full directions and more information visit steelydan.com.
Alex Biese has been writing about art, entertainment, culture and news at the local and national level for over 15 years.