Sitting in Caffe Ritazza at Newcastle Airport on Friday, a casual perusal of the G2 section of that morning’s Guardian revealed an up-to-date photo of a near-beardless Michael McDonald and a black-and-white 70s snapshot of Steely Dan in a two-page spread about ‘How soft rock got cool’.
The hook for the feature was the appearance of Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers on the Bluesfest bill at the O2 Arena in London on Sunday. As it happened, I was en route to Dublin to see both bands at the first of two Bluesfest gigs at the 3Arena in the old docklands area of the Irish capital on Saturday night; a second Dublin date had been arranged for Monday after the tickets were snapped up as quick as chain lightning.
When managing to bag a couple of these Wonkaesque €106-a-pop golden tickets back in May, I presumed that McDonald and his soulful St Louis baritone would feature somewhere on the bill – perhaps even doubling up in Dublin, belting out those fine tracks from the timeless Minute By Minute album he cut with the Doobies before reprising his role as chief support to Donald Fagen’s distinctive vocals on Katy Lied, Aja and a couple of other Steely Dan collections. Sadly, it was not to be.
A click on McDonald’s website that night unearthed the sobering fact that he would be flying solo in concert at the Warner Theatre in Washington DC on the last Saturday in October. Still, there would be Fagen and Walter Becker, the odd couple who poured their idiosyncratic musical genius into forging the unique sound of Steely Dan after playing in a band at Bard College in upstate New York (the old school to which they were never going back) that had Chevy Chase on drums and then setting out in the business as songwriters, penning a track for Barbra Streisand (I Mean to Shine).
Tragically, that too was not to be. Becker died on September 3, aged 67, his long-time compadre pledging: ‘I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.’
That Fagen was succeeding on his mission was clear as soon as he stepped on stage at the 3Arena, after his band – featuring Jon Herington on guitar, Freddie Washington on bass, Keith Carlock on drums and Carolyn Leonhart, Cindy Mizelle and La Tanya Hall performing backing vocals as The Danettes – opened with the jazz number Fan It, Janet. Fagen, on keyboards and vocals, launched straight into Green Flower Street, one of the gems from his stand-out 1982 solo album The Nightfly, following up with Black Cow, the opening track on Aja, Steely Dan’s magnum opus – or Magnificent Octopus, to quote a favourite Baldrickian phrase.
It was sheer perfection and grace, worth the trip, the arm-and-a-leg cost (€240 a night for a room on Dublin Marathon weekend) – even the eight-year wait since seeing Donald and Walter and their crew play the more intimate Edinburgh Playhouse.
The pair gained renown as fastidious musical craftsmen, going through eight guitarists before being satisfied with the (Jay Graydon) solo on Peg, and taking a whopping 274 mixes on Babylon Sisters. Fagen spent the band’s first three years looking for a suitable vocalist before reluctantly settling on himself. The years Steely Dan spent off the road in their heyday was due largely to his aversion to arenas and the stage fright he confessed to inheriting from his mother, Elinor, a big-band backing vocalist.
And yet, two songs into his first gig in Europe without Becker, in a potentially soulless 23,000-seater arena, Fagen and his Steely Dan Orchestra, as he is wont to call his collection of polished players, had nailed the inimitable Steely Dan sound. To label it as ‘soft rock’ or ‘yacht rock’, two of the terms used in the Guardian article, is like putting Jane Austen, George Eliot and any of the Bronte sisters into the ‘chick lit’ section.
The Steely Dan sound is so of its own - the jazz, the constant chord changes – no other band could contemplate capturing their songs, least of all Donny & Marie Osmond. As Michael McDonald told The Guardian: ‘They cast a spell over American pop culture that’s very enigmatic to me, because the music is so sophisticated that I didn’t think I met the criteria of what people thought pop music should be.’ Denny Dias, one of the Dan’s founder members, described Fagen and Becker’s music as ‘like hearing the Beatles with jazz chords’.
Picking out a favourite Steely Dan number is like being asked which of your children you love best. The one directly in front of you would be a wise answer but Peg has always had me particularly hooked.
For one thing, it was the gateway to my son becoming a big Dan fan. He had heard the sample on De La Soul’s Eye Know and, when his old man put on one of his tunes in the car, for once he did not try to switch it off – or, in the case of Tubular Bells, remove it from the CD player and throw it out of the window. Actually, that might have been him and his sister in tandem.
Of course, McDonald was on backing vocals on the original track. When Fagen sang it at the 3Arena, he was ably supported by his Danettes. And Herington pegged the guitar solo that proved so troublesome for his studio predecessors with supreme deftness.
Peg came out in 1977, as the opening track on side two of Aja. I first heard it round about the time I brought home a coffee table that I had made at school. Our woodwork teacher had a wooden leg – Old Peg Leg, we called him, with inevitable schoolboy cruelty. The funny thing about the table was that if you put a cup of coffee on it, the vessel would slide off. When I came to clear my parents’ house, they hadn’t kept it.
The lyrics of Peg are believed to be based on Peg Entwistle, the Welsh-born Broadway star who leapt to her death from the top of the H on the Hollywoodland sign before the release of her first movie in 1932. She was 24.
I got your pin shot
I keep it with your letter
Done up in blueprint blue
It sure looks good on you
So won't you smile for the camera
I know I'll love you better
Fagen and Becker have always been at pains to keep an air of mystery shrouding their often cryptic wordsmithery. As Fagen told one interviewer: ‘We try to refrain from discussing specifics as far as lyrics go because it is a matter of subjective interpretation, and there are some things that are better that man does not know.’
Still, the sound of Peg in Dublin will keep coming back to me – despite the two young ladies sitting nearby in the 3Arena, both dressed up as witches, doing their best to drown out Donald and the Danettes with their constant shouty chatter throughout the set. I tried not to get all Larry David with them but at one point had to ask them ever so politely if it would be possible to listen to the music. They laughed and continued their bellowed conversation.
It was a real pity but even that annoyance could not curb the enthusiasm for an evening that was pretty, pretty special.
Simon Turnbull has spent most of his working life writing about people running round and round in circles, as athletics correspondent for The Independent On Sunday and The Independent. These days he combines freelance sportswriting with working as a teaching assistant. And it is worth checking out his Running Commentary blog.