Elton John was touring in support of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. An epic album.
His opening act was a little band called Steely Dan. I didn't realize at the time how fortunate I was to see them, because soon they would retreat to the studio and cease touring.
In 1973, they had just released the followup, Countdown to Ecstasy, to their huge debut smash, Can't Buy A Thrill.
Like a lot of acts I like, they defy easy categorization. Talking Heads, the Verve, Radiohead all fit into this category. They're true originals.
People who weren't around in the 70s sometimes have a hard time accessing the Dan. It was the same way then. In a time where rock had transitioned from the glorious sounds of the 60s, you had a softening (such as Elton, or the Eagles, or Chicago) taking over. Then you had disco. OMG, disco. It wasn't until punk burst onto the scene in the late 70s that it was safe to rock again. Their sound never fit into any of those cubbies. Detractors ragged them for being ... something else. I never quite got the argument. Outsiders.
Steely rocked, but really never dabbled much in the mainstream of the time. Instead, these wry, cynical New Yorkers made jazzy, crisply produced layered music with lyrics that were cleverly subversive. The irresistibly catchy "Kid Charlemagne" may be one of the best examples of this; it's so fun yet describes a world so corrupt and characters far beyond the socially acceptable. Wrapped up in such beautiful sounds, Steely was really an outlaw in our eyes.
For anyone who was socially awkward -- say, a too-large teenager in 70s Texas who liked reading books, as a theoretical -- the persona we picked up from Steely's main men, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, provided a safe place. Here were guys who were clearly damned good, and successful. But they were also seemingly a bit aloof, reclusive, perhaps somewhat nerdy, opinionated, smart-mouthed but smart, socially conscious and aware (not to mention self-aware) -- and yes, socially awkward.
They gave voice to those of us who spent way too much time worrying about shit that would soon sort itself out anyway, hopefully while we were growing out of our awkwardness.
They seemed like dorks who somehow got invited to the party. A little like Farmer Ted in Sixteen Candles, or McLovin in Superbad. Once you got to know them, you realized how cool they really were. And once they got to the party, they didn't lose who they were. They remembered being on the outside, being the last one picked at sports. They came to the party, but they didn't become insiders, they became the ones who had never sold out their values and thus were able to stay above the maelstrom of horseshit. You identified with them. (Well, at least, I did.)
This position suited them perfectly to go back into their studio caves and write scathing rips of what constituted 70s LA "society." And yet they never lost their heart. They couldn't believe the artifice of the world they found themselves in -- and the idiots they made fun of sucked up to them and gave them ringside seats to the circus. Nevertheless, as they went back and crafted these beautiful, rich, lush songs that hid turdburgers (with onions!) for the Jet Set.
For those of us with them, it was delightful. We got the joke. I wonder if the butts of them ever did.
I've just loved these guys forever. Hell -- this blog is named after one of their lyrics.
M has been surprised that I've been so excited about seeing them in a couple of weeks. They're playing two nights here -- one night they're doing Aja in its entirety, in sequence, and the next night a "Greatest Hits" show.
I only remember a few things about seeing them in 1973. I know they opened with "Bodhisattva" and that it fucking rocked. (And was immortalized in a live version from '74 in Santa Monica when a drunken roadie hilariously stumbled through an introduction -- you MUST listen to it sometime.) I seem to recall the "hits" "Reelin' in the Years," "Dirty Work," "Do It Again," and stuff from Countdown. "Show Biz Kids" (they said "fuck," pretty scandalous in 1973), probably "My Old School." I know they did "King of the World." I hope they did "The Boston Rag."
I loved Elton, and remember his opener ("Love Lies Bleeding/Candle in the Wind") and it was great. But I remember more about the Steely show.
This tour, they've been doing about 20 songs a night. I'm going to pick some I'd love to hear. To me, almost everything they did over the course of seven albums released over the eight years between 1972-80 was a "hit."
Here's what my dream Steely concert would have, from each album:
Can't Buy A Thrill: Do It Again, Dirty Work, Reelin' In The Years, Brooklyn. I'd also love to hear Only A Fool Would Say That. Change of the Guard would be cool, too. There's almost no chance that they'll do anything other than Do It Again and Reelin. Pity.
Countdown to Ecstasy: Bodhisattva, The Boston Rag (duh), Show Biz Kids, My Old School. Bodhisattva and My Old School are locks. Rag has a chance; they've played it here before.
Pretzel Logic: Rikki Don't Lose That Number, Any Major Dude Will Tell You, Pretzel Logic. All three have a chance. Rikki's a lock.
Katy Lied: My least-favorite album, outside of maybe Black Friday, nothing here is a must for me.
The Royal Scam: Play the whole goddam thing! They're actually doing this in New York on Oct. 3. Hey, I don't have to work that day... Anyway, they must play Kid Charlemagne. Would sure love Don't Take Me Alive and Haitian Divorce.
Aja: In anticipation of this show, I've been revisiting this. What an amazing album. I used to not love Peg so much because it was so ubiquitous, and, Yah Moe Be. They won't play I Got The News, but if they do... wow. Really hopeful to hear Aja and Josie.
Gaucho: When this album came out the band was in turmoil, and we all knew it would be their last. It was a terrible realization, that it was over (Except it wasn't, but that's another story). I remember the night I bought this and came home and we listened to the album. As the last notes of "Third World Man" played out, I was filled with an overwhelming sadness that Steely Dan was over. Seven amazing stories told in song.
So there you have it. In a show where they'll play maybe 20 songs, I have 42 I want to hear.
I guess that means I'll have a good time.
(NOTE: Theoretically my first concert could be considered a performance by Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner at the Texas State Prison Rodeo. Oddly enough, I saw both the rodeo and those country acts on a church trip in October 1971. I'm not counting this as my first concert.)