Chloë Moloney reflects on Steely Dan’s performance at BluesFest 2017 and its pioneer Donald Fagen, in arguably the greatest jazz-rock group of the 1970s.
Having recently performed twinned shows in both Dublin and London over the weekend (28th-29th October), jazz-rock fusion group Steely Dan have proved once again that they are the ultimate bastions of 1970s rock. Performing at 3Arena and the O2 Arena as part of the infamous BluesFest 2017 Donald Fagen was, and remains to be, a seminal figure regarding the welcomed arrival of jazz-rock into music industry. The spearhead of the empire-like Steely Dan, Fagen brought his lyrical profundity into the limelight with his musical companion, the late Walter Becker. Throughout their career spanning over forty years, the group have blended R&B, pop and studio production into an impeccable and refined cocktail of 1970s musical culture.
The spectacle at the O2 Arena was a gem which undoubtedly sparkled amid the silken tapestry of BluesFest. Tying up the weekend alongside The Doobie Brothers, upon their entrance Steely Dan blessed the stage with a shimmering musical excellence which continues to glitter in the audience’s heart. Watching Fagen effortlessly grace the piano keys, and listening to his nectarous voice spill virtuosic genius into the microphone, the desire to comprehend just how he reached such a pinnacle of musical regard certainly itches. The website AllMusic.com fairly asserts that ‘Steely Dan defied all rock & roll conventions’ — their lyrical narratives, remarkable synthesis and all-American twang have come to rightfully represent an entire generation.
Donald Jay Fagen was born on January 10, 1948 in New Jersey. His father an accountant and mother a swing-singer, Fagen showed an interest in jazz music from a young age. Self-taught in both piano and vocals, Fagen repeatedly revealed himself to be a pivotal figure in the making, whether he was unwitting to it or otherwise.
Fagen and Becker met at the Bard College, New York. Upon their meeting, as Fagen states in his biography Eminent Hipsters, he saw Becker as a ‘severe-looking bespectacled kid who would turn out to be my partner and bandmate for the next 40 years.’ Collaborating musically three years after their introduction, the duo proceeded to sell an extraordinary number of records throughout their dynamic career. They have sold more than 40 million albums worldwide, and were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. Aside from Steely Dan, Fagen has received an Honorary Doctor of Arts from Bard College, an Honorary Doctor of Music from Berklee College of Music and was inducted into the Jazz Wall of Fame.
With albums such as Can’t Buy A Thrill, Aja and Pretzel Logic to their name, Steely Dan is a group which continually knocks other records out of the picture making them the most epoch-making artists of this generation. Fagen embarked on a solo career with his debut album The Nightfly in 1982, which unsurprisingly reached platinum status, with Fagen going on to produce three more solo albums of great esteem.
As reported by Rolling Stone in January 2016 however, life was certainly not a smooth and unproblematic journey for Fagen and his wife, Libby Titus. The magazine stated that Fagen ‘was arrested at his New York City home […] after a physical altercation with his wife’. According to a number of media outlets, Fagen shoved Titus into a marble window frame and she was subsequently knocked to the ground. It was reported nonetheless that, despite being charged with misdemeanour assault, if Fagen stayed out of legal difficulty in the following year the charges would be dropped.
Lyrically speaking, Steely Dan’s crafting is revolutionary. Fagen and Becker’s lyrics weave raw and vulgar vices such as gambling and drinking in a highly concentrated exhibition of 70s life, with a steady backbeat and an undercurrent of melodious jazz. Songs such as ‘Do It Again’, about a man with a number of bawdy addictions of which the consequences are then exposed, opens with words of pure genius:
In the mornin you go gunnin’ / For the man who stole your water / And you fire till he is done in / But they catch you at the border
For a younger listener, the group’s songs illuminate the equally harsh and sensitive reality of 1970s life, drawing us back to the earthy roots of a musical revolution. Yet to a listener for whom, in their prime, Steely Dan rocked and heralded the global stage, their lyrics can bring them swinging straight back to a heady and youthful bliss. Steely Dan’s lyrics are an enigma of puzzling word-games and tricks of the tongue, yet interlaced together with a degree of elegance.
Despite the tragic passing of both musical partner and friend Walter Becker on the 3rd of September 2017, virtuoso Donald Fagen continues to share his talent with both young and old, through his astounding collection of records which have come to mark a most wonderful generation.