Steely Dan: Aja
San Francisco, CA
October 23, 2009
There is currently an absolute plethora of bands that have played or are currently playing "classic album" tours, performing an album from start to end, including Bruce Springsteen (Born to Run), Echo & the Bunnymen (Ocean Rain), Aerosmith (Toys in the Attic), Devo (We Are not Men, We are Devo), Van Morrison (Astral Weeks), the Pixies (Doolittle), Fleetwood Mac (Rumors), The Wailers (Exodus), even Roger Waters has recently toured playing the all-time classic by Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon. The list goes on and on. It is no small coincidence that these tours are increasing in popularity just as albums are dying out as a vehicle for presenting and promoting songs. Artists are increasing moving towards releasing only one track at a time, most notably Radiohead, rather than the collections of songs that albums represent. In fact, less than half of all digital downloads at iTunes were in the form of albums. This is both good and bad: it is good because it prevents artists from padding albums with filler songs that should/will never see the inside of a pair of earbuds and it is bad because there is less chance of future works of art like Steely Dan's "Aja" which is definitely near the top of my list of desert island disks. It is hard to believe that albums this good, this intellectual, this sophisticated were once considered popular music.
Steely Dan is comprised of the duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. They are both musical geniuses and were at the very top of their game when Aja was recorded and released in 1977. Aja is the perfect synthesis of cool New York sophistication and warm Los Angeles leisure, a lush amalgam of rock and jazz that actually works- not tinny jazz fusion with a rock beat or noodly rock with pointless Zappa-esque running of scales. It is a masterpiece of music recorded by the top studio musicians of the day in painstaking detail. If you have the chance, you need to catch Classic VH-1's Classic Albums series about the making of the album in order to get a glimpse into the intellect of Steely Dan. Steely Dan songs are well-known for being finely crafted, each note measured and weighed before being committed to tape and Aja is no exception.
From the opening base line of “Black Cow,” I knew this concert was going to be awesome. Rather than try to recreate the fine details of the studio masterpiece, Steely Dan opted for a looser, funkier version of the album. The songs are intimate and ironic portraits of drunks and losers who resolve to live life on their own terms. The songs are reaffirming. “Deacon Blues” contains one of the most debated lines in rock history, “They’ve got a name for the winners in the world/ I want a name when I lose/ they call Alabama the Crimson Tide/ Call me Deacon Blues.” To me, it is a statement of empowerment: even the losers can claim grandiose names and be exceptional in their own world. When they were done with Aja, the band turned up the heat by playing a list of fan favorites, including, Black Friday, Babylon Sisters, Bodhisattva, Hey 19, Showbiz Kids, and the classic Dirty Work.
Steely Dan is uncompromising in their vision of music and art. For me, their music represents something outside the mainstream. Their angular, often cryptic lyrics are like snatches of a celebration of life as participant and not viewer. It is the same feeling that I get when in New York City at night: there is a world of rich ideas and experiences to be had if you just follow your bliss.