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POP MUSIC : Two-Decade Countdown to Ecstasy : After a 19-year hiatus, those sophisticated, subversive jazz punks Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are back to do it again live, out on the road. It's not some kind of nostalgia sell-out thing, is it?

August 22, 1993|CHRIS WILLMAN | Chris Willman is a regular contributor to Calendar

Flash back to the late '70s, exact date undetermined. You turn on "The Donny and Marie Show," and see one of the most weirdly funny things ever on national television: The teen sibling hosts in spangles and bell-bottoms are doing a tribute to nostalgia, in the form of a bouncy duet of Steely Dan's "Reelin' in the Years."

The weekend at the college didn't turn out like you planned, a beaming Donny Osmond sang to Marie, by all appearances clueless to the absurdity of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker's unwieldy verses in his beaming mouth. The things that pass for knowledge I can't understand."

What kind of weekend--at which branch of Brigham Young University--did this brother and sister share? What sort of knowledge passed between them? Did Donny have the slightest idea what he was singing?

Did Steely Dan fans, for that matter?

Donny and Marie weren't alone in being oblivious to the often hidden meanings of Fagen and Becker's hits, which were just hooky enough to be permanently embedded in many millions of craniums despite a popular lack of comprehension of what subversive ideas might lie therein.

What American of a certain age can't sing a few seemingly random phrases of Fagen and Becker's strange design: "Babylon sisters, shake it." "Drink Scotch whiskey all night long, and die behind the wheel." "Drink your big black cow and get outta here."

The dangerous, funny, possibly misanthropic elusiveness of the lyrics was matched by Becker and Fagen's relative reclusion as pop personalities. It was up to Donny and Marie and a lot of lounge singers to publicly perform Steely Dan's hits because Donald and Walter wouldn't. The duo disbanded its backup lineup and quit touring in 1974, ceasing all live performances well before most of their major hits were even released.

It was frustrating to some fans that jazz-influenced music that benefited from some of the best studio playing in the business couldn't be heard in a live setting. But to the true aficionado, Steely Dan's unwillingness to waste time touring in order to focus on the bigger rewards of record-making was just the ultimate measure of their ornery integrity.

Flash forward to the present, at which point Fagen, 45, and Becker, 43, have done the unthinkable and--an astonishing 19 years after their previous gig--booked a brief U.S. tour under the moniker of Steely Dan, which itself has been retired for well over a decade. Nearly all of the shows--including dates at the Greek Sept. 7-8 and Irvine Meadows Sept. 10--sold out within minutes or hours of going on sale. (Tickets still remain for a show at the Blockbuster Pavilion Sept. 11.)

And while fans salivate at the idea of the Dan made flesh, a few couldn't help but be nagged by the fear that, after all this time, a "reunion" tour might represent another kind of sell-out, in which the Steely ones finally cave in to the demands of the masses after all.

Will their "Reelin' in the Years" end up like Donny and Marie's: taking what was written as a backhanded look at memory-mongering, and unfortunately resurrect it as an irony-free anthem to nostalgia?

Far be it from these fellows to dissuade anyone else's hard-fought cynicism.

Contacted by phone for comment on how the opening Midwest dates on the tour went last weekend, Becker answered, "Well, not too good. It turns out that show business isn't really in my blood anyway, and I'm looking forward to getting back to working on my car . . . "

Whew. Incorrigible after all.

Older fans may still think of Becker and Fagen as bad boys, but talk up the band to any self-respectingly "alternative" teen or twentysomething "Lollapalooza"-goer, and the image they have of Steely Dan in their young minds will produce about the same look of distaste as if you'd suggested they attend a Kenny G show. It's hard convincing them that, for all the inherent musical "slickness," Steely Dan was the alternative band of its time.

The generation gap is obvious enough that you could update the lyrics of the group's 1980 Top 10 hit, a tune about dating a girl too young to be familiar with Aretha Franklin, to apply to Steely Dan itself: Hey nineteen, that's Donald Fagen / She don't remember the Kings of Scorn . . .

The instrumental warmth and smoothness of the sounds was a necessary tonic for the bitterness sometimes infecting the sentiments (or lack of them). Theirs could be a chilly, emotionally barren landscape, filled with fictional characters and place names that had less to do with Dylan's or Springsteen's use of the same devices than their own post-Burroughsian, pre-cyberpunk uncharted universe.

Steely Dan's key oldies get played on most of the available radio formats. But in trying to figure out exactly who it was that snapped up all those tour tickets so instantly, it comes to mind that there are probably two core audiences for Steely Dan:

First and foremost, there are those lingering, literarily minded, misanthropic anarchists who always dug the Dan's bad attitude.

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