As a teenager teaching himself to play guitar in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I knew all about the brilliance of Steely Dan.
That’s not because I liked Steely Dan. Far from it. I was a Beatles fanatic who worshiped at the altars of Led Zeppelin, Cream, and the Who, who was heavily under the thrall of R.E.M. and U2 and the Church and just beginning to fall down a deep Neil Young hole. I liked punk and the Police and the Eagles and apparently, per the 45 still (!) in my collection, Ratt’s “Way Cool Jr.”
But I also devoured guitar magazines by the truckload, where the superiority of the guitarists who flitted in and out of Steely Dan’s orbit was a running theme. Alongside the cheerleading of contemporary acts like Metallica, Joe Satriani and Guns N’ Roses, it was hard to miss the constant rhapsodizing about the contributions of Larry Carlton, Elliott Randall, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and others (so many others) to the recorded legacy of Steely Dan.
As a budding music nerd whose tastes ran in line with the commonly recognized classic-rock canon and what was then being called college rock, those magazines were crucial in helping me explore beyond the limits of what I considered to be my musical interests. They brought me, to varying degrees, to AC/DC, Booker T. & The M.G.'s, Pink Floyd, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Megadeth. And so I dutifully borrowed “A Decade of Steely Dan” from the library and — save for the melancholy optimism of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” which I immediately copied onto a mixtape —found it almost entirely impenetrable.
Which makes sense, because if you couldn’t drink legally, there was pretty much no reason to ever care about Steely Dan. Except that Steely Dan wasn’t just swank aural wallpaper for late-’70s single urbanites with silk-sheeted waterbeds. It was a group that repeatedly visited the Top 40, one hit after another; there were teenagers grooving to the lounge-bar fatalism of “Deacon Blues.” (The ’70s, man.) Steely Dan routinely got tagged as “collegiate” (despite almost uniformly sniping at institutions of higher learning), and maybe that was it: smartypants kids glomming onto older, cooler (in several senses of the word) smartypants grown-ups as proof that the future held something for them. But for me, they were just chilly misanthropes who dug jazz for all the wrong reasons and weren’t even a real band, for Pete’s sake.
And then, 13 years ago, wanting to rid myself of some cassettes, I checked “Pretzel Logic” out of the library to rip “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” to MP3 — same story, new format — and accidentally fell in love. The smartypantsery that was once so off-putting remained, but instead of being held forth as a defense against human feelings, it was used as a coping mechanism for them. The deceptively freewheeling putdown of “Barrytown,” biting funk of “Night By Night,” and openhearted “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” were all tied together with the cracked empathy of Donald Fagen’s vocals, maybe the most bent singer to ever call the Top 40 home. There were still riddles without solutions like the title track, but the balance between cynicism and vulnerability felt like a skeleton key that could unlock the rest of Steely Dan’s catalog.
So I did the only thing I could think to do, which was promptly acquire the (not quite) full-catalog box set “Citizen Steely Dan” before the window closed again. Unsurprisingly, the two albums preceding “Pretzel Logic” — “Can’t Buy a Thrill” and “Countdown to Ecstasy” — clicked right into place; as the products of an undeniable band, they benefited from not just the organic pulse of band members all owning an equal stake in the end result but from the influence of three musicians tempering the impulses of Fagen and bassist/co-writer Walter Becker to shutter themselves up in unvarnished solipsism.
But the later albums, where Steely Dan was reduced to Fagen and Becker with studio support from an ever-changing array of hired guns, were also of a piece with the band-oriented work, taking what had already been present and ratcheting it up to the extreme. (Among those hired guns was original Steely Dan guitarist Denny Dias, who played on three albums after his firing, which is so mean and thus so Steely Dan.) And nowhere was that clearer than on “Aja.”
If “Pretzel Logic” was Steely Dan’s best album, “Aja” was its Steely Daniest. It’s airless, distant, and perfect. Having retired from touring, Becker and Fagen (and indispensable producer Gary Katz) didn’t have to pay a single thought to how any of their songs could possibly be played live. So they focused on studio perfectionism, and “Aja” is all of one piece as a result. The eight-minute title track is emblematic of the whole record, with a gasp-inducing saxophone solo by Wayne Shorter that plays off the tension between the looseness of improvisation and the restriction of exacting, every-note-in-its-place arrangements. Even with the inclusion of what seem to be innocuously upbeat singles like “Peg” and “Josie,” the album isn’t quite pop, and it’s certainly not jazz, as conventional wisdom likes to claim. It utilizes — some might even say exploits — aspects of both to become its own thing, and it’s a masterpiece.
Decades of technological advancements have made it possible for Steely Dan to bring its quintessentially studio-bound material to the stage without sacrificing its precision. Meanwhile, Becker’s 2017 death means that Steely Dan — playing five non-consecutive nights at the Orpheum starting Friday — soldiers on reduced yet again. Perhaps some day when Fagen follows suit, we’ll see a Steely Dan with no members at all, merely an assemblage of anonymous players continuing to give life to the songs. That would be sacrilege, of course. It would also be perfectly Steely Dan.
Meanwhile, I still can’t play Baxter’s guitar solo from “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” That guy was amazing.
With the Pat Bianchi Trio. At the Orpheum Theatre, Boston, Oct. 25-Nov. 1 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $49.50, www.ticketmaster.com
Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @spacecitymarc