Features, Yestalgia

Steely Dan, Concerts, and Coachella

I’ve loved Steely Dan for about 20 years. When I heard they would be playing Coachella last year, I felt so perturbed, I just had to respond. That gave me the excuse to really explore my love for The Dan, to unpack my thoughts on their music (and on Coachella), and to consider how all of that means, at least in part, meditating on the self and the passage of time. This resulted in a labor of love essay, titled “Reelin’ in the Years/Close Your Eyes, and You’ll be There,” which we have here broken into seven, discrete but also connected pieces, ones we will be publishing as installments over the coming weeks. This is the seventh and final installment of the series. To start from the beginning, click here.

c/o LA Weekly

Photo by Andy Hermann c/o LA Weekly

If Coachella is about youth and base tastes and hordes and fake flowers and bikini tops and high-waisted shorts and casual sex and molly and indie rock, then it’s a thing of its time — this time. It has generational importance, and people older than 24 can go, but they need to know they’re no longer the target audience. Steely Dan may have been that target when this all happened for the first time at Woodstock or ’90s raves, but if they’re old enough to remember those things, Coachella isn’t really about them.

Woodstock was a lot of things to a lot of people, but it wasn’t expensive. And these days, Coachella is as much about class (or financial priorities) than it is about anything (e.g. music, experience). A VIP ticket costs $900, and then you have to factor in the hotels, food, and miscellany.

Jimmy Kimmel had a brilliant episode, rife with social commentary, in which he went around Coachella, interviewing festival-goers about their favorite bands, making up absurd names to see how much of their fandom was posing, how much earnest and informed. It turns out most of it’s posing as people kept pretending to be fans of bands that don’t exist (which we already knew but now have proof for), and that calls to mind the fact that, well, Steely Dan would probably be lost on a demographic like that.

Coachella lineup, 2015

Coachella lineup, 2015

I hate to sound like a pretentious, superior-feeling asshole, myself, but even though my high school generation fetishized the ’70s and its taste (Judd Apatow — and James Franco, for that matter — gave us his best work, “Freaks and Geeks” in 1998), today’s doesn’t miss that era. They miss it in the sense that they wear American Apparel (which yearns only for the wretched parts of the ’70s, like Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” video gone all wrong), but they don’t really listen to that kind of music right now.

It’s rare to find high schoolers who love classic rock. That’s not a bad thing. It just is. They may like the ’80s and ’90s (and I’m glad!) because, again, to them, that’s retro in the same way the ’60s and ’70s were to us, but that’s where it ends. And even if they like Kanye, they may not like the source material for his samples or even care that there is one. I recently heard a student of mine playing Miley Cyrus’ cover of “Lilac Wine” (which is great, by the way), and I asked her if she’d heard the Jeff Buckley or Nina Simone versions, and she said, “no, and I don’t want to.” She’s really fired up about Coachella, though.

The Steely Dan-hater and I broke up a few days before he went to Coachella 2013, and I won’t deny that was in my head when I returned to Bard that summer for another workshop (“I’m never going back to my old school…” doesn’t work if you didn’t really go there, right?) and finally saw them in concert at the Staples Center that summer.

There’s something so incongruous about Steely Dan in concert. They’ve always been so vocal (pun intended) about their preference for a perfect, studio sound. Moreover, I feel strange about it. Maybe I’m odd this way, but I know I’m not alone because I’ve talked to other people about this — though I love and live for music and have played it all my life, I don’t necessarily obsess about going to concerts. Or, rather, I love concerts but generally when they involve a performance of classical music or jazz. That sounds absurdly pretentious, but I have reasons.

I feel that way because both genres require great athleticism in their playing, so I would witness something beautiful and impressive in hearing them live, just as something may get lost in the recording of such music, inevitable as that is. When it comes to rock and indie music, though, for the most part, the greatness of the music doesn’t come from the virtuosity of the musicians but from the at times magical, alchemical combination of the song’s composition, the skill, the recording, and the mixing.

Generally, the concert is not as good as the recording, and too often, we find out the hard way that the musician, when in need of proving him/herself, is not what we thought. I recently went to a party during which a Britney Spears fan admitted she went to Vegas and heard her “live,” explaining, “they just put the CD in and pressed play.” We expect this, and much of the time, we’re OK with it, as we want to see a favorite band in concert not because they’re that great in vivo but because we just love the band so much or want to say we got to witness their antics while they were still alive and relevant (or just alive).

So it surprised me Steely Dan would be playing in LA, and it surprised me as much that I would go. But I couldn’t not go. I felt curious to hear if they were as effective live; I love their music and wished to listen to it another way (there’s a new revelation in each performance of a piece); I feel loyal to them; I wanted to see what spurred their change of heart; and a bit of me wanted to “damn the Man” in that recent ex to show him I would go see them, and look how many other people were there. There were tons, and Fagen and Becker cracked jokes on stage and played my favorite songs, and they played excellently.

There’s no cheating on those recordings. No autotune, no shadiness.

So they would rock Coachella. I’m not saying they wouldn’t.

And maybe they’re intent on saying “screw this; we’ll kill it.” Or maybe they’re the creeps from “Hey Nineteen” (I hope not).

But I feel protective of what I love. “I cried when I wrote this [piece]. Sue me if I stay too long.” It’s exciting when you like something that finally becomes popular (or becomes popular again). It validates you. Yet it’s also kind of sad, like a small parting, like you’re giving away something that belonged just to you (even though maybe it never did and predated you by years). You feel like those now speaking of it have no right because they weren’t early adopters, even though of course you’ve been the “late” adopter to other things.

And while I would love to spread the message of Steely Dan to those who prefer Drake or Vampire Weekend (not that I have anything against Drake or Vampire Weekend) and even to hipsters who don’t listen to The Dan unless ironically, I just think hipsters would belatedly claim allegiance to Steely Dan and not really mean it, the way they don’t mean anything except that they don’t mean anything.

Maybe it’s strange that I listen to ironic music earnestly, but to me, it’s not as ironic as people find it — not if you really listen to those chords or the emotion behind the words.

And Steely Dan’s just too good for a circus like Coachella. I’m happy for them for branching out (technically, it’s not my place to be happy for them or not, but fans take possession of a work and creator and make it theirs because it has some significance for them; on some level, it belongs to them). And I’m sure the exposure and money will be good for them.

But while we in our late 20s or 30s or 40s or older were getting up in arms about Steely Dan’s joining the Coachella madness, my high schoolers were screaming about Hozier’s presence on the lineup.

And the truth is: it’s their party.

So why are we pulling an Owen Wilson (delightful though he may be) and crashing it? We didn’t think Steely Dan approved of him anyway. I wish they’d scroll through their old correspondences, joking or otherwise, and make this weekend “a wonderful thing” by recording a session together somewhere in Upstate New York or Northern California or Sunset [by] the sea where on a few levels, it’s cooler than the desert.

June 13, 2016

About Author

Deborah Stokol Deborah Stokol is a high school teacher, musician, and writer living in Los Angeles.

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