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When you think about the history of music in New Jersey, most people bring cross-generational mainstream stars to mind, like Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi or Lauryn Hill.
Significantly fewer would say Steely Dan — and that's a shame, even if such anonymity may have been born of a sort of design.
It's been half a century since the Passaic-born, South Brunswick-raised keyboard player, singer and composer Donald Fagen welcomed listeners to the musical land of the Dan alongside his longtime comrade Walter Becker, the Queens, New York-born guitarist who died in 2017 at the age of 67.
Most discerning listeners of baby boomer age and younger surely know a handful of Dan hits — you might be singing 1972's "Reelin' in the Years," 1974's "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" or 1980's "Hey Nineteen" to yourself now.
But you may not be able to name the two maestros behind the tunes, or even pick Fagen and Becker's photos out of a lineup. (My late father, for as long as I can remember, thought Steely Dan wasn't a band, but a single guy — "Steely Dan, I love him," I can still hear him say.)
Fagen and Becker never appeared on the cover of one of their nine LPs, and were known to employ an ever-shifting crew of studio musicians in order to ensure that each of their jazz-rock compositions achieved sonic perfection.
Steely Dan was never about them, it was about optimal execution of a sound that combined polished-chrome musicianship with an often-unsettling acerbic bent to the lyrics.
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It's a dedication to a musical ideal that transcended even its two architects. In a statement following Becker's death, Fagen, now 74, vowed to persist. "I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band," Fagen wrote.
He's been true to his word, with upcoming engagements on the band's "Earth After Hours" tour including Thursday, June 30, at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel and Saturday, Aug 6, at the Borgata Hotel, Casino and Spa in Atlantic City.
Fagen and Becker spent decades making achingly personal music. They were telling us who they were, and where they were from, with every note.
"Walter and I are both from the sprawl that surrounds New York City," Fagen told me in 2016. "Because we were jazz fans at a young age, we each grew up gazing at the Manhattan skyline, the place where we figured the jazz guys lived."
The Grammy-winning, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sound is a stained glass window through which one can detect other music readily associated with New Jersey: the horn-drenched barroom romanticism of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes or pop-rockers Looking Glass, rendered with the sophistication of Count Basie, recorded with the meticulousness of "Born to Run"-era Springsteen, and played with the innovative chops of Les Paul.
But it's that skyline gazing that defined Fagen and Becker, revealing them as the quintessential soundtrack of frustrated hipsters-in-waiting, the sound of bridge-and-tunnel life. (Not for nothing, the band's latest album is a 2021 live LP titled "Northeast Corridor," a term familiar to many New Jersey Transit passengers.)
The characters that populate Springsteen's songs eventually escape New Jersey, busting out of cages on Highway 9, driving sleek machines over the Jersey state line and pulling out of a town full of losers to win.
Steely Dan protagonists, by contrast, are stuck out here with the rest of us. The narrator of 1977's "Deacon Blues" dreams of becoming a big city jazz saxophone player who one day will die in a whiskey-soaked car wreck, but in the meantime he's left to "crawl like a viper through these suburban streets."
The lascivious star of 1980's "Hey Nineteen" is likewise prowling outside the city, finding himself in Scarsdale in New York's Westchester County and wondering, "Where the hell am I?" Daddy, as the 1975 "Katy Lied" track goes, "don't live in that New York City no more."
The wounded-soul suburban snark of Fagen and Becker is of a piece with the work of fellow Garden State sage George R.R. Martin, the Bayonne native author whose "Song of Ice and Fire" fantasy series inspired the HBO hit "Game of Thrones."
Speaking in Jersey City in 2018, Martin, now 73, recalled how from his living room window he could see the twinkling lights of Staten Island and ships from around the world passing through the Kill Van Krull channel — an image that recalls Fagen and Becker's starstruck gazes at the Manhattan skyline as much as it does his own characters' view of the Westerosi capital city of King's Landing.
Both Steely Dan and Martin take a clever, educated approach to material that should feel like advanced studies. Fagen and Becker's sophisticated jazz is highly literate, such as on "The Royal Scam" (1976) and its deep cut "Caves of Altamira," pulling influence from Plato and John Keats. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" grounds its high fantasy in the 15th-century history of the War of the Roses. (That's to say nothing of the Grateful Dead Easter eggs found in both of their works, or the way they tended to take their sweet time while crafting acclaimed, best-selling masterpieces.)
If there's any doubt remaining that the Dan is the quintessential New Jersey act, remember that Tony Soprano is a fan (James Gandolfini's 2001 rendition of "Dirty Work" in a third-season episode of "The Sopranos" is still a delight more than 20 years later).
And then give another spin to a defining Dan track, "Home at Last." A second-side centerpiece of the band's finest album, 1977's "Aja," the song creates a tapestry of highways, shores and the burning sun as its narrator makes his way back to the place he started: "The danger on the rocks is surely past, still I remain tied to the mast. Could it be that I have found my home at last?"
Fagen once told me that Asbury Park, a city with sun and shore approachable by highway, holds a special place in his memories.
"Asbury Park was our family’s summer vacation favorite," he said. "There was the boardwalk, plus that huge casino building where you could score a cheap toy if you could grab it with that metal claw."
Now, Dan-ologists may argue that the song really takes its cues from Homer's "Odyssey." But why not both? After all, in the land of the Dan an epic odyssey can take you from New Jersey around the world and back again — and the whole trip will sound perfect, just as intended, even if you can't recall the captains' faces.
Steely Dan plays Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, New York, on Wednesday, June 29, followed by: the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel on Thursday, June 30; the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in Bethel, New York, on Sunday, July 3; the Borgata Hotel, Casino and Spa in Atlantic City on Saturday, Aug. 6, and the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, on Wednesday, Aug. 10, Friday, Aug. 12, and Saturday, Aug. 13. For tickets, a full itinerary and more information visit steelydan.com.
Alex Biese has been writing about art, entertainment, culture and news on a local and national level for more than 15 years.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Steely Dan tours NJ and NY this summer