Steely Dan & the Importance of Your Dad’s Music

Words & Cover Photo by Max Stewart

There is nothing quite like connecting with a parent on some common musical ground. Just like most teenagers, I had my share of musical phases that I look back on and cringe. I rolled my eyes as my parents played music that I would later realize was far superior than the post-grunge, pop-punk flavors of the late 1990s and early 2000s that I was consumed with at the time. Lucky for me, my dad always made sure to have authentic tunes playing in the house during all of my genre immersions, so at the very least it seeped into my musical DNA. My dad, Charlie Stewart, also grew up during the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll, attending shows like the Atlanta Pop Festival back in 1970 and even working in the music industry for a stint in the Seventies.

When Steely Dan rolled through Alpharetta, GA this summer, it was a full circle father-son moment. We have gone together to a fair share of shows over the years, but this one certainly stood out as I have come to love and appreciate Steely Dan’s catalog as an adult. When I think back on road trips to the beach and Saturday afternoons roaming around the house as an early adolescent, Steely Dan was a constantly-present soundtrack of my childhood memories. Take note parents: although your kids may not immediately cling to the music you play for them in their younger years, you gotta think long term!

Donald Fagen commented on the loss of his musical wing-man Walter Becker at the band’s show earlier this summer in Atlanta (“Sorry my partner couldn’t be here… just got to keep on keeping on”), and they collectively played a set that featured “Reelin’ In The Years,” “Aja,” “Kid Charlemagne,” and many other compositions from their wide-ranging history.

As I reflect on the most memorable show of the summer, I can’t help but think that it is a duty of parents to subtly pass the musical good word to their children. Equally as important, sons and daughters must keep an open mind and not be dismissive of the ole originals. As we both thought back on highlights of the show and the fact that Fagen and company sounded as polished as ever in the 46th year of their career, my dad had some revealing memories of when Steely Dan busted onto the scene:

“In 1977, I was working for United Artists Records and was invited to an advance listening party, put on by ABC Records in a motel room on Fulton Industrial Blvd, in West Atlanta off of I-20.  The occasion was to showcase the new album of one of their acts, Steely Dan.  As we listened to Aja, the ‘record biz’ people attending were blown away.  Everyone agreed that the new LP was an incredible blend of jazz and pop, and that it was destined to ‘fly off the shelves’ at retail, so the stores had better stock up. It was such a refreshing and unique style and change to what was on the airwaves…with Disco slowly invading from all sides.

The group has always been appreciated for their hip and witty lyrics, jazz/soul/pop blend, and the incredible talent they were able to attract to play on their albums.  Donald Fagen & Walter Becker were totally influenced by jazz and swing, which is evident in their horn arrangements and syncopation.”

Steely Dan was a gateway into many other abstract musical paths that I came to find in my twenties, thanks to the band’s wide-ranging, unique style which redefined what it meant to produce a studio album. My exposure to their music is entirely a result of me hearing it in my younger years, where the sounds of “Babylon Sisters” slowly became part of my musical chemistry, like a sonic sponge.

We cannot let bands like Steely Dan get lost on any generation, with younger musical minds only discovering previous decades of music via a Spotify playlist or a retrospective Rolling Stone article.  Make a point to keep the songs you are passionate about playing around the people that you love, so the flavor-of-the-week YouTube sensations do not consume the minds of the new generation of kids. You never know how your musical taste could impact and dictate future generations of listeners.

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