Raiders of the Lost Dan
Matthew Quinn Martin
The entertainment business is like archeology in at least one respect––it can take you to some pretty strange places. One day you are a sales executive at WEA (Warner-Electra-Atlantic), or attending the premiere of a movie you wrote that was produced by the same folks that made Drive…and the next you are working as an extra on a television show about insufferable, wealthy teens (that shall remain nameless) called Gossip Girl.
Such was the case a few years back with my friend John Ahrens and me.
John and I have both been in the business for a while. There are times that things get crazy––like when I watched him get ridden like a horse by Justin Long on the set of Old Dogs, or when I spotted him in an infomercial as “The Wax-Vac Guy.” But, every time I would see John on set, I knew we were going to have a good time.
John is one of “those guys” with a freakishly encyclopedic knowledge of music––and, even more rare––the taste to back it up. So when we were stuck on the set of the above-mentioned show, we spent three straight days (of fifteen hour shifts) talking about music. We talked about how we loved Yellow Magic Orchestra…How Alan Parsons deserves way more credit than he is ever going to get…how awesome David Lee Roth’s album Skyscraper is (sorry, Van Hagar folks)…but what we talked most about was Steely Dan.
We talked a lot about Steely Dan, and the one thing I remember most was telling him that I would routinely get sad thinking that I might never hear a Steely Dan song that I hadn’t already. And at this point I was already well on my way to wearing out my second copy of Citizen Dan (a feat I have long since accomplished).
My thinking is that if I’m not going to get to hear new songs, then I might as well try to find new things inside the songs I already know (…focusing on the hi-hat work on “Black Friday” for example). Like scouring liner notes, that’s one brand of musical archeology. It’s one way of digging deeper.
But it’s not exactly as exciting as opening The Ark of the Covenant and finding that under the lid is a trove of lost Steely Dan tracks. Nope…that moment wouldn’t come until a few years down the pike.
As my writing partner and best friend Libby Cudmore eloquently put in her own Captain’s Blog post a little while back: Steely Dan is the greatest fucking band in the whole universe. Fucking fight me, I dare you. She’s right…and as she knows, I’ve got her back on this.
And, as fate would have it, both Libby and I were in NYC late September in 2011 when Steely Dan was playing one of their now legendary weeks-long Beacon Theatre residencies. We got tickets for “Rarities Night” not exactly sure what we would hear, but shaking with excitement just the same. What did “rarities” even mean? we wondered. Songs they don’t play live often? Tunes classic rock radio ignores, but the band loves? Something else?
We didn’t know. However, there was the overwhelming sense that we were in for something special––scratch that, not just special…something sublime. At the risk of sounding crazy, I was struck with the feeling that we were entering a sacred space, and that I needed to bring some kind of offering. I quickly ducked into the wine shop next door and emerged a few moments later with an airline bottle of Cuervo Gold. I showed this to Libby…and she immediately ran across the street, only to return with a small baggie of Fine Columbian (coffee…that she bought at Fairway). I still have that little bottle, but I think we drank the coffee.
Anyway, totems in hand, we entered…The Temple of Dan.
The houselights dimmed. The backing band warmed up with crowd with a cover of “Dizzy’s Bidness.” But when Don and Walt came on, they launched into the first Steely Dan song of this rarities night. It turned out to be “Your Gold Teeth”…OK, not the most popular song. Not “Aja,” “Black Friday,” or “Hey Nineteen.” But not exactly the deepest cut ever. They then proceed to follow up that chestnut with…“Aja,” “Black Friday,” and “Hey Nineteen” (...in that order).
Well…at least we got to hear Walter Becker’s rambling mid-song monologue for the first time. And at least our offerings of caffeine and tequila were not brought for nought. Maybe this rarities night wouldn’t be so life-altering after all, I thought.
I thought wrong. With the next song everything changed. Chords formed that sounded eerily familiar, but I simply could not place them. It turned out to be “The Bear” that they were playing. An outtake hat I only knew from pirated demo versions. And here it was in full. My dream had come true…I got to hear a Steely Dan song I’d never heard before!
Now…as any Dan Fan will tell you, plenty of early and/or half-finished Becker/Fagen compositions have been floating around for decades. Everything from vinyl copies of the soundtrack for You Got to Walk It Like You Talk It (or You’ll Lose That Beat), to pirated CDs of various leaked demos marketed under different titles (…such as Sun Mountain), right up through the YouTube era where iPhone recordings of every recent concert, and just about anything else, is all available at the click of a mouse.
But, as any Dan Fan will also tell you…that’s not the same thing. A simple comparison of the demo version of Caves of Altamira with the slick perfection of the finished product is enough to show that the difference between the two (as Mark Twain put it) is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. One can only imagine what studio versions of "Android Warehouse," "Kulee Baba," "Yellow Peril"––or a bunch of others––might have become if they’d been put through the full “studio Dan” wringer.
We got to find out with “The Bear” that night when we heard it played in full by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker––supported by one of the greatest line-ups of touring musicians ever assembled. And while I know I witnessed it (and can still remember it), for some reason, despite all the cell-phones in the audience, no one seems to have recorded and posted it (…so far). So you are just going to have to take my word (and Libby’s) that it indeed happened.
I could have left right then and everything would have been perfect with the world. But it turned out that wasn’t all. Later we would also get treated to a rendition of “American Lovers”…a song that the duo wrote for Thomas Jefferson Kay. The vocal duties were handled by their long-time back-up vocal trio, The Embassy Brats. And at the close Don said something along the lines of, “that was inspiring. That was scary!” And, indeed, it was both.
Eventually they finished up the show with “Reeling In the Years” (as seems to be the case with EVERY Steely Dan concert) and returned to the stage for an encore. People screamed out the titles of their favorite overlooked songs. To which Don responded “Yeah, yeah…we’re gonna play what we want! We’re going to play what we want!” Ending the show exactly they way they used to do it in the ‘70s, with a song they only ever used to do on stage––”This All Too Mobile Home.” And, even though the crowd might not have known it at the time…it was exactly what they wanted as well.
But as much as I cherish those songs, the real jewel of the evening came somewhere in the middle (track 13 if the internet setlist is to be believed). Don took the mic and regaled us all with the tale of how during the recording of Gaucho they’d spent months recording a song…only to come in one morning to find out that all but a fraction of it had been erased. Attempts to reconstruct it were unsuccessful and the song had been abandoned...until that night.
And there it was. The Holy Grail of lost Dan tracks…”The Second Arrangement.” Yes there are demos…and yes there is a YouTube version from the show. But nothing could ever compare to what we heard that night. Trying to describe it would be exactly as futile…and as face-melting…as describing the contents of the Ark of the Covenant.
When the song ended, Don told all assembled that it was the first time they’d ever played it live…and might be the only time.
As predicted, Steely Dan has never (as far as I can tell) played either “The Bear” or the “The Second Arrangement” live since that night. That doesn’t make those performances “rare” it makes them “unique.” Libby and I are only two of less that 3000 people to walk this earth who have heard full Steely Dan approved versions of those songs––and who have gotten to get yelled at by Donald Fagen before hearing “This All To Mobile Home.”
I know this experience makes me incredibly lucky. But it also makes me unbearably sad. I wish my friend John Ahrens could have been there. I wish all the Dan Fans who would have appreciated the magic of that night could have been there. I wish everyone who's ever been saddened by the thought that they’ll never get to hear another Steely Dan song they haven’t before could have been there
And, who knows? Maybe…just maybe…the boys’ll put out another album. And maybe…just maybe...the track list will consist of all those could-have-been songs. I’m not saying that Raiders of the Lost Dan HAS to be the title––but there are worse options.
A Dan Fan can only hope…and, until then, comfort himself with the memories of that rarest of nights.
-mqm, 09/30/16, Shelter Island, NY
MATTHEW QUINN MARTIN is the author of the Nightlife series (Pocket Star/Simon & Schuster) as well as the screenwriter of the original script for the feature film Slingshot (Bold/Weinstein Co.). He doesn't own a yacht...but he does live on an island. He can be found at www.matthewquinnmartin.com or on Twitter @matthewqmartin