It’s doubtful you would ever think of Steely Dan as a “guitar solo” band, and that’s true in part because their jazz/R&B/rock amalgam never made them a typical rock and roll group, but also due to the fact that their ostensible main guitarist, co-founder, Walter Becker, played only a fraction of them, and few of their most famous and recognizable ones. It was Larry Carlton’s virtuoso shredding on ‘Kid Charlemagne,’ Elliott Randall’s methodically slashing takes in ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ (playing what Jimmy Page once called his favorite guitar solo ever), Jeff “Skunk” Baxter romping amongst some of the band’s heaviest-ever horn arrangements in ‘My Old School,’ some Hoochie Koo blues from Rick Derringer in ‘Chain Lightning,’ and Jay Graydon emerging from among the attempts of no fewer than seven top studio session guitarists to ultimately record the biting solo keeper on ‘Peg.’ For the Steely Dan classic, ‘Bodhisattva,’ however, the fret-fraying guitar work was apparently so fierce, it required their recruitment of not one but two different savage soloists.
1973’s “Countdown To Ecstasy” was the Dan’s second album – coming just on the heels of their delectable debut, “Can’t Buy A Thrill,” and preceding the soon-to-come murderers row roster of “Pretzel Logic,” “Katy Lied,” “The Royal Scam,” and “Aja” in a 5-year spurt that was positively Creedence-like for prodigious brilliance – and ‘Bodhisattva’ was the record’s instantly distinctive opening track. Eight combined snare drum/high hat hits and two sets of two descending power chords, quickly followed by nine seconds of an oddly atonal piano chord sequence, all serve as introduction, before harmonized guitars arise to establish the tune’s main line. Those harmonies, presumably, are supplied by the two artists, Denny Dias and the aforementioned Skunk Baxter, who will soon be burning through the pair of solos that constitute the song’s hallmark (in typically cryptic Steely Dan fashion, the album’s liner notes identify the tune’s activity as “Dias the bebopper meets Baxter the skunk beneath the Bo tree in this altered blues.” Got it.). It’s Dias who’s featured first, winding through a full minute of remarkable runs beginning at 1:35, then Baxter arriving at 4:09 to fully set the song ablaze and finally deliver it’s charred husk, some 44 seconds later, to the climactic conquistador-like ending. It seems too obvious to assert how great a composition ‘Bodhisattva’ is, and any modest fan of classic rock has probably taken pleasure in its melodic joys scores of times. But seriously, go back and listen to it now specifically focusing on those two out-of-this-world solos. Together, they’re so stupefyingly incredible I think just hearing them could possibly bring about some sort of spiritual enlightenment.
Speaking of which, Bodhisattva: notwithstanding Steely Dan’s often indiscernible subject matter, the title does actually mean something. A Bodhisattva is a human who has reached a level of perfect enlightenment, as the Buddha did (whether or not by listening to righteous guitar solos), and can leave physical existence and the material world behind, but chooses to remain in human form in order to help others achieve such freedom. Donald Fagen, of course Walter Becker’s Steely Dan co-founder and remaining keeper of the flame following Becker’s death in 2017, said the song was “a parody on the way Western people look at Eastern religion – sort of oversimplify it.” In part, the idea that disposal of one’s possessions is a prerequisite to spirituality. “Lure of East, hubris of hippies, a quick fix,” Fagen noted. “We thought it was rather amusing, but most people didn’t get it.”
I doubt I’m alone in feeling that, in fact, it could frequently be hard to get Steely Dan. Somehow, accepting that convoluted mystique only added to both their lyrical and musical genius. Recently, along with my friend Kap and our respective better-halfs, I saw them live at New York City’s venerable Beacon Theater (the band basically being Fagen, now the one official member, at the helm leading a thoroughly impressive revue of professionals). Never anything close to a true touring group since all the way back to following the release of “Countdown To Ecstasy,” I did entertain some apprehensions as to whether that Steely Dan aura and musicianship would have survived the many decades of time since their ‘70’s heyday (not to mention the loss of one of its two originators). Our show, part of a five-night Beacon residency, was themed “By Popular Demand,” allowing Fagen to showcase a setlist of not only the band’s substantial list of hits but also many deep-cut, fan-favorites; they opened with the reggae-tinged “Royal Scam” number ‘Sign In Stranger,’ included “Can’t Buy A Thrill” nuggets ‘Dirty Work’ and ‘Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)’ – the latter played live for the first time since 1974 – and sparkled with a personal highlight for Kap and I, the “Pretzel Logic” chestnut and utterly lovely minor-key mood of ‘Any Major Dude Will Tell You.’ They had all aged quite nicely. Late in the show the band broke out ‘Bodhisattva,’ that familiar drum opening raising much of the somewhat reserved, sophisticated-leaning audience to their collective feet. And, we all waited for the solos (plural). Yet interestingly, the power of two – Denny Dias and Skunk Baxter on the recording – was to be brought forth by just one: another guest guitarist, the estimable Jon Herington, long-time standout sideman and decade-plus member of Fagen’s touring ensemble, impressively proved up to both arduous soloing tasks. As his moments came, Herington casually inched forward on the stage, and calmly brought home the pair of intricate parts with a hint of panache and a nonchalant appearance of Zen placidity. I wasn’t certain if he’d reached a Bodhisattva level of true enlightenment, but I’m convinced he was at least damn close.