This Sunday

John Heckathorn

Too old to rock ’n’ roll,
too young for a walker

'What kind of rock concert is this?" said my friend Pete Thompson when I ran into him at intermission. "The dealers in the bathroom are selling Viagra."

It was, in fact, the recent Steely Dan concert at the Blaisdell Arena. Pete was right, the crowd was ... mature. The last rock concert I'd managed was The Strokes at World Café, a venue so hip that many of the couples there, if you added their ages together, were still younger than I. That crowd, buzzed on beer or whatever, was sweaty, elbow-to-elbow, passing people overhead in the mosh pit, lots of bare midriffs, earrings on men, tattoos on everyone. The Strokes were a nice, tight rock nouveau band, a tad deafening in volume.

At Steely Dan, the look was pretty much corporate casual, with a sprinkling of sport coats and black cocktail dresses. "Geezer Rock," said friend sitting in front of me.

I'd sprung $162 for two tickets because Steely Dan is my wife's favorite band. On the way out of the house, she seemed to have that glow of excitement she used have in her 20s. At the last minute I slipped a small packet into my pocket. "What's that?" she said. Ear plugs, just in case. "In the '70s, it would have been joints," she laughed.

It was clearly not the '70s. When we got out of the car in the parking structure, a gentleman got out of the van next to us with a cane.

The Arena itself seemed similarly decrepit -- the same painful chairs, the same insufficient sound system, the whole atmosphere dowdy. (Could someone mention that to the city?) The crowd seemed ready for a good time, but it was not the sort of crowd where you worry about fights or women rushing the stage and throwing themselves at the band.

Not that Steely Dan is the kind of band you'd throw yourself at. While it may have been the most talented band of its era, Steely Dan was the quirkiest of rock bands. It got its name from an unmentionable detail in William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, hid out in the studio, worked mainly with jazz musicians. The rest of the original band having defected to the Doobie Brothers decades ago, Steely Dan is down to the two guys, its creative core, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Fagen looks like a retired New Yorker who sits around the deli, smoking a cigar and telling everyone what's what. Becker, who lives on Maui, looks like a high school math teacher.

Still, anybody can get old. These two don't really play to nostalgia. With an eight-piece band that has its jazz chops, they played new material and material so old even the crowd didn't know it. They teased the crowd with familiar material just frequently enough to keep the oh-I-once-made-out-to-that-song-in-the-backseat-of-an-Oldsmobile juices flowing. Then they'd go back to playing what they felt like.

It worked somehow. The crowd began to actually hear the music. Somewhere in the middle of the drum solo in "Josie," the crowd went wild. There followed 20 minutes of everyone on their feet, rocking along, transported. The real thing. Just like The Strokes concert.

It all made me think of my father, bless his Sinatra-loving soul. Specifically, it made me think of a time when I was about 12. We were in an old-style record store, the kind where you could listen to records before buying.

I played him Eddie Cochran's now classic "Summertime Blues." My father didn't get beyond the opening guitar chords before launching into a condemnation of the whole genre. "In 10 years nobody will listen to that stuff," he said. He was sure we'd go back to listening to Sinatra deftly phrasing his way through a Billy May or Nelson Riddle arrangement.

He had it not just wrong, but backwards. Music lives longer than we do. What I learned from the Steely Dan evening is that rock 'n' roll -- or at least all the music into which it evolved -- seems poised to outlive the generation that grew up with it. If it's good, it rocks forever.

One more memory. A couple of years ago, I was driving my daughter Mallory somewhere, with Sinatra on the car stereo. Sinatra and Steely Dan are equally historical figures to her, not real music like, say, The Strokes. But she actually listened to Frank bouncing through "Fly Me to the Moon."

"Gee," she said. "Nobody today can sing like that anymore."

There you go, Dad. The music, if it's good enough, will outlive us all.

John Heckathorn is the editor of Honolulu Magazine. He is one of several local columnists who take turns writing "This Sunday." This will be his last column.


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