THE LEFSETZ LETTER: Steely Dan At Red Rocks

DON’T TAKE ME ALIVE

I’m a bookkeeper’s son
I don’t want to shoot no one
Well I crossed my old man back in Oregon
Don’t take me alive

I drove cross-country with six cassettes purchased at Odyssey Music in Salt Lake City. Oh, I had thirty one other tapes, but they’d been played to death. I needed new music. To take me from the City of Salt to Connecticut.

After a morning spent in a Denver BMW dealer getting the universal joint replaced on my overloaded 2002, I headed towards Kansas City.

Kansas is not quite as flat as they say. But in a 1974 automobile with no cruise control, it was an endurance test nonetheless. And, after the sun declined, it was just me and the white lines heading towards the metropolis.

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Bob Lefsetz, Santa Monica-based industry legend, is the author of the e-mail newsletter, "The Lefsetz Letter". Famous for being beholden to no one, and speaking the truth, Lefsetz addresses the issues that are at the core of the music business: downloading, copy protection, pricing and the music itself.

His intense brilliance captivates readers from Steven Tyler to Rick Nielsen to Bryan Adams to Quincy Jones to music business honchos like Michael Rapino, Randy Phillips, Don Ienner, Cliff Burnstein, Irving Azoff and Tom Freston.

Never boring, always entertaining, Mr. Lefsetz's insights are fueled by his stint as an entertainment business attorney, majordomo of Sanctuary Music's American division and consultancies to major labels.

Bob has been a weekly contributor to CelebrityAccess and Encore since 2001, and we plan many more years of partnership with him. While we here at CelebrityAccess and Encore do not necessarily agree with all of Bob's opinions, we are proud to help share them with you.

And when you’ve got a long drive, you get into the groove of an album. You play it again and again, not only trying to kill time, but getting deeper into the music. Deeper into "The Royal Scam". The cassette I was playing at the time.

I didn’t love it as much as "Katy Lied", which had enraptured me the year before, but I was getting into that song that talked about turning up the Eagles because the neighbors were listening. Then, suddenly, a song emerged. The one containing the above lyrics, "Don’t Take Me Alive". I remember pulling into one of those gas stations out of an Edward Hopper painting as "Don’t Take Me Alive" was pouring out of the stereo. I stumbled out of the car, brought my credit card inside, as we used to have to do, gassed up, got back into my automobile and rewound the tape and played the song again from the top. And then again. WHOSE son was he again?

I had to wait years. You see the cassette didn’t come with lyrics.

I went on to buy "Aja". And "Gaucho". But I have a special place in my heart for "The Royal Scam", because of the trip we shared.

DEAR MR. FANTASY

I love Strasburg. It’s his passion. And irreverence. And attitude. He’s got a zeal in his eye you never see in a label employee.

I used to know promotion men. Now I know concert promoters. Via Jim Lewi and his Aspen Live conference. We descend into the Colorado town every year and I learn what’s really going on in the business, from people in the TRENCHES!

That’s where it’s happening today. That’s where it’s real. In the venues.

The labels are all phony. They promote their wares in media nobody believes in. But to get thousands of people to show up for more than the cost of a CD for an evening of live entertainment, THAT’S an achievement.

Don’s been bugging me to come to Red Rocks for years. Not that I’ve been resistant, it’s just that the logistics were overwhelming. But with my old college buddy John Hughes now ensconced in the Mile High City and Felice’s family having a condo in Vail, this was the year.

We didn’t go to see the boys from Annandale specifically, they just fit our schedule. Still, I was excited. I had never seen the act before. They stopped touring in the early seventies.

Don showed up at John’s house on the phone. A touring guy is always on the phone. Making arrangements, putting out fires. And when Don got off his Razr, it was like I’d seen him the day before. We picked up talking about Lewi’s cruises, grosses, we went from zero to sixty INSTANTLY! And in a world of too many dead people, I LOVE THAT!

And after ten minutes catching up we got into Don’s Audi for a drive to the Fillmore. Don wanted to show me the crown jewel.

Just another concert venue in my mind. I was humoring Don. But when we descended into this darkened old skating rink, it was clear, music lived here.

Covering the walls were photographs from the halcyon days of music. Not only the sixties and seventies, but today. You see Don and his compatriots BUILD BANDS! They keep their ear to the ground, they hear about things. Hell, Don told me about Robert Randolph YEARS before he appeared on the Grammys. Don starts them out at the Boulder Theatre. And then, if he gets a reaction, he moves them to the Fillmore. Maybe as a closer for the money of an opener. And exposed to up to 3,700 people, they can BREAK THROUGH!

Oh, it’s a tough job. You can’t rely on radio. It’s all about advertising in alternative weeklies. And word of mouth. Getting people to choose to spend money in YOUR venue on a Saturday night, instead of going to the movies or staying home and getting high.

Tickets are usually twenty bucks. Almost nobody pays a service charge. They just buy them at the box office. It’s a good value. It’s like it USED TO BE!

The excitement was palpable. On the way to Red Rocks Don discussed the arcanities of bands that didn’t even appear in "Rolling Stone", never mind flew on the national radar. But for him, they sold out. It’s like Don’s living in an alternative universe. The same one rock and roll used to inhabit. When it was music OUTSIDE the system. Before greedy labels and MTV mainstreamed it, overhyping it and cleansing it of its essence. People still know the real thing, and Don and his concert brethren are delivering it. Hell, nobody else is.

SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY

I’d like to tell you the moving image enhanced the effect. That the magic was in U2’s performance. That Red Rocks is not that special. But I’d be lying.

You’re on the freeway. And out in the distance, you recognize it. The rising red slabs! The majesty of the Rockies which blew the Irish band up, jolted them from this elevated altitude into the STRATOSPHERE!

After flashing his pass, Don drove us up, up and up. Beyond the semis, which need to be parked below the stage at this New Deal amphitheatre. We parked in his exalted space not far below the stage entrance and emerged and although it was not raining, and not foggy, looking up into the sky, into the seats, one could see a twentysomething Bono parading with his flag.

Just before we entered the building we ran into Chuck. Who looked more like Chuck BARRIS than Chuck MORRIS! He was wearing orange Crocs, green shorts, multicolored glasses, you felt the excitement, the IRREVERENCE of rock and roll. The corporation was nowhere in sight.

We delved into the bowels under the stage for dinner.

And after loading up my plate with salmon, ham and prime rib, Chuck regaled me with stories. Of how he got from there to here. From hearing the Kingston Trio in Chautauqua, New York and abandoning a Ph.D. program in Boulder to running a club. Going into business with Barry Fey and establishing Ebbets Field. Managing the Dirt Band, Leo Kottke and Big Head Todd, and then going back into the concert business with Bill Graham Presents.

Felice is talking with Strasburg about his honeymoon.

We’re talking about Brent’s watch business.

At that moment there was nowhere I’d rather be. I was at rock and roll central.

And then we went outside for decent cell access and called Irving. After all, it was Chuck who convinced him to do this tour. He wanted it to be Steely Dan, the Doobies and Michael McDonald. The entire lineage, the entire HISTORY! But promoters wouldn’t pony up. So it was just this two. In a sold-out venue, here in Morrison, Colorado, on the last night of July.

SWEET FREEDOM

No more runnin’ down the wrong road
Dancing to a different drum
Can’t you see what’s goin’ on

Deep inside your heart

It was when I heard this song from the soundtrack of "Running Scared" that I had to cut the conversation short, had to leave Chuck, Don and their posse and go out front.

And to the strains of "I Keep Forgettin’" Felice and I went to find our seats.

Turns out they were on the OTHER SIDE OF THE VENUE! And the usher wouldn’t let us walk in front of the stage. We’d have to walk the ENTIRE AISLE across.

But this was no issue whatsoever. Built before greed, there’s TONS of legroom at Red Rocks. We strolled right down to where John and his wife Carie had deposited themselves at the end of the seventh row.

But, after sitting only minutes, Felice had an urge, to CLIMB UP! Into the heavens, to the top of Red Rocks.

Oh, coming from sea level, we were breathing hard. But the scenery was so stunning, we didn’t feel overburdened, we kept going up and up and UP! To the point where we arrived at the top. Like that old song says, we were sitting on top of the world, and it felt so GOOD! The huge red slabs of rock on either side of us. The band below us. Sounding perfect due to the time-align sound system.

We descended when we heard Michael go into "Minute By Minute". We were up close and personal for his best-received song of the night, "Takin’ It To The Streets" (who knew?), and after the Motown numbers, the lights came up. And we went to the side of the stage to huddle with Don again.

TIME OUT OF MIND

Tonight when I chase the dragon
The water may change to cherry wine
And the silver will turn to gold
Time out of mind

We’re old farts. I may not have seen Steely Dan, but I’ve truly seen it all. I won’t exactly say I’m jaded, just kind of past it. It’s been so long since I’ve believed. And then, I heard the intro to "Time Out Of Mind".

I broke up with my girlfriend. I moved into a new apartment, the house within which I still reside. I immediately went to the record store and bought the latest releases, and played them on the stereo which I set up first, before the rest of the furniture, before I unpacked anything else.

One of those records was "Gaucho". Which, stunningly, did not get stellar reviews back then. But it has stood the test of time.

One of the evening’s highlights was "Hey Nineteen". Which this audience born in the fifties finally understood.

"Time Out Of Mind" bounced off the walls of my naked apartment. Reverberated. Resonated. I knew what chasing the dragon was from the music rags I read incessantly. Hearing the tune brought me right back. Got me on my feet. Got my body moving. I had no choice.

DON’T TAKE ME ALIVE II

Last week I was on the phone with an independent promoter, debating the fate of Live Nation. This gentleman asked, WHAT WERE THEY GOING TO DO WHEN THE BABY BOOMER ACTS COULDN’T TOUR ANYMORE!

This guy said you needed a certain number of hits. Six or eight. To keep people still coming in prodigious numbers, thirty, even FORTY, years later.

Nobody wants to see Vanilla Ice. Or Gerardo. Or almost ANYBODY who’s made it via MTV. Maybe these acts can leave their boring day jobs and play clubs, but there’s almost no demand. There’s just no catalog.

But the hits are just the draw, what gets people in the door. What makes them happy, what keeps them coming, are the ALBUM CUTS!

From the moment I knew I was going to this show I was desirous of hearing "Don’t Take Me Alive". Oh, back in the seventies, when bands DID tour, they’d play almost the complete new album. After that…maybe you heard a few nuggets. Therefore, you HAD to see the tour. But, all these years later, with so many songs under their belt, what were the odds that Donald and Walter would unearth this nugget that I never heard on the radio, which was just a personal favorite, not a crowd-pleaser, but something just for ME!

I heard that exploding guitar, and then I KNEW! They were playing DON’T TAKE ME ALIVE!

"Agents of the law…"

I was standing with a shiteating grin on my face. Looking just like the twenty year old Felice had marveled at in John Hughes’ photo album.

It wasn’t only "Don’t Take Me Alive". It was "Show Biz Kids". And "Black Friday". And "Kid Charlemagne". Oh, I loved hearing "Do It Again", but it was the unheralded, unplayed on radio tracks, that made the evening.

We purchased the whole album. We BELIEVED in the album. Because we believed in the ACT! Records were a statement, not just fodder for revenue. We knew our music was ART!

Those days are through.

As an exec told me last week, there’s a cost to doing endorsements, the fact that you just can’t quantify it in dollars when you make the deal doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

You can’t believe in the acts. Hell, the BUSINESS might be upset that Paris Hilton is making records, but the audience EXPECTS IT! People know the beats are made by behind the scenes guys and she’s auto-tuned, and it’s just about dancing in the club anyway, it’s got no MEANING!

And the acts with the eighty minute statements. Who can FATHOM those. The CD killed the album just as much as file-trading/the Internet.

And you’ve got to blame the purveyors. They made it about the TRACK, not the act.

We’re never going back. Maybe there’s a new formula on the horizon. Acts that bond with their audience by releasing a steady stream of quality material on the Internet. But the old days are done.

DEACON BLUES

It was supposed to rain. Definitively.

But the heavens held back.

Out in the middle of nowhere, Red Rocks has got no decibel limit, nor curfew. You just play until you’re done.

Michael McDonald came out and joined his old bandmates on "Peg", other songs he’d performed with them.

A surprising highlight was "FM", which never appeared on any of their albums, except compilations/greatest hits.

I loved hearing about chasing the dragon. But there was one verse I needed to hear more. From a song I believed they’d play, but wasn’t absolutely sure they would.

"Aja" was a phenomenon. Everything Coldplay is supposed to be. Music that could be played at cocktail parties that was revered by the critics. And, unlike "X&Y", it was a step forward. Steely Dan was always expanding its horizons. In many ways, "Aja" was more jazz than rock, but Steely Dan’s audience went with the band, they embraced this new sound.

It was the day of the expanding man. That’s what our music was about. Testing limits.

They still call Alabama the Crimson Tide. But in a country of winners, no one wants a name when they lose. They just want to shrink off into the distance.

But we all lose sometimes. And that’s when we turn to music. That’s what gets us through.

Finally, minutes into the song, Donald Fagen leaned into the mic and sang those words that resonate, that I needed to hear, that are my credo:

I cried when I wrote this song
Sue me if I play too long
This brother is free
I’ll be what I want to be

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