Steely Dan interview in Mojo October 1995
The Return Of Steely Dan
Once upon a time, they were the odd couple in rock. They wrote songs that featured knuckle-knotting chords and brain-twisting lyrics. They welded jazz and rock into an alloy so smooth and shiny it was impossible to tell where the one ended and the other began. They gave up on live performance a decade before it became commonplace. They sneered at the world from a position of bohemian priority so rarefied it was hard to tell exactly where it was situated. They routinely ran rings around interviews. They haven’t changed.
Separately, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker can be charming, witty, imaginative, accommodating, the most fulsome of interviewees. But put them in a room together and something else takes over: the synergy that brought forth Steely Dan still operates its acid magic on the duo. Ask them a question – any question – and they’ll bat it around for a few moments, testing it for comic potential, before volleying it back over the net, largely unanswered. Faced with the prospect of an in-depth interview to promote their new album, ‘Alive in America,’ they immediately put up the psychic barriers.
Walter Becker: We’ve been doing these interviews now all week. Because it’s a live album with all these old songs on it, interviewers have used that as a pretext to ask questions about things that happened years and years ago. So we’ve rehashed things that we barely remember now to a point where we’re becoming increasingly alienated from anything that could be said to resemble the truth.
Donald Fagen: So you’ve come on the scene at the perfect moment.
MOJO: Stylised lies is exactly what I’m after.
Fagen: We call them ‘Stylies,’ for short.
Becker: I think the important thing is to try and stay in the present and not have any painful sorties into the distant past. If you find yourself wanting to ask something about the Brill Building, or questions like “Why did you decide to go out on the road again after 19 years?”, stuff like that, I think we’ve heard that one a few times too many, haven’t we?
Fagen: See, you don’t even have to ask any questions!
MOJO: Well, I think that’s the first four pages of my questions gone.
Becker: There’ve been journalists in here all week that have already gotten better answers to these questions than we could possibly give you, due to repetition. Maybe Gail [a PR] could hook you up with one of those guys, and you could just download what they got?
MOJO: On the other hand, your answers would be more finely honed now, where before they would have been rough drafts….
Becker: Thus putting the lie to the concept that you can’t polish a turd!
MOJO: You’ve got a new, or newish, live album coming out….
Fagen: That’s ‘newish’ in the sense of distinguishing ‘Jew’ from ‘Jewish’, is it?
Becker: This is beginning to remind me of the joke where the guy from Oklahoma goes up to a New York cabbie and says, “Excuse me, could you tell me how I can get to Times Square, or should I just go fuck myself?”
MOJO: Indeed. Has anyone ever suggested you might be difficult to interview?
Becker: Yeah, that has been suggested, and as I say, it has to do with overload. Y’know: the horror, the horror!
Fagen: The guys who came round Monday thought we were, like, sweethearts. But the last couple of days, no.
Becker: Also, we had to film our EPK [Electronic Press Kit] over two days.
MOJO: Oh. And what kind of stuff was in that?
Becker: Shit. Utter shit. It as kind of like another rehash of the same questions….
Fagen: ….that we hired someone ourselves to ask!
Becker: They’d ask us these things, then we’d decide maybe we should do it indoors, and they’d ask us again, then we actually went to the Brill Building – “So, here we are at the Brill Building”….
Fagen: At one point the director wanted us to read some stuff as we were walking down some stairs, and he said, “Say this as though it’s stuff the record company is making you say, and try to say it with a mocking tone.” Assuming that everything we’d said previous to that wasn’t in a mocking tone.
MOJO: Have you ever thought you might be in the wrong business?
Becker: Yes, through most of the ’80s.
MOJO: Rock music is at least partly about communication, after all….
Becker: Not in our case it’s not.
Fagen: Actually, our new album is going to be called Stand-Up Rock ‘n Roll.
SO HERE WE ARE AT THE BRILL BUILDING, IT’S THE LATE ’60S AND THESE
two sullen, nondescript youths, fresh out of college, are hustling their songs around the various music publishers in the building. One has wire-rimmed spectacles, shoulder-length blond hair, and looks a bit like River Phoenix. The other is thin to the point of emaciation.
They troop into an office. The thin one sits at the office piano and opens an exercise-book of songs. Together, they sing on for the man behind the desk. It’s about androids discovering they’re alive, a bit like in that Philip K. Dick book. They sing another. It’s about Charlie Parker, and is full of odd, show-offy changes. A third, a put-down of some place called Barry Town, makes good use of the spiteful undertone in the thin one’s voice, but is too nasty. A fourth appears to be about a dildo – it even mentions that Japanese one from the William Burrough’s book. The man behind the desk sits there, nonplussed. What are these two kids thinking of? No-one wants to hear songs like this. Do they?
They troop out of the office, up the stairs and into another office.
“This was before cassettes, so we would just play and sing,” explains Fagen. “We met a lot of people in the Brill Building. We met Jerry Leiber, which was great, because he was an idol of ours: and there were still some other great songwriters there, like Jeff Barry. We knew about the scene and we were into the craft of the thing. We wanted to become great songwriters. It was almost over then, but at 1650 Broadway there were still some things happening. The Lovin’ Spoonful. Buddah Records had an office there, and there was a lot of one-shot soul stuff coming out of there.”
“I don’t think we were trying to imitate any of the top songwriters,” says Becker, “except, in a roundabout way the very arty songs But Bacharach had written for Dionne Warwick. Those were an immense source of inspiration for us, but we weren’t trying to copy them: his pieces had these formal, Stravinskyesque angularities that were reminiscent of 20th century classical music. We were impressed by how far out he was able to get and still make it sound sort of like pop music. At one point our demo was played for Leiber & Stoller, who had an office upstairs. Jerry Leiber’s comment was that it reminded him of some German art songs brought into the contemporary style. We subsequently learned that it was better to have our songs pass a pop songs and then have whatever else we wanted in them afterwards.”
Fagen, a jazz fan from Passaic, New Jersey, had already put in a good few years developing an anti-social personality when he met Becker at Bard College. Influenced by the hipster humour of stand-ups and monologuists like Lenny Bruce and Gene Shepard, and by Paul Krassner’s magazine The Realists, Fagen hated the New Jersey suburbia, and would take off to Manhattan on the weekends to see the likes of Monk, Rollins, Miles, and Mingus at Greenwich Village clubs like the Village Vanguard. When he was bought his first piano at the age of 12, his main influence was Red Garland, from Miles Davis’s great Quintet.
At Bard, Fagen studied literature, graduating in 1969 with a thesis on Hermann Hesse, but spent much of his time running a band which went under various names – The Leather Canary, The Don Fagen Jazz Trio, The Bad Rock Group – according to the gig. He ran into Becker, two years his junior, playing loud blues guitar in a college rehearsal room. Becker, it transpired, had learnt his blues licks from a young neighbourhood kid. Randy Wolf, who later found fame as Randy California, prodigal guitarist with Spirit. “Randy’s uncle in LA owned a folk and blues club called The Ash Grove,” he explains, “so Randy had learned to play blues stuff from these old guys who had played his uncle’s club. He also knew Taj Mahal, and had learned all these techniques. The first time we played, I had just gotten this electric guitar, but hadn’t figured out shit about how to make it sound like these guys. Randy took the guitar, plugged it in, turned the amp all the way up, and started bending the strings and using a bottleneck and all this stuff. It just sounded exactly like B.B. King record, and I learned how to do that from him. I was always attracted to that style of playing. Jazz guitar is tame by comparison.”
Discovering a shared affection for the improvising skills of Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck’s sax player, Becker & Fagen became firm collegiate chums, and were soon writing songs stuffed with jazz allusions and black humour. Becker having flunked out of college after three terms, the duo relocated to New York after Fagen graduated, determined to make it as songwriter. By this time, the Tin Pan Alley era was as Fagen says, all but over, swamped by a tide of hippy bands who wrote their own material, rendering the specialist songwriter sector redundant. But the Brill Building was still the songwriting mecca for smart-pop disciples like Becker & Fagen.
“There was a lot of scurrying around,” recalls Fagen. “A lot of the business took place right out on Broadway outside, and in the City Squire Hotel next door, and there were all these weird characters in the Brill Building itself. During the late ’60s, the Brill Building had been converted so that the offices now had all these shag rugs on the walls, this sort of cheesy drug-era stuff – everyone had gumball machines. It was very amusing.”
“We knew that we were only pretending to be something that belonged there,” says Becker, “because the kind of songs we were writing didn’t fit in anywhere – there was no artist out there looking for this particular kind of song, put it that way!”
Becker: We live in the past, y’know…the Brill Building, Beverly Boulevard. Don and I like to sit around and rehash, talk about the good old days. Like the Golden Boys.
Fagen: We were there when they invented digital recording, y’know.
Becker: In fact, Donald was actually in the studio the night that Debbie Reynolds recorded Abba-Dabba-Honymoon. That’s a little-known fact!
MOJO: And a little-known song.
Becker: You had to be there….
MOJO: Barbara Streisand recorded one of your songs, didn’t she?
Fagen: The first song we ever had recorded [I Mean to Shine]. Not a good song, but at least she recorded it.
MOJO: What kind of royalties did you see from it?
Becker: The royalties from that song were actually signed over to our previous manager, to escape from his clutches.
MOJO: Which manager?
Becker: One of the previous managers.
MOJO: You had several?
Becker: Well, the tradition is to have a succession of previous managers. Like suitors at a gang-bang, y’know?
“I REMEMBER ONE DAY,” SAYS FAGEN, “WE WERE AT THE BRILL
Building and there was a big convention going on, so there was hardly anyone left in the building except for this one production company called JATA, which it turned out stood for Jay And The Americans. We knocked on the door and there was someone there – in fact, it was one of the Americans! – and we did our usual rap: “Hi, my name is Donald Fagen, this is my partner Walter Becker, we have this song…” And we went through a few of our numbers, and they started paying us $50 per song, and tried to help us out.”
Kenny Vance, the man from JATA, became one of the duo’s first managerial suitors, and promptly had them record some rough demos of their songs, which subsequently appeared under variety of titles like Berry Town (sic) and Sun Mountain. They also recorded a soundtrack for a low-budget movie a friend of his was making, called You’ve Got To Walk It Like You Talk It Or You’ll Lose That Beat – the album of which, likewise, also magically appeared, prominently bearing their names, once Steely Dan became a bankable prospect.
Becker remains philosophical about the situation. “It’s embarrassing, but if people are that interested in it, I guess it’s OK,” he says. “My son got hold of it, and he liked it better than any of the Steely Dan records! ‘Dad, I love that song Android Warehouse!’ I thought, Holy shit, what does he think this is?” Despite this welter of activity, though, the duo were making little headway in the songwriting business, and welcomed the offer of a paying gig as pianist and bass-player for Jay And The Americans, despite the anachronistic nature of music.
“It was fun,” says Fagen. “We toured the East Coast, and we’d go to Florida in the wintertime, and do a lot of those oldies shows in Madison Square Garden where they’d have, like, 40 acts. We toured for a while opening for The Four Seasons, who were really a good band. It was a great job for us – we were straight out of college, and we got paid in cash!”
In typically droll fashion, they adopted the stage-names Tristan Fabriani and Gus Mahler, though Jay Black had a rather more acid handle for the smartass duo, dubbing them “the Manson and Starkweather of Rock.”
“That was Jay’s little joke,” recalls Becker. “We got involved with Jay And The Americans via one of the more forward-looking members of the group, who had actually noticed that the ’60s had happened: Jay never did – for Jay it was still Blackboard Jungle. He had made the leap from juvenile delinquency to organised crime fandom, so to suddenly find two guys like me and Donald in his band was a little baffling to him. But he was extremely tolerant, and I liked him a lot.”
“Some of Jay’s friends were the same guys from Good Fellas – they were not all fictional characters. I think what his life was like – he was married to the niece of one of the guys, which I think was a survival move: he was levering himself up into a position where he could be forgiven some debts. We would see them once in a while around the office. Some guys would come in and say, ‘Hey Jay! Whyn’t you get these guys to take a fuckin’ haircut?’ Or they’d come backstage after show and say, ‘Hey Jay, your voice sounded beautiful, but that drum, that fuckin’ drum’s givin’ me a headache! Can you tell ’em to turn down that fuckin’ drum?!'”
Fagen: See, now you can’t help talking about this stuff, it’s like you’re in a groove…
Becker: I know. I’m programmed. It’s like The Manchurian Candidate. In fact, I’m thinking of going over to Elsa Lanchester’s house after the interview!
Fagen: How about a game of solitaire to pass the time?
Becker: Good idea! I’m thinking of catching the Senator’s speech later, down at the Press Club. Wanna come with me? You can carry some of my stuff. See, I’ve identified with my captors now – I’m thinking of going into journalism.
MEANWHILE, BECKER & FAGEN HAD MET SOME RATHER MORE
sympathetic musical spirits by answering a Village Voice ad for a bassist and keyboard player with jazz chops. “No assholes needed apply,” warned the ad. Denny Dias, who had placed it, was immediately impressed by the pair’s abilities, and particularly by the fact that they already had a whole stack of original material. Demian, Dias’s band, was just trying to broaden its set beyond the Top 40 covers and R&B numbers that were the staples of the day, and this new source of songs, he could tell, was of high quality. “They were sophisticated,” he says, “something more than your typical pop song; they were musically interesting.”
Before only, Becker & Fagen had effectively taken over the group, replacing the drummer with one of their own acquaintance, John Discepolo, and steering the set in their own direction. Kenny Vance recorded a batch of demos with this line-up, including Becker’s ingenious setting of The Mock Turtle Song, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through The Looking Glass, and a striking six-minute number sung by Fagen in a weary, Dylanesque drawl, called Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me). These too would obtain a belated release (as Walter Becker/Donald Fagen – The Early Years), but proved just as ineffectual as their earlier demos in arousing record company interest.
Help was at hand, however, in the form of Kenny Vance’s chum Gary Kannon, an independent producer who had previously worked with Richard Perry and Bobby Darin, and was building a name for himself in the music business. He introduced them to some musicians he’s met in Boston – drummer Jim Hodder, from a band called The Bead Game (named, as was Dias’s band, after a Hermann Hesse novel), and session guitarist Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, from the late and largely unlamented Ultimate Spinach. More importantly, he also persuaded Richard Perry that a Becker & Fagen song, I Mean To Shine, was just right for a Barbara Streisand album that Perry was recording (Barbara Joan Streisand), thus acquiring the duo their first proper song sale.
Shortly after, Kannon was offered and A&R job at ABC Records in Los Angeles, where he dropped his pseudonym and reverted to his real name of Katz. One of the first things he did upon taking up his new position was to persuade his employers that they really needed to hire these cool songwriters he knew back in New York. It was the smartest move he ever made, though for a while it seemed as though it may have been a mistake. Becker & Fagen were offered a position as staff songwriters at $125 a week, this being an advance against any song royalties they might earn. They didn’t need asking twice.
“For cynical wiseass kids from New York like us, going to Los Angeles was an endless source of amusement,” says Becker. “I’m sure you’re familiar with the characterisation so sunny, air-headed optimism in glitzy LA and dense, rye-bread, cynical, intellectual New Yorkers. I had never been there before in my life when I moved there lock, stock, and barrel – we didn’t know how to drive or anything! Gary Katz had an apartment in Encino, and we just went there, then picked out our apartments from this newly-finished block and started taking driving lessons. Until we’d learnt, Gary had to drive us back and forth to ABC.
“It was our first real job in the music business, for a real record company, so there was the shock of that, too: the bullshit factor soared another 1000 per cent. The reason ABC had signed Gary and us was they’d decided they wanted to make more, quote, ‘underground’ records: they only had bubblegummy hits – and the Impulse jazz label. One of the first few days we were in LA, Gary took us to and A&R meeting in some hotel, and we drove over Laurel Canyon, which we’d heard about from all these Frank Zappa records, and went into this room where Roger Nichols had set up this PA for a playback.
“There were all these record executives there: at the head of the table was Jay Lasker, president of this company, in this Hawaiian shirt, and the other guys in their hokey records, then Ed Michel puts on this Alice Coltrane record – their first quad recording! – and Ed’s got the speakers in the corners of the room, and he turns it up real loud, and it’s Alice Coltrane’s harp, and Rashied Ali playing no discernible beat of any kind, and finger-cymbals and all the other space-jazz conventions of the day, and just to watch these guys try and groove along with this was great!
“By the time we got there, the great days of Impulse were over, John Coltrane was dead and they didn’t do much else from that point on, but of course they had made all those neat records in the ’60s. They had their little mastering studio next to the recording studio, and we’d see the masters for A Love Supreme hanging around out in the hall. I thought, These guys aren’t taking care of this stuff – I should take it home to my house! But I never did…”
MOJO: What did being staff writers entail?
Fagen: We were supposed to write pop songs for the other artists on the label, which included at that time Three Dog Night. The Grassroots and John Kay And Denny Doherty from The Mamas & The Papas. John Kay actually recorded a song of ours, but other than that we were complete failures.
MOJO: Which one was that?
Becker: It was a song called Giles Of The River.
[Sniggers] Fagen: That’s the reaction the artists tended to have too. As Gore Vidal once said, “Shit has its own integrity.” We didn’t have that kind of integrity, though.
MOJO: What was it about your songs that made them different?
Fagen: They had some of the irony that became the lingua franca of the ’80s, to some degree.
MOJO: That’s not a very American thing, is it?
Becker: Well, my friend from high school, his mom had that Flanders & Swann record, and my father had a few English friends, y’know?
Fagen: Yeah, and we used to listen to those Brecht/Weill songs…
Becker: So we were kind of suave and continental, at least on the intellectual level, if not on the haberdashery level.
Fagen: At least compared to, say, Freddy Fender.
Becker: On the haberdashery level or the intellectual level?
Fagen: I’m not sure. He may have it over us on the haberdashery level!
Becker: Even Freddy Fender had us aced! Also, we were interested in the black humour tradition in literature, that was highly charged with this sensibility.
Fagen: We were both fans of William Burroughs…
Becker: …Nathanael West…
Fagen: …Bruce Jay Friedman, Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov…
Becker: …Kurt Vonnegut, Terry Southern, Thomas Pynchon…
Fagen: They were very big in New York at the time.
MOJO: Fairly big in England, too.
Fagen: Well, you guys invented irony, so…!
Becker: When you’ve lost the Empire, what are you gonna say? They got a great Empire, they see it slipping away – here comes your irony!
Fagen: We can sense that happening here too. The end of the American Empire. We can see it coming.
GARY KATZ MANAGED TO GET A FEW BECKER & FAGEN COMPOSITIONS
placed on albums he was working on – notably Thomas Jefferson Kaye’s First Grade – and he put a little session work their way, but it was obvious to all that as songwriters their material was too eccentric and personal to fit most other artists’ styles.
“We realised even before we were doing it that we would have to do these songs ourselves,” says Becker. “We could see that nobody was going to come along and pick up on them because they were too odd, too out of context for the day. On the one had, they expressed an odd sensibility lyrically and in their overall musical thing: and they were so musically unusual that even people who later wanted to record some of our songs had a hard time, because the jazz elements or other harmonic elements were hard to pull off.”
“They have to be performed with a certain attitude,” adds Fagen, “and we couldn’t find the right singer when we started. I became the singer by default because I was the only one with the right attitude, essentially, even though I didn’t consider myself a singer at the time.”
Covertly, the three New Yorkers began assembling a band, calling Denny Dias, Jim Hodder, and Jeff Baxter over from the East Coast, and using ABC’s money to buy equipment. Eventually, the label realised what was happening, but had enough faith in them to give the project the nod, especially since Becker & Fagen weren’t exactly proving a raging success as staff songwriters. A deal was signed, in typical music-biz fashion.
“We were like most people,” says Becker. “When you start out, you get some horrible little deal, that no matter how many records you sell you could barely eke a living out of it: and when you get more successful you gradually negotiate improvements in that deal. Our lawyer in the deal we originally signed with Jay Lasker was someone who had worked for Jay until a few weeks before – he was in there with his boss, and he came out and said, ‘I gotta tell you, guys, I got killed in there. This is a terrible deal, they didn’t give me anything, and they say you can either sign it or get the hell out of here!’ So we signed it.”
“It seemed OK at the time,” adds Fagen. “We were only kids, y’know?” The first product by Steely Dan – the name was taken from that of a dildo in William Burrough’s book, The Naked Lunch – hit the stores in June 1972. A single, Dallas, featured drummer Jim Hodder on lead vocal, Fagen still having qualms about his own capacities in that respect. The album which followed five months later, Can’t Buy A Thrill, even featured another vocalist, the prissy-voiced David Palmer, on a couple of the softer tracks. More importantly, it also included two hits, both of which established Fagen’s nasal sneer as the band’s trademark. The slinky mambo rhythm and electric sitar solo of Do It Again proved surprisingly irresistible over the airwaves: entering the singles chart in the last week of the year, it eventually peaked at Number 6, swiftly followed by the rockier Reelin’ In The Years, which reached Number 11. Buoyed by the singles, the album hit the Top 20. All of a sudden, at long last, Becker & Fagen were a success.
Success, though, brings its own obligations. People want to see hit bands. More to the point, record companies want to see hit bands promoting their records, and the only way to do that effectively is to pack your bags, climb on board a bus, and traipse around playing gigs in places like Dogbreath, New Jersey.
For a while, it’s fun. The camaraderie of the road, the in-jokes, the last-gang mentality, the acclaim and, of course, the music. But then it all starts to a little sour. Denny Dias, for one, recalls touring with Steely Dan as “kinda like going to war: hours of boredom, followed by seconds of terror.”
In the beginning, though, those seconds of terror brought their own reward: the follow-up album Countdown To Ecstasy, widely considered the group’s best, profited greatly from the weeks spent honing the new material on the road. “That was the only album where the songs were developed on the road, in rehearsal and onstage,” explains Fagen. “We were playing them before the album was recorded, so it had a more live, blowing feel about it.”
“Before we did the first album,” says Becker, “we had written the songs and pretty much finished arrangements at the point where we presented them to the musicians: in the case of the second album, the musicians got to hear the songs and participate in developing the arrangements at an earlier stage. Because we knew what the band sounded like, we had a more developed conception of it, and it became a more integrated framework.”
Consequently, where their debut album had seemed rather like a prefabricated pop marvel, this one presented Steely Dan as a great band, bursting with energy and chops, with the rare ability to build on each other’s parts in a way that took the material to new heights. Not that ABC saw it that way, mind.
“When we finished that record,” recalls Dias, “a number of executives came to the studio to hear it played back for the first time, and nobody seemed to like it. They were so unhappy about it that there was hardly any promotion for it, and it was disappointing commercially. We were trying to go higher and better, and they were looking for something more saleable. They were used to AM pop stuff, and what they heard was a little more sophisticated, and they didn’t know what to do with it.”
They didn’t like the sleeve illustration either. A painting by Fagen’s girlfriend of the time, it featured three forlorn humanoid forms sitting on chairs. Since there were five members in the band – David Palmer having by this time been issued with his P45 – the record company felt there should be five figures on the cover. Two extra figures were accordingly added, though in ghostly, insubstantial form. Few of the band realised it at the time, but this was to prove something of an omen.
MOJO: Why were early songs like Charlie Freak and Parker’s Band on your third album, rather than your first?
Becker: See, that’s touring for you. We did our first record, boom, they threw us out touring. We managed to get through our second record with mostly new songs, I think, but by the time we had to go into the studio for our third record, we had to go through the files and pull out a bunch of old songs to fill out the record.
MOJO: You didn’t tour for very long, did you?
Becker: Well, we didn’t make any money touring. The only reason we could tour England was because the record company kicked in some money: it was a money-losing proposition, and we were beating our brains out. We felt if we kept on doing this we would burn out very soon.
Fagen: And of course, The Beatles had not long before set the example of concentrating on records and not touring, and we were arrogant enough to follow their example.
MOJO: But shortly after that they split up, didn’t they?
Fagen: Well, we split up shortly after too. We were following their example to the letter! And now we’re back together, just like they are. We never make a move without consulting the Beatle Chronology.
THOUGH ITS INNER GATEFOLD-SLEEVE FEATURES A PHOTO OF THE
same band as that on Countdown To Ecstasy, by the time the third album Pretzel Logic came to be recorded, Steely Dan was all but finished as a group. The LP was largely recorded using session players, with the actual group being used to present the songs live. Unfortunately, even that involvement didn’t last much longer. A tour of Britain in 1974 was abruptly curtailed when Fagen fell ill, and that was that.
“Touring interfered with recording,” explains Becker, “because you’d go out and trash your voice and your chops and everything, and all the hear would be wrecked. Back from a tour, we wouldn’t have any songs because we couldn’t write on the road. That’s why we broke up the band – the other guys in the band couldn’t for the life of them see why we didn’t want to go out and tour and have the good times that they had been having: we weren’t particularly having a good time, but they were!
“That’s one of your big Rashomon situations there – in rock ‘n roll bands everybody sees a slightly different version of what’s going on, depending on their position in the organisation. And because they’re all kids, usually you haven’t developed your empathy to the point where you realise that the other guy’s got something else that he’s dealing with. I think musicians in general are childish – in all the best and the worst possible senses of that term.”
MOJO: What did the other guys in the band think when you started to bring in session players to play parts they might have played?
Becker: A mixture of bitterness and, er, hatred. Betrayal, a feeling of betrayal. Desire to strike back , to get even, perhaps. Actually, they were good sports about it, to the extent that they didn’t quit or throw a screaming shit-fit right there on the spot, but it didn’t really make sense to them that we wanted to do that. It was like, contrary to the ethical understanding they had of the band.
MOJO: From their point of view, they probably thought they’d be able to tour the album once it was made.
Fagen: Yes, we could see that there was just too much of a lie involved at one point, so they had to go. It was too uncomfortable. They put two years in, and we tried to be fair with them financially – they’ve always gotten full royalties from albums they’ve played on, and so on. So we’ve not had bad relations with them since.
AND SO, ALMOST AS SOON AS IT HAD STARTED, STEELY DAN THE BAND
was finished. Guitarist Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter and Michael McDonald, who the band had drafted in as a support vocalist, took a free transfer to The Doobie Brothers and all the fame and gigs they could handle: drummer Jim Hodder disappeared to Northern California, where nothing was heard of him until his death by drowning in June of 1990.
Denny Dias hung in longer than the rest, a reflection of his closer relationship with Becker & Fagen: unlike the other members of the band, who had been introduced to them by Gary Katz, Dias was the duo’s own choice.
“Denny was a very specialised kind of musician,” explains Becker, “because he was neither a jazz guitarist nor a rock guitarist – he had the technical ability and training of a jazz guitarist, but he understood how to apply that to play over our chords. And there wasn’t much else going on that he was a logical candidate for.”
“He was very devoted to our music,” adds Fagen. “He’s been asked many times to join various groups, and when we stopped touring, he just wasn’t interested.” Since ceasing work with the Dan, Dias did a little low-key music work with jazz pianist Hampton Hawes, but spent most of his time doing systems-level programming for database development environments: he now, however, confesses himself disenchanted with the corporate nature of computer software world. When the Dan played Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre on their reunion tours of ’93 and ’94, Dias sat in with them for a few songs, and professes is the most fun he’s had in years. “I just decided I had to get back into music,” he says, “so I got a hard-disk recording system which I hooked up to my computer, and I’ve been writing and recording, trying to develop a concept for a record of my own.”
For their part, Becker & Fagen holed up in studios for the rest of the decade, developing perfectionist LPs and a reputation to match. They became studioholics: Becker recalls trying to get an English engineer to work on Boxing Day, and being told in no uncertain terms that that was not an available work day. “We both liked recording studios,” he admits. “As much as anything else, it was just the coolest place to be on a hot afternoon, sitting on those couches or wheeling around behind a console.”
They had already found themselves struggling against the limitations of their own and their band’s abilities: as early as the first album, they had called in session players such as guitarist Elliott Randall, who played the solo on Reelin’ In The Years: while on the second album, dissatisfied with Hodder’s less-than metronomic pulse on Show Biz Kids, they had had to improvise and eight-bar loop of two-inch tape which ran from the tape machine to an idler wheel outside the control room, in order to achieve the hypnotic effect they wanted. At every turn, they were determined to use the best and the most cutting-edge, whether that meant bringing in Bernard Purdie and Chuck Rainey to lay down a groove, or using the earliest digital recorders.
“In the ’80s,” reflects Becker, “hand-crafted, hand-played music was being overtaken by this increasingly mechanical, perfectionist machine music, and we were just trying to get there first. They had all these disco records that were just whack-whack, so perfect, the beat never fluctuated, and we didn’t see why we couldn’t have that too, except playing this incredibly complicated music, and the drummer would go and play a great fill or something and come exactly back at the perfect beat at the same tempo, y’know? It seemed like a good idea.”
Gradually, the Steely Dan sound grew more and more refined, and by the time of Aja had come to be recognised as the very epitome of rock sophistication. “We were interested in a kind of hybrid music that included all the music we’d ever listened to,” explains Fagen. “So there was always a lot of TV music and things in there. It was very eclectic, and it used to make us laugh: we knew something was good if we would really laugh at it when we played it back. We liked the sort of faux-luxe sound of the ’50s, there was just something very funny about it. I grew up in a faux-luxe household, and it was a very alienating world, so for me it has the opposite effect: muzak is supposed to relax you, but it makes me very anxious. So in a way, I think I get it out of me by putting some of it in my songs. Then I start to laugh at it when I hear it.”
“In some ways, the early, rougher ones sound better now than the later ones,” believes Becker, “whereas at the time it seemed like we were ever rising towards the light. I think because of the kind of music we were doing, it seemed to us that it should be real seamlessly put together and have a high level of polish to make it work. We didn’t want it to sound like kids trying to play jazz – which I think it did pretty much sound like sometimes, and which now I kind of like the sound of. But at the time we thought what we were doing was so different to other things that were going on, and our own harsh appraisals of our talents dictated to us that we work harder to make it really smooth and flawless.”
In Los Angeles – and in New York, when they returned there to make The Royal Scam – Steely Dan sessions took on a certain cachet among the session community: whose members were, in the main, relieved to be given the opportunity to stretch their talents a little further than the average soap-powder commercial. Sometimes, though, Becker & Fagen could be the most infuriating of taskmasters.
“A lot of times we didn’t know what we wanted,” admits Becker. “Donald and I would write a song on piano, or piano and guitar, and sometimes we’d have a very primitive demo, but often as not we’d go in the studio and we’d be hearing the song played by a band for the very first time. And sometimes it didn’t sound like what you’d thought it would sound like, and you had to try and figure out why that was, whether your conception of the song was wrong, or who could change their part, or how to rethink what you were doing to make it work. So a lot of times we didn’t know exactly what it was we needed to do at a given moment to get things to be the way we wanted them to be.
“Other times, we just wanted it to be better, so we’d keep trying for another take. We kept adjusting our standards higher and higher, so many days we’d make guys do 30 or 40 takes and never listen to any of them again, because we knew none of them were any good: but we just kept hoping that somehow it was just going to miraculously get good.”
MOJO: Who was the most difficult session player to work with?
Becker: To me, the most difficult guys – without getting down to specific names – would be jazz players who, if it wasn’t a jazz date, would treat it just like another gig. They’d have a kind of contemptuous attitude, and they didn’t like the fact that these young kids were running these sessions and trying to tell them what to do.
Fagen: It only happened a few times: guy wanted the gig for the bread, but didn’t like the music, essentially. ‘Specially in the early ’70s, ‘cos there was still a lot of deep snobbism about rock ‘n roll…
Becker: …and we assumed that because we had these chord changes and everything that we’d be able to impress these guys, and in some cases that didn’t turn out to be so. It was all still bullshit as far as they were concerned.
LIVING HARD WILL TAKE ITS TOLL, THOUGH, AND BECKER IN
particular was living hard, making full use of the recreational drug opportunities afforded by the Los Angeles celebrity lifestyle. The city held little other appeal for them, however, and by the time they finished their most sophisticated, jazz-inflected album so far, Aja, they had both relocated back to New York. Keen to switch labels, too, they signed up with hotshot manager Irving Azoff, who used his industry muscle to make Aja their most successful album yet.
This, however, only served to put greater pressure on the duo to top its success with the follow-up, Gaucho. But a series of delays and disasters combined to slow its progress to a crawl. The New York musicians were not as used to their methods as the LA musicians had become, and Becker was becoming less reliable because of his drug problem. Then, at the end of 1979, the first completed track for the album, a song called The Second Arrangement, was accidentally wiped by a studio engineer. The following month, Becker’s long-time girlfriend, Karen Stanley, died in their New York apartment from a drug overdose suicide. “I could barely understand what was going with her, really,” he recalls. “If you’ve ever known anyone that’s chronically depressed like that, it’s hard to appreciate what’s going on: you’re looking straight at it and you still don’t get it because you’ve never gone through that.”
As if that weren’t enough, in April 1980 Becker was knocked over by a taxicab, fracturing his right leg in several places. Luckily, recording had all but been concluded, but the mixing sessions for Gaucho were severely complicated by the injury. By the time the album was released to mixed reviews in November, all concerned were thoroughly sick of it. It was time, they realised, to pull down the curtain on Steely Dan.
“Working together as long as we did,” says Becker now, “Donald and I followed a certain line of thinking to its logical conclusion, and then perhaps slightly beyond – that was what we realised when we’d finished Gaucho: it was not as much fun…It wasn’t fun at all, really.”
TWO YEARS ON FROM THE DEMISE OF STEELY DAN, DONALD FAGEN’S
solo debut “The Nightfly” was released, to widespread acclaim. Far from heralding a career rebirth, however, it seemed to put the cap on the entire Dan story. The follow-up, “Kamakiriad”, would not appear for another 11 years.
“I really put everything I knew into that album,” says Fagen of The Nightfly. “I wanted to do an autobiographical album. And after that I really wasn’t inspired to do anything. I fell into a bit of a depression for a while, and I started going to therapy. I think that like a lot of artists, especially in the music business, I was successful and young, and I was basically still and adolescent. I was trying to get out of that with The Nightfly, it was kind of self-examination of my childhood. It took me a long time to go through a kind of transformation. Until around ’86, ’87, I felt I had some energy and some new things to write about. I worked every day, but I didn’t like what I was doing, I’d play the songs back next day and didn’t much like them.
“I basically had to figure out how to have an actual life – I was a workaholic ’till the end of The Nightfly, the only life I had was in the studio. A lot of it had to do with my not wanting to address certain things that I had to address personally, and working gave me the chance not to do any kind of self-examination. I’m very introspective person as it is, so always working is a kind of therapy in itself.”
While Fagen was having his mid-life crisis in New York, Becker had made what seemed a strange jump, moving to the Hawaiian island of Maui, where he cleaned himself up, drug-wise, and set about rebuilding his life.
“The last few years of the ’70s got a little out of control around my place, and it really wasn’t that much fun,” he recalls. “The career was a good organising principle for something that was pretty chaotic in other ways. But eventually that didn’t work either. and when the dust had settled its was 1980 and it was time to clean up my act, so I ended up coming here because I wanted a complete change of pace – and I must say I had a pretty good time of it: my son was born, I got married. So I spent a couple of years not doing any music or anything, just here in Hawaii trying to get healthy and adjust to the new regimen I was setting up for myself.”
As the old Steely Dan LPs were given a new lease of life on CD in the ’80s, providing a steady source of revenue, both men tried their hands at alternative, music-related jobs: Becker built a studio on Maui and became a producer for such artists as China Crisis and Rickie Lee Jones, and for new age/jazz labels Triloka and Windham Hill. Fagen, meanwhile, wrote a little film music, for the movie of Bright Lights, Big City, and for a while became the film-music correspondent of Premiere, the US film magazine. Then, in the early ’90s, they hooked up again to produce each other’s solo albums, Kamakiriad and 11 Tracks of Whack.
“When I was about to go into the studio, I got kind of nervous about handling everything myself,” says Fagen, “especially the idea of doing vocals and having to come in and listen to them myself. I realised I was really lonely in the studio by myself, without someone to bounce off. So I thought, Why break in someone else – if that’s even possible – I’ll just call in Walter. He was more than a producer, really, he was a collaborator as far as some of the music went. Especially in playing: he ended up playing all the bass parts, and the lead guitar parts as well.”
From there, it was short jump to reconstituting Steely Dan, at least as touring entity: 1993 and 1994 saw them taking an expanded band on tour in America and Japan, the highlights of which are about to appear on their first live album, Alive in America. As slick and meticulous as you’d expect, the album features a broad selection of material, the old songs sometimes rearranged in the style of the later Dan records – most notable a Reelin’ In The Years reupholstered with a spiffing horn arrangements. And while it’s at a very early, tentative stage yet, there is actually talk of a new Steely Dan studio album in the works. Wheel turnin’ round and round…
MOJO: So…Why did you decide to go back out on the road after 19 years?
Becker: Well, clearly it was a mistake. We see that now.
Fagen: Yeah. I’m gonna rescind the whole thing. Can we recall the summer tours of ’93 and ’94?
Becker: We’re gonna send all the money back. In fact, anybody who has been to one of our shows in the past two years, if you would be willing to send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the offices of our business managers, we will cheerfully refund the price of your tickets.
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