Uncovering the mysteries of Steely Dan

by Scott Mervis

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (MCT)

14 August 2014


Although they are on tour together as Steely Dan at the moment, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have little reason to interact with the media.

The current theater shows are easy to sell out, the last album they had to promote was more than a decade ago, and if you want to know what Fagen thinks, you can find it on last year’s memoir, “Eminent Hipsters,” which relays tales from early days while also elaborating on his disdain for touring and the people who come to see him.

Describing a Santa Rosa, Calif., stop with his Boz Scaggs/Michael McDonald side project, The Dukes of September, he wrote, “The crowd looked so geriatric I was tempted to start calling out bingo numbers.”

Not that he’s too keen on the younger ones, dubbed “TV babies,” who spend the concert yelling out for hits.

That’s vintage Donald Fagen, the one who infused the rock world with a sly sense of irony, from the band’s 1972 debut through the end of its heyday in 1980 and picking up again during its on-and-off reunions since 1993.

The one good thing about not getting a Steely Dan interview is that it allows us to go over some frequently asked questions — and provide our own answers.

Obligatory first question: If you’re of a certain age, your mom probably thinks there’s a Dan in the band. There isn’t, right?

No, just a Don. The name was taken from the impenetrable, drug-addled 1959 William S. Burroughs book “Naked Lunch,” which referred to a strap-on sexual device as “Steely Dan III From Yokohama.” Fagen was an English major and beatnik who loved Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, etc.

Who is Steeleye Span?

That’s a slightly older British folk band. No relation.

Steely Dan has a cool Los Angeles sound. They must be from the West Coast.

A lot of LA-sounding musicians weren’t from LA, including all of the Eagles. Steely Dan was based in LA while harboring some contempt for it — see “Show Biz Kids” — but Donald Fagen stemmed from Passaic, N.J. (born Jan. 10, 1948), and Becker was a New York City native (Feb. 20, 1950). They met at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., in 1967. Fagen was a black-turtleneck-wearing jazz snob (he saluted hero Charlie Parker with “Parker’s Band”) who heard his future partner playing blues licks in the music building. Depending upon the occasion, they performed as Don Fagen Jazz Trio, the Bad Rock Group or the Leather Canary.

Was Chevy Chase really the drummer?

The future “Saturday Night Live” star was a fellow Bard student who occasionally sat in with The Leather Canary.

Why were Becker and Fagen in Jay and the Americans, and who are Jay and the Americans?

Jay and the Americans were a New York pop band — best known for the catchy hit “Come a Little Bit Closer” — that holds the distinction of having opened for both the Beatles and Stones on their first American performances in 1964. When Becker and Fagen moved to Brooklyn after college in 1969, they tried to pitch their songs at the famous Brill Building. Because they were young and naive, that didn’t work out so well, with the exception of Barbra Streisand recording “I Mean to Shine,” and a few other little things. During that process, though, they met Kenny Vance, of the Americans, who helped them record demos and got them a gig in the band between 1970 and 1971. They traveled as Tristan Fabriani (Fagen) and Gustav Mahler (Becker).

In “My Old School,” Fagen sings, “California tumbles into the sea/That’ll be the day I go back to Annandale.” Why didn’t they want to go back to Annandale?

Just in case G. Gordon Liddy was there. The song alludes to a May 1969 drug raid at a Bard party, where they were among 44 people arrested. Fagen was taken to Poughkeepsie jail, where they cut his long hair. The assistant DA who wrote the warrant for Becker’s arrest was none other than future Watergate player Liddy. The Wolverine in the song was the train they took to school. Despite the insistence in the song, they have indeed returned to Annandale.

Who is the “third member” of the band?

Gary Katz, another New York contact, took a job as a producer at ABC Records in LA and lured them out there as staff songwriters in November 1971, the deal being he would also produce them. Katz provided that polished sound on seven albums, from 1972’s “Can’t Buy a Thrill” through 1980’s “Gaucho.”

Why does the first album have three lead singers?

Despite all that soulfulness in his voice, Fagen was a reluctant lead singer who was particularly uncomfortable singing live. David Palmer, another Jersey boy, was recruited for live performances and also sang “Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” on the debut album. Drummer Jim Hodder sings lead on “Midnite Cruiser.”

1972 was the year of “Ziggy Stardust,” “Exile on Main Street,” “Machine Head,” “Transformer,” “Harvest.” How was “Can’t Buy a Thrill” received?

First off, people despised the cartoonish album cover collage with the line of prostitutes and the big lips, all splashed together with a garish color scheme. “Hideous,” said Rolling Stone. And when Steely Dan wrote the reissued liner notes for “The Royal Scam,” the members echoed that, calling it “the most hideous album cover of the ‘70s, bar none” before adding “(excepting perhaps ‘Can’t Buy a Thrill’).” The RS review of “Thrill” threw Steely Dan into the CSNY/Spirit/The Band category — Steely Dan sounds like The Band?! — and referred to Fagen’s voice as “rancorous.” It concluded that there were “three top-level cuts and scattered moments of inspiration, but there are those instances of Steely coming on like a limp (sex toy).” Two of those top-level cuts were hits: “Do It Again” charting at No. 6 and “Reelin’ in the Years” at No. 11.

Why is Elliot Randall not a famed guitar god?

The guitarist from New York played what Jimmy Page once called his favorite guitar solo, on “Reelin’ in the Years.” But he was a session ace notorious for turning down invitations for full-time memberships in bands, including Poco, the Blues Brothers and Steely Dan, which he considered to have little future as a band, based mostly on the members’ personalities. He knew the Dan duo from New York and was out west having done a stint with Seatrain. Randall, who also played on “Katy Lied” and “The Royal Scam” — and oddly enough, toured with Sha Na Na in 1974 — still releases solo albums and teaches, working off a website that bills him as “Steely Dan’s premier guitarist.”

Was Steely Dan even a “real” band?

Yes. Sort of. For the first three albums, with guitarists Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias also on board. But the two principals were far more interested in songcraft than touring and indulged in studio perfectionism, to the frustration of the other musicians (who were being robbed of that opportunity to be on tour having fun and getting girls or whatever). Palmer was among the first to bail, as a more assured Fagen did all the lead vocals on the second album “Countdown to Ecstasy.” He left to form a band called Wha-Koo (not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). Michael McDonald was recruited for vocal support on “Katy Lied,” and for 1973-74 tours, the latter of which stopped at the Civic Arena on April 17, 1974. When Steely Dan ceased touring that July, the “band” dissolved, with the Baxter/McDonald team moving on to the Doobie Brothers. From that point on, Steely Dan leaned on pricey session players, including Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Timothy B. Schmit, Wayne Shorter and McDonald.

What is the best and biggest Steely Dan album?

The consensus would be “Aja,” the exquisite 1977 gem that became the band’s first platinum record. There was no escaping Steely Dan or this record, with “Peg,” “Deacon Blues” and “Josie” dominating FM radio, not to mention the song “FM (No Static at All)” from the movie “FM.” This was a time of huge division in music: “Saturday Night Fever” was all the rage. But so were “Aja,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” and Billy Joel’s “The Stranger.” And the slick Boston/Foreigner/Kansas was blowing up at the same time The Ramones, Clash and Pistols were bubbling underground. Whether you like Boston, Skynyrd, Kiss or the Ramones, Steely Dan’s cocktail jazz-rock was likely the enemy. Personally, I tolerated them early on, couldn’t stand them in the “Aja” era, and then learned to love them a decade or so later. In 2006, Fagen looked back on being soft-rock in a hard rock era, telling the PG, “A lot of people have this kind of attitude about rock ‘n’ roll that there can only be one kind of rock ‘n’ roll or heavy metal. … There’s nothing more played-out than the idea of a hard rocker is a rebel.”

What are the songs about?

Everything … but love. One of the reasons why punks/indie people might chill to Steely Dan is the way its relaxed music is offset by dark, sardonic lyrics. There are few, if any, love songs in the Steely Dan catalog. In their place, biting songs about drugs (“Kid Charlemagne” being based on LSD chemist Owsley Stanley), pornography (“Everyone’s Gone to the Movies”), love gone bad (“Dirty Work,” “Black Cow”), infidelity (“Rikki Don’t Lose the Number,” “Everything You Did”), creeping (“Hey Nineteen”) and losing (“Deacon Blues”) etc., all loaded with a detail for places and names that calls for a Steely Dan Dictionary on the Web.

Why did they get a Grammy for “Two Against Nature”?

The same reason Santana got one in 1999 and Ray Charles in 2004. They were owed one. And the industry was happy to see Steely Dan again in 2000 after a brief recording interruption of, oh, 20 years. Becker had been living in Maui, Fagen had a popular solo album, “The Nightfly.” Not much else. They surprised everyone by touring as Steely Dan behind Fagen’s second solo album, “Kamakiriad,” in 1993, including a show in Burgettstown. “Two Against Nature” was a shadow of the old Steely Dan. It’s telling that the one Grammy-winning album barely appears on the current tour set lists. Apparently, no one’s really pining for songs from 2003’s “Everything Must Go,” either. Steely Dan fans Monday will get grade-A vintage stuff from an immaculately assembled group of musicians. The main x-factor will be whether the old jazzbo can hit the notes.

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