Ultimate Spinach Meets Naked Lunch’s Dildo

By Judith Sims
Rolling Stone

LOS ANGELES — Steely Dan named itself after William Burroughs’ mighty dildo in Naked Lunch. “We just wanted to give the band a little more thrust than most other bands,” quipped Donald Fagen. It must have been a good idea; the group’s single, “Do It Again,” was a recent Top Ten, and the album, “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” is Top Twenty.

At the core of Steely Dan is the writing team of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, two New Yorkers and former Bard College cronies who buried their intellectual pride by spending a year with Jay and the Americans.

“We were just hired musicians in the pickup band,” said Becker. “We were writing songs, but not for Jay.”

“Well, we did write one for Jay but he didn’t like it,” added Fagen.

Fagen is dark and lean, with the sort of intense, serious face that might be typecast as a campus revolutionary. Becker has long fair hair, glasses and apple cheeks, has the [untranscribable] as more cynical than innocent. They’ve been together so long, five or six years, they can finish each other’s sentences without stepping on each other’s lines.

They came to Los Angeles a year ago, hired by ABC-Dunhill staff produced (and old friend) Gary Katz.

Katz, who speaks as if he were a member of the group, which in a way he is, said: “A couple of years ago in New York we just kept sitting in the house and listening to rock & roll records and saying to each other, ‘They’re kidding.’ We just sat and did nothing.”

When Katz infiltrated ABC-Dunhill, he brought Fagen-Becker out to the West Coast as staff writers, a position that was plainly unsuited to their talents. “We weren’t too successful because the lyrics always turned left in the middle of the song,” said Fagen. “We knew they were conceptual songs for a group, so Gary found us a group.”

Katz gathered the remaining four Steely Dans from the East Coast: drummer Jim Hodder was in a Boston group called the Bead Game; Jeff Baxter, pedal steel player, was with one of those Boss Sound-hype groups, Ultimate Spinach; Dave Palmer served time in New York groups like the Middle Class and Jake and the Family Jewels, and Denny Dias, guitarist in overalls, is an old New York friend of Fagen-Becker. Palmer was the last to join, coming in when the album was almost finished, which explains why Fagen sings lead on several cuts, including “Do It Again.”

Fagen-Becker’s songs are lyrically complex but hummably commercial — the one-two most groups would kill for. “In those days [back in New York],” said Katz, “the songs were weirder than what’s on the album, but there was still no denying the lyrics. We played those songs for every record company in New York. Nothing. We believed we didn’t have a shot. The one guy who knew was Jerry Leiber. He knew. He just wasn’t doing anything then, but he understood and loved it. He was the one reason we never gave up; he was the only encouragement.

Like most displaced New Yorkers, Fagen and Becker have enormous disdain for Los Angeles. Explaining their album title, “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” Fagen said: “Walter called me up one day and said, ‘You can’t buy a thrill in California.'”

Becker: “New York is a much better place to buy a thrill. Compared to New York, this place is like living in a morgue.”

Fagen: “In New York there’s a social and intellectual situation that’s far superior…”

Becker: “L.A. is marked by excesses of every kind and a complete disregard for humanity, as if it were built for hamburger stand operators.”

Fagen: “But it’s probably good for us. My mother used to say misfortune builds character.”

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