By Chris Briggs
Interviewing an American musician is a unique experience. The inevitable myth precedes actuality. Three Steely Dan albums and 18 months of impressions formed within the confines of one’s own stereo systems and no opportunity to see the band play live. Simple manipulation of the media guarantees “cult band” status, and still, who really knows if they can actually produce the goods together? After all, average producers can work miracles with the tape machine as testified time after time by the endless stream of North American rock bands who visit Britain with a string of credible albums, only to blow it onstage.
Alternatively, we can fall victim to the hype, as London audiences frequently do, in which case everyone pretends they really dug it. In recent months Lou Reed and the Doobie Brothers are just two of the guilty who clumsily blew their myth wide open, and were lucky to escape with any vestiges of credibility while almost every British rock band of quality gigs quietly around America. You can’t always blame the acoustics or the sound engineer; one can no longer be content with the excuse that “they had a bad night”. Good musicians can make good records in a studio, but can they really call themselves a band if they regularly fail live?
The economics of the situation are obvious: touring is expensive, arduous and tedious. It’s much more fun to make an album, and sit around at home becoming a “legendary personality” without having to undergo the traumas of putting a real band on the road. Everyone’s doing it: session men of the Keltner/Radle/Russell variety become stars in their own right. The rock world has at present a higher level of musicianship per album released than at any time since its birth. It also has fewer entertainers and real performers than ever before in its short history.
Within this context, Steely Dan’s recent visit provided an interesting test case. After their critically-acclaimed opener at Manchester, and before their London appearances, ZigZag went along to interview Jeff Baxter, guitarist and steel player with the outfit.
Repair Man to Rock Star
This short interview, naturally enough, took place in a dreadful hotel: a Victor Value supermarket staffed entirely by Mafiosi. Polaroids, heavy conversation and muzak. Baxter is the only man in the place who looked like a rock musician. We retired to the restaurant and started the interview.
(Information note: Strangely enough, Gary Katz, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are staying in a different hotel, a domestic detail that aroused suspicions regarding the band’s structure that were later confirmed.)
“Let’s see, the very first band I was ever in was called Larry and the Escorts, we were a surf band.” Baxter lived and was brought up in Mexico City, explaining the heavy Edmundo Ross influence on the band. “Other local bands included the Tarantulas, the Rubber Band plus one other precariously named after… I can’t even give you the names they’re so disgusting!”
A school band called One Last Desperate Suck apparently lasted as long as they could ward off parental pressure to have them banned from playing at their kiddies’ parties. “We were a little too outrageous to fit in with the local clientele.”
While still at school Baxter was involved in an exchange to Uppingham School near Leicester before he moved to the USA fairly permanently. After school Baxter worked mainly in equipment shops, an obsession that still survives and will be explained later.
From Psychedelia to Sessions
“One day a guy came into the shop and asked me if I knew any good guitar players. So I said, “Yes, me.” He offered me better money than I was used to, so I joined the band. They were called Ultimate Spinach. I played on their second album and gigged with them for a while.” Baxter laughs and looks a little embarrassed, “It’s something I’d rather not talk about.”
Ultimate Spinach were one of those post-’67 cash-in bands who thought acid was good for their technique. Frankly they were horrendous. A couple of albums appeared on MGM or CBS and a track crept on to one of those The Rock Machine Turns You On To Peace, Beads, Hyde Park, anything but Music samplers CBS put out in those halcyon days when rock music was still dangerous. A very successful marketing ploy as it happened, and in all probability the day that the business gained control of that area. Baxter played on ‘Behold And See’. It was very pretentious.
“There was no comparison between Ultimate Spinach and, say, Moby Grape. Moby Grape were probably one of the finest rock bands ever to emerge from the United States.”
Following the disastrous Spinach episode Baxter floated gracefully into session work.
“I moved up to Boston (from New York) and worked with a lot of people, mainly in the folk field. Eric Ericson and Paul McNeil. Then I started to commute to New York. The first project I worked on there was Carly Simon’s first album.
“Later on I worked with Buzzy Linhart on his second album Buzzy, for Kama Sutra. I could talk about Buzzy all day. It was a great band, we actually gigged for quite a while, about eight months in all. Luther Rix played drums (top NY session man, now with Bette Midler) and Danny Trifan played bass (now with Larry Coryell). I moved to LA and found myself playing on a lot of country ‘n’ western sessions, working with Charlie Rodriguez.”
Baxter keeps himself very busy with sessions and still he can’t kick the repair man habit. Together with Red Rhodes he runs an equipment hot-rodding establishment called Rhodes Royals. Jeff cooks lead guitar for the likes of Stills and Zappa, while Red beefs up amps. They customise, modify, repair and re-build anything you care to give them.
“As soon as this tour’s over, I’ll be back in the shop taking other people’s guitars to bits. It’s a question, for me, of keeping my chops up. The more work I do, the more people I play with, the better my technique becomes. For example I had three months off some time back, so I went on the road with Linda Ronstadt’s band for a while. I’d still like to take guitar lessons!”
Steely Dan are Introduced
Baxter outlined the band’s formation at this point. “Don (Fagen) and Walter (Becker) had been writing tunes for a long time, bringing them to record companies and so forth. They’d get laughed at. Told their stuff was garbage, crap… take a walk, you know? They were really good friends with an ABC-Dunhill producer, Gary Katz, so they became house writers for a while. I knew Gary from the Boston days because he had produced a band with Jim Hodder (Steely Dan’s permanent drummer) and myself. Gary and I were talking and we decided that when the time was right we would form a band with Donald and Walter, a really good musical band. Later when I was gigging with Buzzy I got a call from Gary. He said the time was right. So I went back to L.A. and the band was formed, as we recorded “Can’t Buy A Thrill.” We added people to the line-up on the road to make things more interesting. Three were brought in for this tour who are becoming pretty permanent members. The original band comprises Donald Fagen (piano, moog and vocals), Walter Becker (bass and vocals) – Fagen and Becker write all the material – plus Denny Dias and myself on guitars of various types, and Jim Hodder on drums augmented by Jeff Porcaro (drums), Mike McDonald (electric piano/vocals) and Royce Jones (percussion and vocals).”
At this point it is worth considering whether the house producer has collected his favourite writers and musicians in a studio to fulfill a personal dream and create good rock music’s answer to the Monkees, or whether the association came about because of natural desires among the band’s members. It is probable that Gary Katz virtually put the band together, but that is not to anyone’s discredit. Baxter displayed a natural enthusiasm for his bandmates’ musical abilities, so Katz’s introductory function should not be greeted with the cynicism generally applicable to these situations.
Telecaster Narrowly Triumphs Over Les Paul
We returned to Baxter’s major interest and hobby, the technical aspect of the electric guitar. Time was passing, rehearsal and sound checks cut the discussions short far too early, so we drew to a hasty conclusion.
Before we appraise the band’s live efforts, a quick word from Baxter on his equipment.
“I use a Fender Showman amp through a Fender cabinet housing four 12″ Altec speakers. Occasionally I use a Gibson Les Paul but my favourite guitar is the Fender Telecaster I built myself. I took it apart and put it together again the way I wanted it.”
The final minutes were used up assessing the merits of various species of guitar and Baxter’s other hobby, beer. “Funnily enough, Guild are probably the best-made electric guitars with Gretsch and Rickenbacker among the worst.”
Baxter’s enthusiasm for guitars is inexhaustible. It has been his vicarious attachment to bands throughout the times he wasn’t actually with a band himself. He appears to know each component of every instrument ever built, intimately.
“Even when I was in New York doing sessions, I worked with Dan Armstrong. We had a shop together.”
Beer consumption at Red’s Hollywood shop was reported as high, and Baxter will remember this UK visit always, if only for the discovery of Newcastle Brown.
Reelin’ in the Decibels
We now reach the raison d’être for this whole exercise –- namely, Steely Dan’s ability to transfer their recorded achievements onto the stage. The self-generated excitement the music business whips up over these occasions verges on the hysterical. Traditionally blasé writers and record company faces are actually excited. Steely Dan, with three excellent and correct albums behind them, have a great deal to do to live up to the massed expectation in the audience.
A last-minute sound check betrayed the concern not to disappoint. Straight into “Bodhisatva” and it’s too fast. The two drummers start a large proportion of the numbers and tend to dictate the pace. A fatal error as each successive song created a breathless anxiety in the audience. Baxter turned to the back of the stage. “Fu**ing hairy!” he exclaimed, at the same time gesturing to the eager percussionists to slow down a little. Unfortunately they could not heed his advice. The sound was not good and everyone onstage knew it and became more concerned and nervous as he set developed. Fury replaced accuracy and the ability to recreate the warmth and depth of the albums was lost. The band’s highs tended to be expressed in decibels rather than emotion. There was little relief from a volume level that would have filled a football ground, let alone the relatively tiny Rainbow Theatre. Individual contributions that often bordered on the remarkable would not come together and give the band a total conviction. They lacked feel, though they were extremely tight and well-rehearsed.
Large quantities of electricity defeated any attempts to introduce a sense of dynamics to the presentation. Levels remained too high to allow anybody to relax for an instant. On record each instrument and voice are given enough elbow room, and the arrangements are paced in such a way as to bring the compositions forward. Their material is their strength, but live, instrumental pyrotechnics defeated the songs. A lot of craft and graft went into those albums and the band did reproduce it on stage, in a fashion, but not so as the audience could become part of it. They did not look like a band that were used to playing live. Worse musicians can produce far more interesting concert situations because of their mutual playing experience. Steely Dan displayed all the faults of experienced musicians playing in what is really an embryonic band in terms of performance. The startling level of output made it impossible to assimilate the quality and complexity of music the band are capable of producing.
Dreadful theatrics from Fagen, who insisted on conducting the band from behind his piano with a phony grandeur, did nothing to enhance the content of the show. At the end of each number he would walk to the front of the stage, and, like Count Dracula assembling his demons, bring the band to order with a succession or arm flailing and assorted menacing gestures. Pure showbiz and very embarrassing. Baxter unfortunately had a bad night. No amount of head waving and stamping could rescue those missed notes. Donald and Dias kept very still while Becker hid behind his speaker cabinets. Royce Jones gave very schmaltzy deliverences of everything he came forward to sing. Complete with glitter denims and Shaft hat he squirmed through a series of Las Vegas (Lost Wages) mannerisms that had nothing to do with a rock ‘n’ roll band. Presentation generally was unconvincing and left one pondering on the band’s discomfort in front of a crowd. The house producer has put together on paper a brilliant band, and despite all the minuses their class was indisputable. Can’t Buy A Thrill, Countdown To Ecstasy and Pretzel Logic all rate among the best rock numbers released in the recent past.
Few bands will ever aspire to the high level upon which Steely Dan combine composition and musicianship. One doesn’t know how important concerts are to them. Maybe they prefer to work in the studio and have been coerced into touring? Whatever the reasons for their failure to communicate the purpose of their music live, one should not ignore what they have achieved in the studio. Fagen and Becker have written songs that combine musical depth and commerciality of a hitherto unthinkable high standard. It would be refreshing to see their American singles success repeated in our own limp Top 30’s. “Do It Again” and “Reeling In The Years” would certainly be preferable to the standard Radio 1 output of spangled nonsense that assaults us all over breakfast.
Steely Dan have been heralded as the band of 1974, an accolade they physically won’t be able to collect if they maintain their present frenetic pace. Multiple illness within the band abruptly ended the first British tour. Donald Fagen was the major casualty, being severely affected on reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere following the Manchester gig. This unfortunately resulted in Fagen having a lurch into some awkward theatrical gesticulations to stay on his feet. One imagines the band jacking themselves up with vitamin pills and antibiotics before they hit the stage. Anything stronger than light ale and they would have exploded half way through the first number. Stunned punters filing out of the Rainbow were overheard complaining of symptoms that could only be ascribed to jet lag.
A future consideration for a band caught on their wrong foot by sudden success is maybe to think twice about thrashing round the countryside from hall to hall. A band formed in the studio has a unique problem. The situation is so different from the traditional path of “paying yer dues” round the pubs and clubs. There is no easy answer to Steely Dan’s problem; they can only allow their performances to benefit from experience and eventually catch up with their recorded excellence.
(Editor’s Note: ZigZag was a British rock music magazine from 1969 to 1986. It was known for its thorough interviews, well-researched articles, and support for innovative American songwriters such as Michael Nesmith, Mickey Newbury, Gene Clark, etc.)