Recluse Rock

By Janet Maslin and Dewey Gram
Newsweek

There is something forbidding, even menacing, about them. When they played backup for Jay and the Americans, they were nicknamed “Manson and Starkweather.” But now that singer-keyboardist Donald Fagen and guitarist Walter Becker are the nucleus of Steely Dan, perhaps the best and certainly the most imaginative American rock group of the ’70s, they claim they can’t understand how they developed a reputation for surliness. Even so, Becker 26, has been known to say, “We don’t mix well. I would go so far as to say it’s a direct one-to-one hostile attitude toward fellow members of the race.” And Fagen, 28, seldom ventures out into the Malibu sunshine, the better to preserve his pallor. A prolific pair, they have made five albums since 1972, but rarely tour and have no plans to do so anytime soon. They don’t seem to enjoy interviews and don’t go to parties or appear on TV. “To be honest,” says their producer, Gary Katz, “we’re not asked that often.” Much of their menace comes from their music. Steely Dan’s songs blend a sophisticated understanding of jazz with a droll, sharp-edged literary sensibility. Each number is catchy yet maddeningly elusive, its lyrics twisted in “Pretzel Logic” – as one of their album titles has it. “Reelin’ In the Years,” one of their rare Top-40 successes (most of their songs are too long for AM radio), is a friendly-sounding but scathing attack on a lover, though the accompanying liner notes ask simply “How’s my little girl?”

Junkies, madmen, child molesters, bereft immigrants, suicidal financiers and winos in Cadillacs wheel through the group’s stark, seamy little world, their actions never fully explained. In “Everything You Did,” a cut from their most recent album, “The Royal Scam,” a jealous Fagen complains about some terrible indiscretion after which “Traces are everywhere/In our happy home,” then insinuates that the act somehow involved roller skates. A number on “Katy Lied” relates that “Daddy don’t live in that New York City no more./He don’t celebrate Sunday on a Saturday night no more./Daddy don’t need to lock and key/For that piece he stowed out on Avenue D.”

Only Fagen and Becker can have the faintest notion of what such things mean, but their wry, even diffident delivery is enough to pique the curiosity. Fagen claims that one of their songs (he won’t say which one) contains a hidden account of Hitler’s beer-hall putsch and that a forthcoming number was inspired by the end of the Napoleonic Wars. It will be equally mystifying: “will have to worry about the Congress of Vienna.”

Trapped: Fagen and Becker met at Bard College near Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where they played, by turns, as “The Don Fagen Jazz Trio” and “Leather Canary.” (Comedian Chevy Chase, then a Bard classmate, sat in as drummer for the latter outfit on at least one occasion.) Then they moved to New York for three years, living penuriously in Brooklyn. Those days weren’t pleasant, but they are beginning to look better in retrospect, especially since both Fagen and Becker abhor California. For the time being they are trapped there, thanks to a clause in their ABC Records contract that requires two more finished albums by January. But even during a period when their main activities are, according to Fagen, laboring in the studio and pacing, they still daydream about moving back East. “In New York, you can walk on the street, on God’s sidewalk,” Fagen says wistfully. “New York gives the illusion that life goes on. Here you have to have a good imagination.”

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