Nobody’s making better music
than an unlikely duo named after a dildo
By Arthur Lubow
New Times Magazine
“Very fancy music,” says William Burroughs. He is listening to Black Friday, a rollicking rock and roll song about a stock market crash. He has agreed to hear the music of Steely Dan in the bar of the Boulderado Hotel (a Colorado blend of turn-of-the-century brass chandeliers and seventies hanging plants) because, although he is unfamiliar with their songs, he is in a way the father of the band. It was an unusual conception: the instrument of procreation was a dildo.
Until songwriters Donald Fagen and Walter Becker strapped on the name, Steely Dan’ meant just one thing — an artificial penis in Burroughs’ classic, Naked Lunch. The name now adorns five of the best rock and roll albums of the last five years. Unlike conventional rock bands, Steely Dan is not a group of musicians who play together, tour concert halls and occasionally enter the studio to record an album. “Steely Dan is just a name for Walter and Donald,” says their producer Gary Katz.
“It’s really just a vehicle for the songs.” The players vary on each album: the group has evolved into a pick-up band of studio musicians who convene only for recording sessions. Even more unusual than the band’s form are the songs’ contents. Steely Dan does not sing of love, sex, or Self — at least, not in familiar ways. Their songs are rock and roll stripped of simplistic themes, ear-splitting amplification, repetitive rhythms and syrupy narcissism.
Listening, Burroughs is impassive. Before a corner of his mouth upturns in a slow-motion smile, you can anticipate the tremor moving across his face. Perhaps he has blown a few synapses. Long before the Love Generation, William Burroughs searched for potions in South American forests and hunted for heroin on city streets. Because of coincidences of time and place and a shared revulsion for middle-class values, Burroughs has been associated (against his will) with his friends in the Beat movement. What sets him apart is a tone as hard, cold, and unsentimental as a block of dry ice. In Naked Lunch, the dildo Steely Dan is a prop used in a porn-film scenario based on the orgasms that accompany death by hanging. Imagine such grotesqueries related in a flat Midwestern accent and you get the flavor of the Burroughs sensibility. Its the literary equivalent of the Fagen-Becker music of Steely Dan.
The eye that Fagen and Becker turn on the world is jaundiced. Their lyrics present odd juxtapositions: a cheery open invitation extended by the survivor of a nuclear holocaust, for example; or a love song with a beautifully evanescent wisp of a melody and a cloudy lyric that shifts between references of love and dope addiction. The tone of attachment — the lack of passion, the flatly-propositional or even gleeful description of disaster — is even more disturbing than the self-indulgent despair of Neil Young or the querulous alienation of Jackson Browne.
After hearing their music, Burroughs decides that Steely Dan will never make it to the top of the rock pile. “These people are too fancy,” he says. “They’re too sophisticated, they’re doing too many things at once in a song.” He refers to the literary racket. “To write a bestseller, you can’t have too much going on,” he says. “You take The Godfather, the horse’s head. That’s great. But you can’t have a horse’s head on every page. These people tend to have too many horses’ heads.”
For the sophisticated listener, Steely Dan’s music may sound too erudite to be enjoyed by the “average” AM radio fan. Yet four of their five albums have gone gold. Most buyers of Steely Dan records — especially the ones attracted by such singles as Rikki Don’t Lose that Number and Reelin’ in the Years — probably don’t understand most of the lyrics and don’t much care. They never catch the quotations from jazz classics, but they don’t feel they’re missing anything. They like the tunes.
Fagen and Becker offer something for everyone. The exciting tension of their music comes from the expansion of artistic creativity within pop formats. Few Steely Dan songs are more than four minutes long. Instrumental improvisation is kept to a minimum. Jazz structures are adapted to a pop context. For most groups, the fusion of jazz with rock has meant electronic amplification combined with the loose “jam session” structure that allows room for individual artists to display their talents. But Steely Dan has retained the slick gloss of packaged rock and roll. Within the standard format of verse, chorus and bridge, Fagen and Becker have written pop songs that bear up under repeated listenings.
“We don’t have much of a problem with singles material, because unlike a lot of other basically FM groups, our music tends to be adaptable to really commercial purposes,” Donald Fagen said four years ago, after the success of Do It Again, a hypnotic tune about a professional loser. Although the band never planned to release the six-minute song as a single, they supplied an edited version of Do It Again when several radio stations requested one. The songs became a Top 10 hit, introducing Steely Dan to a national audience.
Fagen and Becker don’t set out to write pop singles. They say “it just works out that way.” The songwriters enjoy working as miniaturists. “I don’t like big, crashing, romantic symphonies, and I don’t even like that much big band music,” Fagen says. “I’d rather listen to chamber groups or jazz quartets. The closest we’d get to composing a longer piece is essentially a suite, a collection of shorter pieces. I like Duke Ellington. I guess because of the necessity of the time (in recording, you just had 78s) he naturally wrote short. And you know, America just gets bored with a longer piece.”
Fagen exudes seriousness. He talks slowly, he lurches across the room laboriously. He looks like Victor Mature reflected in a funhouse mirror that widens and elongates. He speaks in a slow, laconic New Jersey drawl (he was born in Passaic), and when his wide mouth smiles, the grin resembles a sneer. His brand of humor is the understated irony. Walter Becker is the fast talker and wisecracker. A small slender New Yorker, longhaired with a wispy moustache and beard, he looks like Peter Pan impersonating Fu Manchu. They make an unlikely-looking duo, but they have been composing and performing together for eight years — an impressive record in the volatile world of pop music.
“I usually come up with germinal musical idea, and then we will arrange to meet,” says Fagen. “Usually one or both of us won’t show up, but I think we generally come to make something out of it. So it is really a collaboration. Its not one of us writing the music, the other lyrics. And its not like Lennon and McCartney, who as I understand it usually just wrote a song by themselves and then put both their names on it. It is a collaboration: we think very much the same musically. I can start songs and Walter can finish them. He’s a very good editor also. He’ll suggest improvements on my original idea, and then we’ll work on lyrics together.”
Fagen, 29, and Becker, who will turn 27 later this month, live near each other in Malibu. Although they have been writing semiautobiographical songs together for almost a decade, they say they are not the best of friends. “We actually never discuss each other’s life in any particular detail,” says Fagen. “We have a sort of psychic … I hate to use that word … I don’t know, we both know the direction that we’re going, and it doesn’t matter that we know the actual circumstances behind it. We just discuss it as what we want to do with the narrative. We’re friends, but I don’t think we’re the closest friends in the world. We’ve known each other for a long time, and we understand each other’s working habits and needs and limitations. But we aren’t hanging out together too much.”
They met in the late sixties as undergraduates at Bard College in upstate New York. A “progressive” college like Reed or Antioch, Bard was a hothouse for cultivated eccentricities. By the time Walter Becker arrived in the fall of 1967, Donald Fagen had already established a reputation as a talented, quirky piano player. Becker played guitar and bass, and he shared Fagen’s fascination with jazz. They became friends, playing together and soon writing together. For a while their drummer was another Bard student who later made good — Chevy Chase. Their days at Bard lurk darkly in the opaque lyrics of Countdown to Ecstasy, their second album. Fagen protests that he can’t remember the songs: “That album was written hastily when we were on the road quite a bit. It was probably the closest to a live album we ever did.” However, he concedes that one song, My Old School, which mentions both the college town of Annandale and the Wolverine train that ran there, may refer to a drug bust spearheaded by local constable G. Gordon Liddy. Donald, Walter, “and 42 other likely suspects,” as Fagen puts it, were rounded up in an election-time raid, but the charges were eventually dropped.
After leaving Bard (Donald graduated; Walter was asked to withdraw because he neglected to do any work), they gravitated to Brooklyn, attempting to find work as songwriters. It was rough going. “We’re not particularly good popular-song writers,” Fagen says. Through personal connections, they managed to get Barbra Streisand to record their song, I Mean to Shine; but she and her producer changed the lyrics and reworked the bridge until, says Becker, “It was altered beyond the point where we would have to take responsibility for it.” Another artifact of these days is their first record album, a rarity predating Steely Dan days called You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It (Or You’ll Lose That Beat).The soundtrack to a forgotten movie, You Gotta Walk It features a few catchy tunes and pretentious, obscurantist lyrics. Even the best song, Dog Eat Dog, is of interest mainly as a fossil marking a stage in the evolution of Steely Dan: “Cause it’s dog eat dog, eat dog/Aint no use to fight it. /It’s dog eat dog, eat dog/Grab it fast and bite it.”
Such songs were understandably difficult to peddle. But the music caught the ear of a member of Jay and the Americans. In 1970 Fagen and Becker were hired as members of that band. Jay and the Americans even recorded a couple of their songs, but the cuts were never released. Around this time, the pair met Gary Katz, an independent producer who was impressed by their talent. When Katz was hired by ABC Records, he convinced the company to take on Fagen and Becker as contract songwriters. They all moved to Los Angeles — and stayed. “Convenience,” says Becker. “And inertia,” says Fagen.
Trying to write material for middle-of-the-road bands, Fagen and Becker were failures. “I think there was always a particle of weirdness left in the sanitized, deodorized product,” Becker says. He gained 20 pounds in the first year. But they were able to put together a five-man band, and in 1972 they recorded the first Steely Dan album, Can’t Buy A Thrill. Two of the songs became hit singles, and their career was launched.
Disciplining their weirdness, they stretched but never snapped the boundaries of the pop song. There is a recognizable Steely Dan sound: “You can hear it a mile away,” says Becker. The songs’ harmonic structures and chord changes are unusually complicated for rock and roll. Fagen listens avidly to mainstream jazz and to classical music “from Debussy to Stravinsky” — composers who expanded traditional music without exploding into atonality. “Debussy started extending chords so you wouldn’t have that many triads in a piece,” Fagen says. “Instead of just hitting a triad on the piano as basic harmonic background for the melody, your chord structure involves four or five notes. That was assimilated by popular and jazz composers in America and ended up to be modern jazz harmony. If you hear a lounge player in the Holiday Inn, he’s basically using a harmonic structure that started around 1890.”
The ABC management gave Steely Dan complete artistic control. Jay Lasker, then president of the record company, interfered only on the question of album covers. He vetoed the proposed illustration for Can’t Buy A Thrill — a little naked girl staring lasciviously in a porn-shop window while the store’s proprietor leers at her. And, for less obvious reasons, he demanded a change in the art for the second album, Countdown To Ecstasy. The original watercolor — painted by Donald’s girlfriend, Dorothy White, who also photographed the katydid on the Katy Lied album — depicted three sci-fi specters sitting in different states of detached expectation as three white lights loom ahead. Remembering that the band had five members, Lasker demanded that two more potbellied forms be included on the cover. He didn’t want people thinking the band had broken up.
Lasker had some basis for his fears. Steely Dan was a volatile mixture; there were always rumors of the band’s imminent decomposition. Since Steely Dan was strictly an outlet for Fagen-Becker songs, other members of the group with songwriting ambitions felt stifled. The group’s income suffered from the reluctance of Fagen and Becker to perform on the road; neither songwriter enjoyed touring, and Fagen invariably became ill while traveling. “We were touring for nothing for such a long time, and it was so stupid,” Fagen says. “Most of the time the group was together, we each made $100 a week.” They didn’t like press interviews any more than touring. They were annoyed by demands for lyric deciphering from grad-student types or the hunt for boudoir details from fanzine snoops. Because they never ran on the Hollywood circuit, preferring to stay home listening to records or seeing a few friends, they were quickly labeled reclusive. There was some truth to the self-description of Show Biz Kids, the second album’s single. Over a background chant of “Go to Las Wages,” Fagen sings: “Show business kids makin’ movies of themselves,/You know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else.”
Fagen and Becker had acquired the imperious manners of rock stars in anticipation of stardom. Bad enough that they wouldn’t respond to journalists’ questions. Sometimes they wouldn’t even show up. “We’re sort of a pain in the ass to get places on time,” Fagen confesses. “If it’s not directly related to working, we have a tendency to have very selective memories.”
The band finally fell apart under the stress of the demanding duo’s desire for complete control. It had never really been a band; it was always Donald, Walter, and their players. So in 1974 the group dissolved. Guitarist Jeff Baxter (along with Mike McDonald, a frequent guest artist on Dan albums) joined the Doobie Brothers. Steely Dan stopped touring, and the group achieved its natural structure — a changing company of musicians assembled to meet the requirements of each individual song.
Now that the band no longer toured, Fagen felt a little more comfortable about performing lead vocals. His thin, smooth, slightly nasal voice is a feature of the Steely Dan sound. Although Donald hates to sing, no one was satisfied with the performance of David Palmer, who sings on some tracks of the first album. No acceptable substitute could be located. “The songs require a lot of technique and simpatico,” Becker says. “From time to time Fagen will make a desperate effort to go instrumental to get himself off the hot seat. We’ve considered putting out matchbooks with a picture of Fagen that say, ‘Can you sing like this man?’ ” Gary Katz says he has had to fight with Donald to force him to sing. “The songs are very hard to sing,” Katz says. “I would dare someone to sing a verse of Reelin’ in the Years. To me Donald’s singing is phenomenal, but he’s sensitive because he doesn’t consider himself a singer.”
Although Donald speaks mysteriously of a “slick stylistic change” that he and Walter are considering, he will probably not find a slick way to eliminate his voice from the final product. Besides an increasing sophistication, the biggest change Steely Dan fans can look forward to is a switch of labels. Steely Dan still owes two records to what Donald calls their “slave labor contract” with ABC. Because they renegotiated that contract to raise their low royalty rate, they had to agree to tight deadlines. There’s some dispute about the terms of the contract, but it appears that both albums are due by the end of March. Steely Dan is now recording enough material for two albums, with at least one scheduled for a March release. Although they offered to do one live album (with half the material new) as well as a studio album, ABC management refused, fearing damage to a planned “greatest hits” package. Once the contract is satisfied, Steely Dan will move from ABC to Warner Bros. Fagen has already used his advance from Warner Bros. to buy a house in Malibu.
Warner Bros., Fagen says, offered a contract with “a little more money.” He and Becker were receptive: they have been ready to leave ABC since the Katy Lied fiasco of 1974. Katy Lied is a magnificent album; yet Fagen, Becker and Katz all talk wistfully of the one that got away. The group poured enormous effort into their fourth record, taking pains to achieve outstanding sound reproduction. When the recording and mixing were completed, they fed the master tape into a noise reduction unit. Because the equipment was faulty, the tape that came out was not the tape that went in. “If you heard that album the way it originally went down on tape, you would have heard something else,” Becker says. “Very hi-fi,” Fagen nods. Becker, Katz and their engineer flew to Boston at midnight to see if the equipment’s manufacturer could repair the damage. Nothing could be done. “We had to decide whether we were just going to scrap the album or put it out,” Katz says. “It was close.” The album was released, but Katz says “it suffered 85 percent.” “I can’t listen to it,” he complains. “I hate to hear an album that we’re involved in that’s not up to our standards. It was the best-sounding thing I ever heard before it was ruined.” Griping that “the ABC studio is a mess,” Katz left for Warner Bros.
Even though their albums for ABC have sold well, Fagen and Becker say they haven’t made any money. Their royalty rate is too low, and they use up so much studio time that they are penalized financially. Songwriters can collect profits if other artists record their music, but Fagen and Becker haven’t had much luck in that category either. (There have been a few attempts; their favorite is Herbie Mann’s version of “Do It Again.”) One reason that their material doesn’t appear on other records is that the melodies are hard to sing. A more forbidding handle is the nature of the lyrics. As Fagen and Becker admit proudly, the songs are “weird.”
Both writers say their music is “based on things we know about.” Some of what they know is vicarious experience drawn from books. For instance, William Burroughs’ Wild Boys — some soaring “on perilous wings”; others, hands lopped off in battle, slashing with razor pincers — swoop through Your Gold Teeth II: “Who are these children/Who scream and run wild,/Who speak with their wings/And the way that they smile?” And Razor Boy: “Will you still have a song to sing/When the Razor boy comes/And takes your fancy things away?”
Burroughs’ fascination with the demimonde of thugs, grifters and prostitutes is shared (at a safe distance) by Steely Dan. But as one Fagen-Becker lyric goes: “Be glad if you can use what you borrow.” If Steely Dan borrows a sensibility and some images from Burroughs, those are merely some ingredients in the mix.
When questioned, Fagen and Becker like to minimize their link to Burroughs. “The connection has been overstretched almost to the limits of elasticity,” says an exasperated Becker, calling thematic references “optical illusion.” He denies even remembering East St. Louis Toodle-oo (a Duke Ellington number that is the only music not written by Fagen and Becker that Steely Dan has recorded) is mentioned several times in Naked Lunch, including the scene where Steely Dan appears. He says the connection was pointed out to him after the album’s release. Naked Lunch is a fairly difficult work,” Becker says. “Put it this way. William Burroughs at one point claims he doesn’t remember writing it. I don’t see why I should have to remember having read parts of it.” He says the band recorded the song because its fun to recreate Bubber Miley’s wah-wah trumpet solo on guitar.
Unlike most pop songwriters, Fagen and Becker shy away from romantic themes. When they do write love songs, they look for a new angle. They like to describe the contortions of a relationship subjected to an outside stress. Doctor Wu, the lead track on the album Katy Lied, is a love song with the foggy feel of an opium dream. Because the song is dotted with pronouns lacking clear antecedents, its meaning is hard to track down. “I know its a dope song, but it’s still very cryptic as to quite precisely what is going on,” was Burroughs’ comment on first hearing Doctor Wu. As Fagen points out, the theme is characteristic of Steely Dan. “Doctor Wu is about a triangle, kind of a love-dope triangle,” he says. “I think usually when we do write songs of a romantic nature, one or more of the participants in the alliance will come under the influence of someone else or some other way of life and that will usually end up in either some sort of compromise or a split. Okay, in this song the girl meets somebody who leads another kind of life and she’s attracted to it. Then she comes under the domination of someone else and that results in the ending of the relationship or some amending of the relationship. When we start writing songs like that, that’s the way it usually goes.” In Doctor Wu, the “someone else” is a dope habit personified as Doctor Wu. In Haitian Divorce, it’s a hotel gigolo. The details of Rikki Don’t Lose That Number and Through With Buzz are vaguer, but the pattern is the same.
With each album, Fagen and Becker become less obscure, more direct. On their latest album, The Royal Scam, their lyrics seem downright straightforward. Yet their subject matter is as eclectic as ever. The title track of The Royal Scam, is a Biblical-style rendition of the Puerto Rican migration to New York. Other songs describe a psychedelic drug guru, a holed-up fugitive hearing the megaphone voices of the police and a gigolo who doubles as a jewel thief. The album’s best song, Haitian Divorce, describes a woman’s breakaway from her husband and her short-lived attempt to patch up the marriage. Set to a reggae tune and punctuated by a leering guitar, the narrative of the ballad builds up to a viciously funny punch line. “We never try to be obscure,” Fagen says. “If we’re communicating better, that’s just another characteristic of sophistication.”
Even if you can’t understand some words of a Steely Dan song, the lyrics are usually evocative. In interviews, Fagen and Becker have made sly references to a song about Hitler’s beer hall putsch, but coyly refused to explain further. Without their hints, would anyone realize that the title track of Pretzel Logic(their most enjoyable album) is narrated by the Fagen-Becker version of Hitler — a vaudevillian who “would love to tour the Southland in a traveling minstrel show,” who dreams of meeting Napoleon and hopes to “sound just like the record on a phonograph”? Probably not. And without realizing that a swastika is twisted like a pretzel, much of the title’s meaning is lost. Yet the song works well without undergoing the laborious exegeses popular in the “Is Paul dead?” days of Beatlemania. The inside joke is just a bonus.
Fagen and Becker are working now on a song about the Congress of Vienna. They traveled to France last spring, examining displays of Napoleon’s silk underwear in two museums. “We still haven’t really found an angle yet,” Fagen says. “We weren’t going to approach it politically. We were going to approach it more … I think if we actually finish it, it’ll be more of something to do with Metternich and Talleyrand dividing Europe after Napoleon attempted to re-create some kind of Roman idea of one world government. You know, that sort of thing. Sort of the dissolution of the dream that took place in this person’s mind. You have to oversimplify for the form you write and that of course necessitates leaving a lot of holes. You’re approaching a complex subject in a very short period of time. Its the same thing with a short story or a poem. It has to be very concentrated and it also has to avoid being pretentious. Writing about a subject like _that_, you have to be very careful. We think a lot about that. We try not to get too fancy, I guess, as William Burroughs might put it. You have to work multilevelly to make sure that the text doesn’t wander too far from the form. It is rock and roll music after all.”
Steely Dan’s accomplishment is creating first-rate music that does not wander too far from the rock and roll form. Fagen and Becker are fanatical perfectionists;. “I think one of the best things about rock and roll as opposed to jazz is precision and a professional sound,” Fagen says. “That’s what I like about popular music. We strive for that sort of slick sound.” Studio musicians who have played with them speak wondrously of their attention to detail. “They are the most demanding group of people in the industry that I’ve worked for,” says studio guitarist LINK Larry Carlton. “Nothing goes with flutter on it. If three of the guys are cutting the part great and one doesn’t feel just right, they’ll call in a whole new band and redo the whole thing. The other day we were doing a take on a tune and it was a great take. But in about bar 40, which would be about a minute or so into the tune, Donald heard one of the backbeats on the snare drum was not precisely where all the other backbeats had fallen. They didn’t keep that take. And I mean it was performed great for three-and-a-half minutes.” If Fagen and Becker are not satisfied with a song’s performance even after changing the musicians, they often shelve the song. “It’s happened to more songs than I care to think about,” says Gary Katz.
It takes money to fly in the musicians you want from New York, to shuffle players like tarot cards in search of the right combination, to spend all night in a recording studio where the exchange rate is $120 an hour and then emerge without one usable track. “It just takes time to get something to be good, to get eight or ten songs that are all good,” says Fagen. “Most rock and roll albums will be padded with less than wonderful material. We want every bar of the album to be good.” The last album cost over $100,000 to produce. “It’s all time, and we just eat it up.”
It’s time well eaten. No other band has produced so much fine rock music in this decade. Fagen and Becker haven’t quite reached perfection. “Everything is flawed,” says Fagen. “The best you can hope for is the most precise playing that humans are capable of — plus getting a good feel.” His tone may be resigned, but his ambition is limitless.
Someday a Steely Dan album will achieve just the right balance between precision and spontaneity, intelligence and sensuality, seriousness and pop appeal. Rock critics and high school students will gobble it up with equal relish. It may sound simple … but it will be very fancy music.