Steely Dan: A (Very) Brief Encounter

Originally published on Nov. 30, 1980

By Kristine McKenna
Los Angeles Times

New York — Interviewing Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the minds behind Steely Dan, is akin to being the new kid in school tossed in a room with the cruelly cool in-crowd. They know all the in jive and aren’t about to clue you in to any of it. Jay Black of Jay & the Americans, a group Becker and Fagen apprenticed with many years back, once referred to them as the Manson and Starkweather of rock, and it’s a mantle they seem to wear with pride.

During a conversation about their new album at the posh Park Lane Hotel, they found most questions too insipid to merit serious thought.

“Are you going through a midlife crisis?” we asked innocently. Gaucho is, after all, littered with “I’m growing old/Not what I used to be”-type phrases. This prompted the gnomish Becker to launch into a tirade that culminated in his spitting out, “Are you a journalist or a whore?!” Sheeesch!

Steely Dan’s music may grow more mellow with each LP, but Becker and Fagen remain the same jaded East Coast hipsters they were when they first joined forces more than a decade ago.

Named after a sexual device that appears in William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Steely Dan prowls the same dark channels of the human experience that Burroughs charted in that nightmarish vision. Finely polished pulp stories etched with disconnected imagery, Becker’s and Fagen’s songs are peopled with two-bit heroes and burnouts trapped in the sour end of the emotional spectrum. “We’re the champions of the down-and-out,” Becker once commented, a surprisingly noble sentiment from a composer whose world-weary cynicism seems to increase with the passing years.

Becker, a native New Yorker, met Donald Fagen of Passaic, NJ, at Bard College, a progressive school for blue blooded rich kids in upstate New York. Fagen, now 32, graduated with a degree in literature, while Becker, 30, dropped out. In 1970 they emigrated to California when friend and producer Gary Katz landed them a job as staff writers for ABC Records. They made their recorded debut the same year with Can’t Buy a Thrill, a spectacular first effort that yielded two hit singles — “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years.”

Their second LP, Countdown to Ecstasy, focused on their college experience, while their third, Pretzel Logic, found their longtime passion, jazz, taking a more prominent role in their music. Their 1974 release, Katy Lied, marked the dismantling of Steely Dan as a conventional rock band. Becker and Fagen, who’d always maintained an extremely low social profile, went into semi-seclusion.

More a concept than a performing group, Steely Dan had always been big on bringing in studio hotshots to execute their stories, and post-Katy Lied LPs came to feature a revolving cast of session players that includes Mike McDonald, Larry Carlton and Jeff Porcaro.

The title cut of Royal Scam, their next and most thematically unified musical essay, was the epic story of Puerto Rican settlement in New York cleverly disguised as a pop vignette. In 1977, they moved back to New York and released Aja, an easy-listening pop-jazz collection that broadened their audience considerably and was nominated for a Grammy that Gaucho has a good shot at capturing.

Known for their painstaking perfectionism, Becker and Fagen spent two years polishing Gaucho to a high gloss, and it’s an extremely stylish record that further refines the mellow jazz turf they outlined on Aja.

Meanwhile, back at the Park Lane, thing are going from bad to worse. Becker, easily the more venomous of the two, is reclining on a couch with crutches nearby — he was in a serious auto accident last spring. Inseparable soul-mates, Becker and Fagen are each other’s best audience. So keyed to the same wavelength are they that they tend to complete each other’s sentences, both offering clipped answers heavy with cryptic black humor that safely disguises any truths they might be uttering.

No, they don’t see their music as having any sort of linear evolution. (It has, in fact, grown noticeably more arranged and slick.)

No, punk-rock wasn’t of any interest to them — perhaps as a sociological event, but certainly not as music.

No, they don’t think the competition in popular music has gotten any stiffer than when they began 10 years ago. (“Yeah, it’s gotten stiffer,” laughs Fagen. “Rigor mortis has set in.”)

No, they have no plans to tour.

No, success hasn’t changed their lives. (“The only change is I don’t have to worry about the price of a movie,” said Fagen.)

No, one needn’t be obsessed with the past to be a jazz fan, although, yes, all the good stuff did happen in the past.

Becker offered the following concise explanation of what it is about jazz that appeals to him:

“Jazz is just the best news I’ve ever gotten.”

In parting, we ask why popular music is so obsessed with the concept of perfect love. It’s a theme that recurs in Steely Dan’s music, as well as just about everyone else’s. “‘Cause there’s a lot of jerks in pop music,” snaps Becker. “In fact,” he adds, “there’s a lot of jerks in the world.” Oh.

 

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