Interview with Robert Klein

“If you’re looking for the 1980-81 Steely Dan tour, this is it. It was three-quarters of a mile long and they had one roadie — the cab driver that brought them here. ”

Robert Klein is warming up his audience of less than 200 invited guests in an RCA recording studio on West 44th. Klein is a hip young Jewish comedian who has a nationally syndicated weekly radio show on which he interviews pop stars of the day, features a little live music and cracks a joke a minute. Today he is taping a program and his guests are Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. Klein, for all his smart asides, isn’t kidding. This is the only public appearance Becker and Fagen will make in support of the new MCA album “Gaucho.” It is also the first public appearance they have made as a “group” since the original Steely Dan band played their final concert on July 4th, 1974, at the Santa Monica Civic Center. And they won’t play a single note of music. On the tiny stage they share with Klein and three giant boom microphones, Becker and Fagen do not look like rock and rollers. They look even less like pop studio wizards who have made a fortune on a seamless hit sound bringing together such strange bedfellows as Brill Building pop, harmonic post-bop jazz tangents, session men sheen, and cynically obscure lyrics disguised as haiku poetry. Slouched in his chair, Fagen sports his omnipresent aviator sunglasses, a severely short haircut, and a crooked, almost malevolent smile. Becker has brown hair snaking down to his waistline, his own pair of shades and a broken leg. Neither looks like he has seen sunlight in years.”

Robert Klein: Welcome. We have a very special show tonight, only one guest, actually two guests from one outfit. Steely Dan is our guest tonight.

(Lots of applause)

RK: You’re lucky to be listening because if you’re looking for their ’80-’81 tour, this is it. It was approximately three-quarter’s of a mile long and there was only one roadie. A cab driver picked’em up. They don’t like to tour much; it’s a difficult thing with touring and boy, I’m glad I’m not a rock and roll promoter. Where’s the roadies? Where’s the equipment? What do you mean the roadie is in Seattle? Steely Dan have never had a platform collapse; they’ve never had a crowd attack the podium; they’ve never had a riot out in the hall. They like to take time with their music, but their influence is incredible. Will you welcome Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who are Steely Dan.

(More wild applause)

RK: How do you like that? Since you fellas never face your public, this proves that people are listening.

Walter Becker: That’s a helluva round of applause. We’re just sitting here.

RK: This is quite a tour. All the roadies, all the hotels, gee, it’s all taken care of.

WB: We’ve got a helluva band.

RK: How do you guys buck the system that way, Walter, I don’t understand.

WB: We fired all the roadies and said we couldn’t go. How can we go? We can’t lift these things.

Donald Fagen: There’s no organization.

RK: No organization. The Holiday Inns weren’t booked, there weren’t two cases of Wild Turkey and eight sets of cousins. When was the last time Steely Dan did a tour?

DF: Our last show was July 4th, 1974 — and a good show it was. We were really good by then. We decided to quit while we were ahead.

RK: Where was that?

DF: That was Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, near the beach there. They have a nice driveway.

RK: Was that during “Pretzel Logic”?

DF: Yeah, I remember hearing the promos as you drive in to town from the airport.

(Plays “Pretzel Logic”)

RK: So you started writing songs at ABC and various rumors and press releases have it that you could be heard giggling and kidding around and actually used ABC time to practice Steely Dan licks. Don’t you think you owe them something?

DF: That’s not far from the truth. We used to write songs that were slated for the Grass Roots and Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds were another very audacious group of the time.

WB: Law firm.

RK: Were they bodacious, too?

DF: They were also bodacious and a law firm and they were also registered nurses. At any rate, we’d take some time off and start rehearsing our own band when people weren’t looking.

RK: I’m sure they’ve done very well by you.

WB: We haven’t been charged for rehearsal space for a long time.

DF: And if we did owe ABC something, we wouldn’t know where to send it.

RK: How on earth did you have hit records with abstract lyrics?

WB: Payola. Technical term.

RK: Excellent relationships with disc jockeys, right? Took them out to Broadway shows and wined and dined them.

WB: Personally, we did that.

DF: It’s true, we just took Cal Rudman to see Annie, a wonderful show.

RK: Paul Simon and his new movie “One Trick Pony” kind of satirizes Cal Rudman. Supposedly he’s powerful in the record business and my first comedy album, “Child Of The Fifties” in 1973 took me there. It’s good, the kid’s got style.

DF: There was a good scene in that movie, I thought, where he has to play in front of a record exec and he keeps answering the phone during the song. We used to have experiences like that.

RK: If I may sketch a silly parallel between Steely Dan and myself, it’s that we enjoy what we do on our own terms. The thing I get most out of your career is you do it on your own terms, meaning you take the time you need to make what you think is the best you can do and avoid the things that don’t make any sense. Does that make any sense?

WB: It sure does. It makes a lot more sense than what we were doing before, which was doing it on someone else’s terms. I think anybody would do that in any situation given the chance, but for some reason in rock and roll you’re expected to go out and entertain. It’s really if you want to be an entertainer or a performer.

DF: We’re not really performers -— we used to throw up a lot before the show. It was messy. It was odiferous. It’s much better this way.

RK: In other words you don’t like to go on there and twirl your guitar and have a laser effect and wear make—up like Kiss.

DF: No, we gave away the smoke bombs and July 5th, 1974 was the last smoke bomb I saw go off.

WB: That wasn’t even our smoke bomb. That was the Doobie Brothers’ smoke bomb.

DF: That was Mike McDonald’s personal smoke bomb.

WB: That thing used to blow up every night. The next day, there it was, perfect.

RK: You never broke your instruments like Townshend and Entwistle?

WB: No. I almost broke my knee once trying to break my instrument. Sheer frustration. One time I did knock over an amplifier because of unsatisfactory failure to modulate amplitude on the part of the guitar player next to me. Big Marshall amp, it was so loud that I just wanted to stop it. And he kept playing and there was nothing there.

DF: You were testy that night.

WB: It was a tough night, it was in Houston. So what did he do? He kicked my amplifier over.

RK: Performing and recording are just two distinct and separate things, aren’t they?

WB: Unless you record while you perform. We have done that.

RK: Which one was live?

WB: Well, none of ’em actually, but the single that’s being released from this album…

RK: “Gaucho” is the new album.

WB: …the single will be “Hey Nineteen” and the flip side of that will be a live recording of “Bodhisattva” from…

DF: …June 3rd, 1974, which was our penultimate performance.

WB: Right.

DF: July 4th was our last performance.

WB: No, July 5th was our last performance. We had July 4th off.

DF: Is that true?

(Plays “Bodhisattva.”)

RK: One of the things I love about you is that the discography is heavy. The latest one is “Gaucho: -— as usual a terrific cover -— but what is it, seven, eight albums?

WB: How many you got? See if we put them out every three months, our career would have been over in January of 1972.

RK: Well, if you were Frank Zappa you would have done that.

DF: I’ll trade you two Lothar and the Hand People albums for one of those.

WB: But there aren’t two Lothar and the Hand People albums.

RK: I’m sure you must have taken a lot of flak for not touring…

DF: And shrapnel, too.

RK: …but up until this huge legal battle that you were engaged in involving MCA and ABC it seemed kinda smooth, but I guess you had to fight for that.

WB: Actually what happens, there are no huge legal battles. We finished the record and then something comes up, some legal issue and other people argue about it for a month and then we hide the tapes somewhere and they tell us it’s cool.

DF: This time we hire William Jennings Bryant as our attorney.

RK: The point is you thought it was in your best interest to have the record released by someone else?

WB: No, actually that wasn’t the point. I don’t know what the point was, I can’t tell you. We just wanted to hand in the record and it’s released, which is what happens.

RK: ABC isn’t any more (a reference to ABC Records having been acquired by MCA).

WB: No, they sold out … we were traded for…

DF: Walter has a great slam-dunk and they wanted to make sure…

RK: But you just carry along doing what you’re doing.

WB: As long as there’s three letters on the label we don’t care: ABC, MCA, WEA, KKK.

RK: It’s hilarious to analyze lyrics, but some wonderful interviewer said that obviously I can figure out such and such is a parable for Puerto Rican immigrants, but I’m still trying to figure out what a monkey girl does all night in Denver. They don’t give up.

WB: That guy wouldn’t give up, no.

DF: They take it very seriously you know. It’s like a major breakthrough if they can interpret a particular line.

RK: Without trying to be analytical, there’s nothing more ludicrous than trying to pick apart your lyrics and find something that was really an impulse of a creative mind, but don’t you see in it a sense of a kind of lesson but there are abstractions here that needn’t be rationalized about what they mean but they’re feelings, the sound of the syllables clicking together in that music that just makes it.

DF: Yeah, that’s basically a good way to describe it, Bob.

WB: Yeah, discourages further inquiry, anyway. On the other hand, anything worthwhile is worth wondering about. People’s inquiries are a sign by itself that they are affected by it. It’s a good sign and I think it encourages people to listen to it more than once.

DF: On the other hand we wouldn’t wanna give the impression that these are random lyrics. A lot of thought goes into it.

(Plays “Time Out Of Mind”)

RK- Actually, Steely Dan is an implement in William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.” It was interesting because Burroughs is from a wealthy family and he was so outrageous…

WB: He was kind of paid to be elsewhere, huh? Rather than the hometown. Pensioned off?

RK: Yeah, he was the heir of a huge fortune.

WB: Burroughs Adding Machine.

RK: Is it true that you live above or below Mitch Miller?

WB: Yeah, I live in the apartment below Mitch Miller.

RK: Mitch Miller used to head Columbia Records.

WB: I heard a thud last night. I’d like to get the apartment, right, and I figure if I hear the right thud I can just tunnel up and answer his calls and live there, too.

RK: I understand he really loves your music, but he asks you not to play at five in the morning.

WB: Yeah, that’s true.

DF: We get all our ideas from Mitch. We have a little microphone that we’ve snaked up through the pipes and when he’s practicing his oboe we just flip on the recorder.

WB: Actually he can’t play the oboe any more.

DF: His beard grew up and into his mouth.

WB: It’s an “in-growing” beard.

RK: Hey, you wrote the score or was it a tune for “FM” — a movie that didn’t do too well.

DF: Just the title song.

RK: Does this interest you? It occurred to me that it’s a natural direction for Steely Dan to do a film score. Does that interest you, Donald?

DF: Yeah, we’ve talked about it from time to time, but our experience with “FM” wasn’t that good. It was like the “Heaven’s Gate” of low-budget movies.

WB: Except it wouldn’t go away. We were warned up front that this might not be “Lawrence of Arabia.” Just do your song and that’s it.

RK: I think a lot of your music is very cinematic. It implies motion somehow.

DF: Are you saying that you see movies in your head when you listen to these records, Bob?

RK: Unfortunately, yes.

WB: Back screen projection.

RK: It’s just that the music is so multi-layered. I think that’s the essence of Steely Dan, it requires some attention from the listener.

WB: Actually, hopefully it doesn’t because a lot of people listen to it in their car and we try to make it so that it’ll sound good on that level, too.

RK: You guys are good, can you come on every week? We’ll change your names. Ted Nugent’s cousin is here. Anyway, I identified a lot with “Hey Nineteen.” I’m also getting older and perspectives have to change otherwise criminal charges can be placed.

WB: If that’s a hit record, it’ll be because the 19-year-olds identify with it.

DF: We used to open for a lot of interesting groups, mid-’70s, Uriah Heep, groups like Rare Earth. A lot of the groups we opened for had different musical values than we did.

WB: I know you won’t believe that.

RK: The only people I can think of in the business remotely like you — they’re eclectic and original — is Gentle Giant. They experimented and took chances, they used to anyway.

DF: That’s a new one on me, Bob.

WB: I thought that was a bear on a television show.

RK: English band, most of them conservatory—trained and they go their own way.

WB: That’s probably why we haven’t run into them. Where are they now? It’s not necessary for two acts in concert to be the same but…

DF: If they are a creative group as you say, it’s not surprising that we’ve never heard of them.

WB: It’s an uphill fight and everything going against them. Probably blacklisted.

RK: Incidentally, I don’t want to patronize, I think it was from the curriculum of one of America’s finest music schools, I’ll even mention it — Berklee. Are you aware, gentle- men, that you are the subject of a songwriting class?

DF: No, this is news to us.

RK: Well, you are and I’m calling the principal, Mr. Dugan, right now to see if you can pass your own test.

DF: There was a piano teacher there who was very good — jazz pianist and I remember I had a course with him and he had to leave — he got a good gig — he had a series of lessons he was supposed to give over a period of three or four months. But at the last moment he decided the gig was more important, so in one day he gave a three months’ lesson. He was sitting there saying “now the function of the half diminished chord is…” He went through all of music history in three hours.

RK: A lot of this is purely subjective, for example, (reading from the class materials) “Steely Dan’s ‘The Royal Scam’ provides an excellent example of the rhymes contribution to exposing the real form of a song.” This is part of the curriculum.

(Quotes opening lyrics then plays “The Royal Scam.”)

WB: Hey, is he making fun of us, or what?

RK: You don’t put out an album every three months; you take your time about it. You use just the finest musicians available, if you look at the latest record you see different drummers on most of the cuts and each person you use for what they can do best. How dare you use such excellence?

DF: It costs us a pretty penny, too, I’d like to say.

RK: It also says that you are low-profile professionals quietly avoiding media personality mongering. I think that’s an outrage.

WB: Sounds like the Mafia.

RK: Is there anyone else who approaches the recordings the way you do? You choose the personnel…

WB: Yes, it is actually common practice. Paul Simon does it. Groups like the Mamas and the Papas are obviously not a self-contained musical unit so they did the same thing we did and a lot of groups that were ostensibly self-contained like The Beatles did the same thing we did. We did it when we were ostensibly a self-contained group.

RK: Clearly there’s no trade-off with strangers playing together, ’cause everyone sounds good.

WB: No, it works very well because the people that you hire to come in and make your record, that’s the very thing they do for a living. Sounds good.

RK: Would you say that performing live in front of people is still something that you haven’t changed your attitude about? I would think that Steely Dan fans would be among the most behaved in rock.

DF: Well, things have changed if that’s the case. I remember some pretty rowdy audiences. Basically our attitude’s still about the same. Neither of us like life on the road, the traveling and so on and since we don’t have a band at this time, it would be very difficult to perform.

RK: You also used “bodacious.” I looked it up in two or three dictionaries, it doesn’t exist.

DF: You must know what “bodacious” means.

RK: I do in the slang way, but the title tune has the expression “bodacious cowboys.” Isn’t that your own word?

WB: Now it is. Yes, it’s our word. We get royalties on the word?

RK: What does it mean?

WB: It’s a type of cowboy.

(Plays “Gaucho”)

DF: Wasn’t “bodacious” an old Duke Ellington record.

(Plays “East St. Louis Toodle-oo.”)

RK- That was one of the few that you did that wasn’t a Steely Dan composition.

WB- That was the whole few.

RK- Is it true on Gaucho an engineer erased a completed track?

WB- Not an engineer. Not any more. A busboy erased one of the tracks. Something like that happened, yes. It was the worst thing. It was complete. He was really embarrassed.

DF- His face was red.

WB- Beet red.

RK- So no touring, huh?

WB- Last time we tried we found we had made it so thoroughly impractical that we couldn’t even rig it up if we wanted to.

RK- What do you mean? In terms of taking things with you?

WB- In other words it would have taken six months to rehearse a band to do a month’s worth of concerts and even then it wouldn’t have been what you expect to see at a concert, which is a band that have been playing together for some amount of time. There’s a time element—you just can’t have guys reading music on stage.

RK- You simply didn’t think you could got it the way you wanted it?

DF- Well, most popular artists, it’s just a matter of course to go out and recreate their records. It’s not like jazz, it’s not an improvisational form really to any great extent and we’re just not interested in reinterpreting or recreating every night what’s on record. To keep ourselves interested we need new music. It’s just not that exciting to us.

WB- This is better.

RK- You almost toured with Aja. What happened with that?

WB- As I say, we started, we had a couple rehearsals…

DF- Tell him about the escalating pay scale.

WB- We figured out who we wanted to go out on the road with us—mostly studio musicians-and everybody said “Well, I’d love to do it, but I’m gonna miss a lot of dates so I’m gonna need x-amount of dollars a night.” Everybody got what they wanted. First rehearsal there were three people there and they found out they were all getting different amounts—it was a keyboard section rehearsal-there was some unionizing going on, you know, and suddenly we felt like lawyers…

DF- One guy got up on a table with a sign.

WB- One of the guys said “I’m not gonna do this for $600 a night.” The other guy said “You’re only getting $600 a night?” Donald and I excused ourselves, left the room and that was the end of the tour.

(Plays “Deacon Blues”)

RK- Do you prefer living here in the east, New York?

DF- Well, we’re basically city boys. I’m from Jersey and he’s from…where are you from?

WB- East of Jersey, where it’s all happening.

DF- East of Eden. Forest Hills.

RK- For a while you spent some time in L.A.

DF- Well, that’s where the work was.

RK- I like California a lot.

WB- I don’t like California at all.

RK- I think Yellowstone Park is really fantastic and I…*

DF- The tar pits are nice on a Sunday afternoon.

RK- I became acquainted with Steely Dan by listening to the radio and hearing wonderful songs like “Reelin’ In The Years” initially and then “Rikki” and songs like that and every time I said “Yeah, I like this song, I like that song.” I’d then find out it was Steely Dan. That’s how I found out I was a Steely Dan fan. On our stations across the country that carry The Robert Klein Show, some program a little more Carly Simon, some less, some none, some more Ted Nugent, some less, but they all program Steely Dan in a very big way. It’s against all bets.

WB- Well, there are times when I hear our music on jazz stations, for example, that strikes me as remarkable, because it just isn’t jazz. But other than that, now when I listen to the radio the format that they have seems to me they’re playing the same record over and over again. A new album comes out, they play three of the ones from the new album. If it sells a lot they drop two, keep one.

RK- “Do It Again” is real close-if it isn’t jazz, it’s close. It’s quite clear that you have listened to a lot of jazz and admire it, appreciate it. Isn’t that so?

WB- That is so.

DF- We grew up listening to jazz radio which unfortunately no longer exists.

RK- Symphony Sid. Mort Fega.

WB- Why did he play all that Latin jazz?

RK- You didn’t like that?

WB- No.

DF- He’s known in some quarters as the “Jazz Trader,” because he started playing Latin music, but gotta give him the benefit of the doubt.

WB- He was playing a particular type of music, though, that was just as much as our music isn’t jazz without arguing about definitions. No one would mistake it for jazz and no one would mistake Ray Barretto for the Miles Davis Quintet, unless he was playing with the Miles Davis Quintet.

RK- What kind of things do you listen to?

WB- Well, we listen to jazz. In good times when there’s lots of interesting music on the radio and rock and roll stations—or some anyway—there are times anyway—maybe this isn’t one of them—but I listen to the radio.

RK- A trend towards less loud and mellow, or what?

WB- All kinds of things happen, it’s just a question of whether you like what’s going on now, if you like the new Diana Ross record that’s a hit now or if something interests you. At this particular moment, I must tell you, my clock radio’s just a clock.

RK- So it’s not thrilling you one way or another?

WB- No it’s not killing me.

RK- When are you guys gonna sell out and compromise? It’s getting me pissed off! You’re just doing your own thing. When are you gonna pay attention to some very nervous record executives and a soft market?

WB- What’s a soft market?

RK- Sounds awful, doesn’t it? It means it’s hard to sell records lately. Have you so far proved them wrong, that you don’t have to go out and tour and hype and promote hard and so on?

WB- We sell more records than we did when we were touring, if that proves anything. On the other hand, if we were to tour, we would sell more records still.

DF- So what we have here is some sort of oxymoron or paradox.

WB- I don’t think we have an oxymoron here.

RK- (Calling out) Dictionary, please. They never said, “You know” once. They never used the word “super.” On your income tax, do you put “rock and roll singer?”

DF- That’s tough. People sometimes ask me what I do for a living and I’m really hard put to give them a good answer.

RK- You’re not an entertainer as such, because you don’t go in front of people, but you’re a musician/composer. Try that.

WB- Self-employed will do.

RK- Why don’t you guys pep it up a little bit and go on the $20,000 Pyramid? Wouldn’t you like to?

DF- Don’t we get some sort of consolation prize tonight or what?

WB- I want the china with your picture on it that they get at the end of Hollywood Squares.

RK- We had a superb time tonight-Walter and Donald—speaking to Steely Dan and these are guys that like to write their own ticket. The new album is Gaucho and they have a saxophone on almost every cut. Both of you played sax, didn’t you?

DF- Yeah, we tried.

WB- Less, we played. More or Less. He had an alto, I had a tenor.

DF- Isn’t it great to carry them around in those leather gig bags?

WB- He didn’t have a gig bag, he had a trunk.

RK- Thank you very much, good night.

DF- It’s been a pleasure, Bob.

(Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Metal Leg. The introduction was borrowed from David R. Fricke’s article, “By Their Own Rules,” which appeared in the December 20th, 1980 issue of Melody Maker.)

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