Those consummate troublemakers, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, are finally cornered, producing dangerously controversial observations on film, literature, Free Jazz, touring and the music of Steely Dan, undermining nearly every tenet of the music industry.
By David Breskin
Three years, two hundred out-takes, a few mistakenly erased tracks, and one shattered shank after Aja, Steely Dan has come sauntering out of hibernation with a ravishing new record, Gaucho. It’s elegant, it’s extravagant; it shows again why Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the masters of Ellingtonian Backbeat Coolpop-Jazzrock, are the closest thing this generation has to pre-war sophistication of Porter and Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, Weill and Waller. If Aja convinced Woody Herman to let his big band loose on Steely Dan material (Chick, Donald, Walter and Woodrow, 1978), prompted a Berklee College of Music songwriting analysis course featuring their work, and elevated the taste of the frat-dance college crowd, one wonders what kind of a dent Gaucho might make. One thing it WON’T do is send Steely Dan back on the road, not even after Becker’s car-crunched leg heals completely. Nor will they perform in their native New York. So we are left solely – and quite happily – with the music at hand.
Which is, as may be expected by now, sublime and fragrant and audaciously smooth. Steely Dan Inc.’s revolving door of studio sidemen hasn’t stopped swinging yet – some 36 grace Gaucho – and I mean this in the musical sense as well: rarely have so many done so little spontaneous blowing for so much music that sounds so fresh. But it probably won’t sound that way upon first or second listen; chances are it will sound soft and round, blandly pleasant, almost superficial. With further listening, each or the record’s seven tunes opens and deepens, revealing the harmonic jewels and subtle understated solos. At first obscured by the dominant colors of the surface, background colors become apparent, much as they will in fine oil paintings as your eye moves closer and closer to them; rythmic nuances make themselves FELT; each piece eventually jumps out of bed with the others and goes its own way: the patina, a rather mundane orgy of highgloss sensuality, gives way to the substance – seven different compositions in profound intercourse with their own partners, their indigenous lyrics.
As for the lyrics’ subject matter, rest assured Steely Dan enters the ’80s with some timely tales of tawdry high-life and desultory desperation. Gaucho overflows with mystics, coke dealers, sexual rivals, gosling girls ignorant of ‘Retha Franklin, concupiscent Charlies out for “that cotton candy,” playground hoopers, Third World schemers mobilized on First World lawns, surprisingly gay friends and bodacious cowboys. The stories are rich, richer than Aja’s, the metaphors subversive and witty.
I recently spoke with Messrs. Becker and Fagen at an MCA rented suite of the Park Lane Hotel on Central Park South in New York. As I entered the room, the two jokingly whined about the day’s previous interviewers; every one, it seems, had grazed over the parched grass of basic bio material, asking , “So did you two really meet at Bard College?” With furious swipes of my pen, I mimed scratching that one off the top of my list of questions and mumbled something about my masterpiece being destroyed.
MUSICIAN: It HAS been a considerable time since Steely Dan first started: how do you feel you’ve grown as artists, as musicians and lyricists, since that time?
FAGEN: [Long pause] It’s a matter of maturing. Becoming more selective with material, knowing what to write about, being able to pick and choose – showing more discretion than in earlier days. Musically, our harmonic vocabulary and so on has expanded a great deal… so I feel we’ve progressed a lot since our first records. They are plain embarrassing, if you listen to them.
MUSICIAN: When you look back at your older work – as all artists, regrettably or enthusiastically, must do – do you think, “Oh God, that just wasn’t it at all?”
FAGEN: [laughs] Well, yeah, you know I don’t listen to our old records, but if I happen to hear one on the radio, my general feeling is humiliation. I don’t really understand some of our earlier stuff.
MUSICIAN: At what point can you begin to understand yourself, listening back? 1974?1975?
FAGEN: The next album I like pretty well. The one we haven’t done yet. The rest of them are fairly humiliating.
MUSICIAN: You don’t feel Gaucho is what you want to sound like?
FAGEN: Well, on the humiliation scale each album gets lower and lower. I think starting with Pretzel Logic, I began to like a few cuts here and there as things I can really listen to.
MUSICIAN: How do you feel, Walter?
BECKER: Differently. But I don’t listen to them either. I mean there were a lot of things that were very shoddily done, and a lot of things that were just bad, but probably different things for me than for Donald. We were doing the best we could, but f-ck it, it wasn’t very good.
FAGEN: It’s like: have you ever seen a picture of yourself taken in 1969 or ’70 with a group of girls in mini-skirts or something and you say…
BECKER: What is that a–hole doing there, or why was I wearing that sweater or a shirt with a fake turtle-neck or something. It’s just aged. But I don’t think it’s aged that much. The stuff that is lousy was lousy then.
FAGEN: Yeah, that’s true…well, harmonically we were naive.
BECKER: And we were miming a lot of things, we were clowning around.
FAGEN: We started out imitating, as most people do…
BECKER: [slyly] And we continue to, in a much subtler way. Nothing comes from nothing. But Do It Again is a good f-cking record. Reelin’ In The Years is a good record.
FAGEN: I agree with that.
BECKER: It’s only f-ckin’ rock n’ roll. It’s for kids. It’s not Gustav Mahler, or even Tristin Fabriani. [laughs]
MUSICIAN: Come now, only for kids?
BECKER: Well you know what I mean…
MUSICIAN: Maybe, maybe not; I asked Donald about becoming older than your audience.
BECKER: I don’t know to what extent that’s true, because I don’t know for sure who our audience is. There may be a lot of people older than me in our audience but you must be right. O.K., let’s assume you’re right, so how do I feel about that?
MUSICIAN: Yes, how do you feel about that in the context of your role as an artist, which you must feel is now only to entertain – to stuff hooks into some kid’s ear – but also to create something meaningful for yourselves and your audience.
FAGEN: Basically, we’ve always composed for ourselves, which is the same as composing for your peers.
BECKER: Oh c’mon, you wouldn’t do a thing like this for your peers.
FAGEN: I guess I assume that people our age are thinking the same way we are. I’m not thinking of any individuals.
BECKER: But that’s all we have to go by. It’s always amazed me that somehow I’ve felt we’re good but I never knew if there was anybody that would think so. Not good in any ultimate sense, but good compared to the bullsh-t you hear. But I don’t FEEL any older than my audience. I used to worry about getting old when I was 17. I couldn’t imagine being 30. Now that I’m 30 I can’t see the difference between being 30 and being 17.
MUSICIAN: Did you ever feel like a part of mainstream culture – which I guess was mainstream counter-culture – in the ’60s. I mean: how many times does ’68 go into 1981?
BECKER: H-ll no, God, we were wallflowers. We were cranks. What do you say…
BECKER: Yeah, more alien…you got it. A lot of artists are aliens. They’re really a bunch of geeks when you get right down to it.
MUSICIAN: And classical losers too, in the sense that they just don’t fit in.
FAGEN: That’s right, in the sense that New York is the depository for misfit Americans – there’s a reason that we’re here. And why we don’t live in Cincinnati.
MUSICIAN: If artists are geeks, they’re also scavengers. Do you find you can feed off the flesh of the city, the raw material so to speak? Is it a stimulus to your art that Los Angeles wasn’t?
FAGEN: I think New York has revitalized our stuff. But L.A. did a lot for us as far as giving us a perspective on America.
FAGEN: It gave us something to really complain about, to b-tch about creatively.
BECKER: You can look at the people you used to see three times a week and twist them in your mind, treat them inhumanely in your mind, to create a character without actually defaming them. But you can not accord them the respect that you accord every other human being. [Long pause] If there were no outside stimulus, I’d imagine we’d still have something to write about. Something we’d remembered or imagined.
FAGEN: You can create or compose in a vacuum.
BECKER: [To Fagen] How many times has someone offered you a house or a place to live and said, “This would be a great place to write a song,” for you to “sit and look out at the garden and write” and it doesn’t mean a f-cking thing. You couldn’t care whether the garden is there or not, as long as you don’t have to spread the manure.
MUSICIAN: That reminds me of The Shining, where ole’ Jack Nicholson goes into the mountains, to a big empty hotel to write his novel, to write in peace. And he ends up typing the same sentence over and over. He’s removed himself.
BECKER: Keeping in mind that this is dance music, you are removing yourself from something by writing about it.
MUSICIAN: Speaking of dance music, can you see a time when you won’t be concerned with prodding people out of their chairs?
FAGEN: I think we both really love rhythm-and-blues basically. A big backbeat. I don’t know if it’s a matter of dance music, it’s a matter of pulse or feel.
BECKER: Jump music. Rhythm music. Something like that.
FAGEN: [grinning] Race music.
MUSICIAN: I know you agonize over your lyrics. Does it ever frustrate you that with many of the people listening, they may be going in one ear and, with little in between to stop them, right out the other?
BECKER: I assume that’s the case for most of the audience, or at least a big part of it, and that’s why we try to always make the lyrics not grab your attention. We want them to SOUND good with the music, even if you’re not an English speaking person.
MUSICIAN: But for those that are listening, atlas and dictionary in hand, you don’t want the lyrics to be one-shot deals, like a comedy record that you put on once, then tire of it.
BECKER: That’s definitely a problem. We have to be clever, but not funny.
FAGEN: We have a problem, trying not to cross the comedy threshold.
BECKER: Everytime someone’s in the next room when we’re writing a song they’d say, “Don’t tell me you’re f-cking writing songs in there, you’re not working, ’cause you’re f-cking screaming and laughing in there. You’re not writing, you’re making up Pope jokes.”
MUSICIAN: There’s also a certain self-consciousness about being funny. Walter, you once said you wanted to branch out into odd narrative styles and more radical approaches as long as they were “funny in the end.” What kind of humor were you referring to?
BECKER: I’m talking about the possibility of maintaining one’s sense of humor under all possible circumstances. Funny as opposed to grave or solemn. Kurt Vonnegut’s not funny, there’s nothing funny about Dresden for instance, but it’s FUNNY. And we can’t even be that funny in music.
FAGEN: When you’re writing about serious subjects, and I guess we are, we have to remember that it’s rock ‘n’ roll music and the risk of being pretentious is real high, if you’re not careful.
BECKER: I had this in mind in “Gaucho” for instance, which is a conversational thing. I don’t know if it makes sense to anybody.
FAGEN: But we try to give a sense of a situation. It’s just too short a time to really explain everything; it’s not a short story, it’s not a novel.
MUSICIAN: It has to be a miniature.
FAGEN: Yeah, a miniature and sometimes you can’t fill in the details. So you hope that you give the proper signals, so that people will get a sense of what you’re talking about.
MUSICIAN: Let’s use that song as a jumping off point in terms of your lyrics. Certain artists – perhaps writers or filmmakers more than songwriters – strive for a certain amount of polysemy, or ambiguity in their work, in service of not only their desire to create something right in meaning for their audience but also to keep some of their work personal, kind of private. For instance, if you’re singing, “I Wanna Be Sedated,” you have given the whole kernel of thought to the audience in a very direct way. But if you sing about the Custerdome, you’re hinting at some things but keeping your statement personal, retaining a certain amount of it for yourselves. Are you conscious of this sort of strategy.
BECKER: We’re just trying to use what fits. It’s the exact opposite of the New York Times, where it’s “All The News That’s Fit To Print.” Here, we print what will fit. Like you say, it’s not even a short story, hardly a paragraph, so the story doesn’t always fit. If you get – as opposed to the Kernel of the thought – the husk of the thought, maybe you can figure out what kind of story is there. I don’t feel like I’m being stripped of anything if I’m understood. Why would anybody doing this sort of thing want to preserve something of keeping it for themselves?
MUSICIAN: I’m not talking about international mystification or impenetrability, but there is a school of thought which says, while the artist must communicate to his audience, he may also keep certain details or underpinnings of the art rather private. It has to do with a between-the- lines quality of a narrative – meanings that people can guess at but which are not given to them in spoon-fed fashion.
FAGEN: It depends on the song and the subject matter. The lyrics must be subordinate to the music and you can only give as many clues as you have time for.
BECKER: We’re not trying to protect anything. It’s just that some of the smaller, pettier details in a story are the best ones. The little things that you retain in your sense more than in your mind; they may not make sense but they color something. It’s really hard. There may be something to what you’re saying, in that, if something is open-ended, or means more than one thing, or is elliptical or whatever, someone listening to it carefully enough will in fact become creative, and fill in the spaces with their own intelligence. And you’d be amazed at the letters people have written to us about our song. Some guy wrote us and said “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” is about Eric Clapton and the number is a joint.
FAGEN: Sometimes it frightens me when we get some weird stoned Moonie with these weird ideations about these songs, and he starts talking about taking some kind of ACTION against who knows what.
BECKER: There was a guy living in Las Vegas when our first album came out who thought – his girlfriend had left him I guess – all of the songs were stories his girlfriend had told us. He wasn’t asking any questions; he just wanted his girlfriend back. And we didn’t know anything about the girl. But he thought every one of those stories was about him.
FAGEN: It’s your basic Arthur Bremmer syndrome. We get a lot of letters that are written in very small printing with little pictures in the corner.
MUSICIAN: Well, you’re talking about the perverse fringe of “active” listeners.
BECKER: No, this is the heart and soul of our audience, I’ve got news for you. Those weird people on the street – every hundredth weirdest one has a Steely Dan record at home.
MUSICIAN: People that are essentially out-takes.
BECKER: Right, or just flipped-out. Like that guy who hi-jacked that bus today [a friend of theirs had been hijacked in midtown Manhattan] probably has forty-seven copies of The Royal Scam at home.
MUSICIAN: The point is, despite the Vegas chump, a little restraint or open- endedness or ambiguity in a lyric – call it what you will – allows one to go back to a song time after time, and not just sing along, but get farther into it or think anew about it.
BECKER: Right, it doesn’t have to make sense in a narrative way. Something tells me, though, that we’ve been better behaved in terms of being more narrative lately. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing. I think with the narratives that we’re undertaking [hearty chuckle] it doesn’t really matter.
FAGEN: I think we are communicating a little more directly than we have in the past.
MUSICIAN: Do either of you write poetry as poetry, that sort of sits around just waiting for the right piece of music?
FAGEN: Not as poetry per se.
BECKER: I used to do that, a long, long time ago, but I found out poetry was in much worse shape than any other art form, except maybe painting, which I also gave up because I didn’t like getting paint all over myself.
FAGEN: We have fragments of things.
BECKER: Little lines and couplets…
FAGEN: Story ideas and the like…
BECKER: But nothing in finished form. Rythmically, if you read our poetry on the page it’s nothing really.
MUSICIAN: So you have at least a skeleton of the music first, the chords, roughly the tempo, etc. and then you work on the lyrics line-by-line, side- by-side?
FAGEN: We work on them together. One of us will come up with the basic idea, maybe a few words, and then we’ll fill in the blanks together as needed.
MUSICIAN: How do you resolve the conflicts – possibly different strategies on how to say something even if you both agree as to what will be said – without resorting to bloodshed?
FAGEN: We often see it in the same way. We’ve been together for a while.
BECKER: But it usually doesn’t make that much difference [if it][?] comes down to one word.
FAGEN: Usually, if we disagree about something, it may be whether or not something is singable phonetically.
BECKER: That’s HIS story. My story is whether it’s something else. That’s how we agree.
MUSICIAN: Walter, you mentioned dabbling in finger-painting and poetry. In all interviews it seems the interviewer asks for the inevitable listing of musical influences [and of course the answer is always B.B. King], but I’m particularly interested in what other artists – could be writers, painters, filmmakers, etc – have inspired you.
BECKER: You know, we’ve gotten into trouble on that with the “Steely Dan” thing [the name of a dildo in Burrough’s great novel, Naked Lunch. We’ve been invited out to dinner with William Burroughs a few times too many now by people who don’t know us or William Burroughs. So with the caveat, I can say that I like Samuel Beckett. I think it’s ironic and amusing that the greatest living writer in the English language writes in French.
MUSICIAN: It tells me that he doesn’t want to be a show-off.
FAGEN: We both have our individual preferences. Vladimir Nabokov is mine. I’m not visually oriented, but Walter likes very peculiar movies.
BECKER: A good cheap date. I have weird taste.
FAGEN: Walter’s seen The King of Marvin Gardens quite a number of times.
BECKER: Donald goes for the value-per-dollar system.
FAGEN: Francis Ford Coppola stuff: The Godfather, Apocalypse Now.
MUSICIAN: Can you imagine yourselves working on a more expansive musical project: a full soundtrack, a musical perhaps, or even the songs for a musical?
FAGEN: I’d like to, but the project would have to be perfectly suited to us. I wouldn’t want to write background music, or music that’s subordinate to visual material. Twyla Tharp, the choreographer, had a project she wanted us to write the music for. The dancing was very good, but she had a script in which the dancers would speak and the story was, uh… extremely confused, we thought.
BECKER: Mainly, the whole dance project was conceived without any concern for the music. To her, it was a completed project. It was as if she had done a painting, and all she needed was the frame. That is to say, the music.
FAGEN: Well we don’t know shit about dance, so we sorta bowed out of that one. But if she did something that had less structure as far as a story I could see writing music for her.
BECKER: Ronnie Reagan is present, so I wouldn’t mind doing a Kurt Weill or Bertolt Brecht kind of thing. There’s potential in that.
FAGEN: Socialist opera.
BECKER: Anarchist opera.
MUSICIAN: What about an extended work – a unified work of considerable length – whatever you want to call it a suite or opera or whatever?
FAGEN: We’ve discussed this, like the idea of a concept album, but it’s awfully hard.
BECKER: I thought Aja itself was dangerously ambitious. I really did.
FAGEN: I dunno, I think we work best on miniatures. I like variety. We work better with vignettes.
MUSICIAN: Anyway, how do you characterize the new record, as opposed to say, Aja?
BECKER: [Half-kidding] Excellent, excellent. Newer, bluer.
FAGEN : That’s a difficult question because we write the songs individually. They are single audio objects; we don’t plan the album conceptually. So it’s hard to characterize the thing as a whole.
MUSICIAN: Well if not different as a whole – I know it was recorded over a two-year span – then do you see it as a little step forward?
FAGEN: It’s possible that we took a few steps backward with this album. In a way, it’s rhythmically more simplistic than Aja.. But the harmonies are interesting. I don’t know if it’s better or worse.
BECKER: I don’t think there’s a progression at this point – it’s too deliberate on our part. We’re moving sideways. When you’re writing one song at a time over a long period and you don’t know which ones are eventually going to get recorded and which are then going to be on the record, and then you put them together in a certain order and put it in a package, all of a sudden it’s SOMETHING.
FAGEN: It becomes something else.
BECKER: It becomes something you hadn’t anticipated. It’s taken as a whole, even to me anyway, I take it as a whole. And it has a character as a whole that the individual parts never had.
MUSICIAN: As your vocabulary grows, musically and lyrically, and you become more aware of your artistic options, do you find it more difficult to finish a song? That is, the more strategies you’re familir[sic] with, the tougher it is to decide which one to use?
BECKER: It got tough awhile ago. Yes, the last verse is hard to write. The more you know, the more you might paint yourself into a corner.
FAGEN: But the way we write – it’s more improvisational and instinctual. We don’t really use “strategies” consciously.
BECKER: But nevertheless there it is, the method. By the time you’ve finished everything except that last piece or link of a song, you’ve got to make some very, very conscious choices.
FAGEN: Alright, we’ve learned certain things in terms of how to present the material. We now know what a bridge is supposed to do: it opens up the song musically. And we tend to open it up lyrically as well – to talk about the subject more generally than the verses do.
BECKER: And it’s also a real release from the tension of the lyrics in the verses. You’re suspended in time for awhile.
FAGEN: [wryly] The traditional popular song form of the ’30s and ’40s has served us well.
BECKER: Oh yes, right through the ’80s.
FAGEN: I like it, it’s a good thing. It’s the closest thing we have to a STRUCTURE for rock ‘n’ roll. It’s blues, and traditional song form.
MUSICIAN: How do you feel about modern improvisational music that diverges from that structure? Music that’s come after the religious and political saxophoning of the ’60s – like The Art Ensemble, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, etc.?
BECKER: I don’t like any of it. I’d like to think that I’m open-minded, but nothing could be further from the truth.
FAGEN: We’re real conservatives.
MUSICIAN: A post-modernist like Braxton uses many different kinds of structures. He’s a structuralist of sorts, though maybe not in the mode of traditional song form.
BECKER: But he can’t even play, so what does it matter? I can’t figure it out. He sounds like a guy who has no tone, plays outta tune, and I just don’t know why he’s playing what he’s playing. Maybe I just heard the wrong records. Now Sam Rivers – the first album I heard of his sounded very interesting to me, but lately he sounds exactly like Braxton.
MUSICIAN: Let’s go back twenty years – before the advent of religious saxophoning – you have Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, which sounded so far out then, sounds almost quaint now – in that it swings like mad, it’s fairly orderly and well-structured and so on.
MUSICIAN: I know. The first time I put on an Ornette record I said, “This is Charlie Parker music except the guy has a plastic saxophone and no chord changes.” I couldn’t believe that people talked about how “modern” it was. Ornette is not the greatest musician in the world. He has has some bad nights, let’s face it. And if you’ve ever had to go hear him play the violin, or hear him with his son or with the electric guitarists, you have to ask, ” How free can a guy with that limited talent be?”
FAGEN: Not that many people can get away with…
BECKER: What he does.
FAGEN: With not having any structure. Very few do.
BECKER: He had a few very good ideas. And he had an incredible band.
MUSICIAN: Well what about some of the ECM artists of the last decade?
FAGEN: Very uninteresting on the whole.
BECKER: [sarcastically] Dance music. But Jan Garbarek is very good.
MUSICIAN: Are you familiar with a Keith Jarrett record Belonging, particularly a tune called “Long as you know you’re living yours”?
MUSICIAN: Have you ever listened to that up against “Gaucho”?
MUSICIAN: I’m not casting any aspersions now, but in terms of the tempo and the bass line and the saxophone melody it’s pretty interesting.
BECKER: Parenthetically it is, yeah [uneasy laughter]
MUSICIAN: At this point the reporter traditionally asks the cornered politican or athlete to “go off the record.”
FAGEN: Off the record, we were heavily influenced by that particular piece of music.
BECKER: I love it.
[Becker and Fagen later approved their “off the record” responses for publication.]
MUSICIAN: We were talking about borrowing…
FAGEN: Hell, we steal. We’re the robber barons of rock ‘n’ roll.
MUSICIAN: Well, the only other thing on the record that seems obviously borrowed is “Glamour Profession.” The rhythm and feel of it, and the way the synthesizer/horn vamp swings against the pulse sounds very much like Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band.
BECKER: I don’t listen to them. Donald listens to them. But I see what you mean though.
MUSICIAN: I’m not saying it was necessarily a conscious act of pilferage.
FAGEN: That song was influenced by disco music in general.
MUSICIAN: Nouveau Swing Disco?
FAGEN: What you’re saying is basically valid. There are other things that are borrowed too. The bridge on “Glamour Profession” is a take on the bridge of Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low.”
BECKER: Which is taken from Ravel.
MUSICIAN: What about popular music? Anything going on that you might be a bit more enthusiastic about?
BECKER: I’ve had a tough time with the radio lately. It’s pathetic.
FAGEN: The Talking Heads are very interesting. They’re a top band.
MUSICIAN: That’s what happens when you go to the Rhode Island School of Design.
FAGEN: Fortunately, it’s mainly their album covers that I like. The covers and the guy’s eyes are great. There’s at least an intelligence behind them, which is more than you can say for most groups.
BECKER: Further and further as time goes by… they’re leaving it in the dust.
FAGEN: I like Donna Summers’ records.
BECKER: I bought the single, “Turn Out The Lights.” Had to have it.
FAGEN: I did like Dr. Buzzard’s first record. But only that one.
MUSICIAN: So I guess it’s pretty bleak out there, is that what you’re saying?
BECKER: I guess, unless there’s something out there that’s being suppressed, which is entirely possible.
FAGEN: Oh, you know what I went for in a way, Ian Drury and The Blockheads. More of a comedy thing.
BECKER: Warne Marsh is the best I’ve heard in the past three years.
MUSICIAN: Do you plan to produce another album of his along the lines of the one with Pete Christlieb?
BECKER: No, no more. Because it’s too hard to get Warne what he wants. And he wants Neils Henning Orsted Pederson, who used to be only great and now is just RIDICULOUS.
FAGEN: One more thing, I heard a record the other day, a raggy sort of thing, Scott Joplin rags, by some funny tenor player, Henry Threadgill.
MUSICIAN: That’s Air, the supertrio out of the, ahem…AACM.
BECKER: On the other hand, how new is all that – Ragtime is only so recent you know. But I still like boogie-woogie. Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons.
MUSICIAN: There’s often a distinction made between folk-art (let’s say boogie-woogie) or pop-art (let’s say rock) and art-art, that is SERIOUS art of western civilization and all. Where does Steely Dan fit in?
BECKER: Whatever the difference is, we fit in the middle, we hope.
MUSICIAN: I wonder whether the distinction between high and folk art, with the blues for instance traditionally falling in the latter category, is even relevant anymore?
BECKER: No, no. Not anymore.
FAGEN: At one time perhaps it was relevant.
BECKER: There was serious art and then there was non-serious art. Serious of course meant boring.
MUSICIAN: And then you had television.
FAGEN: Ah yes, the great equalizer.
MUSICIAN: Television is probably the most profound shaping force in our society, yet it seems artists have a tough time dealing with it.
BECKER: That’s because TV is anti-artistic. I was on my back for six months and so naturally TV came into my life in a big way. I used to have a cable TV thing hooked up and it bothered me ’cause I had trouble reaching the knob, and I disconnected it because I realized it doesn’t matter what you watch.
FAGEN: I can’t believe the video-disc thing. It’s madness: how much television can you watch. Steely Dan is not exactly a good item for video discs.
MUSICIAN: Speaking of video discs and corporatized mass culture…given the certain, uh, socio-political stance that comes through in your work, how do you feel about being produced, packaged, and marketed by huge corporations?
BECKER: I think they’re the mafia, that’s what I think. I really do. I don’t like them. This new record costs a dollar more, it costs $9.98. And we said: “Please don’t make it $9.98, that’s too much.” But we didn’t matter. I feel like I’m robbing somebody, even though I benefit from it – I don’t want it. It has nothing to do with recording artists. I don’t think any recording artists said, “Make the records a dollar more so we can make more money.” And I don’t think any recording artists with our “socio-political stance” – because that’s exactly what it is – wants to take X number of extra cents a record if it means raising the price. Who can swallow that? It’s awful, but they just do it.
By 1974 I realized that the reason we weren’t making any more was that we were made to think we’d have to be on the road to have enough money to live and that we were always making the same amount of money no matter how many records we sold. So being politically minded, which I am, I was certainly angry about that.
MUSICIAN: Any possibility that you might tour in the future?
BECKER: NO – that’s about how political we are; we’re not gonna tell the world about it unless you do it for us – but we’re not gonna do it. And there are personal reasons.
FAGEN: Michael McDonald was in town the other night and gave me tickets to this Doobie Brothers concert, which I went to. I didn’t stay long. Just going back into that world for a few hours – whew – it was unbelievable.
BECKER: The concerts are for the kids. The concert is where the kids go, whoever may be playing. For instance, at one point we were opening for Frank Zappa, and he had a band with like nine brass instruments that no one knew the names of, a sarouzaphone soloist, a drummer reading the charts – a very arcane thing – and it wasn’t worth it, but point was: everyone was there and the hall was filled because that’s where the party was, and that’s where everybody went to do drugs.
FAGEN: Another thing I noticed at this Doobies concert was the look. We used to open for the Doobies when they were a different band, kind of a biker band with the long hair and leather jackets. They’re different now. With all the agony we had on the road – and it was pretty bad sometimes, because we weren’t really suited to touring as far as our personalities go…
BECKER: We were suited for indigestion…
FAGEN: But we had a lot more FUN than it seems they’re having now. Now it’s strictly business.
BECKER: Big business and big dollars.
FAGEN: And they’re backstage, the Doobies. Well, when we toured we’d get to the hall and start drinking and so on – you had to do it to survive on the road – but I noticed that the guy who used to have the long hair and the leather jacket had on a business suit and a coiff. It was strictly business. You know, Michael got there before the show and he went on, 1-2-3, and did his thing. No drinks, no fun, no fucking around, no comraderie. Business – and that’s the way you have to do it.
MUSICIAN: Well, do you gig around privately, to work on your own chops or just have a good time?
BECKER: I’ve been trying to figure out a way to do that, but you know, I can’t figure out how people gig privately with the kind of music that we play. New Wave and Top 40, I don’t want to do any of that shit. I wish Jay and The Americans were still working.
MUSICIAN: Can you see putting a new band together, with which you could work without feeling like capitalists exploiting and oppressing the musicians in your employ?
BECKER: It’s not even that anymore. The point is, we’ve realized if we tried to do it what we’d be doing is re-creating something. It would be like Beatlemania. Do you realize how many musicians are on all our records. I mean: I’d have to learn all the bass parts. I’m gonna learn Chuck Rainey’s bass parts?
FAGEN: We’re too lazy. What’s more, after Aja came out, we tried to put something together with session musicians, good musicians. And as we started to run down the tunes this incredible sense of ennui came over both of us.
BECKER: It was a bad thing. And there was a socio-economic component added to that which I’m not gonna even talk about. But it was terrible.
FAGEN: It was unbelievably boring to start to run down these tunes for public performances.
BECKER: We had 4,000 dollars worth of musicians in the room. Guys who wouldn’t go out on the road for Miles Davis, literally, and they were committed to doing this. And we both left the room together and said, “What do you say, you wanna can it.” And we both said “yeah” without thinking twice.
FAGEN: We couldn’t do it. It was depressing. We were going backwards.
BECKER: You play the same fucking song every single night. You’re not creating anything, you’re re-creating something.
MUSICIAN: Well jazz fans, what about improvising.
BECKER: Well that would be something different. It’s something I’ve been thinking about, but the format would have to be different.
MUSICIAN: We’ll be content to wait for your next record. What may we expect?
FAGEN: We’ll be with a new company, Warner’s. And, as of yet, we have no plans.