Editor’s Note: From 1987 through 1994, diehard Steely Dan fans turned to a small fanzine called Metal Leg for information about Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Published first by England’s Brian Sweet (who went on to write the unofficial band biography Steely Dan: Reelin’ In The Years) and later by New Yorkers Pete Fogel and Bill Pascador, Metal Leg set high standards by providing solid information without resorting to paparazzi-style tactics.
Metal Leg 11 Articles:
- China Crisis interview, Part Two
- Review of New York Soul, 9/20/89
- WNEW-FM interview with Donald Fagen
Hello again everybody. It’s been a busy month or two lately. And things ain’t letting up yet either. Rickie Lee Jones’ new album, Flying Cowboys, came out and Walter Becker even co-wrote one track with her. In a Random Notes piece in Rolling Stone, Becker said, “It was a real tough school year. One thing I’ve learned is that everybody works in a different way and has a different atmosphere that they like to create for themselves. Rickie is as spontaneous as she can be with everything she does — which is exciting to see when things work. For somebody who has the job of trying to plan things out, it keeps you guessing. But it was a delightful experience for me.” One recurring issue through the “school year” was the element of slickness. “That was something we talked about from the outset. The Steely Dan stuff that I used to be involved with we tried to make as slick as we possibly could, because some of the other elements were so subversive that they needed to be sugarcoated or disguised. And Rickie, of course, is quite different from that. The presentation is very honest and open and straightforward.”
Donald Fagen appeared on stage in New York in late September with a host of great musicians under the banner New York Soul, which he put together with Libby Titus as a tribute to Brill Building songwriters Bert Berns and Jerry Ragavoy. They wrote such classics as “Piece of My Heart,” “Twist and Shout,” “Cry Baby,” “Time is on My Side” and “Hang on Sloopy.” Demand for tickets was so high that four more shows are already planned for mid-November. The group then will be known as The Icebreakers (more of a hint perhaps that Donald Fagen is indeed emerging from within his shell?) and, although it will not be a tribute to Berns/Ragavoy themselves, the set will still be based around old rhythm-and-blues songs.
Fagen also did an interview this week before the show on WNEW-FM (see transcription) in which he stated, under admirable persistence from Pat St. John, that he “didn’t have anything to say about the ’80s and so was waiting for the new decade to release another album.” Two songs co-written with Walter Becker are likely to be included in the selection. He didn’t elaborate on what we may expect from the songs.
In last January’s issue of Jazziz Lyle Mays talked about his influences on his Street Dreams LP. On one cut, “Feet First,” the horn charts were inspired by Steely Dan’s “Time Out of Mind.” Mays was unabashed about their influence. “Those records had a big impact on me. That was the first time I’d heard a level of sophistication in pop music that I’d heard in a lot of jazz and classical music. I thought, “here’s some music that’s not afraid of the good notes and arrangements and some asymmetry and all that cool stuff.” Grover Washington Jr.’s new album is also by way of coincidence called “Time Out of Mind” and contains a version of the aforementioned song.
Roger Christian’s album, Checkmate, has finally hit the shops after several inexplicable delayed release dates. The single, “Take It From Me,” received steady airplay on Radio One, but no mention was made about Gary Katz even on Singled Out.
Speaking of Gary Katz, he has recently been in England recording and mixing the debut album for an Irish group called Swim for MCA records.
In a Los Angeles Times poll of 34 “pop insiders” last year on who were L.A.’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band, Steely Dan were voted into 15th place behind such other luminaries as The Doors (no. 1), Eagles (no. 3) and Little Feat (no. 7). The Doors polled a total of 113 and 15 first place votes to win decisively from The Beach Boys in second. Steely Dan attracted three Top 5 votes.
Spotted in the NME, Jeff Baxter is putting together a band to record an album for Columbia Records next year.
Larry Carlton actually asked Donald Fagen for permission to use the chord sequences from Peg for Room 335 from his self-titled 1978 album.
Did anyone see the Night of the Guitars program on July 11th this year? Robbie Krieger was introduced and after “Light My Fire,” etc., he played an unrecognized song which contained a first-rate cover of Elliott Randall’s solo from “Reelin’ in the Years.” (It is supposedly Jimmy Page’s favorite guitar solo of all time, too.) Can anyone shed any further light upon this little item?
China Crisis interview, Part Two
Walter had some personal problems in the early part of the ’80s. He said if he hadn’t got out of New York when he did he’d be dead by now.
He said that about Los Angeles when we first met him. When he was flying across country he tried at the time not to fly via Los Angeles, he always tried to get a flight via San Francisco. He said if I do get into Los Angeles and there’s a bit of a stopover I try not to leave the airport. It was a dangerous place, he thought.
Donald and Walter always professed to hate living in L.A. It’s funny, when we were working with him in Sussex he didn’t really drink alcohol, and we went out one night to Brighton to see Durutti Column, and it was really strange because I went over and got a bottle of Newcastle Brown, and he looked at it and went “Newcastle Brown, my favorite” and he got a bottle too. I didn’t think he drank anything at all. He wasn’t a fanatic about it or whatever, he’d just have one bottle, maybe two bottles and that’d be it, he’d be perfectly happy and stay out. We went to a club afterwards and we were really drunk and he was quite happy standing there talking and listening to us talking complete rubbish. A good bloke.
Has he ever said anything to you about the real reasons why he and Donald split up?
No, he didn’t really talk about it. You get a little bit more about it when he’s with Roger. I mean Roger’s that kind of a guy, Roger’s always the one for the storytelling.
Does Roger still teach scuba diving?
Yeah, he taught all of us. We all qualified as divers. Roger would take us out in the mornings before we started work. He’s a bit of a case, a complete one-off is Roger.
Eddie made a comment recently about your disappointment at the lack of singles success and he said your time will come. Have you set yourself a timespan within which to achieve that success?
Not really. The whole thing about it is when we finished the last album we were a bit disappointed about “Arizona Sky” not doing the business, and there were a couple of other songs on there that we thought could have done a bit more, but the encouraging thing was we got bigger in America. The last album did quite well in the States and we’ve just had a really favorable response to Diary of a Hollow Horse in Billboard, which is really good.
Have you found that since working with Walter, especially in America, that there have been more people listening to your stuff because of the Steely Dan connection?
It’s funny actually, ’cause they don’t make so much of it over there. The one disappointment was we were with Warner’s when Flaunt came out — we’re with A&M now — and Warner’s, despite it being their idea to work with Water, in the end just couldn’t find a peg to hang the record on. We spoke to Walter about it and he said he was disappointed with Warner’s because they had just done a crap job on the album. In America the record company people make very little of the Steely Dan thing.
What is your following like in America?
The problem that we had beforehand was that Warner’s weren’t too keen, didn’t know what to make of us really. Because they signed us as part of a package and their original publicity photo said that we were Scottish. They knew that much about us; I think they bought us in a great big bargain bin with The Smiths and a couple of others. We turned up and there was five of us and they were really shocked, they thought there was only two. So that’s the only way we can judge it, because we only feel like we started to get a fair crack of the whip on the last album with A&M, you see. A lot of people we spoke to said that Flaunt the Imperfection was only really available on import half the time, because Warner’s weren’t following it up.
Are you planning on going to America and touring?
Oh, yeah. You tend to find that you do well in certain mediums just because it’s based on radio play, so you’ll get to Kansas City and there’ll be maybe 150 people there, then you go up the road to Minneapolis and there’ll be perhaps 2,000. We get to New York and we’re always good for a lot of tickets in New York. It’s one thing that we notice is that people tend to be more interested in the Steely Dan thing here in England, you don’t get asked that much about it in the States. I think, that with them being American and all that, they like what they perceive to be a little pop group from Liverpool, who suddenly start taking on this strange pseudo-American kind of thing. Whereas in the States, that’s what they’re used to — we’re actually seen in a different light, ’cause they didn’t go through the Christian, Wishful Thinking thing. We’re seen as a new band over there.
Does that concern you that they pick up on the Steely Dan thing more over here? One or two reviews I’ve read of the LP mention that if you take away the vocals then it sounds just like Steely Dan, which I don’t agree with.
I can’t hear that at all. The only thing is a lot of producers tend to put layer upon layer upon layer, whereas what Walter tends to do, and one thing that we learned from him — which maybe was why he didn’t have to do so much arranging on this album — is that before you actually put anything on tape… pay a great deal of attention to the drums and the bass and make sure it’s right, then you don’t need layer upon layer, and that’s why there’s a distinctiveness between the Mike Thorne stuff and the Walter stuff on the album.
Does he start with the drums and the bass, get the rhythm track down?
No, he gets everybody playing together.
That’s surprising, I thought Steely Dan used to do it track by track.
No, they used to work with bands. They used to get a full line-up there, that’s what we were talking to him about — they used to get a full group in and they’d sit there and would work out who they wanted and then they’d ring up the people — usually the rhythm section, bring a guitarist in, a piano player, bass player and drummer and sit there and work at it and see if they were happy with the rhythm track and then get to the end of that. If it worked, great, if it didn’t they’d just go and get a whole new rhythm section and they’d come in and do it, but they used to do it one song at a time.
They used to write with specific players in mind, so for instance, they’d write a song with Steve Gadd in mind for the drums or Tom Scott for the sax…
That’s what he told us. We were talking about Aja one day, ’cause we had this drummer who had this apocryphal story about if you sat close enough you could hear Steve Gadd dropping his stick during the middle of the drum break of Aja. Walter said, “Look, he doesn’t even miss a beat” and he nearly fell off his chair; he said it was complete rubbish, he said if he’d done that they would have stopped it…
Aja was a second take, I think, wasn’t it?
It was actually a cross-cut, but you can’t hear it. It’s two different takes put together, but it’s something like the first and second or second and third. Kevin’s the only drummer ever to have a complete first take accepted. It was on “Strength of Character,” and Walter had to listen to it for five days first before accepting it! He said if it ever got out, people in Los Angeles would think he was going soft.
After Flaunt the Imperfection, Musician magazine dubbed China Crisis “an intriguing, upbeat hybrid of Dire Straits and Haircut 100.” Have you ever heard that one before?
(laughing) No, it’s really strange the way anybody’ll go to incredible lengths to pigeonhole you.
We noticed you haven’t been doing any promotional interviews in the British music press. Is that because you won’t talk to them or because they don’t ask?
They haven’t asked. I think the thing is with the MM and NME is they tend to have editorial policies. I remember we did an interview for Sounds a few years ago, and he took all these photos and because it was Sounds we really hammed it up. And Eddie did this photograph with a double-barrelled shotgun and when we saw the photographer a few weeks later, he thought it was brilliant, he thought this is the last thing anybody’ll expect, really good. When we saw him again about three months later we said why hadn’t you used the photograph, ’cause they just used the stock promo photos. He said the editor just said we can’t put them in the paper. Nobody’ll believe it’s them. So that’s what they did. They do have a fixed editorial policy…
If they don’t like you, it doesn’t matter what you do they’re gonna take you apart.
That was the biggest surprise — that we actually got a really good review in the NME — we were just sort of poook!
Walter said that he considered that Steely Dan developed such a perfectionist attitude in the studio that it became more of a problem than a solution. Is that something that you want to guard against?
We don’t actually guard against it, we just work different ways. It’s like with “Stranger By Nature,” that was actually started by Walter. We did the bass and drums and Tim did some guitar and we had that as a backing track, but it became a bit of a thorn in Walter’s side and he just didn’t want to finish it. We took it back and maybe just because we’ve got a more open attitude we put everything else on it in about two days and we were perfectly happy with it. So you know sometimes Walter would drive himself like a dog chasing his tail to find something he’s happy with. Whereas we’ve got more of an open attitude, so as ourselves, I don’t think we could have that same addiction to perfection.
Walter said after Flaunt the Imperfection that he thought the songs were good but would benefit from being enriched a little; “adding a little dissonance” as he put it. Has he offered you songwriting advice?
Well, if anything Garry might have benefited a bit from it, ’cause at the time of Flaunt, Garry was doing all the keyboards, ’cause we didn’t have a keyboard player and we got a session player in. Walter said he came into a room and “there were these people playing songs with three-note chords, so what I did was just went over and put the fourth finger in.” That’s maybe what he’s done more, but we’ve got Brian playing keyboards now. Garry’ll come up with simple chordal arrangements and we’ll just work around it.
Another one he mentioned was “Gift of Freedom,” which he said sounded like Miles Davis from his ’60s’ Kind of Blue period, and he said he added some synth figures at the end of it. Does Garry listen to Miles Davis?
He does now. He never used to then. You see the actual whole thing with the song was originally me and Ed, and it was just like a riff that we did in Ed’s bedroom one day. Ed had a guitar, so we just doubled it with the bass then started putting chords over the top and did a little bit of guitar over the top, so that was one of the ones that went into Flaunt with the bare bones of its structure, not a completed song. The main thing that Walter did with that was the brass and chord voicings and then they keyboard player that we were using came in and put a little bit more rhythm into the keyboard parts. I remember he had the brass people down — the Kick Horns — and they all turned up and were all really excited about working with Walter. They all naturally went to their first instruments and went through all the arrangements that Ed had worked out. Walter didn’t like any of them at all. He said they were too predictable and the first thing he did was find out what each of the four of them played as a second instrument, which meant that the trombonist would play a flute and the trumpeter went onto flugelhorn. They found it a real education, because they’d never ever thought of a different voicing at all — they just usually went for the straight two saxes, a trumpet and trombone.
Are you all self-taught musically?
Yeah, well Brian got a basic classical education, that’s all.
Does Walter need a lot of prompting to talk about Steely Dan?
Yeah. When we were doing Flaunt I used to go swimming with Walter ’cause I used to get up earlier in the morning and I used to go down into Hastings to the pool, then go for something to eat and he’d drive back and I’d just sit there picking his brains and rabbiting away, trying to get bits and pieces out of him. But there’s certain areas that he doesn’t really go into. If you talk to him about specific things he’ll come up with things, but mainly it’s a helluva lot easier with Roger around, ’cause Roger’ll bring it up. Him and Roger’ll just sit there and say “Remember when…” and that’s just the way that they do it, but it’s sort of funny. They just sit there, the two of them, behind the desk and you can actually sit there earwigging.
Can you recall any stories?
I don’t know, there’s so many of them. Tons of them.
What are Walter’s ambitions now? He seems to be just coasting along and doing the odd production project.
I think that’s very symptomatic of the island of Maui, though. He’s got a great house over there, he’s really happy with his family…
He’s financially secure; hasn’t he got anything that’s driving him on?
I think he just sees it in terms of projects. I think the whole idea of any kind of world domination is completely gone now. As he said compact disc has been very, very kind to him. As I say, it’s very symptomatic of the whole of the island of Maui, it’s an unbelievably laid-back lifestyle.
He said that in the Musician article. I’ve got my “groovy lifestyle” as he put it on the island, but I wondered if after four years the urge was returning?
Maybe. He was perfectly happy working with us, but one day he was saying he makes sure he gets at least one month a year, or two months, off Maui. He said if he has one or two projects a year he’s quite happy. Because he’s more interested in leisure and free time. I don’t think he wants to go back full-tilt into music.
What does he do for relaxation?
Boogie board surfing. He gave us a couple of boogie boards.
It’s hard to imagine the Walter Becker of old boogie board surfing.
That’s one of the things that he said that Donald hated about Hawaii. You get out into the water and all that.
I think this is perhaps where they diverge.
Apparently, Donald’s a real New York freak. Walter doesn’t like the idea of being in New York, and Donald doesn’t like the idea of being over there.
So the Steely Dan reformation is unlikely to happen, then. Probably. One great thing … when Donald turned up on the island with his girlfriend, Walter said he had these big chests full of books and records ’cause they thought they were turning up on some desert island. “So just in case they brought their culture with them.”
There’s another funny thing I remember that happened. Last time we played in Los Angeles, Ed and Brian met Jeff Baxter and he walked into the gig and came down for the soundcheck. He was really strange, ’cause he had long ponytails and he was wearing a policeman’s uniform. Apparently he’s an ace marksman and he teaches L.A. policemen sharp-shooting. But when he found out Walter was coming to the gig he said he didn’t want to be around, so he buggered off and Walter said if he’d thought that Jeff Baxter was coming to the gig he wouldn’t have come down.
What was the reason for that?
I don’t know. It’s really strange, because the first time Walter came over we were looking for studios and we went down to Ridge Farm. Box of Frogs were there and Walter said, “I’m not too sure about this studio.” Ed said Box of Frogs are in here. Jeff Baxter’s with them, isn’t he?” And Walter turned around and said, “Jeff Baxter’s here?” He listed his head, sniffed the air and shook his head, “Jeff Baxter’s not here.”
Final question, on Gaucho there was this infamous story about this track which was accidentally erased. An engineer erased a finished track at the time and …
Oh yeah, Roger started laughing and Walter started holding his head and going “Oh, no, no, no” — it was like ‘don’t talk about the war.’ But once it had been erased they tried to redo it, but they never could, and they just decided that God moves in mysterious ways.
They were gutted because both Gary Katz and Roger said it was everyone’s favorite tune on the album at the time. In one article they said it would have been the title track. That’s what he said — it was one of those ones that went like a dream, no problems, they just through it.
Walter seems to be a great believer in fate. That song was not supposed to be on the album because it was accidentally erased and you mentioned about the brass earlier. Is he superstitious?
I think he just — for all his thing about perfectionism — thinks it’s as well leaving some things to chance. Sort of keeping an open mind.
By then our time was up and all that was left was to thank Gazza for talking to us and wish him well for the gig later that night.
New York Soul
(For some great old pictures of the early incarnations of “New York Rock & Soul Revue,” visit these photo pages of Pete Fogel’s great site: http://metalleg.com/nyrs.htm and http://metalleg.com/pre_sd.htm)
The evening they called “New York Soul” took place on September 20th at the Lone Star Roadhouse, the new name and location for what used to be the Lone Star Cafe. Situated on 52nd St. the ground floor exterior of this restaurant/saloon boasts very original decor, resembling a bus replete with tires and windows.
This particular evening it rained hard and long, but it didn’t dampen the spirits of all the people queuing up to see Donald Fagen’s first live performance for over 15 years (excluding Elaine’s earlier this year which was only a fleeting appearance, anyway). Of the numerous people who I spoke to every single one of them admitted they were there primarily to see Donald Fagen.
There was an air of expectancy as the band filed through the crowd onto the low stage for the first show soon after the appointed time of 9:30. Pat St. John, the WNEW disk jockey, promised a “magic night” and ran through some of the Berns/Ragavoy repertoire and began introducing the band one by one. The only absentee from the advertised line-up was Frank Floyd, the reason for which was not explained. Unsurprisingly, the rumors had been circulating that Walter Becker would make a surprise appearance. Only time would tell. Nevertheless, there were still 14 musicians/singers on the small stage. The crowd clapped, yelled and whistled as the names were read out; but by far the biggest cheer of the evening greeted the announcement: “And another man you know very well — Mr. Donald Fagen.”
Donald was playing a portable synthesizer and had taken up a position almost directly behind the singers, between Paul Griffin’s piano and Joe Ascione’s drums. He was facing side stage most of the time. (Donald had arranged for a friend to video both shows for his own personal collection.)
Paul Griffin kicked in with his piano and the three vocalists went straight into “Time Is On My Side,” Grammy award nominee Jeveeta Steele taking the lead. George Naha played a plucky guitar solo as the song built to its climax.
The band then segued straight into the great horn section intro to “Stop!,” which featured Jeff Young on vocals. Lou Marini, Alan Ruben and David “Fathead” Newman really punched it out; George Naha again soloed.
The third song, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” had been arranged to include an extended intro; this allowed Paul Griffin to take center stage and encourage the audience to clap along with his ad-libs. They settled into a rock-steady groove with Dr. John’s organ most prominent. Once into the song, Griffin screamed and grunted, his face contorted with the effort of his performance.
Then Donald Fagen emerged from behind the shield of singers. He came up to the microphone and said, “Thank you for coming tonight. All these songs were written by Bert Berns and Jerry Ragavoy, and the next song is gonna be sung by Jeveeta Steele.”
Already some cries of “Boston Rag!” were coming from certain members of the audience. But an answering cry of “Grow up, you guys. It’s not 1973 any more,” more than put them in their place.
Silence descended upon the Lone Star as the portly Miss Steele launched into a very tender and emotive version of “Stay With Me,” growing increasingly more desperate as the song progressed. How could anyone ever consider leaving her after such heartfelt pleadings? Miss Steele actually shed a few tears herself at the end of the song, too. This was no act; this was misery and loneliness itself. As both band and crowd applauded, a sympathetic fan at the front handed her a tissue.
Paul Griffin, once again took the microphone, demanding “Is she hot? Is she hot?” and when the audience confirmed she was definitely hot, he continued, “I’m gonna give this guy a Sammy Davis introduction. He really deserves it and this is coming from the heart. This is a man who knocks my socks off every time he sings and plays. You all know who he is. Let’s have a Mac attack here! Mac attack! He’s the Doctor! He’s the Doctor! Dr. John!”
Mac Rebennack had swapped places with Paul Griffin and was now seated at the piano. He proceeded with a version of Solomon Burke’s “Cry To Me.” Funky. His vocals were punctuated by the horn section and the Doctor gave it the full blues ending.
Jeveeta Steele introduced Jeff Young to sing “I’ll Take Good Care of You.” He was supplemented by the two girls on the chorus. Between songs, the shouts of “Steely Dan! Steely Dan!” again began to ring around the saloon. Ignoring them, Jeveeta Steele said, “Please welcome to the stage one of New York’s own, Miss Phoebe Snow.”
At the start of “Piece of My Heart,” there was no indication of the heights to which she would take herself. She really got into the part, screaming and performing vocal acrobatics; George Naha soloed again allowing her to gather her breath for another shriek-ridden onslaught; Donald Fagen actually frowned at the power and extent of her range and commitment. Midsong, the musicians took it down low while she swooped and rocketed from one octave to another. The reception was rapturous.
“Are you having a good time? I can’t hear you, are you having a good time?” The crowd responded with a raucous affirmative.
“We’re gonna bring back the Mac attack now.” Mac Rebennack sat at the piano again and sang “Look at Granny Run Run” in only the way Dr. John can. Unfortunately, Donald Fagen’s synth was so low in the mix you couldn’t hear it amongst all the other instruments.
There were more shouts of “Sing, Donald!” and “Don’t Take Me Alive!” while they readied themselves for the next song. When the band struck up they soon drowned the overzealous fans out — Jeff Young singing Solomon Burke’s “Cry Baby.” It was another fine example of the Berns/Ragavoy trait of building the song slowly towards the first climactic chorus, when the horn section came in with its hook. Donald Fagen nodded his head in time to the music and conducted them, waving his right arm in the air and indicating when a musician should take a solo
“Would you like some blues?” Jeveeta Steele asked. The crowd answered with a resounding yes. The band played another great danceable intro and the two saxes and trumpet powered “It’s Your Move”> along while Jeff Young/Jeveeta Steele provided the upholstery to enjoy the ride. It was George Naha’s turn to solo again; Donald Fagen moved aside so the audience could get a good look at the guitarist in action.
By now the shouted requests for various Steely Dan songs and/or for Donald Fagen to sing were becoming ever more insistent and, having already held his hand up once or twice to indicate enough was enough, a slightly embarrassed and more than indignant Donald came to the microphone and said, “Please don’t be rude to these other great performers.” The reaction was yet more “Sing, Donald!” yells and he said, probably just to silence them temporarily, “Maybe later. Now’s not the time.”
Now this raised some very interesting questions which were debated at length after the show. Is a few dates a possibility — maybe even a full-scale tour? Would this be as a solo artist or as Steely Dan? Has Donald decided to treat his fans to a live show at long last? And is he at this very moment trying to persuade Walter to accompany him on this venture into the spotlight? Myself, I detect a definite gradual raising of the Fagen profile in the last year.
A surprise guest then strolled onto the stage. It was Bonnie Raitt. She lined up between Phoebe Snow and Jeveeta Steele while another introduction was being made. “We would like to feature a very special and talented artist, Miss Mindy Jostyn.” This was her one big moment; Mindy Jostyn sang That’s When It Hurts and rattled off a great harmonica break which set the crowd alight.
“Twist and Shout” followed with Dr. John on vocals and was done as a slow reggae lilt. The singers each took turns to sing and David Newman played a sax solo.
The three singers left the stage and as the musicians were doing so, they congregated at the side of the stage in earnest discussion. Were they deciding which Steely Dan song to do? Were they trying to persuade Donald to take the lead on a final song? (Between shows Paul Griffin actually told one fan that he was trying to persuade Donald to perform “The Fez.”) It would have been a great way to end the gig. They returned to their instruments and Fagen said, “Can we have the singers back, please?” However, after some delay it became apparent that they had disappeared altogether, so Fagen asked if there was anyone in the audience who wanted to sing. What? Was this a set-up? Two fellows eventually got up onto the stage and the band launched into an energetic version of The Rascals’ “Good Lovin’.” The makeshift vocalists’ performance was very enthusiastic and they obviously enjoyed their fleeting moment of fame enormously.
Pat St. John returned to the stage and said, “You know, there’s one more very important person we wanna introduce to you tonight. Would you say a very big hello to Mr. Jerry Ragavoy.”
As Jerry Ragavoy waited in center stage, looking much younger than his years, Donald Fagen stepped up and said “This is one of the guys who wrote these songs.” Applause echoed around the room. He shook hands with Donald, exchanged a few quiet words, then said, “I would very much like to thank the producers, Libby Titus and Donald Fagen. I appreciate their efforts and I hope you understand as a songwriter to have a band like this and wonderful singers to play your music is, needless to say, a great, great pleasure and a thrill. Thank you, Donald.”
The audience thought the formalities were over so someone immediately shouted, “Let’s have some Dan now!” The comment was ignored for its sheer insolence. Donald Fagen stood there with Jerry Ragavoy and gave him that apologetic, despairing look. Ragavoy continued, “We’ve seen a wonderful band, I think they and the singers deserve great applause. And last but not least I wanna thank my old friend and sometime co-writer Bert Berns. The songs of Bert Berns you heard tonight say it all and anything I could possibly say about Bert couldn’t top what you’ve heard. I wish Bert was here to share it with me, but chances are Bert is up there trying to make a contract with God to sing, so I thank you all very much and I’m very grateful to everyone.”
Pat St. John: “Thank you all for coming — one more time for the band and Jerry Ragavoy.”
As the audience left the Roadhouse you could sense their disappointment; everyone felt that he could have at least sung one Berns/Ragavoy composition, even if it was understandable that he steadfastly refused to sing a Steely Dan tune. It was not the right occasion for that. But possibly now that occasion is really not too far away.
WNEW-FM Interview with Donald Fagen
Broadcast Sept. 12, 1989
Right now, it’s one o’clock and right here on time is Donald Fagen.
How are you?
It’s great to see you, you’re somebody we don’t see too often.
No, not too often, no.
But we’ve got a lot of questions to…
In fact, they can’t see me now because this is radio.
That’s true, too. So the mystery remains. About the only picture I’ve seen of you, except for the old days, was on The Nightfly album, but you don’t look all that different from that.
No, I never change really.
In fact, we’ve got turntables here and everything just like the cover. What have you been up to?
Well, let’s see I’ve been working on a solo album — it should be done, I guess, the beginning of next year sometime, and doing various other musical projects. Actually there’s something happening next week, September 20th. I had an idea along with my friend, Libby Titus, the producer of this concert, of doing the songs of Bert Berns and Jerry Ragavoy, who are songwriters I’ve always liked that are really neglected. I think Leiber and Stoller a lot of people know about, and Carole King and Gerry Goffin, but Berns and Ragavoy have a great list of songs and we’re gonna get a great all-star band and some terrific singers and just go through their songs on Wednesday.
Bert Berns and Jerry Ragavoy are not household names…
Not really, no.
…but certainly some of the songs that they have done are still with us today.
Yeah, they’re most famous for their hits “Twist and Shout,” which The Beatles did — actually it was first done by the Isley Brothers — “Piece of my Heart” covered by Janis Joplin, although that was first done by Erma Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s sister. A lot of their songs were covered by white stars who covered original versions which were often by black soul singers.
I imagine some of our listeners don’t realize that some of these songs were originally done by someone else. I mean, the Isley Brothers we know about ’cause you still hear that song even by the Isley Brothers. But “Try,” who did that originally?
“Try,” I think that was done originally by Lorraine Ellison. A really good singer who just isn’t very well known.
There’s actually a big list of songs by Jerry Ragavoy and Bert Berns. Let me ask you this, why is it when you look at these songs that, for instance “Time Is On My Side” by the Rolling Stones was written by these guys but their names are not on it.
Yeah, well, the fact is that another reason for their obscurity is that they used pseudonyms often to write their songs. Bert Berns often wrote under the name of Bert Russell and Jerry Ragavoy under the name of Norman Meade. So a lot of times you’ll see Russell/Meade or Meade or Russell, and it’ll actually be Bert Berns and Jerry Ragavoy.
Any idea why they did that?
I guess there was a lot or reasons at the time why people would use pseudonyms, but I don’t really know exactly.
This is really a kind of a tribute — it’s not really a benefit and Jerry Ragavoy will be there, right?
Yeah, Jerry’ll be there, he lives in New York and is still writing songs, I guess some of his more recent stuff was for Chaka Khan and more contemporary artists, but during the early ’60s he was mainly known for soul material of this type.
And Bert Berns have we lost him?
Yeah, Bert Berns died in 1967.
Now you got this idea with Libby Titus to do this. Is this just really for fun? Or just to pay tribute to these guys?
Yeah, for me it’s for fun. I guess I also have an academic interest in presenting some songwriters who are known to real soul fans but not to the general public. It’s kind of an enthusiasm with me, the idea that these people who have this body of work which has a unified sound and certain characteristics that is really unique to them, which most people aren’t familiar with, although they may know their records.
Is this something that will be open to the public?
Yeah, it’s over at the Lone Star Roadhouse. There’s two shows, I think the first show may be sold out, the second one is selling quickly, so you’ll have to act fast.
New York Soul — who will be in the band with you?
It’s a great band: the musical director is Paul Griffin, a piano player who appeared on many of the original records in the early ’60s, along with bass player Jerry Jermott. And Mac Rebennack, probably better known as Dr. John, will be playing organ and he’s gonna sing a few. I’m gonna play some synthesizer; the guitar player is George Naha, drums Joe Ascione, we’ve got Lou Marini playing sax, Alan Ruben playing trumpet, and David “Fathead” Newman sax, who’s most famous for playing with Ray Charles. And a bunch of great singers including Jeveeta Steele, who’s played with Bob Telson’s band and “Gospel at Colonus,” Phoebe Snow, Frank Floyd, Jeff Young and a young singer Mindy Jostyn, who I think will be really terrific.
What a line-up. Sounds like a hot night.
Yeah, it should be good. I’ve never done anything like this before, so it’ll be interesting.
I tell you what, I’m gonna play a song. This would actually be the latest Donald Fagen record out. This one’s called “Century’s End.”
Plays “Century’s End.”
And that was actually the latest song that was available from Donald Fagen. We’re waiting for the next one, Donald.
Yeah, where is that thing?
Where is that thing? People must ask you that all the time and I’m asking you again.
Yeah, well, the problem was, I guess, The Nightfly, my last album, was in ’82 and I guess I just haven’t found anything to say about the ’80s yet, so I’m waiting till they’re over.
Really, ’cause that was kind of a futuristic thing.
Yeah, I guess the album I’m working on now is looking ahead toward the ’90s and the end of the century.
And it won’t be out till the ’90s, right?
Yeah, I wouldn’t want to put it out now, ’cause I wouldn’t want anybody to get too quick a look at it.
You have a reputation for being a perfectionist, do you consider yourself to be one?
I’ve tried to be less of a perfectionist recently because it’s taken a great toll on my psyche, and so lately I’m trying to be imperfect.
I must tell you if I was stranded somewhere and I could only pick 10 albums The Nightfly would be one of them.
Oh, thank you, I appreciate it.
Let’s talk again about the show you’re doing — it’s called New York Soul, the songs of Bert Berns and Jerry Ragavoy.
Yeah, I guess I’ll just name a few of the other songs — “Everybody Needs Someone To Love,” originally Solomon Burke but the Rolling Stones did that one, a lot of early Rolling Stones songs were Jerry Ragavoy/Bert Berns songs, although originally they were usually done by someone else. “Time Is On My Side,” for instance, was originally by Irma Thomas, a New Orleans singer and they did her version almost verbatim.
Plays “Time Is On My Side.”
Not an original Rolling Stones song. As I look on the label here written by Meade, comma Norman who was actually…?
Actually Norman Meade who was also Jerry Ragavoy. Another interesting thing about “Time Is On My Side” is that it was originally written for a trombone player named Kai Winding who wanted to go commercial with something a little more rhythmic and had no words aside from “Time is on my side.” This was picked up by Irma Thomas and then picked up by the Rolling Stones.
I’ve gotta ask you, you told me that you’re working on the new album, it’ll be out sometime next year. There have been rumors actually for a number of years now that there’s a Steely Dan album in the works.
Yeah, I’d like to hear that.
I tell you about six, eight weeks ago I ran into somebody and they said they worked at a studio and they said, “Now I’m not supposed to say this, but Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were in there. They came in under assumed names and they were in there doing some secret recording and stuff.”
Oh, that’s been going on for years. I think it may be because Walter and I did, a couple years ago, get together and write a few songs, two of which I think may appear on the solo album. And Walter might also help on the production end in some way. He’s just finished producing the latest Rickie Lee Jones album, which I guess should be out soon.
So you haven’t written anything with Walter for a couple years?
Yeah, this was a couple of years ago, but we’re always on the phone and we’re always thinking of different projects we might do together. There are no plans at the moment for any kind of Steely Dan reunion. I think we both see that as part of its time, really.
Steely Dan, as you do, has a certain mysticism about it, because when you stop and think back, you guys really didn’t tour much. I mean, in the very early days you did some concerts, but I think the last time you performed in concert was in 1974?
Yeah, our last performance was in the summer of ’74 in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. We gave it up because the road life was … I guess basically we’re both really songwriters, and although we had this band for a couple of years what we really liked was studio work, and the one-nighter life was a little rough for us.
The first album you were kind of a rock and roll band…
But after that it changed because you used so many different session people. Why did you do that?
We just started conceiving songs with different musicians in mind and we wanted to broaden the number of musicians that we were using — the styles and kinds of musicians we were using, and we had too many ideas to be contained within one band really, so that’s why we did that.
Was the perfectionism part of that? You were looking for a specific sound and had to get that?
We had something very specific in mind. It would change during the recording but it’s true that we always had something that we were shooting for, and I think it developed over the years. We did start as a rock ‘n’ roll band with some jazz flourishes, but after a while there was more jazz and maybe less rhythm and blues, and then we’d kind of come back the other way. It really developed as it went along.
Now you and Walter met at Bard College. You’re a local boy, you’re from Passaic, right?
I’m from Passaic, New Jersey.
And Walter’s from New York City.
He’s from Westchester, really.
And you met at Bard College?
Bard College, which is Annandale, New York, and he was a student there. I walked into a room once and he was playing this red Epiphone guitar, playing the blues and I said to myself, “Gotta talk to this guy.”
Have you ever been back to your old school?
Actually, yes, I’ve been back a couple times and they’re doing quite well.
I wanna ask you about something that I’ve seen on TV, a couple of times, ’cause it’s been repeated, and I don’t know if you’ve seen it or not: Saturday mornings, Channel 11, 9 o’clock, Dick Clark’s Golden Greats. Have you seen that show?
Someone sent me the tape — actually, I guess it was Dick Clark who sent me the tape ’cause they needed approval — and it was very amusing to me to see myself so many years ago.
Well, one morning I turned on the TV — and the good thing about that show is they show entire clips — and here was Steely Dan lip synching, I believe.
My Old School, yeah. I thought I was pretty good at the lip synching.
Very good at the lip synching, I mean, we can usually tell, but only because it sounds exactly like the record.
Yeah, right. It’s really an art, lip synching, and it’s a whole other subject really.
Which you don’t do much any more. What about the video thing, are you gonna be getting into that? I suppose it’s too early to tell.
Yeah, but it’s not true that I don’t do that much lip synching, I do it at home often. In my living room, I lip synch along to almost all the records I play, really.
But never a camera rolling.
No, that would be really over and above what you need to lip synch.
What were the circumstances that brought you back to your old school? And what happened when you did so?
Let’s see. I actually went back a few years ago, they were very nice and gave me a doctor of arts degree which, of course, in return they expected a huge contribution… no, that’s not true. I have been a contributor to Bard, though, but I really don’t know if they’re related or not, and then I’ve been back a few other times — I actually saw the graduation ceremonies last year and that was fun.
Play “My Old School.”
Cha cha cha. Did you know you wrote cha cha records.
Yeah, I’ve been told that before.
It’s so nice to see you, because I don’t recall you ever doing a radio or TV interview. We talked about the fact that you haven’t done concerts in a long time.
I remember when a Steely Dan record would come out Walter and I would do interviews togther, and I did a few when The Nightfly came out, but if there’s no album out or anything I really don’t see any reason to do interviews, but I guess when my album comes out I’ll do a few. Walter and I occasionally go on jazz shows and play some records, which is one of our enthusiasms.
Jazz and conversation from the foot of Mount Belzoni.
Oh, what a memory.
Well, I’m just a huge fan of yours and it’s really a thrill to talk when you don’t have a record to plug…
Well, I have something to plug — this concert on Wednesday, September 20th, the New York Soul concert, the songs of Bert Berns and Jerry Ragavoy. I’m just gonna be playing, not singing, but there’s some great singers — Jeveeta Steele, Mac Rebennack (that is to say Dr. John), and a whole bunch of other great singers — Phoebe Snow, Frank Floyd, Jeff Young and Mindy Jostyn.
Now, Bert Berns and Jerry Ragavoy were part of what’s known as the Brill Building writers and there were more that went along with that: Carole King, Neil Sedaka…
There was Gerry Goffin, Leiber and Stoller, actually there were two buildings, I guess, 1650 Broadway and the Brill Building, and when they talk about the Brill Building days, it really means both those buildings.
And those were the days where you actually sat down at a desk and they said, “Ok, write us some pop hits.”
Yeah, well, Walter and I, when we first went out to California, had a job as staff writers at ABC Dunhill; probably some of the last writers who actually had an office with a piano and we would hammer out these tunes for the ABC artists…
You wrote for the Grass Roots?
Yeah, we tried. They never did any of them, though, because we were terrible pop song writers.
You were actually rejected the first time you went to the Brill Building?
Yeah, well, we finally found somebody who let us in the door, but how we got into it originally was we cased the Brill Building. Unfortunately, it was on a weekend and everyone was away at a convention, so there weren’t very many people left there, but eventually we found somebody.
Now as a DJ and sometimes an interviewer I can come up with all kinds of embarrassing things to ask you about.
I was looking through this book a couple years ago — Michael Ochs came out with this wonderful book — and in there when you look in the back and you look under Steely Dan it’ll tell you what page, but then you don’t find a picture of Steely Dan, you find a picture of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker singing backup for Jay Black and the Americans. (Metal Leg editor’s note: In fact, Fagen and Becker are not in the picture.)
Yeah, we weren’t in the band, we didn’t actually sing, ’cause they had plenty of other singers who they called the Americans, because the name of the group was actually Jay and the Americans, but Walter played bass and I played keyboards for, oh, it must have been a year and a half. It was about ’69 or ’70, and we toured with them around the East Coast.
So you were one of the Americans?
Well, not an official American. They did get us some blue pants and blue shirts to wear at one point, because they thought we didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the group the way we were dressed in those days.
In ’69 and ’70, Jay and the Americans were not exactly hammering out the hits. Did you ever stop and think “what if” in ’69 and ’70 when you were part of Jay and the Americans?
Yeah, you know it’s frightening really, but it was fun working for Jay, I enjoyed playing for them.
What are your days like, because it’s been 1982 since you came out with an album. You’ve had an occasional single for a movie soundtrack, and when you listen to your music or that of Steely Dan, you are really into the music because it’s so crisp and clean and it’s something that really touches us all, because you’re one of the favorites of many, many people. So music is part of your life on an everyday basis, right?
Right, I have a small studio at home and I get up and write in the mornings and usually do some arranging in the afternoon. During the last few years I’ve wanted to get away from making albums for a while and do some other musical jobs. I’ve done some work with some other people, some producing, some film stuff, and it’s been fun to get away from it, but now I feel like writing again, so that’s what I’ve been doing.
I have to ask you about this Nightfly album, I’m not sure what to ask you, but listening to it as many times as I have, I have been very hungry for more and have actually said sometimes to myself, “What they hell’s he doing? Give us some more music.” ‘Cause you talk about the stuff you do and you do these things at home, and it’s like we wish we could hear some of this stuff.
Well, I think next year is gonna see another album.
A double album, maybe?
A double album, hmm, let me think about that. Stretch ’em out a little bit.
With seven years in between ’em that would be good — I mean, I hate to be pushy but we really would like to hear some stuff. You were really one of the first to get into the all digital way of recording.
Yeah, Nightfly was done all digital on an early digital machine, it was actually quite difficult to do in those days because the machine kept breaking down. They didn’t really have it down yet, but we stuck with it and my engineer at the time, Roger Nichols, encouraged us to keep going and I’m glad we did, ’cause a lot of people have CDs now so it still sells quite a bit just on the basis of its sound.
Well, that’s the whole thing when you’re really into music you want to hear the best sound you can. I have to play my favorite song from the album, ’cause when I do run into people who do not own compact discs, of all the CDs I’ve got this is the one I take out, I put this in the machine, listen to that and then they go out and buy a CD player.
Plays “Walk Between the Raindrops.”
Oh, my God, that’s good.
Go down the roster of great songs again that Bert Berns and Jerry Ragavoy have written. We talked about “Hang on Sloopy” and some of the Janis Joplin songs: “Piece of My Heart,” “Try Just a Little Harder,” “Get It While You Can” and, of course, they were all originally done earlier in the ’50s…
Sixties, early sixties most of ’em. Yeah, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” a lot of people know the Stones’ version, but that was originally Solomon Burke, (he feigns an old man’s voice) as people my age remember, and then “Try Just a Little Bit Harder,” Janis Joplin did a cover of that; “Piece of My Heart,” “Ain’t Nobody Home,” “Stay With Me,” “Time is on My Side,” “Cry Baby,” a very famous early soul record by Garnet Mimms, “Cry to Me,” Solomon Burke, “That’s When It Hurts,” originally by Ben E. King.
And next Wednesday you’ll be doing as many of those songs as time will permit.
It’s gonna be very interesting to hear that band doing songs like this.
Plays “Twist and Shout” by the Beatles, then “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” by the Rolling Stones.
I wanna thank you for coming by…
Thanks for having me.
…And invite everybody who can still get tickets to visit the Lone Star Roadhouse next Wednesday night, the 20th, as Donald Fagen and Libby Titus and everybody present the night called New York Soul, the songs of Bert Berns and Jerry Ragavoy. It sounds like a wonderful night.
Yeah, it should be great, great musicians who really understand this kind of music and a whole bunch of singers — I won’t be singing, just playing, but it should be fun.
Well, it’s a rare treat to see you anywhere, Donald, but you do have a new album in the works and it should be out in 1990 and good luck with it.
Ok, thanks very much, it’s been fun.
It has been fun and I thank you very much. Let’s leave with a song from the Aja album. This is the gold laminated version of “Deacon Blues.”