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 13 Articles:
- Editor’s note
- Hades set list, 5/15/90
- Critics review show at Beacon, 4/4/90
- Donald Fagen on NY jazz scene
- Becker/Fagen interview in Sounds, 10/77
- Crawdaddy review of Aja, 12/77
- “Psychological profile” of Donald Fagen
By Pete Fogel
Metal Leg Editor
Welcome to the first U.S.-published edition of Metal Leg. We’d like to welcome all new subscribers and hope you enjoy reading this issue as much as Bill (Pascador) and I enjoyed putting it together.
In 1981,when Donald and Walter announced the breakup of Steely Dan, everybody told me that this was the end of an era. Donald and Walter would never work together again. And Donald would never perform live again; never singing, let alone any Dan songs. But after following their antics for so many years, I just knew this breakup would only be temporary. Whether it would be one year or ten years, these guys still had more musical work to do together. Then again everyone still said, “Forget about them, they’re through.” Well, if it wasn’t my imagination, wasn’t that Donald Fagen singing “Black Friday,” “IGY” and “Pretzel Logic” at the Beacon Theater in NYC on April 4, 1990? Or wasn’t that Walter Becker playing guitar onstage with Donald at Hades, a small NYC club, jamming live with Phoebe Snow on May 15, 1990? Or is that Donald and Walter working together at the Hit Factory in NYC recording Donald’s new solo album? Well, if patience is a virtue (and we all know that Steely Dan fans must be the most virtuous), our ten years of abstinence may be finally paying off.
As Metal Leg has now moved from the U.K. to New York City, the past few months can only be described as busy. Very busy! So much has happened it’s hard to decide where to begin or what could be considered the most newsworthy.
Well, as you can see from our cover, Donald and Walter are working together again. Walter has flown in from Hawaii to New York to “produce” Donald’s long-awaited followup to 1982’s The Nightfly. They are currently working at the Hit Factory on West 54th Street and are laying down the rhythm tracks. The only known musician working on the project so far is studio drummer Chris Parker, who evidently had to leave the sessions early to accompany Bob Dylan on his new tour.
The record is currently in the early stages of production and no other artist has been called in to do any additional work. The question is: How long will it take this album to be released? Since Gaucho was released in 1980, Walter seems to have learned that it doesn’t take years to finish a record. Having produced China Crisis and Rickie Lee Jones efforts in a timely manner, Walter might be able to get this project completed in record time. (Wishful thinking?)
Now where does this leave Gary Katz? The man who was and is known as the “Third Member” of Steely Dan through his diligent production of all of their records and Donald’s Nightfly has not been called upon to work on this project.
What can be considered ironic is that Gary is putting the finishing touches on Paul Brady’s new record, Trick or Treat at the Hit Factory downstairs, while Donald and Walter are working upstairs.
We hear the electricity level in the Hit Factory is tremendous and that there seems to be a bit of good-natured ribbing between Donald and Gary about Gary’ recent production efforts with “foreigners.”
Donald and Walter also took time out of their busy recording schedule on May 15 to sneak into Hades, a small, out-of-the-way bar on the Upper, Upper East Side of Manhattan to jam with Jimmy Vivino’s “Little Big Band,” a hot eight-piece rock-and-blues band which plays every Tuesday night. although they didn’t play any Steely Dan songs, the jam was great with Phoebe Snow’s pyrotechnic voice covering old rhythm-and-blues standards, Donald sharing some back-up vocals and some funky Melodica tooting, and Walter playing lead blues guitar alongside frontman Mr. Vivino.
Donald has recently been making unheralded appearances at several NY area clubs. In May and June, Fagen appeared live at the Lone Star Roadhouse with Dr. John, Elaine’s with Phoebe Snow and Spodeeodee’s with Rickie Lee Jones.
But Donald seems more comfortable with Jimmy Vivino’s Little Big Band at Hades. In fact, on June 19, Fagen performed “Black Friday” and also traded vocals with Vivino on “In The Midnight Hour.” Out of all the times Fagen has performed “Black Friday” since the Lone Star gigs, this one was the best. Fagen’s vocals were strong and comfortable and you could tell he’s been working hard in the studio.
Vivino rehearsed the tune without Fagen for weeks before this night and even wrote a sinister horn chart to go along with this sinister song. Special guest Al Kooper jumped from guitar to keyboards and took a solo, and Ed Alstrom was brought up from the audience to fill Michael McDonald’s vocal part as a finishing touch. Fagen also changed the lyric “Gonna let the ‘world’ pass by me” to “Gonna let the ‘years’ pass by me.” How appropriate. And there could be more live Dan songs to come. “Chain Lightning”? (Feels so good!)
Going back to April 4, it would be hard to believe that the Beacon Show would be a preview of Donald re-entering public life. The Beacon Theater show was billed as the “New York Rock & Soul Review” and featured Dnald Fagen, Patti Austin, Michael McDonald and Phoebe Snow backed by New York R&B band Curious George led by Jeff Young.
The show was a “round robin” with no one leaving the stage at any time. It was great to see these master performers interact musically and visually all evening. The music was primarily classic soul songs of the ’60s and ’70s. Patti Austin did “I’m Sorry,” “Everyday People” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” Phoebe Snow did “Standing on Shaky Ground,” “At Last” and “Poetry Man.” Mike McDonald did some Doobie tunes including “Minute By Minute,” “You Belong To Me” and “Little Darling.” Even the backup performers gleaned from the Lone Star shows shared the spotlight as Mindy Jostyn did a soulful “That’s Why It Hurts,” Jeff Young did “Man Smart,” Sam Butler and Phil Hamilton did the Sam and Dave standard “Soothe Me” and all were loving it.
But the main attraction was Fagen and for good reason. He sat at the grand piano just like the old days and did some of his own tunes in front of his largest audience since the Santa Monica Civic Center in 1974.
Donald opened with “Black Friday,” remaining seated as he sang only to find himself standing for “IGY,” alternately singing and playing his new toy, the Melodica horn. His last and best performance was a fully orchestrated version of “Pretzel Logic.” Mike McDonald, as he did when he toured with Steely Dan, sung the break “I stepped upon the platform…” and the crowd went nuts. Donald introduced the song by recalling McDonald’s role as a mere backup singer in the old Dan days, and ended the song with the words: “Pretzel Logic: It’s a funny name, but it’s the blues.”
On the Walter side, Becker produced three tracks of Michael Frank’s new record, Blue Pacific. Becker’s productions were the “All I Need,” “Vincent’s Ear” and “Crayon Sun” tracks. Apparently, Franks contracted Becker after seeing him on the VH-1 special on Rickie Lee Jones. Roger Nichols engineered the Becker-produced tracks.
Speaking of Michael McDonald, he has a new record out on Reprise Records titled Take It To Heart.
To end the news on a very sad note, original Steely Dan drummer Jim Hodder drowned June 5 in his California swimming pool. Hodder played on the Dan’s first three albums and was highly praised by Donald and Walter for his vocals on “Midnight Cruiser” from Can’t Buy A Thrill. He was 42.
Hades set list, 5/15/90
Okay, all you fans, after examining our cover photo, you must be asking yourselves, “I wonder what songs Donald and Walter were playing that night at Hades?” Well wonder no more. Here’s the song list from that historic night:
- Shaky Ground
- Blue Monday
- I Saw Her Standing There
- Just To Be With You
- Woolly Bully
- Mustang Sally
- Come On In My Kitchen
- Iko Iko
- The Women are Smarter
- I Feel Good
- Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag
- Love Machine
- 634-5789 (Donald shared vocals with Phoebe Snow)
- You Send Me
- In The Midnight Hour (Donald shared vocals with Phoebe Snow)
The Little Big Band is: Jimmy Vivino, Gary Gold, Harvey Brooks, Jerry Vivino, Bob Smith, Kevin Bents, Mike Spangler and Jeff Young.
Critics review show at Beacon, 4/4/90
Here’s what the critics had to say about the Beacon Show:
New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden:
“Before joining the Doobie Brothers, Mr. McDonald was briefly a member of Steely Dan. And at the Beacon, he and Mr. Fagen reunited musically with a strong sweet-and-sour rendition of Steely Dan’s “Pretzel Logic.” Mr. Fagen’s best moment was a bouncy rendition of “IGY (What A Beautiful World),” while Mr. McDonald’s was a rich, quietly plaintive “You Belong To Me.” The revue, which was planned and promoted by the singer and songwriter Libby Titus with Ron Delsner, was the largest show of its kind put together by the singer, who has produced similar shows at the Lone Star Roadhouse and other New York clubs. They have brought a much-needed sense of spontaneity and musical camaraderie to a musical scene that often seems too coldly professional for its own good.”
New York Newsday reviewer Wayne Robins
“The main attraction was Donald Fagen, and with good reason. As co-leader (with Walter Becker) of Steely Dan, the highest-IQ band of the 1970s, Fagen was hardly ever seen onstage. Call them perfectionists or control freaks, the band stopped playing live early in its career, although I can recall two legendary New York-area concerts: as the brilliant opening act for Cheech and Chong at Westbury Music Fair, and as the headliners in the disastrous mid-1970s Avery Fisher Hall concert that was their performing swan song. Steely Dan broke up at the dawn of the 1980s. Becker has produced some other artists (Rickie Lee Jones, China Crisis’ latest). Fagen made one wonderful solo album (The Nightfly) in 1982 but for most of the last decade his output has been sparse. His reticence has done nothing to stem the enthusiasm of a select cult following: Outside the Beacon, someone handed out fliers for “Metal Leg: The Steely Dan Fanzine.” But when Fagen followed with Steely Dan’s “Black Friday,” the evening became more than a nostalgic frat party. His later tunes, including “IGY” from The Nightfly and Steely Dan’s “Haitian Divorce” (Editor’s note: He meant “Pretzel Logic”), were reminders that obtuse yet meaningful lyrics, sophisticated melodies and complex rhythms could entice a large and eager audience. The atypical looseness and fervor of Fagen’s singing more than compensated for the band’s stiffness in holding the road through the winding curves of the songs.”
Wall Street Journal reviewer Pam Lambert
“For years the odds of catching Donald Fagen in concert looked only slightly better than those on the Berlin Wall falling. Steely Dan, the pop vehicle he piloted with Walter Becker, had released the last of its sophisticated pop albums back in 1980. And some time before that the pair had abandoned both touring and the pretense of bandhood, using Steely Dan as the banner under which a loose confederation of studio musicians could record. Some were clearly hoping for a Steely Dan show — they were the ones shouting, “Aja!” “Haitian Divorce!” and the titles of other Dan favorites. The cheers had just about died down when the rhythmic figure opening “Black Friday,” the first Steely Dan song of the evening, got the crowd yelping all over again. The number dated from Mr. McDonald’s brief pre-Doobies stint with the ensemble in the mid-’70s. At first, Mr. Fagen ‘s voice sounded too forced, compared with its hipster-cool ease on the recordings. But things improved as the aptly named guitarist Drew Zingg stepped in, wisely playing his own lines instead of echoing Larry Carlton’s stinging lead breaks on the original. It would be hard to single out a high point in this evening that went from strength to strength; Fagen and McDonald reteaming on the Dan classic “Pretzel Logic” flying in the face of the song’s lyric, “Those days are gone forever, over a long time ago…”
Donald Fagen on NY jazz scene
(In 1989), Donald Fagen wrote an article for Harper’s Bazaar, a women’s fashion magazine, about the Manhattan jazz scene, past and present. The title of the piece was “All That Jazz” and it read like this:
To regular folk, the jazz club is a mythic place signifying urban romance, free-loving hepsterism, and the Dionysian rites of the Exotic Black Man: in short, the dread possibility of ecstasy. As a survivor of many nights in actual jazz clubs, I can testify that the image is only partly correct.
Like most of the finer things in life, jazz is an acquired taste. As a suburban youth, I would often ride the bus down the New Jersey turnpike through the industrial wasteland that must be crossed before the island of Manhattan is won. From the grim Port Authority terminal, I’d take the AA train to Waverly Place in Greenwich Village, which had long begun its transformation from Bohemia to Bohemialand. Tourists chug-a-lugged espresso at the Cafe Wha? and the Cafe Bizarre. At Figaro’s on Bleecker and MacDougal, an epigraph on the menu read, “Where the beat meet the elite.” Nevertheless, the Village was (and is) the best place to hear jazz.
At the Village Vanguard, my distress at being the youngest person in the audience would dissolve as soon as the music started. Because, in the early ’60s, gods stood on that stage. A lot of them drank J&B and smoked Luckies, but they were gods just the same. Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane were young, fearless and working at the summit of creativity. I’ll always remember bassist-composer Charles Mingus halting a tune in mid-swing to lecture us on race, politics, cheating record companies and hypocrisy, both black and white. Watching this tempestuous artist at work was no less than a revelation.
Real fans and serious hipsters remember Slug’s Bar on Third Street between Avenues B and C. The neighborhood was scary and so was the club. On a slow night, anomie seemed to ooze from the walls and hang over the patrons nodding at their tables. In 1972, trumpet star Lee Morgan was shot and killed out front.
When the civil rights movement became more militant in the mid-’60s, the music followed suit and the clubs, overwhelmed for the moment by the rock revolution, began to close. The Five Spot, the Half-Note and, finally, Slug’s all gradually vanished. The Village Gate managed to survive only by switching to rock and Latin sounds.
In the ’80s, the jazz scene returned, “healthier” than ever. These days you go to hear acts in nifty, wholesome “club environments” and “art spaces.” There’s practically no cigarettes, no dope, no heavy boozing — in fact, no vice of any kind except, perhaps, the monster cover and drink charges.
The clubs that present the big mainstream acts all have that designed-in-the-’70s look. All are very strict about reservations. The Blue Note has recently featured Herbie Mann and Max Roach. Every Sunday from two until six p.m. they offer a jazz brunch and a matinee. Sweet Basil, small and dark-paneled, books top musicians such as Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner and the Phil Woods quintet. Of these clubs, the most comfortable is Fat Tuesday’s on lower Third Avenue, though the psychedelic entrance hallway will either put you in a receptive frame of mind or make you change it.
For the last few years, the most refreshing place has been Carlos I on Sixth Avenue (no one knows where Carlos II is). This is a balmy Jamaican nightspot with somewhat laid-back service and an inspired roster of players, including Jay McShann, Toots Thielemans, Jimmy Hamilton and Clark Terry.
The Village Vanguard is still going strong, with Mel Lewis and his 17-piece jazz band on Monday nights and high quality acts throughout the week. (Mr. Lewis passed away after this was written.) The last time I was there I realized that the room is not shaped like a coffin as I used to think. It’s vanguard-shaped, a new and original configuration. Happily, Art D’Lugoff’s Village Gate is presenting jazz again on a regular basis; Dizzy Gillespie was there in the early summer.
Other spots that feature mostly jazz are Indigo Blues, a pretty room in midtown where Miles Davis will play in September; the nuevo-beatnik Knitting Factory, which offers an eclectic mix of sounds, and a new Birdland on the Upper West Side. The latter is probably the most elaborate of all, with a 50-foot bar, art deco floors and an ambitious menu. James Moody, the Ronnie Cuber quintet and Clifford Jordan have made appearances lately.
Although I’ve never seen Woody Allen play his regular Monday night gig at Michael’s Pub, I once took some friends there to see a piano trio I like. The atmosphere was tense and the maitre d’ was rude — there was no romance at all. We split before the set started. Bring back Slug’s!
Becker/Fagen interview in Sounds, 10/77
The following is an interview conducted in October, 1977, with Becker and Fagen by Sounds, a British publication, to herald the release of Aja.
By Sylvie Simmons
It’s not every day that Steely Dan bare their souls to the public. But amid the palm trees and coke bottles at the Bel Air Hotel, all was revealed – if not all, at least a lot for Steely Dan.
Warning: at times this interview degenerates into the Becker and Fagan Laugh-In, a crazy double-act in which Walter B. (bass, vocals, long hair) and Donald F. (keyboards, vocals, Brooklyn drawl, shades) play off each other with the sole purpose of pushing unstable journalists over the edge.
Beach boys Becker and Fagen left their Malibu home for nearby Bel Air to promote (promote?) their latest offering, Aja -– follow-up to last year’s Royal Scam, and their sixth album since the birth of the Dan in ’72.
This one is not, despite the rumours they’ve spread to the contrary, a double album in the States (sense of humour, remember?) It just looks like one. They needed a gate-fold cover to fit all those sleeve notes on. Journalist Michael Phalen’s terrifying tale of an interview rife with insults and threats and a CIA-like confiscation of the tape, a warning to would-be interviewers, balanced with some real nice guys-type praise from the president of ABC records; can they be talking about the same people?
Part One. Aja, an Oriental name of no significance, probably Korean.
Did you start out with any particular idea or concept in mind?
Fagen: We do it song by song. We don’t really plan the shape of an album, except perhaps subliminally. First in this album we ended up with too many medium or slow tempo songs, so we went in and cut a couple of up-number ones. “Peg” was the last cut. We had a song slated for it, “Here At The Western World,” that had originally been cut for the Royal Scam album. It was laying around and we liked it a lot, but it didn’t fit on Scam and we thought we had too many songs in that tempo on this album, so it’s still sitting around. We’ll get it out sooner or later.
Are you influenced, or put under any pressure, by what your fans expect of you?
Fagen: No, not really. We really aim to please ourselves, you know.
Becker: Plus we have no way of knowing what the audience expects of us.
Fagen: I think we put pressure on ourselves. I think we’ve topped ourselves every succeeding album in quality.
Becker: Good for you! I never know for sure. I have a good feeling about this one, but it’s hard to tell when you’ve been working on it for as long as we have. I mean, you can’t listen to it objectively any more without dissecting it in your mind in a funny kind of way, because you know how it was put together. But I’m really proud of it. Now I can forget about it and start the next one.
Fagen: I usually think the one we just did is better than the last one. Must be something to do with our mood rings, I guess. When we were writing this our mood rings were green.
Any particular favorites?
Becker: The title song I like. It was an interesting cut. We’d gotten this drummer we didn’t know but we’d heard a lot about named Steve Gadd — he was flown in from New York. We had a chart for the tune, and it was like eight pages long — three music stands in front of every musician. What’s on the charts is very specific for some of the players — like the keyboards — but very open for others. Like, there’s nothing written for the bass player except the chord symbols, the guitar player basically works on his own concept, and particularly the drummer — he really had to outdo himself on that one.
No track immediately offers itself as a single. Are you releasing one?
Becker: I’m sure we will, but I don’t know which tune it will be. When we write the songs and prepare the album, we really don’t concern ourselves with that, because we’re not a good judge collectively of what’s going to strike the public’s ear in that way. And a lot of our things are too long — there’s all kinds of restrictions in radio here. It can’t be more than 2 1/2 minutes long or something.
Fagen: It’s a very unlikely choice for American radio because of the length of the cut.
Becker: They’re still a very puritanical society as far at the media goes. I think it’s loosening up a bit, but not the Top 40 radio. You’re allowed to have simulated orgasms on record —
Fagen: As long as you do it quietly.
Part Two. The Way We Were and The Way We Are Now.
You started out as pop song writers, didn’t you? (After two years as back-up musicians for ’60s pop-harmony group Jay and the Americans, Gary Katz, their producer, found them a cozy niche at ABC as staff songwriters. One of their pop songs, “I Mean To Shine,” was recorded by no less than Barbra Streisand.)
Becker: Well, not really. We tried to be but we weren’t. When we came to ABC, we were hired as staff writers; we would be writing songs for their artists’ roster. We knew very well that what we were going to do was end up with our own band, recording our own songs, as no one else particularly wanted to record our songs. Then and now. So we just kind of played at that for a while, then once we had the band assembled we say, “Hey, we’re ready to record,” and that’s it.
We had what is now a studio at ABC, which was then under construction, making more offices for accountants or something. Anyway, there were these empty offices, and they were nailing up stuff during the day. We had our amplifiers in one of these rooms. After six we went over there with the band and rehearsed for a couple of hours. That’s where we got our first album together.
(Original members Jeff Baxter, Dave Palmer and Jim Hodder have long since moved on. The only old Dan remaining is guitarist Denny Dias. Otherwise it’s sessionmen — at best.)
How did you come across the musicians on Aja?
Becker: We hear them on records —
Fagen: We meet them at parties —
Becker: Yeah, and we ask other musicians about them, and go out and buy more records, and hear about them that way. Then we just call them up and hire them and see what happens. Sometimes we run into cases where we thought we had the perfect musicians for a particular thing, but then nothing happens and we all go home early. Usually something happens because we check out as much as we can, what kind of musicians they are, what they’re capable of and best at.
They’re quite happy to adapt to your concept?
Becker: It seems to happen by itself because of the nature of the songs, and because of the kind of freedom they have at the sessions. In other words, there are certain things — certain harmonics and certain motifs in our music — they do have to pay attention to. And I guess that’s what takes care of the continuity in the sound. But they also have a certain freedom. There are always sessions where they can play a little more than they do at most other things, and do what they do best, rather than being too confined. We never ask anybody to consciously adapt to our style. In fact, a lot of musicians come here, and I don’t think they have any idea of what our style is — don’t know or care.
Will you ever get a permanent band together?
Fagen: We use a lot of the same players anyway. On the last three albums — like, Victor Feldman’s been on all three, Chuck Rainey’s always at the sessions, and Larry Carlton. We actually have a band with a few substitutions.
Part Three. In which the Dan are contented to sit in Malibu and live off the royalties.
Rumor has it that you’ll be touring the States before long? (Steely Dan haven’t toured since ’74. Their only visit to Europe was a year earlier.)
Becker: Not that I know of! We had intended to tour, but the album release was delayed, so we put it off. Now we’ve no plans to tour.
Fagen: Making these records pretty well takes up our time. Once we’ve finished one, we start the next. That’s the reason we haven’t been touring.
Becker: Touring is an expensive hobby.
Fagen: We spend money on a tour. We have an expensive set-up. We don’t like playing big halls — the sound is bad. So we have 4,000 people coming in, and it’s not enough money to meet the expenses of putting on a show.
Becker: And we spend a longer time preparing our albums, I guess, than other people do.
Fagen: Stevie Wonder spent 2 1/2 years on his record.
Becker: But we found from past efforts that being on the road wasn’t enhancing what we were doing in the studio. So we decided that we’d do either one thing or the other.
Do you go see other bands?
Becker: Very rarely. In concert halls here you get a lousy sound, parking costs a buck and stuff like that. No.
Part Four. Lyrics, language problems, black humor and the American Dream.
Your lyrics have sometimes been called impersonal.
Becker: We don’t feel the urgent need to bare our souls that Ted Nugent probably does, or Kiss or Queen or Black Death or the Bees Knees or (collapses in laughter).
Fagen: We write the same way a writer of fiction would write. We’re basically assuming the role of a character, and for that reason it may not sound personal. But I try to assume the role and make it believable — not to the extent of doing dialects —
Becker: I’ve heard you do dialects —
Fagen: I say his words, try to express some of his emotions, some of his problems, hang-ups — primarily the hang-ups.
Becker: This is not the Lovin’ Spoonful. It’s not real good time music. Anyway, we think those are happy thoughts.
Fagen: It’s a part of life, so why not enjoy it?
Becker: Also we feel that this gives us the more fertile ground that we’ve been trampling on for the last five years. It’s hard to keep trying to write songs about something you haven’t written about before — you keep coming back to the same themes. There’s some truth in the fact that happy situations tend to be more or less static and not that interesting to hear about.
Fagen: When you read a novel in which there are no rough parts for the characters to get over, if everybody did The Hustle from the first page to the last, it wouldn’t be much of a novel. It wouldn’t enlighten you in any way.
Do you look on your lyrics as enlightening?
Becker: Not in a Buddhist sense.
Fagen: But they do shed light on certain situations. I think a lot of people in Britain know about Haitian divorces now that probably didn’t know before.
Becker: Of course, you can’t get a Haitian divorce any more. You used to be able to go to Haiti and get a divorce real fast. They give you this document in French with ribbons and plumes and everything, and it’s recognized by the American government. In a way, that’s enlightening. It’s a situation people probably thought we made up. There are probably people out there who think we made up the name Haiti. We’ve been accused of everything else.
Fagen: There are people who think we made up the word Aja.
But your lyrics are nothing if not obscure.
Becker: To us, it’s a perfectly straightforward story. On the other hand, if anyone finds the lyrics obscure, there’s always the music. So even if you don’t know anything about Haitian divorces —
Fagen: You can always look in the Steely Dan Listener’s Companion.
Becker: We feel that we use basically the English language. In the United Kingdom, I don’t know if people know what the word “scam” means. There was some question as to whether the word “pretzel” makes sense to English people. There were a lot of reviewers asking us what a pretzel was.
Fagen: So it’s basically just a language problem.
Becker: We hadn’t anticipated either of those things. So it may appear to people in the United Kingdom that we are writing very much in code.
They’re pretty cynical though, and bitterly realistic.
Becker: A lot of what you’d call bitter or cynical, we’d call funny.
Fagen: We think these are very funny songs that we’re writing. And when we’re writing them, we really do have a grand old time yukking it up about the lyrics.
Becker: We may have a slightly blacker sense of humor than your average person. I’m always surprised that divorces and things aren’t funnier than they are. The American Dream? That’s very funny, too.
What about your home, California?
Becker: That’s very funny — it’s probably the funniest of the 50 states that I know of.
Fagen: We’re not as negative as the Eagles. They’re totally down on California.
Becker: When we first came out here, it was pretty different from New York, and it does give you a creative vacuum in which to work. It gave us some new characters and new ideas, and it gave us a laboratory-type sterile atmosphere to work in. Because if you walk down a street here in California, you’ll be the only person doing it. Nobody gets out of their cars here. It’s a different kind of society.
Part Five. Time to light another cigarette, get some fresh gum, and discourse on books, films, and fans.
Becker: We’re pretty bookish guys.
Fagen: In our profession, we’re as bookish as I’ve met. But I think that’s more a reflection on what everyone else is doing than what we’re doing. I think people should be asking themselves why they’re so goddamn illiterate.
What do you read?
Becker: I like instruction booklets a lot, science fiction and recipes. My favorite author in the English language is Vladimir Nabokov. Of course he just recently died. So I feel that now he’s dead, he won’t be writing any more, so I have nothing new to look forward to until they start publishing whatever they can find in his apartment.
Fagen: I read novels, history, anything that’s lying around. The only things I don’t read much are self-help manuals or poetry.
What would you say is the effect of your lyrics on the audience?
Becker: We hear from a few psychotic fans, threatening or maligning us, or alternatively renting huge football stadiums to perform in and telling us after the fact, or writing to us in strange languages —
Fagen: If a person’s on the edge, you know, we could probably throw him off.
Becker: We’re just trying to cheer people up. Also we’re thinking about writing a movie.
How near to reality is that?
Becker: Very far. It’s just —
Fagen: Just a gleam in Irving Azoff’s eyes.
Becker: It’s the potential ringing of cash registers in our manager’s mind. Irving’s been encouraging us. He keeps telling us, “Hey, if you guys can write these songs, you can write movies, it’s the same thing. You just fill out a couple of hundred pages with the same story on it.”
Part Six. Heroes and villains. Featuring a change of record company and Irving Azoff’s strange disease.
Another quote: Mike McDonald (keyboards on Katy Lied, back-up vocals on Aja) said you’d have liked to have been Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker.
Becker: I’d rather be Charlie Parker than anything.
Fagen: Everyone would like to be possessed of genius.
Becker: Those are a couple of our heroes. Do you mind being Duke if I’m Charlie?
Fagen: No, I’ll be Duke Ellington.
Becker: We have other heroes, other jazz musicians, but those are two particularly outstanding examples.
Fagen: Like Root Boy Slim (sings: “put a quarter in the juke, boogie till you puke.”) He’s the sound of the ’70s. When Root Boy goes (sings: “Awl riite”) that’s the sort of thing that can really get us going.
Why are you changing record companies? (Steely Dan have one more album to do with ABC before moving to Warner.)
Becker: When we realized our contract was going to be up, we shopped around.
Fagen: We were just going to sign up with ABC, but they didn’t want us — enough.
Becker: They weren’t putting up the same amount that Warner Brothers was. And they have this nice building at Burbank, Warners —
Fagen: Knotty pine —
Becker: Very ethnic. This move will mark a new development in the band’s career, because from that point on, instead of that ABC label in the center of the record, there’s going to be a WB label with palm trees —
Fagen: Coconuts, everything.
Becker: Actually the reason we signed with them was because of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck being Warner Brothers’ characters. We try to catch the Bugs Bunny show in the afternoons whenever we can. Of course, you can’t see it every day, so that influenced our decision a lot.
Any other reason?
Becker: Irving Azoff, our manager, wants us to come out and socialize, mix with the other guys from the other bands a lot more now.
Fagen: We are supposed to go to the Eagles’ wedding —
Becker: No, that wasn’t the Eagles’ wedding; it was Jimmy Buffett’s wedding.
Fagen: Or birthday party.
Becker: We couldn’t make it. I was in San Francisco and the wedding was in Colorado. Irving got some kind of amoeba disease which we tried to keep secret. The water supply in Colorado is a little tainted. We want people to know that so they won’t go there and ski.
Part Seven. The Future.
Becker: We’ve already started writing our next album, and of course we’ll be working on the theme song for Irving Azoff’s forthcoming movie. That’s about all — Donald’s going to learn how to drive his new Jaguar.
Fagen: We’re buying up options on science-fiction stories to be made into movies, going down to Washington, DC, to see Root Boy a lot.
Becker: We’re going to branch out and start to merchandise the Steely Dan name —
Fagen: Steely Dan breakfast meats —
Becker: Kewpie dolls and things like that. Anything we can put the Steely Dan name on and sell for some of the coin of the realm. That way we can become real capitalists. That’s the only thing left for us.
Fagen: Except for politics, and that’s so boring.
Becker: Anyway, Irving’s going to run for the governor of California next year. So I guess we’re just going to keep on doing the same thing we’ve been doing all along — whatever that is.
Crawdaddy review of Aja, 12/77
Here’s a review of Aja by Jon Pareles from the December 1977 issue of Crawdaddy, titled “Steely Dan sings for lovers?”
Normalcy can be the most dangerous trap of all — seductive because it has its uses. A good conman needs to act normal; a counterfeit $20 bill had better simulate legal tender. When the conman starts to believe his own act, though, he’s in trouble. And that bogus twenty may be a master of engraving, but it’s only good for what money can buy.
Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, master conmen, find their way into all the loopholes that the pop song form can offer. Their object: “to crawl like a viper through these suburban streets.” They’ve already pulled off innumerable musical capers: melodized utterly bizarre chord progressions, diddled with preconceived rhythms, devised lyrics as ambiguous as Rorschach blots. And it all sounds smooth.
That kind of con takes planning to the split second. So Steely Dan shut out all inderminancy at the studio door. No accidents can happen there. (Accusing them of sounding “sterile,” as some have, misses the point — you might as well accuse the Stones of using too much guitar.) You can be sure that Becker and Fagen mapped out every detail of “Aja” to their own inscrutable specifications.
Don’t let anyone tell you that Aja is Steely Dan’s “jazz album.” The cuts are longer than usual, and soloists are credited, but the only reasonable jazz analogue is big-band swing (listen to “Peg” and “Home At Last”), not the bebop so dear to the Dan’s lyricists. Vocal and ensemble sections balance solos in exact formal proportions — the structure is narrative, not discursive.
Aja edges closer to mainstream pop than Steely Dan have recently cared to go. They’re so far removed from any competition that perhaps their only amusement comes from outdoing themselves. Having outflanked every musical rule they’ve ever met, Becker and Fagen, supremely cool, now try to maintain their pre-eminence with one hand tied behind their back. Cavalierly, Aja sacrifices a bit of Steely Dan’s usual harmonic mobility — they uses riffs instead of serpentine melodies — while the listener hardly notices. These rock Houdinis slip out of every restraint.
Last year’s The Royal Scam eschewed any blues-derived tunes, which had been prominent on earlier Dan LPs. Aja makes up for the omission; of seven songs on the album, “Josie,” “Peg,” “Black Cow” and, to a lesser extent, “Home At Last” and “I Got The News” rely on static, blues-inflected verses.
Cutting down on harmonic variety encourages you to listen to rhythm, which may be just what Steely Dan had in mind. There’s a liner credit for “Hemiolas, Hockets, Maneries of Garlandia, etc.” — three medieval rhythmic devices that Steely Dan actually use. They also get exquisite, interactive drumming (a rare thing on studio rock records) from Jim Keltner, Steve Gadd, Ed Greene and Bernard Purdie, and constantly varied bass lines from Chuck Rainey. Listen, also, to Larry Carlton’s sneaky rhythm fills on “Home At Last.” But beware of creeping normalcy: Aja is the first Dan album since their debut to start on a solid downbeat.
Just to stay paradoxical, the lyrics wax restlessly even as Becker and Fagen deliberately restrain themselves. “Josie,” a tribute to a troublemaker, is a blues with extra chords breaking into the tune just as the narrator describes Josie breaking rules — a neat form/content match.
The old Dan sneer has been toned way down on Aja. Every lyric uses a sympathetic first-person viewpoint. Believe it or not, there are at least three, uh, love songs barely twisted at all by Dan standards. The guy in “Black Cow” fights back tears when he glimpses his ex at “Rudy’s” (“I can’t cry anymore while you run around”); “Peg’s” narrator, surrounded by her photo image, vows he can love her better than any camera; “I Got The News” is a tense gangland romance. Are Becker and Fagen mellowing, or just learning to counterfeit new emotions?
“Deacon Blues” offers a wildly ambivalent answer. A romantic pessimist’s vision of the jazz life (to “cross that fine line,” learn saxophone, “die behind the wheel”), it could be Steely Dan’s most heartfelt lyric, set to a delicate, sighing tune. The arrangement, though, is enervatingly conventional; it’s disheartening to hear Fagen sing “I’ll be what I want to be” over an MOR cushion.
There’s more streetwise jazz savvy in “I Got The News,” a cousin of Royal Scam’s terse “Green Earrings.” The lyrics are a telegraph transmitted by dits and dahs of choke-chorded piano and brass-knuckled drumming; the structure, a jumpily asymmetrical assemblage of riffs sorted into a verse and three interconnected bridges.
Logically enough, Aja’s other masterpiece is its title cut, which blends the album’s two obsessions — love and the compulsion to escape — and probes the undertones of its own lilting melody. Here’s the scenario: The speaker is in some asylum, “up on the hill.” He escapes for a tryst with his lover (“double helix in the sky tonight”), then is apprehended and returned to the hill. Simple, circular… a dreamy guitar interweave rambles toward the verses, light and unconcerned until our man reaches the outside world. Becker’s guitar solo (interrupted by a police whistle) and Wayne Shorter’s foreboding sax break are orchestrated by a continuously toughening riff while Steve Gadd drums retribution from below. When we end up on the hill again, Fagen’s synthesizers cloud the mind as Gadd flails. In brilliant cinematic fashion, the solos advance the action, and we reach the final verse realizing that the lilt masks darker forces.
Lyric fragments from earlier Steely Dan songs float through Aja: “outrageous,” “change your name,” “a world of my own.” Feeling suddenly claustrophobic in pop, perhaps, Steely Dan are recharging their identity, taking a quick look back before they embark on a new course: the conquest of expanded song form. In the light of Aja’s finest moments, I’d say no band is better suited for the attempt.
‘Psychological profile’ of Donald Fagen
A few months ago, in a New York Magazine interview, Donald Fagen stated “I think for my psychological profile that it’s a good idea that I sing.” Well, we at Metal Leg started asking ourselves: “What is Donald’s psychological profile? Could the psyche of this sophisticated genius be neatly dissected to fit into the cookie cutter personality profiles championed by Freud and Jung?” To see if this was possible, Metal Leg commissioned its own psychological profile of Donald. Years of interview transcripts with Donald were fed into the “Dr. Shrink” computer program and the results were tabulated and provided this analysis:
Dr. Shrink’s X-Ray Report on Donald Fagen
Copyright (c) Neuralytic Systems 1987, 1988
Part 1: Personality Analysis
Donald’s Public Self — What He Tells The World
Once you get to know Donald, you’ll sense that he doesn’t view life in quite the same way as the rest of us do. Events that cause most of us intense concern, painful worries, or strong emotions seem to roll right off his back. Some people liken him to Peter Pan, the eternal child who disliked anything remotely connected with responsibility and preferred living in the fairy tale world of Never-Never Land. Freedom tends to be his first priority, freedom from worldly events and difficult personalities.
Donald’s Private Self — What He Doesn’t Tell The World
Donald’s private self is marked by his anger towards a few, select individuals. He tends to believe he’s been wronged or treated unfairly in the past and finds it difficult to let go of old, hurt feelings. Chances are slim that he’d actually go so far as to plot out a strategy for revenge. Instead, he’ll spend his time dreaming of the day he might get even. And if that day is ten years in the future, so much the better.
Donald’s Deepest Emotions — What He Hates
Donald hates to be dressed up. Formal attire does not fit with his self-image of a member of the counter culture. Give him a new set of clothes and you could cause him real pain.
Donald’s Deepest Emotions — What He Loves
Donald loves being eccentric. You might even notice him going off on his own to do something new and different. Much of his interest in being an individualist tends to be a reaction to his difficulties coping with everyday life.
Part Two: Recommendations
How To Make Friends With Donald
The best approach to develop a friendship with Donald is working alongside him for a long enough period of time that he feels comfortable with you. This may take two days, two weeks or two years. He doesn’t readily trust people and may keep his guard up for a long time. Remember that he has something of a critical streak, and prepare to let some of his less tactful comments slide off your back. Donald can be a difficult character to get to know, but once he lets you inside his private world, you’ll be glad you did.
How To Influence Donald
People like Donald are among the hardest individuals to influence. They don’t like being persuaded and they especially don’t like being seen by others as being persuadable. Make it clear to him that there is little work involved in the decision process and that the results of the decision are insignificant. Personal ease is crucial to Donald in reducing his anxieties to the point where he can make a decision, so make the process as simple as possible.