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.
- Editor’s note
- News notes
- Michael Franks and Walter Becker
- Walter Becker interview, winter 1989
- Becker comments on various songs
- Fagen guests on “Desert Island Discs,” 4/90
- Billboard review, 8/24/90
- Letters to the editor
Howya doin’. We want to thank everyone for their support of Metal Leg. Our subscriptions have tripled since the July ’90 issue came out. We’re still not making any money, but at least we’re having fun. Also, you’ll see some great changes in the look of Metal Leg in the January 1991 issue courtesy of Michael Lipman, ML’s new art director.
It’s been a little over a year since Donald appeared at the Lone Star Roadhouse in NYC in his first publicized gig in over fifteen years, And what a difference a year makes. A year ago, Donald sought to stay in the background and showcase the other deserving musicians, And when fans kept yelling for Steely Dan songs, Donald seemed to get upset that he wasn’t getting his point across that there are other great musicians out there besides himself and you should listen to their talents and give them a chance to be heard.
As the months went by, and Donald’s audience showed its appreciation of the other artists alongside him, Fagen rewarded us with a slow, yet consistent buildup of Steely Dan song performances. Yes, that year did make quite a difference as I am still trying to get up off the floor after seeing and hearing “Home At Last” at South Hampton.
To the people at the shows who remain disturbed that Fagen only performs a select few Dan songs: Don’t push your luck. A year ago, he wasn’t even singing at all. And for eight years before that, he wasn’t doing anything!! So Donald , keep easing your way in slowly, but just keep going!
Regarding the status of the recording of Donald’s second solo album, our persistent snooping has yet to have given us a straight answer to deliver to you, the reader. But we can only tell you what we’ve heard, from whom we think are reliable sources.
When production originally started on the record, Walter was supposed to have a limited role in the writing and production, only working on three tracks. But we understand the reunion went so well, Donald and Walter decided to finish the rest of the album together, which, in essence, would make this a Steely Dan album, if not by name, at least in spirit. Walter went back to Hawaii for the rest of the summer, but was rumored to be coming back in mid-fall to continue work at the Hit Factory in NYC. And we have also heard that Donald will fly to Maui to continue work on the album at Walter’s studio in December. There are a lot of stories flying around, but our reports are from highly-placed sources.
We caught up with Lincoln Schleifer, the bass player with “Curious George,” and one of the three musicians who have been in the studio working on Donald’s project (others: Chris Parker – drums, (rumored Zev Katz – bass)). Lincoln, who has backed up Donald at several live shows, received a phone call from a woman in LA who works with Becker and told him to report to the Hit Factory. Bringing in four different bass guitars to the session, the old Fender, with the flat-wound strings was the favorite, giving it the old Chuck Rainey feel. With six hours in the studio that day, Lincoln was recorded on a Sony 48-Track digital recorder and played to a drum machine and sequenced keyboard programmed by Donald. Lincoln did not find any of the old horror stories of working with Donald and Walter to be true and felt comfortable and at ease with the session. Asked what we can expect the songs to sound like, Lincoln pondered the question, recalled the beat in his head and made some finger movements on an air bass and was only able to reply, “It sounds like Donald, it’s what I call the “Donald Fagen Shuffle.” Lincoln knows that his work in the studio may or may not make it to Donald’s record because nothing’s ever set in stone with those guys. But we only hope this 38-year-old bass player from the Bronx with the same birthday as Walter (Feb. 20) will make it to wax.
Also in NY, producer Gary Katz as of September was 90% finished with Rosie Vela’s second record. The project should be completed in October.
Donald continued to make his guest appearances at Hades, the Upper, Upper East Side Manhattan bar with Jimmy Vivino’s Little Big Band this past summer. As the shows went on, Donald seemed more and more relaxed with his fans and blessed them with the addition of “Chain Lightning” from Katy Lied to his playlist, along with “Preztel Logic.” And Donald also gave Jimmy his arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “Down Along The Cove,” from Dylan’s 1968 L.P. John Wesley Harding.
The first few times they performed “Chain Lightning,” sometimes the lyrics and verses got tangled, but this didn’t seem to bother the so-called perfectionist Fagen. Donald wanted the song to be done in three-part harmony as done on the record, but Donald’s voice wasn’t always prominent. On “Pretzel Logic,” Donald did the break “I stepped upon the platform…” himself, which was great, but quickly recruited soulful Jeff Young to lend the part some new funkiness.
And while Donald was in Montauk, Long Island, NY this summer he made another surprise appearance at the “Dancing Crab” bar with a band called “The Big Blue Squid,” made up of college kids whose lead singer is the daughter of a friend of Fagen’s. They played a bunch of blues songs.
In early July, Donald also was a surprise guest at the Michael McDonald show at the Westbury Music Fair also in Long lsland. (Donald’s last appearance at the Fair was in the early ’70’s when Steely Dan shared the bill with Cheech and Chong). He was introduced by McDonald as “The Nightfly, Himself,” and Donald played “Black Friday,” “Pretzel Logic” and played the melodica for McDoobie’s encore of “When A Man Loves A Woman.” The crowd went wild as Fagen and McDonald exited the stage.
As part of the Evian Music Festival put on by Paul Simon’s diminuitive brother Eddie, Donald headlined two shows on August 24th at Southampton, Long Island, NY, a popular summer resort. Billed as “Donald Fagen & Bill Withers: New York Rock & Soul Revue,” Donald originally sought Michael McDonald to do the show, but McDonald had tour commitments. Ironically, Bill Withers had to cancel at the last minute.
So the show went on with Donald and his host of musicians. The show featured a lot of familiar faces from April’s Beacon show including Jeff Young’s “Curious George,” Mindy Jostyn leading the hot backup singers, Sam Butler on rhythm guitar alongside Drew Zingg on lead guitar, And newcomer vocalist, Catherine Russell, shined on “Wang Dang Doodle.” The show again consisted of mostly classic soul songs from the ’60s and ’70s. But Donald obliged his vocal fans’ requests with four Steely Dan songs: “Black Friday,” “Pretzel Logic,” and “Chain Lightning.” But the shocker for the evening was an awe-inspiring performance of Aja‘s “Home At Last.” With no introduction to the song, Donald played the first four piano notes opening the song, and the crowd knew exactly what song was coming. The roar from the audience shook the small auditorium with a vengeance. For the majority of the crowd “Home At Last” was worth the long trek to the end of Long Island on this miserable, rainy evening.
Michael Franks and Walter Becker: The Vulcan Mind Meld
Michael Franks’ new record Blue Pacific contains three tracks produced by Walter Becker. In addition to covering Franks’ and Becker’s thoughts on working together, Metal Leg was invited to a taping of a VH-1 Special on Franks for a show that is slated to air in the early Fall.
When we asked Franks how he came about working with Walter he explained: “I met Walter several years ago in the studio once and didn’t really have a chance to get to know him. I thought he did a really great job with the Rickie Lee Jones project and I actually saw him interviewed on television (VH-1) — he was talking about producing and how much he was enjoying it. I went right over, picked up the phone and called a friend at Warner’s and said “What about Walter Becker?” And he said it’s funny you should ask me now because yesterday I got a call from Walter Becker saying “What about Michael Franks?” It was just a miracle that he was available during the time period. It was really a treat to work with Walter. We had a real sort of Vulcan Mind Meld kind of feeling. The way we worked was really easy and we worked with Roger Nichols which was really a treat having a real samurai at the helm.”
When asked about why he chose the particular tracks for Walter (“Vincent’s Ear,” “Crayon Sun,” “All I Need”), Franks said he thought these songs were right up Walter’s alley, especially “Vincint’s Ear” which was this really mysterious song which was perfect for Walter.
In the September 1990 issue of Jazziz, Becker was equally impressed with Franks’s studio savvy. “Michael’s voice is extremely easy to deal with. His voice is not that different from Donald Fagen’s in that it’s a very pure tone, kind of cool delivery. So the main thing that I’ve done over the years and that Michael has done as well with his voice was to double it in places. As it turns out, he’s very good at that, just because his phrasing is very consistent from performance to performance. That’s all we had to do — put him on mike and he sounded great.”
Blue Pacific’s three Becker-produced tracks were digitally recorded with help from Steely Dan engineer Roger Nichols and feature rich, swirling arrangement bolstered by Buzz Feiten’s acoustic guitar work, and stalwart contributions from bassist Neil Stubenhaus, keyboardist John Beasley, guitarist Dean Parks (Katy Lied’s “Rose Darling”), drummer Peter Erskine, percussionists Michael Fisher (ex-Larry Carlton) and Alex Acuna, and singer Livingston Taylor.
“There’s a purity to what Michael does that I really admire,” says Becker. “His songs are always simple in the best sense of that word. You immediately know what the song is about and where it’s going. It has its effect without too much digestive effort. At the same time, there’s a lot there. They’re very perfect little gems of structure and lyrical purity. I think that, generally speaking, songwriters admire the things that they are least able to do. Michael has a directness and a Zen-like quality to what he does and he does it (in a way) that I really admire.”
“Michael’s music actually exists in that ideal space between pop music and jazz that’s so difficult for people to locate and be comfortable in,” Becker continues. “Part of the problem has been that traditionally in jazz, you have a different kind of lyrical mentality than you have with pop. A lot of people associate jazz-vocal with the less ambitious lyrical things. Michael doesn’t do that. He just writes what he writes, undaunted by the moon-june-spoon, Tin Pan Alley tradition of jazz. Again, it’s just hard for people to function comfortably to make that transition.”
“For Donald Fagen and myself, when we were writing, there were many times when we experimented considerably with ways of incorporating jazz things in pop music that would still give it the impact of pop but some of the harmonic sophistication of jazz. There’s a lot of things you can’t do that you might like to do. I think a lot of people just don’t want to get involved in that challenge.”
Moving on to the VH-1 taping, the band was finishing their rehearsals for Franks’ Blue Pacific tour, made up of a group of jazz-influenced musicians featuring Roberto Vally on bass, Manolo Badrena (ex-Weather Report and current Steve Khan Public Access) on percussion, and a hip-hoppin’, extremely talented keyboardist from Queens, NY, Charles Blenzig. Franks did a set of current and old songs,. (Due to taping difficulties, a couple of second takes rewarded Metal Leg with a second helping of great music.)
On the way out of the studio, we asked Michael a question that has been lingering in our minds for the past three years. On 1987’s “The Camera Never Lies,” Franks gave special thanks to Donald Fagen even though Donald had nothing to do with the recording of the album. What was the deal? Franks replied, “Donald was stopping by the studio a lot during the recording of the album. Donald was writing some music for a song that I was going to write the lyrics for to include on the album, but by the time Donald finished the music, the album was already completed.”
When we asked Michael about this particular song, he replied, “It was a great song and perfect for the theme of the album.” Asked about what it sounded like, Michael said, “It was a lot like the “Goodbye Look” on the “Nightfly.” And no, Michael didn’t have a copy of it.
Walter Becker Interview, Winter 1989
The following is an interview conducted in the Winter 1989 by “SongTalk’s” Paul ZolIo with Walter Becker to discuss his work with Rickie Lee Jones and his reflections on Steely Dan as well as hints of what’s in the horizon:
Did you find that it was easy to connect with all of her (RLJ) songs from the beginning?
Becker: Well, there were some that I liked more than others but there weren’t any that I didn’t like. There weren’t any bad songs. There were some unfinished songs and some songs that were up in the air. In those cases I encouraged her, naturally, to work on the ones I thought were most important. But Rickie had a very clear sense of that, what she wanted the totality of the album to be.
I think the only case where she lost sight of that were cases where she got tired of a song. And that, I think, happens a lot with songwriters. My experience is the same: when you’re working on a song, it’s great, and after you’re finished it starts to fade and whatever you’re working on now is much better in your mind, where maybe it is or maybe it isn’t in reality.
Rickie had an overall attitude that she was interested in for the album that only became clear to me, and I think for her too, as time went on. So it took us a while to find out what was appropriate for each song. Rickie had an idea of simplicity and starkness of presentation that I thought was really appropriate for her and generally speaking, we didn’t want any production values — if that’s not an oxymoron — to interfere with the music and the songwriting and the vocal performances.
A lot of things I hear these days are all production and no substance. I knew with Rickie that there was substance to what she was doing, therefore it didn’t need to be all tarted up in the way many things are. Also, Rickie and I both have musical roots in the ’60s and ’70s sounds of things so I think we understood it wasn’t going to be a huge, humongous, snare drum-backbeat-echoed-deals going on.
It’s ironic that you’ve mentioned the predominance of production over substance in songs today. I think lots of people were so influenced by Steely Dan that they’ve tried to emulate the production style while missing out on the substance of the songs.
Becker: There’s so much emphasis on the superficial aspects of pop records now and writers and performers are so responsive to trends and to their perception of what it is people want to hear and what the A&R people at the record companies want to hear and so on. It’s pretty easy to forget what’s significant and what’s the basis of all this, which is songs. If you don’t have a good song to begin with, you’re wasting your time.
You’ve mentioned the difference between working with Rickie Lee, in which she is very open and honest, and Steely Dan, in which you would sugarcoat subversive elements. Was that a conscious aim with Steely Dan, to sugarcoat or mask your meaning?
Becker: Not so much “meaning” but using jazz harmonies in pop songs. At that time the people in the rock audience, if they were aware they were hearing something that sounded like jazz, they weren’t too happy about it. This is something that Donald and I always had to struggle with, to incorporate some harmonic elements that were more sophisticated than rock and roll and still have it sound like rock and roll.
So I don’t think we were deliberately trying to hide things but we were trying to combine disparate elements in a way that would make them work. So one of the things we would have to do is make these little moments of harmonic density more palatable and make them go by smoothly, integrate them well into what was going, on. And also there were sometimes very strange lyrics for a pop song and rather than make the setting reflect the strangeness of the lyric it would seem to work best for us if the setting was relatively polished and flowing and then the lyrics would get in there along with that.
Was this your approach since the band’s beginning?
Becker: I think that was the approach from the beginning. Some of the songs Donald and I wrote before Steely Dan were more obviously strange as you may know, if you’ve heard any of the demos.
Skunk Baxter mentioned a few of them to us; one was called “Dr. Udu’s Proto-Man.”
Becker: “Dr. Udu’s Proto-Man,” I don’t remember that as actually being a song. It might have been part of a song. Yeah, there were some very very strange things and people didn’t react as favorably to them as we had hoped at the time. So this gradually showed us that we perhaps had to tone down certain elements of what we were doing. And I think it was a maturing process, too. We were wise-ass college kids writing bizarre, somewhat grotesque things and gradually we moved away from that.
Did you like Donald’s voice when first you heard it?
Becker: Yeah, Donald sang very softly at the time when I first knew him so you had to kind of lean into the piano and you would hear this very pure tone come out, kind of like one of the guys in the Hi-Los. But he was always a very good singer, he wasn’t a loud singer. And he just got better and better.
When you began your collaboration, did you ever discuss the kinds of things you wanted to accomplish in your songs?
Becker: Sometimes we’d have an idea for a bizarre thing we wanted to do in advance. I think we both knew we wanted to write smart, sophisticated, witty kind of songs.
Was there any artist the two of you were emulating at the time?
Becker: Not as writers, no. Looking back, the songs that we were writing were influenced by the overall tenor of the times. Like everyone else, there was a Bob Dylan influence and there were some folksy things we did, the Band was happening, that kind of stuff was influential.
Jazz was always a big influence because Donald and I were both jazz fans.
It’s surprising that you mention Dylan and The Band, whose recordings seem so spontaneous compared to the precise tightness of Steely Dan.
Becker: That’s just something that evolved. That was just our idea of how to make things better at the time. Coming from a time when people just threw things together and went into the studio and let things happen, that seemed like a logical progression to us. To get some of the tightness and precision that certain kinds of jazz had. That influenced us in that kind of perfectionism… and then, you know, pure neurotic drive took over at a certain point and we ran on that pretty well for a few years.
Is there any way of musically explaining how you achieved that tightness? Does it mostly have to do with the lock between the bass and drums?
Becker: Yeah, we would spend many, many hours just trying to get things to be rhythmically precise. And especially when you’re overdubbing things, layer after layer, that’s very important. So that was the primary, going through the kind of rhythmic precision that you hear on soul records where the groove is not to be denied, that was the kind of thing we were emulating. I would say that was a general trend in the ’70s in record production up to and culminating in drum machines where you have absolute and utter precision although in many cases you have absolutely no groove because it’s a machine. But at that time that’s what we thought we wanted, for things to be tighter and tighter and more locked in.
Back before the days of drum machines, how did you communicate your ideas to drummers?
Becker: I’m kind of a drum freak myself so I would always have a pretty good vision of what I wanted. We would describe what we wanted to a drummer, listen to what he did and then take it from there. But in the case of Bernard Purdie there was no point in having any ideas because he was going to do something that you couldn’t really imagine. And he was the kind of guy who could look at a chart and see a record in his mind’s eye. He would put it together and make it orderly, make the transitions work. If he found something he liked, he would use that over and over and give it structure in that way. Basically he just did what only he could do. And that was true, more or less, with the other drummers we worked with, too.
That’s also surprising because you and Fagen have a reputation for being studio tyrants and telling each musician exactly what to play.
Becker: Not at all. We would go in with a piano chart that showed Donald’s chord voicings and Donald would usually go through the keyboard chart with the keyboard player. Because if you just write chord symbols, everyone will play them differently. The keyboard parts, in most cases, were so integral to what we were doing that a lot of the ingredients had to be there in that way. But then the keyboard player was free to articulate and add things to that, so there was a lot of just blowing. And that’s basically what was written. No bass parts were written. Usually, Chuck Rainey would listen to our demo in which I played bass and take the things off that he thought were appropriate and just come up with the rest. And since Chuck Rainey was my favorite bass player in the whole known universe, I vastly preferred for him to do things instead of playing bass myself.
The guitar players had nothing written for them and they would come up with their own parts. We would listen and suggest things but there certainly wasn’t any score.
Would you record bass, drums and keyboards simultaneously?
Becker: Yes, usually bass, drums, keyboards, guitar. Yeah.
You mentioned writing out the chord voicings for your songs. I’ve been intrigued by what you and Fagen called, in your songbook, the “Mu chord.”
Becker: Yes, the “Mu chord.” Probably the less said about that, the better, but–
Becker: It was kind of a joke, that name. In the late ’60s when we first started writing together, we would write or play very simple tunes and the way that we came up with hopping up major triads was to add a second, usually right under the third. This was one of the few alterations that you could do to a major chord and still have it sound like a major chord and not a jazz chord. So we ended up doing that a lot to the point where we thought it would be a good idea to make fun of ourselves.
Why the name “Mu chord”?
Becker: I don’t remember why the name (laughs) “Mu chord.” I’m sure there was some very important reason at the time.
It’s much harder to play on guitar than piano. Would you do it on guitar often?
Becker: That’s something that I did where available on guitar. It’s always available on piano. We had Denny (Dias) do it on the guitar because he had far greater dexterity. But whole-tone dissonances like that are quite awkward on guitar except in certain open chord positions.
When you started using that chord, did you make a decision that it would be a signature chord for Steely Dan?
Becker: We just did it so much that it ended up that way. And as time went on, we developed other chord alterations that became associated strongly with what we did. And he continues to explore the fringes of tonal organization; harmonic stuff that still sounds tonal but is expanded as it can be.
Are there other chords you can name that defined the Steely Dan sound?
Becker: The particular chord that people have mentioned to me is a chord where you have, in the key of C, an E in the bass, a D, a G and a C on top. Let me pick up my guitar for a second… (picks up electric guitar and plays chord). It’s an extension of the “Mu chord” if you will but you move the third, the E; into the bass. So it’s a C major chord with an E in the bass. (As well as the major second.) I’ve been told that in some circles this is known as the “Steely Dan chord.” I don’t know if that’s true…
It’s a chord we used over and over and now it’s become kind of a generic fusion cliche harmony. There’s a lot more sophisticated harmonic stuff going on now than there used to be so a lot of this stuff is in the public domain.
Do you see Steely Dan as being responsible for that progression?
Becker: No, I think that was inevitable and I think that the fact that keyboard players are so important now is responsible for that because those are all things that are more likely to be outgrowths of keyboard structure than fretboard structure, as you well know as a guitar player trying to deal with some of these things. It’s very hard.
You don’t feel that Steely Dan set a higher standard than people were trying to reach at the time?
Becker: I think we were trying to be as musically sophisticated as we could and that wasn’t really a priority for a lot of people and still isn’t. A lot of people want things to be as rootsy and gutsy as possible which is very valid, too. It’s actually kind of refreshing in these troubled times of Fender Rhodes ballads and Fuzak stuff you hear now. So I think it was influential, sure. And I think a lot of people were influenced by the same things we were. Old jazz records, classical ideas…
In most songwriter collaborations, it’s clear who wrote what. Even with Lennon and McCartney it became clear after a while what each of them wrote. With Becker and Fagen, it’s always been a mystery as to who contributed what to each song. Why is that?
Becker: We were writing together for such a long time that we really adapted to one another. We had a tremendous rapport from the very beginning of our collaboration where we knew what we wanted to do and we weren’t working at cross-purposes. That became more and more the case.
We developed a way of working together that really combined our sensibilities. There were a lot of things that I never learned because Donald already knew how to do them. I could manipulate elements of his technique without having to master the same things myself. A lot of the themes that we developed, we developed together. Over the years, just bouncing things off of each other in ordinary conversations we’d be having, and I still find this when I talk to Donald, it’s very stimulating and also he and I will be thinking along similar lines and we’ll start to talk about something and say, (shouts) “Yeah, that’s right, yeah, yeah!”
I think our collaboration was so well integrated that we weren’t sure ourselves where one guy’s contribution ended and the next guy’s picked up.
Would you ever write a complete lyric and set that to music?
Becker: No. We never did that. The only time I remember doing that was back in the ’60s when we set a Lewis Carroll poem to music. But even then, we didn’t have a melody. It was kind of an improvised melody. I don’t know if that counts.
Did you usually work on words and music at the same time?
Becker: Usually we would get a melody first and then stretch it or do what we needed to do to accommodate words.
You’d come up with a whole melody without any words?
Becker: No, typically we’d get a chorus together first with the lyrics. Ideally. Not having a chorus was a real pain in the ass. Once you had the chorus, then you could construct the music for the verse, and then the melody for the verse, and then actually write the verse. Try to make sense out of the chorus, if at all possible. (Laughs) Or otherwise illustrate it.
Did you two ever work separately on songs?
Becker: Yeah, we’d get little pieces and.then bring the pieces in. And put them together.
Did the two of you try to write songs on a daily basis or did you wait for songs to emerge?
Becker: We didn’t write as much when we were recording. When we were in recording we would just write what was needed for the album. Then when the album was finished, we would get back to just writing. We usually worked in evenings or nights and worked for a couple of hours a couple times a week.
You mentioned how the music will suggest the words, and yet with Steely Dan the words and the music would often oppose each other or work on different levels at the same time. When you were working on songs, were you trying to achieve a marriage between the music and words or did you try to have the two elements set each other off?
Becker: Even if they work together by opposing each other, that’s a marriage too. The one thing underscores the other. Either by making it sound funny or make something that does sound funny sound serious; by ironically combining things which we did often enough. I think.
Speaking of irony, Donald’s voice has an ironic sound to it–
On the first Steely Dan album, Donald wasn’t the lead vocalist. Did you write different songs for his voice when he became the main vocalist of the band?
Becker: Actually, Donald was always the lead vocalist but he just didn’t want to accept it. The other lead vocalist was an afterthought. As time went on, we wrote more and more for what Donald’s vocal capabilities were, absolutely, And if he didn’t feel comfortable about performing something, that was that. And I think as we went on, he looked back and said, “This kind of thing worked for me as a singer and this kind of thing I cannot do.” And that determined a lot about the tunes we were writing.
The name Steely Dan came from William Burrough’s book Naked Lunch. Do you recall who it was that found that name and wanted to use it?
Becker: I think we both knew about that, actually. That was a must reading at that time. And we had used it in a lyric of a song. I know I was aware of it and I didn’t have to explain it to Donald or anything like that, He was aware of it, too. It was a very funny passage in the book about this metal dildo. It was the kind of thing we were both aware of separately.
Donald’s done one solo album. Will there ever be a Walter Becker solo album?
Becker: Well, maybe. If Walter Becker could sing a little better, there probably would have been one already. I’m beginning to realize that I don’t have the luxury of sitting around wishing I was a better singer than I am so I’m thinking about doing something. Either I have to accommodate myself to the equipment I have or find better equipment. But I’d like there to be a Walter Becker record now which I never really thought about before. I think working with Rickie has influenced me. I see how much fun she had doing this and I want to do it too.
Donald’s album sounded sort of like Steely Dan and yet the lyrical content was a little sweeter and less dark, What would your album sound like?
Becker: I don’t know, to tell you the truth. That’s the kind of thing that I wouldn’t know until it was over. His album did sound like Steely Dan in a lot of ways, particularly because of his voice and songwriting. But I think you’re quite correct in that Donald was trying to move away, from the dark, ironic tone of the Steely Dan albums. And I think he was very successful in doing that.
I don’t know if I would feel compelled to deliberately do that or not. I don’t feel any need to repudiate that. But you never know. When you start on something, it leads you along a path. I guess Donald had a concept for his album. Because of its premise of the perspective of a youthful somebody, that was not an appropriate tone, that cynical tone. Yet of course there is something extremely ironic about a song like “I.G.Y.”
Often songwriters experience ideas simply arriving. Do you have an idea where they come from?
Becker: No, but that is my experience. Maybe we’re channeling Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. (Laughs)
That seems possible. Does it seem as if these ideas come from beyond you?
Becker: Yes, possibly.
Any advice as to how to get in touch with that source?
Becker: No, I think it’s a matter of paying attention and diligence. And practicing at what you do and doing it and doing it until the moment of relaxation comes when you can be in touch with something like that.
When it’s not flowing, do you stay there and work or do you leave it alone?
Becker: In the past when I was working with Donald I had the discipline to stay there and keep going. Even on days when you get absolutely nothing, and there are many of them, it’s important to do it. You have to do that seemingly non-productive work to get to the point (snaps fingers) where things suddenly click into place. You have to lay the groundwork for that.
And in your experience are the best melodies generated by an instrument or separate from one?
Becker: Most of my ideas are when I am playing an instrument rather than, you mean, when I’m walking down the street? I have great ideas when I’m walking down the street but they’re gone from moment to moment.
Do you have a favorite Steely Dan song?
Rickie said she was a little scared about meeting you at first because you looked so tough in your photos and never smiled.
Becker: I think it was just that we were just trying to look cool, you know? (Laughs) It seemed like a good idea not to smile. But as Rickie found out, I’m actually a very jovial guy. We had a lot of laughs.
She said you turned out to be quite nice, but that you are simply too intelligent for the rest of mankind.
Becker: (Much laughter) That’s very flattering.
But not true?
Becker: I think that’s up to the rest of mankind to decide.
Becker comments on various songs
The following are Mr. Becker’s response to a random sample of Steely Dan songs:
“The Boston Rag”
I always think the nice thing about “The Boston Rag” was that it took place in New York. So “The Boston Rag” was part of a state of mind… I haven’t seen Lonnie in a long time. I wonder how he is. Hi Lonnie!
That was one of the first songs we wrote after the tour for “Pretzel Logic.” It was just a song that we wrote, I guess.
“Aja” had parts of another song in the middle of it that never made it that was called “Stand By The Seawall.” The little chunk in the middle — “Aja” is kind of a song with a little suite in the center of it and some of that were parts of that song and other miscellaneous bits and pieces that Donald had laying around in his head; things he was going to write and never did and it just got assembled that way.
“Home At Last”
There was a previous version of “Home At Last” that the chorus came from.
“Time Out Of Mind”
Well, we both wrote that lyric. I remember writing that at Donald’s house in Malibu. We wrote that before we moved back to New York, most of it. All of it. So we must have had that one sitting around for a while.
“Any World (That I’m Welcome To)”
I think we wrote that, believe it or not, for Barbra Streisand, (Laughs) Or Dusty Springfield. We had three or four songs that we wrote for some female vocalist that somebody we knew was producing. The key change in it seemed like a good idea at the time.
“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”
It wasn’t written for Rickie Lee Jones. Nobody had any idea that there was a RLJ at that time. Well, obviously, some people did… it was just a pop song.
It was kind of an Owsley-esque figure that existed in our mind’s eye. I think he was based on the idea of the outlaw-acid-chef of the Sixties who had essentially outlived the social context of his specialty but of course he was still an outlaw.
“Your Gold Teeth” Parts 1 and 2
That seemed like enough, to do two versions of it. We couldn’t think of any other way to use that. (Laughs) I might add that the second version much more closely resembles the original version which we never recorded, It was just a simple sort of waltz.
“Through With Buzz”
(Laughter) The less said about that one, the better, I think.
“My Old School”
Folk-rocky. Lots of fun.
“Any Major Dude”
I think that was the second take. That was great. It was almost over before anyone knew they were recording it.
(Laughs) Jimmy Hodder’s vocal. Old song.
Very spooky song. I still like that one a lot. Some of them I don’t like. That one I do.
Fagen guests on “Desert Island Discs,” 4/90
Donald Fagen was a guest on the “Desert Island Discs” radio show in April 1990 where a famous rock musician plays an hour’s worth of music he would like if stranded on a desert island. Donald decided to devote his picks to songs of the ’70’s and Metal Leg was quite surprised at some of his choices and you probably will be, too. (But then again, nothing that these guys do should surprise us.)
When I was in Los Angeles — I was living there in most of the ’70s. I guess from ’72-’78 there were a lot of good songs being played on the radio. At that time, we were trying to get a band together and get some of our songs on the radio. I remember — I guess in ’77-’76 — Fleetwood Mac came out with that famous album which had so many great hits on it. This one is called “You Make Loving Fun.”
Here’s a song from the earlier, or middle ’70s. It was an interesting record — had a lot of sound effects in it. It sounded live, but I’m not sure if it was or not. It’s called “Bennie And The Jets” by Elton John.
Got another song here from the ’70s. It wasn’t a big hit but it’s a great song. I think the words really are great and also have something very interesting to say concerning that period when a lot of the cities were falling apart — and of course they still are — but here’s the Grateful Dead with “Shakedown Street.”
The next song I wanna play here is by Dr. John. It’s called “Right Place, Wrong Time.” The words on this are sinful. I played with Dr. John, also known as Mac Rebennack, a few times and he’d call me on the phone and say things like “Meet you at the gig-a-roo,” and all that kind of thing, so he’s quite a character. Here it is: “Right Place, Wrong Time.”
Mark Knopfler is a very talented singer and guitar player. I worked with him — I guess it was about ’76 on the Gaucho album when I was still with Steely Dan and he played on a song called “Time Out Of Mind” and he did a great job, too. This song is called “Sultans Of Swing.”
The ’70s, Nixon and China, Watergate, Sam Ervin, The Godfather, Star Wars, Feminism. And here’s a song that was big in the ’70’s called “Golden Years” by David Bowie.
Another song that would make life on a desert island more bearable is one by Rickie Lee Jones called “Chuckie’s In Love.” Her recent album actually is produced by my former partner Walter Becker, so I’m really happy to play this one. Listen to this guitar part.
Anyone familiar with the creative process knows there’s a kind of manic terror involved when you really get rolling, writing a novel or song or whatever. Here’s the Talking Heads from their second album More Songs About Buildings And Food” with a song about the creative process called “Artists Only: I’m Painting! I’m Painting Again.”
They just keep rolling on: The Rolling Stones. During the ’70s, one of their greatest albums was Sticky Fingers and here’s a slow ballad by Mick Jagger in the Otis Redding tradition called “I Got The Blues.”
When my partner Walter Becker and I first moved out to Los Angeles, one of the first big songs at the time was “Heart Of Gold.” I remember hearing it playing driving along the freeways. Neil Young is a really original artist and I think his honesty and originality are something you hear in this great song, “Heart Of Gold.”
Here’s a song by John Lennon I think is from 1970. It’s definitely from the very early ’70s. I guess some people would still call it the ’60s, if they’re talking culturally and psychologically and so on, It’s a very interesting song, really original in John Lennon’s later style using a lot of echo and all that kind of stuff that he started using during the ’70s. John Lennon died in 1980, so this was 10 years before. Here’s “Instant Karma.”
Let’s see now, we’ve played some David Bowie, some Dead, one by the Rolling Stones, some Lennon. Here’s one by the band War, which I understand is still around. When I lived in Los Angeles in the ’70s, everyone would see these cars riding along with the incredible lowering job on the back fender. And this one is by War, really driving tune, it’s that LA culture in the ’70s, extolling that kind of vehicle called “Low Rider.”
I hope you’ve enjoyed spending the last hour with me listening to the records I’d take to a desert island. A lot of people think the ’70s were a pretty vague era, but I hope this brought back a lot of good memories and, hopefully, not too many bad memories, I know I’ve had a lot of fun on this desert island here with these palm trees, coconuts and all that. And I’ll see you next time.
Billboard review, 8/24/90
Here’s what Diane Patrick had to say about the Southampton show in the Sept. 22, 1990 issue of Billboard:
As those who attended its amazing Beacon Theater concert in April know, this revue gives large audiences a rare opportunity to see the revered-but-reclusive keyboardist/composer/vocalist Donald Fagen, while experiencing a sincere musical celebration of the blues roots of rock n’ soul.
Just as in his Steely Dan days, Fagen’s radar can still zero in on the finest musicians available to accompany him. At this Aug. 24 show, Fagen’s backing band was Curious George, a hard-working, New York-based, five-piece blues band expanded to a meaty, but uncluttered thirteen pieces — including three smoking horns, five fiery vocalists, and two burning guitars.
Led by vocalist/keyboardist Jeff Young — whose powerful voice suggests a blend of Carl Anderson, Robert Cray, Corey Glover, and Greg Walker — “Curious” did major justice to each of the 16 songs in the set.
The relaxed Fagen, visibly enjoyed himself as he informally “hosted” the presentation from his piano stool, quipping at every opportunity. The tunes were all classics — i.e., “Knock On Wood,” “You Got Me Hummin’,” “Soothe Me,” “Piece Of My Heart” — each soulfully executed using each musician’s best talents. And without ceremony, they interwove into the program the Steely Dan classics “Black Friday,” “Chain Lightning,” “Home At Last,” and “Pretzel Logic,” which brought the audience to its feet. Fagen’s voice is worn in a couple of spots, but where necessary, the Steely tunes were subtly modified to accommodate that natural occurrence.
Bill Withers, who was expected on the bill, was a no-show. But his absence did not mar this evening of powerful performances.
Letters to the editor
I writing because at one time I’ve listened to Steely Dan. But because of my situation, I haven’t keeped up with him. I love his songs and want to know if there’s any way I can find out anything about how he doing. Anyway, I’m going home soon. Maybe I will be listening to his music again. Maybe one day I can get a job selling he’s music or advertising it. Thank you.
A Steely Dan Music Lover,
Watertown Correctional Facility
Watertown, New York
(Ed. Note: Yes, Louis, I think you’re perfect for the job.)
I am surrounded by agents of the law and restless pedestrians. I gather from your message that you can be of service to me. Please let me know. For now… I’m the only man left on the Rio Grande … I may be the King Of The World as far as I know.
AKA- F. Perez, Jr.
(Ed. Note: Dear Doc, it’s “Luckless” pedestrians.)