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.
I’ve Got The News
Profile of sideman Denny McDermott
Profile of sideman Bob Smith
Song by Song, with Gary Katz
WBAI: Jazz and Conversation
Interview from EQ with Roger Nichols
Interviews with 3 session men
Babs and Willie on a quest
Letters to the editor
It’s been another wonderful couple of months. Donald is continuing to play live and sing better than ever. The shows at Woodstock were great with Fagen adding the classics “Deacon Blues,” “Josie” and “Green Earrings” to his live performances. Wow! The Royal Scam coming to life again! Unbelievable! Let’s now hope that Walter gets back to the “mainland” to help finish Donald’s record.
A lot of people have been wondering what Metal Leg is all about … just as much as we have at times. Well, Metal Leg is not a fan club as such; we really don’t think of it that way at any rate. We hope to be able to keep in contact with all of you, but your sheer numbers seem to multiply far faster than we can accommodate your questions and requests.
Originally, we had hopes of establishing some sort of communication system between all of you out there, but our own lack of money has prevented us from setting up something large and complex. However, we still want you to continue to send in your letters and suggestions on what you’d like to see in the ‘zine. We read every letter we receive, but time constraints limit our ability to write personal replies — just think of us the same way you think about Donald’s new album …. don’t hold your breath.
I’ve Got The News
Well, not too much news on Donald’s 2nd solo album except that we hear he’s working very hard. As we write this in mid-September, Donald is in Maui at Walter’s studio continuing their transcontinental sessions on this epic production And then in October, Walter will be traveling back to New York to work on the record at Fagen’s River Sound studio.
If you’d like a special treat, you should pick up a copy of the new Manhattan Transfer album The Offbeat Of Avenues, which contains a new song with music and lyrics written by Donald Fagen called “Confide In Me” which is “a soulfully heartfelt look at recovery from addiction.” This track will serve as a snack until we see more new stuff from Fagen in the future. Although Fagen doesn’t sing or play on the track, the Transfer’s effort seemed to convey the right attitude.
In studio news, River Sound is now open commercially, and as we said in the last issue, 10cc did some work at the studio with co-owner Gary Katz. Also, producer Hugh Padgham (Genesis, Phil Collins, Police, Split Enz) recently talked to River Sound management about recording some projects there. Padgham was then invited to “hear the room” and see if he wanted to work there. Later, after Hugh found out that Fagen and Katz were the proprietors, he said, “If it’s good enough for the guys in Steely Dan, it’s good enough for me.”
Walter Becker’s studio in Maui is getting a workout with recent sessions completed by Buddy Fo, who’s now also the afternoon DJ on Maui’s KMVI. Fo’s new album, called Signature, features his band Robert Loney, Bill Shaffer, Jeffrey New and Jon Melia playing a variety of sounds including one Buddy calls “Hawaiian reggae.” Also featured on the album are guest musicians Sal Godinez on keyboard and John Zangrando on sax and Sam Ahia on guitar. Before Fagen arrived, the Pahinui Brothers were also working on an album there.
Walter’s production of trumpet player Jeff Beal on Triloka records was released on September 11th with liner notes thanking Walter for his “focus and creativity.” Dan alumnus Roger Nichols has continued to engineer Becker’s recent Triloka and Windham Hill production work. In fact, Walter will be working in NY in January on projects for Triloka artists Jeremy Steig and Dave Kakowski. His Windham Hill production of John Beasley and Marty Krystall will be out in early 1992.
Gary Katz, whose production of Irish superstar Paul Brady’s recent release Trick Or Treat won critical acclaim, should have his work with 10cc out in early 1992. Unfortunately, his work with the group Swim may not be heard as they were supposedly dropped by their record label in Europe. Gary is currently working with a female artist at River Sound. We don’t know yet who the artist is, but it’s not Rosie Vela. But you will be able to see and hear Rosie’s singing in her first major movie role as a nightclub singer Lisa Zamora in Double Cross which also stars Thelma and Louise co-star Michael Madsen. This film is due March of ’92.
Lights, Camera, Jimmy!
Speaking of movies, Jimmy Vivino has left The Little Big Band temporarily to do a soundtrack in Los Angeles for the movie Sister Act which stars Whoopie Goldberg. Jimmy describes the film as “a ’60s girl group thing.” Jimmy has also produced and played on the new Killer Joe record which also features drummer Max Weinberg. As a result of Jimmy’s stint on the west coast, the Little Big Band is currently on hiatus, which means no more guest appearances by Donald with the band. More to follow as things develop.
As you might have seen on Friday, September 13th, the New York Rock & Soul Revue with Donald Fagen, Phoebe Snow, Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs and Jeff Young & the Youngsters were “profiled” on ABC TV’s late night concert show “In Concert ’91.” The segment was about 10 minutes long and no song was seen in its entirety. It followed an extended Eric Clapton show (with Greg Phillinganes on keyboards) and the Halloween band The Cure. Apparently, the show is targeted to 13-year-olds and did not do justice to the Rock & Soul Revue. The show didn’t even mention that a live album was coming out. The new release date for the album is November 12th on Giant Records (the same label that brought you the feel-good hit of the summer “I Wanna Sex U Up” from the “New Jack City” Soundtrack, produced by ML subscriber George Jackson). Without a plug for the live album, what was the purpose of the show?
Well, those questions aside, we and some listeners of WNEW-FM in NY were able to attend the taping of the show at The Academy Theater (400 people in attendance) two weeks earlier. The theater was filled with film equipment, audio recorders and industrial lighting which turned the place into a hotbox and the sweat-drenched musicians seemed a bit uncomfortable. Fagen and crew were constantly wiping the sweat from their brows with an abundant supply of towels, yet they all seemed to keep their sense of humor, even as cameras were thrust in their faces.
This was only Fagen’s second television experience since he appeared December 18, 1988 on David Sanborn’s “Sunday Night.” At that time Fagen gave his thoughts about appearing on television, “I really like having a certain amount of privacy, I’m very nervous about going on television, ’cause television is what makes you famous. I did it (the Sanborn show) to actually see how nervous I’d be on television. It wasn’t that bad.” Well, at the taping Fagen seemed quite comfortable and made a lot of jokes during the two-hour session. He told of how he hated touring in the old Steely Dan days and spoke of how the “audience’s drugs of choice were Quaaludes and wine” and he remembers a guy so out of it he “crawled into one of our speakers during the show and we had to pry him out — with a crowbar.” Michael McDonald exchanged nods with Fagen as he seemed to remember the incident.
In Their Own Words
On May 9th at New York’s Bottom Line nightclub, the art of songwriting was showcased in a show titled “In Their Own Words — A Bunch of Songwriters Sitting Around Singing.” Vin Scelsa, a NY radio personality from WXRQ-FM hosted the event.
Donald Fagen agreed to join the symposium along with Blood Sweat and Tears and Blues Project founder Al Kooper, classic Muscle Shoalsters Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham and bluesy country tunesmith Gary Nicholson. The Little Big Band’s own Jimmy Vivino was also on hand to add his guitar prowess to the proceedings. Al Kooper called Jimmy the “grease that makes this machine go.”
Donald took his seat at the piano surrounded with Gary on acoustic guitar, Al on a Korg M1, Dan on acoustic guitar and Spooner on keyboards. In a round robin fashion, Vin Scelsa questioned the performers about their songs. All the artists chose a couple of their favorite tunes, talked about how they came up with the music and lyrics and then performed them. Kooper highlighted his early Blood, Sweat & Tears work, dirty white boys Penn and Oldham performed their soul hits “I’m Your Puppet” and “Sweet Inspiration” and Nicholson debuted “The Trouble With The Truth.”
For us, the The Bottom Line provided such an intimate atmosphere for seeing Donald perform and discuss his work, it was almost like being in a recording studio. Fagen spoke softly as he went into describing his writing style with Steely Dan, which was driven by the way he played the piano “like a giant guitar with a few notes thrown in.” He also acknowledged that “a lot of the Steely Dan attitude was Walter’s.” On his influences, Donald discussed how he “was turned on to jazz by some older cousins at around age 11 and later developed a love of the blues.” He continued, “By combining jazz with the simple directness of blues, he and fellow “jazz weenie” Walter Becker began to develop the Steely Dan sound.”
Fagen then described producer Gary Katz’s role in Steely Dan as very important as he and Walter were new in Los Angeles at the start, and “Gary knew all the best players” and “Gary could also talk about sports and hockey to the players and get them relaxed.” Scelsa then jokingly asked Donald if the Steely Dan lyrics made sense to him at the time they were written. “I’m afraid so,” Fagen responded, and then elaborated that he and Walter “liked short story-type songs and we just left some parts out. For instance, before launching into “Black Friday,” Fagen said, “this is about the stock market crash of 1929. It seemed like a good subject for a song.”
As the evening progressed, Donald seemed even more relaxed in this informal forum. Vin then asked about writer’s block and if Donald ever had to deal with it. “About 10 years’ worth,” Fagen quipped. Fagen then led into “Green Flower Street” as “kinda like an Oriental fantasy, but I guess most of my songs are.”
The evening’s performances had a spontaneous feel to them. As Al Kooper went to play a song, Vin’s coaxing and cheers from the audience persuaded the Nashville resident to perform Blood, Sweat and Tears’ “I Can’t Quit Her.” When he finished, Al proclaimed, “If I have to do that, Donald should have to play ‘Do It Again’.” As the audience roared its approval at the suggestion, Donald shot back “I don’t just fold like you do!”
Then, a familiar piano opening signaled Jimmy Vivino to join Fagen on Steely Dan’s “Home At Last.” Jimmy’s acoustic guitar work was the only accompaniment needed for this unique arrangement. Jimmy, sitting on a stool in the background, his face turning red, picked the part so unremittingly that the strings began to sail off his guitar.
Toward the end of the show, each artist was asked to perform a song they wished they had written. Fagen didn’t hesitate to jump on this opportunity to show his appreciation for Burt Bacharach’s and Hal David’s “Land Of Make Believe.” Donald spoke of how great Dionne Warwick’s original performance of the song was, and then did his own vocal and piano version.
All in all, it was an entertaining and insightful evening for those who got this rare opportunity to see these great songwriters in such an intimate setting.
This review was contributed by Ken Vogel.
Fagen Plays Woodstock
(or Two Days of Peace, Love and Music … Without The Mud!)
On July 12th and 13th, special guests Donald Fagen and Phoebe Snow joined The Little Big Band at the 250-seat Bearsville Theater just outside of Woodstock, NY. The theme wasn’t really a Rock & Soul Revue, but more of a showcase for the talented members of The Little Big Band to show people outside of New York City what they’re made of. The Little Big Band has been playing in small NYC clubs for the past year and a half, and since the beginning, Donald and Phoebe have been making low-key appearances to join Jimmy Vivino and company for laid-back fun rock, soul and R&B classics. It was just a natural progression to play a bigger venue while keeping the intimate atmosphere of their NY club gigs.
The Little Big Band public dress rehearsal for the Woodstock show took place the prior week at their regular Tuesday night gig at the China Club on 75th & Broadway. However, a private rehearsal took place earlier in the day in a rented rehearsal studio. And what took place in those secret sessions were debuted that night — Donald added another two Steely Dan songs to the growing list of songs he’ll play live: the “bad girl” song “Josie” and “Green Earrings.” At first, the band was going to rehearse “Sign In Stranger,” but was later scrapped by Donald because “maybe we’re trying to be a little too ambitious.” “Deacon Blues” was also supposed to debut that night, but it never materialized. The China Club was packed since Jimmy’s band had now gotten a reputation as the best kept secret in NYC. As the Tuesday night show started, a couple of added guests sat in with the horn section. LBB regular baritone sax player Tom “Bones” Malone had a prior commitment in Europe so Dan session veteran Ronnie Cuber took his place. Vivino called Ronnie Cuber “the best musician he’s had on stage since we’ve been playing live.” And the other guest saxophonist joining the festivities was Branford Marsalis who’s no slouch himself. Marsalis wanted to remain anonymous and with his newly-shaven head and introduction as Johnny from Mexico, he was spared the usual question “What’s it like playing with Sting?”
We won’t go into much more of the China Club show, because most of the magic happened at the Bearsville Theater later that week. However, we did get a laugh watching Fagen’s bemusement as his uptempo “Josie” gave the crowd an excuse to jam the dance floor in front of him.
Getting back to Woodstock, both shows sold out and a line in front of the theater formed two hours before the show (mostly out-of-town Metal Leg subscribers) which shocked the local residents who aren’t used to crowds. This was confirmed by the bartender at the theater who said, “This is biggest show we’ve had here. The only lines people are used to here are at the Grand Union (grocery store) and the post office.” Also, the theater oversold the seating, so it was standing room only.
The LBB took the stage with Jimmy Vivino starting into “You Upsets Me.” Catherine Russell followed with “Wang Dang Doodle.” Then, the coolest part of, the evening was when the first few bars of “Green Earrings” started, but Fagen was nowhere to be seen on stage. And as the audience was just comprehending what was going on, the Donald took his place at the piano, sunglasses in place, looking very cool. The live version of this song transcended the Royal Scam’s version, and the “disco bridge” was left out. Jimmy’s guitar playing and the rhythm section was perfect.
Then Jenni Muldaur, looking healthier than ever, sang “You Don’t Have To Go.” Next the LBB original “Stone Soul Minute” showcased Vivino’s blues roots. Phoebe then took the stage with her usual show stopping presence and tore it up on “I Can’t Stand The Rain” and “At Last.” Now as we said earlier, we didn’t know the status of “Deacon Blues.” Apparently it’s a tough song to do, but when the opening notes started, we went into shock as we finally witnessed the live debut of one of the greatest songs ever written. Fagen had the words to the song plastered to his piano (the song IS 15 years old) and navigated them beautifully. As the song progressed, you could see all heads turn to the horn section in anticipation of the sax solo that Pete Christlieb made famous. Jerry Vivino did Pete proud. After the show, Jerry told ML: “You wouldn’t believe how many times I listened to “Deacon Blues” on my car cassette player on the drive to Woodstock.” That ended the first set.
The second half of the show started with “Josie” and Fagen modified the chart to include a drum solo by Gary Gold. “Walk In To The Light” followed with Catherine Russell singing this LBB original. “Killin’ Floor” kept things rockin’ until Phoebe returned with “You’re So Fine” and a reggae version of CCR’s “As Long As I Can See The Light.” Then Fagen bounced right back with “Chain Lightning” and “Black Friday” with guitar solos by Jimmy Vivino which should have been bottled and sold. And that ended the show.
The Friday night encore featured the whole hand doing “Wooly Bully,” Fagen’s rendition of Dylan’s “Down Along The Cove” and Phoebe’s rendition of “Just To Be With You.”
The Saturday night encore featured the surprise guests Cyndi Lauper and a couple of guys from The Hooters, (including the one with the accordion) who joined in on “Wooly Bully/Hang On Sloopy.” Ms. Lauper seemed to hover around Fagen’s piano and stare at him like she’s never seen a real musician before. All in all, another dream come true for those of us who still can’t believe how far things have come in the past year and a half.
Classic Dan Clips
If you want to see Steely Dan’s lip-synched performance of “My Old School” on American Bandstand, you should check out a video collection called “Rock, Roll, and Remember” from Dick Clark’s Golden Greats collection. The four-volume set retails for about a hundred bucks. In other video news, there’s a new bootleg of a 1990 Japanese concert performance by a group called “The Best” featuring Simon Phillips on drums, Keith Emerson on keyboards, John Entwistle on bass, Jeff Skunk Baxter and Joe Walsh on guitars and an unknown lead vocalist who looked and jumped around the stage like early Dan lead singer David Palmer. The concept of the show was for the band to play songs they’ve always wanted do with the original artists. Seeing and hearing Entwistle playing bass on “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” Emerson playing piano on “Bodhisattva” and Walsh & Baxter trading guitar licks on “Reelin’ In The Years” is worth the watch. You can track down this video and other goodies in Goldmine Magazine. In other bootleg news, Scorpio Records, the Italian label which put out the Dan bootleg concert CD “This All Too Mobile Home” was busted by the authorities and had inventory confiscated.
And finally, Steely Dan Gold, another greatest hits compilation will be released on CD on MCA on October 15th. Bonus tracks on the disc will include the Santa Monica Civic Center live version of “Bodhisattva,” a re-mixed version of “Century’s End” from the Bright Lights, Big City movie soundtrack, “True Companion” from the Heavy Metal movie soundtrack and “Here At The Western World.”
The following review of the Woodstock shows by Spider Barbour appeared in The Woodstock Times.
A Really Little Big Show
Comparing expectations, I found mine were similar to my friends in the Bearsville Theater audience last Friday night. We came to see The Little Big Band with guests Donald Fagen and Phoebe Snow, and this mystery mix was a big part of the attraction. As one friend put it, “I don’t know what to expect, but it made me curious enough to come.” Was it to be a showcase for this Little Big Band with the stars as draw, but with only token performances? Or would it be something more?
Something more — and then some. The opening appetizer was straight down the middle, a blues tune fronted by bandleader/guitarist/vocalist Jimmy Vivino, who asserted himself ably and affably. Next to take the mike was Catherine Russell, in hip-hugging short black skirt, beaded braids and studded low heel hightops. Russell seemed to have soulful command of the song, but the sound was still badly balanced from where we were standing (the theater management sold more tickets than seats).
After two numbers, the band punched a familiar opening riff and a slim fellow in black suit, shades and a turquoise cap pounced on the piano. The crowd roared briefly at the opening lyrics: “Cold, daring, no flies on me…” Fagen had arrived, and this performance of “Green Earrings” was faithful to the Royal Scam’s original, all the riffs and accents — even the guitar solo.
The sound still wasn’t quite together yet; the singers weren’t cutting through, but it improved during the next guest’s number. This was Jenni Muldaur, a smart redhead with a forceful reedy voice laced more with gin than whiskey. Fagen blended into the band behind her, taking to the honky-tonk like a smoky-eyed veteran of basement pubs.
The balance jelled just in time for Phoebe Snow’s pairing of “I Can’t Stand the Rain” and “At Last.” Snow got the biggest rise out of the audience with her characteristic vocal aerobics. Maybe it’s a matter of taste, but I preferred the emotional depths and timbric subtleties Catherine Russell brought to her second effort “Walk into the Light,” new to me, but an instant soul classic, a likely hit for the likes of Gladys Knight (or Phoebe Snow for that matter). (Editor’s Note: The tune was a Little Big Band original.) Better that Russell should have the hit; I can’t hear anyone else doing the song better.
Right before Russell’s return, though, it was Fagen’s return again. “I never expected to hear “Deacon Blues” performed live,” one Steely Dan fan said, and a perfect performance it was, just like the record as they say, but better, with more band energy and Fagen’s vocal sure and more casual than the original on Aja. The Steely Dan tour band that never was?
The Little Big Band played smooth but funky; it swang and it smoked. Everybody seemed equally jam-friendly and studio-seasoned. The ever-dependable and Buddha-beatific Harvey Brooks was more the aikido master of the bass than ever, and trombonist Bob Smith’s brash, full-head-of-steam solos were staggering. I didn’t quite catch all the names but all the players were terrific. This is a band for all seasons.
Set two included more Steely Dan standards: “Josie,” with a drum solo, a hot “Chain Lightning” with Fagen/Vivino lick trades, and “Black Friday” just when I would have requested it. Snow finally snowed me on “You’re So Fine.” She must have grown up on all those early ’60s R&B hits, she’s so at home in that territory. There she doesn’t play the showoff as much. There’s no way you can slight Snow; she’s got magnificent range and control; she’s almost too good for her own good. Take it easy, Phoebe, we know you can sing rings around anybody, including your bad self.
Called back by a hooting, stomping crowd, Vivino announced “the most complicated thing we’ve done all night,” then launched into the ever-lovable simplicity of “Wooly Bully.” Snow sang another blues, titled “Just to Be With You” and Fagen did Dylan’s “Down Along the Cove” with hipper chord substitutions.
That was it, and everyone, it seemed, went home happy and fulfilled. Great live music this was, with excellent pacing, entrances, balance, song choice. Kind of a U.S.O show for veterans of domestic conflicts, street actions and late-night campaigns, we can hope this event heralds more such unlikely cross-fertilizations. In horticulture, it’s called hybrid vigor, and it works in music, too. (On Saturday night, Cyndi Lauper even joined the band for a few tunes.) In retrospect, I wonder why the bill seemed strange. These folks provided their roots and hearts were in the same — and the right — place. Great show, y’all!
Profile of sideman Denny McDermott
Born and raised in Bellmore, Long Island, NY, 34-year-old drummer Denny McDermott is making a name for himself in the music biz. You’ll be hearing his playing on the “NY Rock & Soul” live album backing up Donald Fagen and the rest of the all-star cast as a member of Jeff Young and the Youngsters. But Denny’s “real” gig is a being a member of the new rock trio “Merchants of Venus.” The Merchants have just released their self-titled debut album on Elektra. With Denny on drums, Brett Cartwright on lead vocals & bass and Shane Fontayne on guitar, the group has come off a successful promotional radio tour and will be hitting the road in September. The Merchants of Venus are being compared to many groups ranging from The Zombies to Crowded House. With the sad absence of new harmonic and melodic rock on the radio these days, the Merchants are getting their brand of music on the air on alternative and college rock radio stations, and are getting picked up by the mainstream rock stations afterwards. Their video has also appeared on MTV’s “120 Minutes.”
McDermott’s dad, a big band enthusiast and drummer, gave Denny his first drum sticks. Denny considers himself “an ongoing Student of Jazz” and by age 12 was steadily listening to Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. Later on, in high school, he got into the sound of Cream: “There was just something about the drumming of Ginger Baker and the sound of Clapton’s guiitar.” Billy Cobham, Charlie Watts and Ringo are all high up on Denny’s list of greats.
McDermott has also had the distinct pleasure and honor to be invited to River Sound to work on Donald’s new solo record. Being one of the first musicians to record at River Sound, Denny calls himself the “Virgin Drummer at River.” Denny continues on the session, “I did quite a number of passes playing different things to a sequencer and a drum machine pattern with pretty much everything on there — kick snare, high hat or shaker. At first I played everything, then they (Becker & Fagen) left off the kick drum. They added up the kick drum so I could actually feel like I was playing, but left it off because they liked the sound of the kick drum on the sequencer. On one track, there was a guitar part and a bass part. I don’t know if Walter played it but I imagine he did. Donald’s real good at relating what he wants. He’s a physical player and I am that way on drums.”
Denny knows his playing at River might end up on the “cutting room floor,” but if his playing does make Donald’s new record, he will be right in there with the long list of great Steely Dan drummers — Gadd, Purdie, Porcaro et al. Speaking of Gadd, a fairly new record by Marc Cohn features Denny’s playing on “Walking in Memphis” (his first top ten song). Other drummers on Cohn’s record include Steve Gadd and Jerry Marotta, brother of Rick. So Denny’s already finding himself in good company. And with The Merchants starting to take off, Denny should be landing on Venus in no time at all!
Denny McDermott’s Steely Dan Favorites:
- Katy Lied
- “Dr. Wu” (My teenage anthem)
- “Home At Last” (Love Purdie’s half time reggae shuffle)
- “Your Gold Teeth II” (The drumming is really cool)
Profile of sideman Bob Smith
If you’ve looked carefully in the past few issues of ML, you might have seen a picture or two of Bob Smith, the trombone player in the horn section of The Little Big Band. Well, Bob Smith is also the leader of his own band Bob’s Diner (formally known as The Bob Smith Band). Although it’s not a common occurrence for a trombone player to front a band, Bob’s more than just another horn player; he’s also a great writer with a great wit.
After playing on over 300 hundred albums and also touring in the early ’70s with Frankie Valli, Bob has finally moved on to front his own band. “Bob’s Diner.” His first release, took off in a flash. And his new record Radio Face, released this past April on the DMP label as The Bob Smith Band, is doing even better. With songs like “Diner For Sale,” “Fatty’s BBQ” and “Swingin’ With My Baby,” the jazz stations across the nation are having a hard time staying away.
As a 15-year-old hearing the Crusaders’ Powerhouse album, Bob, to this day, tries to have an element of fun in his music. Bob explains, “I don’t want people to have to be constantly scratching their brains to understand the music. That’s not where I come from. I come from really good times in music and I want to get those feelings across to people. The Jazz Crusaders did that. I just hope I’ve been able to do the same kind of thing.”
It is ironic that “CD Review” described the song “Cherry Coke” from Bob’s first record as “a Steely Dan-type arrangement” because Bob has gotten a chance to back Fagen with The Little Big Band on some the live appearances at “Hades,” “Catch A Rising Star,” “The China Club,” “Delta 88” and most recently, Woodstock. Bob explains, “I have two of my own albums out and I am getting quite a bit of success and notoriety, and yet it pales in comparison to the feelings that I have for what Steely Dan and Donald Fagen mean to me. The first time we played with Donald it was the first time in my life I was in total awe. I could not believe that I was on stage with this guy! The first Dan tune we did with him was “Black Friday” and I could see Donald dug it right away — we nailed it. The horns played it really great and you know our rhythm section is made of some of the best players in town — Harvey Brooks on bass; he’s like the “big note” bass player of all time.”
Donald has called the The Little Big Band a “real bar band” and Bob elaborates on the term “bar band”: “When you get studio musicians, they run from session to session — they don’t play out live all the time. There’s a magic to one band playing all the time together — you play as a unit — you can stretch things and it sounds tight. Everybody knows where they’re going and there’s a common interest in getting a song from beginning to end — and that’s the nature of a “bar band.” We’ve been playing for a long time together, heavy musicians, great musicians in this band. They’ve played on countless records — you go out and play once, twice a week, you have an incredible “bar band.”
We’d like to thank Bob for his time — he’s an incredible guy. So go to “Bob’s Diner”; the food is great and the music is even better.
Bob Smith’s Favorite Steely Dan:
- “Katy Lied” and “Royal Scam” (tie)
- “Kid Charlemagne”
- “Daddy Don’t Live In That NYC”
- “Dr. Wu”/”Bad Sneakers” (tie)
Song by Song, with Gary Katz
The following interview took place in New York in January 1979 on WLIR-FM while Steely Dan were in the midst of the Gaucho sessions. But this time the interviewee was that “honorary member” and “third ear” of Steely Dan, Gary Katz. This was a rare opportunity to hear him discuss Fagen/Becker tunes honestly and without bias. He admits that he doesn’t like all the songs all the time. Read on.
Good evening, I’m Dennis McNamara. Tonight it’s our pleasure to present an interview with producer Gary Katz. This talk traces Gary’s history with Steely Dan and some of the other things he’s been doing production-wise lately. Gary, welcome and thank you for coming. I think the best thing to do, because everybody seems to define it differently, is before we even start discussing the music you have worked with, could you define how you see yourself as producer, because there seems to be many variances of it.
Gary Katz: I think everybody works in a different fashion. You try and mold what you do to the artist you’re working with at the time. They all have their own ways of working and a producer, to me, is someone who can work with an artist who has a given talent and make that talent work on record. And it takes different shapes and forms with each artist, depending on the artist.
How did you become a producer?
I used to hang around the studios when I was in my 20s and I had some friends who were recording at the time, who were successful, which gave me an entree into the studio as sort of a friend and a watcher. It was something I wanted to do and I had a sense that I could do well.
How did you meet Fagen and Becker?
I met Donald and Walter about nine, ten years ago through a mutual friend and they were trying to sell songs as songwriters. I was trying to get different positions in producing and I was producing an album here and there and we just had a marriage that worked and we wound up working together. I went to California and got a job at Dunhill, called Don and Walt and they came out and we just started to work.
When did the idea of getting the band together come?
Soon after we got to California, ’cause they had originally come out as staff writers. They were writing songs for groups like the Grass Roots, that didn’t last long. I mean the interest level wasn’t very high after a while. It was always intended to have a band around the songs that were being written, and it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time to be able to do that. We couldn’t afford it before then, had no basis for a band. I talked to the people at ABC and we put a band together.
Now before there was even a Steely Dan, there was a record recently released, I think it was a movie soundtrack, which was trying to cash in on Steely Dan’s success, “You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It”? Were you involved in it?
No, we were friends at the time, I knew what was going on, but they did this album with someone else and it was just an assignment. They were always looking to earn a living at the time and these people were making a low-budget movie and they got Donald and Walter real cheap to do low-budget music. The movie was out for about a day and a half and recently I guess the people who owned the tapes felt they could cash in on their success, so they put it out.
It’s not a new album by any means.
No, I think there was some problem with that on the cover and since it originally came out, some extremely fine print has been put on the cover to state that might not be so, but I understand it’s very fine.
I’d like you to talk about some of the songs on these albums from the producer’s viewpoint if you can. What was it like going in and doing that first album?
It was different than any of the others for lots of reasons. We had an additional lead singer so that, well Donald just felt at the time that he wasn’t capable of singing all the songs and people might not like it and so forth. So we went out and got a more commercial-sounding singer to relieve everybody’s tension, except mine, ’cause I didn’t care for it very much. So that album was odd because two songs were sung by someone other than Donald. And it’s not something I care for. So on some of the making of the album it was exciting because it was our chance to finally see if we could do anything, and at the same time, it was pulling a little at me ’cause I didn’t like everything that we did nor did Donald and Walter. That’s just the way it happened.
My feeling is the most-copied Steely Dan song is “Dirty Work,” meaning recorded by other artists. I’m told it’s not a favorite of the band’s.
Generally it’s not a favorite of the band, I mean Donald, Walter and myself. No.
It must be hard when you have to put together a “Best Of” LP.
I think we go to the studio liking all the songs we’re gonna record. I mean, we have a few songs more than we put on an album or we’ll record more than we can use, but insofar as the material goes, we really like all the songs that we go in with. When we finish, some are successful and some aren’t and that’s the only way we know how to judge it, not whether it’s great or it’s good or it’s bad, just whether it’s successful and none of us consider “Dirty Work” a successful record.
I must say it’s a tribute to all your abilities that Steely Dan albums are appreciated by so many people.
It’s what we work for. It’s probably what’s most gratifying about anything.
“Do It Again” was an important song because a single’s always important.
We had no idea that was a single. That was the farthest thing from our mind that a long repeating phrase would be a hit song. It never entered our minds. The only reason it was the first cut was because it sounded great. And we wanted to put something in that when they put the needle down, it had a nice feel to it.
Did you do the edit that was eventually to become the hit?
Oh yeah, we do all the edits.
Is that a problem being the perfectionists that you are?
It’s a serious problem because none of the songs are constructed with edits in mind. They generally should work except in the making of the record usually with the solos that we do. The solos may not allow it to work, so yes, we have songs that just couldn’t edit. I wouldn’t edit “Deacon Blues,” which the record company wanted. That just didn’t edit. There was an edit that Donald and Walter were considering for a long time on “Peg” that just wouldn’t work and we wouldn’t do it. Sometimes it does work, you know. On “Do It Again,” it made it much more successful for us.
Are singles an afterthought, or is it considered in there?
If it’s considered, it’s considered in the sense of the writing. Once the writing is done and we go in to make a record of it, I’m speaking for all of us, but I’m sure we all just go in and try to make a good record of something we wanna hear and I guess if you have a hit song… Yeah, we think about it of course. We try not to let it impose on what we do, but we think about it.
Some people think it’s a sell-out to do a single, but there’s really no other way to get your music across?
No, there is no other alternative, you may not be able to do anything about it (long pause) … that’s a tough one for me.
As a song, was “Do It Again” a difficult one to do?
No, that was the easiest one to cut, I just cut real easy.
“Reelin’ In The Years”… Elliot Randall solo, did you know him from the studio?
We knew Elliot from NY before we came to California. We’d all been friends and acquaintances, and we were in the studio and trying to do a solo and Elliot came in to say hi and he was in a good place that day and we said plug that sucker in and that’s what he played. Like I said, just ripped if off and that was the end of it. And that’s the way Elliot plays when he’s really playing well — just plug him in and he plays. There was no punching or editing in there, it’s just played.
(Plays “Reelin’ in the Years” )
Another success. Was there pressure to get out on the road?
Tremendous pressure from the record company to go out and tour and support the album.
You must have some songs you can look back and think and talk about.
I don’t listen to that album very often. I don’t listen to most of them often, but this one I haven’t heard for a while. I love “Do It Again,” but one of my favorites is “Fire In The Hole” which is a forgotten little tune. I’ve always been attracted to that song and I consider that a successful record.
It captured the essence of the song, I mean whatever that song was meant to mean, we got it through on tape and it felt that way when it was done. It was nasty interest.
Do you remember it being difficult to get into its final form?
Not especially. I don’t remember any of it being especially difficult in relation to what has transpired since.
It’s wonderful, the evolution of Steely Dan. You can almost hear it building from LP to LP. Do you get that sense?
No, not at all. Each album is a separate entity, I mean, I’m sure there is a sense within Donald and Walter that as time goes by, that keeps a common ground or something moving ahead, but they’re absolutely not even song to song, much less album to album. Each song is a total entity.
Did you tour?
Oh yeah, we toured a lot with that. We toured with a singer named David Palmer who did…
Who’s in the Big Wha-Koo now.
… who is in the Big Wha-Koo now, correct. And we did a very unsuccessful tour for that record, mainly because it was thrown together. The record took off real quick and we didn’t have a band as such, it was just a rip-off.
Did Countdown To Ecstasy come relatively quickly after that, after the success of the singles and the tour?
Pretty quickly. Within a year that album was out, 8, 9 months l’d say.
You’re also an A & R person for Warner Brothers.
For want of a better word.
Also known as the third member of Steely Dan.
I don’t know what you mean. You could tell me what that means.
One of the difficult things coming to talk to you is that you can sit down with four people and each one has a different conclusion about you guys.
You have two choices in this business: you can either go out and party and be on the pages, or you can lead your own life and be a mystique and let them figure it out, not to be coy, just not to take part and that’s just the way it evolved. Most of the rumors are untrue, we do interviews and, well, a lot of what we’ve read just isn’t true.
The mystery adds to the attraction.
It’s well … as it turns out.
What was Countdown like going in and getting ready for?
We got a little more ambitious, and we just had Donald singing which was much better, and so the attitude was a little different going in. But it was a little more ambitious musically and, as I recall, it was a little more difficult to make than the first album, in the sense of now having the freedom to start to be as meticulous as we are.
“Show Biz Kids” was the single.
That was an ill-fated single that we selected ourselves. At that time we were still picking our singles — since then, we’ve been absolutely avoiding that. And nothing to say.
Difficult task, isn’t it?
For us it’s impossible. We were never right.
“Show Biz Kids” also had one of those words we’re not supposed to put on the air, too.
Yeah, I know, not intentionally. Donald did have some concern at the moment and we all did for about 3 seconds and then we tried one more word. I think Donald said “I’ll try something” and it sounded silly and that was the end of it.
You did it well…
We did it with style and panache, I thought.
(Plays “Show Biz Kids”)
“My Old School” is a real popular one.
Yeah, they like that on the radio, sounds good on the radio, too. Some of the records sound better than others on the radio.
What do you remember about that one?
Jeffrey turning red doing the guitar solo.
(Plays “My Old School”)
Do you have a favorite on Countdown that you could talk about?
I have a few favorites on this. I love the song “Razor Boy.” I love the feel of the song and that was a successful record. I’m a Drifters fan and there’s something about that song that reminds me of the Drifters, so I like that one a lot. You’re gonna get me to tell you each little part I like about this. The middle part of “The Boston Rag” — I like Jeffrey’s solo in the bridge section and I liked “Your Gold Teeth” for the track that we cut out in the sense of music that we started to get. “King Of The World” was a successful record because it captured the feeling of the end of the earth, which is I guess what the song is about and there was some eerie sense about that.
Also in comparison with the first album, it sounds like you made much more use of the studio.
We started to take advantage of the fact that we had success on the first one and we weren’t gonna be rushed through it and as I said before, we start to — I guess for ourselves — set a mode of working that would wind up the way it is now, which is very meticulous and given a choice of sounding right or wrong, we make it sound right and that takes time.
Something that has always interested me is the ability you guys had in selecting a particular musician for a particular part. Were you conscious that you were becoming this selective musicians authority?
We realized it when some of the other band members made mention of it. And it works better for our music to be able to have the liberty of using people who play in a different style for a different tune and not be locked into any one plane, no matter how good he is, for the sense of style. It was always the intention — at least mine — to make it a workshop situation whereby we could find players; it is gratifying to have found some players at the point of their own personal development and have all of us work together and make it comfortable so that there was work done on a very high level. And when it was finished, they would move on to something of their own that was as successful for themselves as well as us. And have a relationship like that with some players that we still have.
Is there a pattern to who does what?
As you start to work with players and you get to know them, you make an educated guess as to which player would be more comfortable with styles of music and types of music than others and sometimes you’re right and I think we do pretty good at guessing who would work. On “Peg” we had numerous guitar players play that solo, all very well known, until we got one.
No, Jay Graydon. Steve, as it turned out, is one of the few players who didn’t try it. But he’s one of the very few who didn’t. He played the rhythm guitar on “Peg” and he’s gonna be playing dates with us this month. But on that solo we tried a lot of people and we didn’t have a clue.
Is this an expensive way to record an album?
It’s a very expensive way to record an album and I make no excuse for it, ’cause it drives me crazy. I can’t figure out why it should be that way. But that’s what we do for a living, we don’t tour as such — or haven’t for a while — and basically what we do is make records as a full-time business, much the same way a filmmaker makes a film or an author writes a book. I mean, that’s what he does for a living. Time’s not an essence. When it’s done, it’s done. And in the course of making the kind of albums we do and having our own set standard, they take quite a while and it becomes expensive in studio time.
What about touring? That makes money, generates sales etc?
To me it was never the motivating factor. The first two tours were record company oriented and high pressure. But the last tour was one that everyone wanted to do and we put together a band that everyone was happy with and it was pretty good. We were happy with that. And since then, it just hasn’t worked out. It’s not a lifestyle that’s comfortable nor one anyone wants to be involved in, given a choice. We’ve been very lucky in being able to be successful at what we do on somewhat our own terms. Someday I’m sure there’ll be a show. I don’t know when, but it won’t be motivated for being able to earn a lot of money, ’cause that’s been the case for quite a while. It just hasn’t worked out in our recording schedule.
Countdown” didn’t have the advantage of a hit single.
Not at all. It was a total bomb. We absolutely bombed out with that one.
You had a big hit with “Rikki.”
That was a successful song and it came out great.
What is that in the front? Is it a vibe?
It’s an instrument called a flopanda. And it’s a marimba-type instrument.
(Plays “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”)
I spent an evening with Billy Joel about 8 months ago listening to Aja. And every 5 or 10 seconds, I would go, “What is that?” and I don’t think Billy knew either.”
We have one common interest: we both have a great sax solo on our records by Phil Woods.
What do you remember about “Rikki,” recording it and doing it?
That was the start of a whole new sort of Steely Dan ’cause we had sort of disbanded the band by then and we started to be able to use the musicians as we wanted to. We started to get an opportunity to pick our own players and make the records individualized as they were written. I like that album, there are some songs on there I like a lot. “Barrytown,” I love “Barrytown.”
I’ve been told that “Barrytown” is a pseudonym for Tarrytown and it’s all about the Moonies situation.
Oh no, that’s completely off. That’s not right, I think that’s just about a small town. I love that song, it’s great.
(Plays “Barrytown,” then “Pretzel Logic”)
I love the way the blues came out in that song. Walter’s solo was great and the lyric was terrific, it was a funny lyric and it really worked well, I like that a lot. And “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” one of my favorites, still is. That’s about it, the others are OK.
“Night By Night” has a great feel to it.
It does have a good feel and we got a good track and that was the song where we found Jeff Porcaro in the middle of the night. We couldn’t get a track, no matter what we did on the song. We just couldn’t get it right and Denny said “Hey, I know some guys,” so we called these two guys that Denny knew who turned out to be David Paich and Jeff Porcaro. And David and Jeff and Donald and Walter cut a track one night in the barn at Cherokee. That’s what I remember about that. And it was a good solo, Jeffrey played a good solo at the end of that, too.
(Plays “Night By Night”)
Someone pointed out to me that it might have been missed by the radio stations because it was between two very popular songs.
Nothing we can do about it.
Sequencing is another mystery.
So many sequences before it goes on, I mean it’s just pot luck, we do the best we can, there’s no science to that at all. Except the first cut, first side.
Is that a producer’s responsibility — the order of the songs?
It’s probably as important as making the record in the sense that it sets the feel in much the same way you would edit a movie and put the pieces together or the way you would put anything together so that it flows from beginning to end with some sense of enjoyment. And it’s a very difficult thing to do ’cause everyone feels another thing. And there are three of us. Lots of lists. Lots of lists.
I’m really pleased to hear you treat them as special, as art, and not as a business thing.
No, that isn’t the way the band works.
Our biggest disappointment. That’s a very difficult one. There were some real problems with that record and although there are some songs on there that to this day are still my favorites, it is my biggest disappointment of any of the albums in the sense of acceptance. We had some real problems in recording that album and that eventually came out on lacquer for electronic reasons, so I don’t listen to it any more as a rule. The album was recorded and in high fidelity terms was the best-sounding thing we had done far and away. Something had gotten messed up in the electronics before it was done and it didn’t quite ever sound the same, so it was a real disappointment in that sense to us. And then for me personally, I thought the album would be accepted on a much broader scale than it was, so that was something of a disappointment.
Your picture was on it.
That was the beginning of the disappointment.
Is that your hand on the back of “Countdown”?
No, definitely not.
One of my favorites. I still love that record. I absolutely love it. It was a terrible mistake not putting that out as the first single. But just a long line of single mistakes.
Was it a tough song to get down?
No, it wasn’t. Hughie McCracken played on that song and after a while, sort of locked the tune into a great groove with everyone else and it worked out great.
(Plays “Bad Sneakers”)
Another one that’s a hot rock and roll song is “Rose Darling.”
Yeah, it’s not one of my favorites … I mean I haven’t thought about it for a long — I haven’t heard it for a long time; it’s OK, I like that.
(Plays “Rose Darling”)
“Dr. Wu” is another favorite of ours, with a sax solo by David Sanborn. Sanborn sails.
One of my three favorite Steely Dan songs. It’s not David Sanborn. That’s Phil Woods.
(Plays “Dr. Wu”)
Did you get the sense of how wonderful that song was as you were doing it?
That and “Deacon Blues” were the two songs, as we did them, that were emotionally crushing to me. Just a matter of where you are at those places.
Did you do a lot of takes?
Oh, yeah. But the hardest song we ever recorded was “Aja” in the sense of music, and it was the second take. That was a long, drawn-out piece that had to be played well. No, there’s no accounting for how long it’ll take or how short it’ll take. Although we do have now a standing rule that if a song takes more that a certain amount of time, we can it and move on.
“Everyone’s Gone To The Movies”…
A very funny little song. I like that song a lot, it’s real funny.
Almost a Latin feel.
It’s a little perverse, is what it is.
“Your Gold Teeth II”… Was that intended to give you another let-loose type thing?
I don’t know what to tell you about “YGT II” except that we liked “YGT I” and they wrote a sequel to it and we did it.
(Plays “Your Gold Teeth II)
I think Donald and Walter like that more than I do. That’s not one of my favorites and I didn’t think it was as successful a record as it could have been, either. I don’t know why I’m saying that, they’ll kill me. But what can I tell you?
Does anyone tell you that they’re going back and discovering Katy Lied now that Aja has been so successful?
That’s a shame. They’ll find it.
If they want to, they will.
This was the first time Michael McDonald was around to my knowledge.
Yes, Michael McDoobie or McDonald, as he’s known, came to my attention through a tape as a solo artist and he just had so much tone that there was no reason in the world not to use him. So we brought him in the studio and he just has a tremendous blend with Donald. It just works out very well and we’ve been working with Michael since and I’m real happy that Michael went on to do his own thing.
Two vocalists I can pick out in any situation are Donald and Michael.
Yeah, very easy, totally distinctive artists which I think is what’s most attractive to all of us, I guess, is that they’re distinctive in their own way. Michael’s great.
Robert Hunter is the lyricist with The Dead, but he is considered to be a member of the band. When I think of Steely Dan, I think of three, not two.
Undoubtedly, in any given situation, there’s a chemistry between a situation that allows one person to be able to do what he does freely. And the three of us, with all the tension we have with each other, or by ourselves, undoubtedly bring that to the studio. We’re able to channel what we do individually as a unit and that’s maybe why it’s very … because I really have nothing to do with creating the music as such. I really don’t.
You produce it.
Yes, but I don’t write it or arrange it. Once the music is written and somewhat put together by Donald and Walter, then it becomes a three man operation and choosing players and places and things we’re gonna do and how we’ll do it, but they create the music entirely.
Thomas Jefferson Kaye, I don’t unfortunately have his albums with me.
No one else does either.
You produced Dirk Hamilton’s first one. How’d you get involved in these other projects?
They were on ABC because at the time I was working for ABC as working with Donald and Walter. And a mutual friend had Dirk come in the office and sing some songs for me and I liked ’em and there was no Steely Dan project in the near future, so I did an album with him.
What do you look back to as far as Dirk Hamilton?
It was a difficult project in that Dirk is a distinctive artist who has his own ways and to this day, although we’re really good friends and I speak to him often and have helped him on his future projects in some ways, there wasn’t a good chemistry. It just didn’t gel as well as it should’ve for Dirk, not for me more so than for Dirk and that’s basically what I remember. I don’t have any had memories about the album — it just wasn’t as successful as I would’ve liked, and I’m sure Dirk.
Again a lot of evolution took place in the music. What was The Royal Scam like?
Gee, that album’s sort of blank, I have to think about that for a minute.
I know initially a lot of people reacted negatively because there was almost a pseudo-disco-ness in there at certain points.
I don’t know what to tell you about this album as far as remembering what went on. There are a couple of songs on here I love. I love “Haitian Divorce” — it’s my favorite song on that album and I love “Sign In Stranger.” I thought that came out great.
And “The Fez” was a neat little tune.
And “The Fez” came out very nicely. It was a really nice melody and worked out well and that was a disco sort of number. And I liked the “Caves Of Altamira,” I thought that was a good tune, too, and I like “Kid Charlemagne.” Gee, I kinda like this album. Not so bad. This album was pretty smooth making. It took us some time and we did some dates in NY and some dates in LA and it took us more time than it should’ve but I like this album overall. But again, I would’ve liked more acceptance. I think as you get to a point where you put out enough records that do get such critical acclaim over a period of time, you are really leaving yourself open to comparison to everything else you ever did. And because the music is so diverse, I mean from album to album or even cut to cut, you have to expect you’re a mark unless you stand up to each individual’s criteria of what’s good. You mentioned that you guys have whole other feelings about songs than I might. It shouldn’t sound arrogant in thinking about it, now it might sound arrogant to sit there and pick it like this, I don’t like that. That’s not really what I had in mind at all, it’s just that in asking a question off the cuff about things you haven’t thought of for a long time. It’s just instinct to say I like it, I don’t like it. Like trading cards — want it, need it, got it.
It’s hard to realize that you guys live with a piece of music … hear it God knows how many times.
Your whole perspective is distorted. I have no perspective whatsoever about anything you’re asking me, nor anyone else should.
“Kid Charlemagne,” there’s an organ thing in there. There’s an organ part about halfway in that just does it for me.
An organ? The only songs I can even think of .. Paul Griffin played it on “The Fez” and Donald played it on “Dirty Work.” I don’t know if we’ve ever used an organ besides that, maybe we have.
(Plays “Kid Charlemagne”)
“Caves Of Altamira” had a great horn sound.
It did, I like that. That came out very well. I was pleased with that song.
I think the horns are the hook, they grab you right away.
Yeah, I like the chorus.
(Plays “Caves Of Altamira”)
How did you decide on that opening for “Don’t Take Me Alive”?
“Larry, turn your guitar up as loud as you can and play a little piece in front and make it nasty.” That’s how it came about.
Was the intention to grab your attention? ‘Cause, boy does it grab you.
That’s an example of maybe what I was trying to say before about each song being it’s own thing. That song had a dark overtone and it was intended to be that and it’s just the way it came out. That’s what the song is. A nice little song.
“Dog Day Afternoon” comes to mind when I hear that song.
I see nastier things than that when I hear that song.
(Plays “Don’t Take Me Alive”)
Did you feel good about The Royal Scam?
Yeah, some parts of it. As a whole it was a successful album.
Are you guys heavily critical of your works, in perspective especially?
Yes, at any time. And at times more so than at other times, and sometimes more one person than another, just depending on what’s going on.
Do you test people who are totally removed to listen?
Not till it’s finished. As a matter of fact, it’s not general policy that people come in the studio as such. It’s not closed doors either and it’s not guards outside, but generally it’s not conducive to our working to have observers.
We come to the one that still sells thousands a week. I was gonna ask you about this: I saw a great article about Aja listing it as the “Sgt. Pepper” of the ’70s and the theory within it was so good that whether you want to look on that as the heavy compliment it is or the problems that taking it as a compliment might cause, it certainly is a remarkable turning point in the record industry especially for commercial radio. The fact that the songs that were hit singles on this record I don’t think AM programmers around the country would have even let in the door three or four years ago. How do you feel about that?
Great. I mean I’d like to think we had some influence in expanding program directors’ acceptance in what they will play and what they won’t play. You’re getting me on a tough subject here, and I don’t know that I wanna get involved in that, but I would wish they would play more music that had a wider spectrum than they do. So I was really pleased by the fact that they played this.
Was this a difficult record to make?
Yes. That was a difficult record to make for any number of reasons.
What would they be?
It was ambitious, we were having business problems with record companies and there was always something going on that had nothing to do with music. That really starts to get to you as you are starting to work and really don’t need record company people as they are. So in the midst of making this album, we had some real problems with people at ABC who are no longer there and who made the pressure of making the album greater on a daily basis. And it took a long time to make, and that itself creates pressure ’cause I have to see Donald and Walter every day, and they have to see me every day, and I don’t care what relationship you have with anyone, you need relief. I mean you just don’t wanna see the same people if you don’t have anything to say. I mean, in that sense it gets difficult. That album was difficult for that reason.
You used a variety of locations, too, didn’t you?
No more so than on The Royal Scam. We cut all the tracks except “Peg” in Los Angeles, we did all the overdubbing in LA and did some of the mixing here. But most of it was done in Los Angeles.
Aja was the first album to give essentially a definitive listing of the musicians and their roles. Was that a conscious thing that you guys decided to do?
Yeah. We always were thanked by the musicians who we did work with for 1) treating them well and 2) allowing them the freedom to play, as well as always giving everyone credit for playing when, in a lot of cases, bands who use people find it not to their advantage to list that they don’t play themselves. So we always felt OK about it because the musicians themselves always would call and thank us. But after a while, it got to the point where we weren’t trying to scam anybody or fool anybody and it just seemed logical that we should let people know. There were so many questions after a while — who played what? And that, more or less, was a natural thing.
Let’s talk about some of the songs on this one. “Aja,” you mentioned before, was the second take.
Yeah, Steve Gadd played drums and it was the first time we had used him and everybody in the room understood the song somehow when they saw it. It was a very difficult piece. There was no editing. It was all one piece and they just played it. The trick of making a record is putting great musicians in a room and getting good music. With “Aja” it just worked.
The most incredible hook and one that you said was especially used was “Deacon Blues.”
Yeah, I love that song. It’s a special song to me.
What was it like making that song?
That’s a difficult song to make because there’s so many parts in that song. There are a lot of parts that overlap each other. Pete Christlieb’s solo was real important. It was just a complicated puzzle to put together. No problems as such, just tedious.
But worth it?
Oh, all the time worth it. The song was so good. But worth it.
(Plays “Deacon Blues”)
“Black Cow” opens the record. I don’t know what to say about “Black Cow” except it’s there and it works.
Nothing you can really say about “Black Cow”. Not all the songs mean a hell of a lot. As much as they’re intended to feel right and have a sense about them lyrically that flows, that’s what I would say about “Black Cow.”
“Peg” was the hit single, a big record as far as that goes. Again a record that worked very well for what it was.
It worked. It worked well.
McDonald made that record sound great. His parts on that song are great.
And again you can pick out his voice if you’re really listening.
Well, in those parts, that was intentional. At that point we had tried another very famous singer who couldn’t do it, but I’ll leave that alone. And McDonald did it very well.
That’s interesting. What happens when x musician walks in and thinks he’s done it and you don’t want it?
I usually tell them in a some nice way. Well, in some way. And we have that problem a lot. But I think most of the time when people come and work with us, there’s an understanding that it’s a workshop theory and we’re calling them because we think it’ll work and want it to work, but if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Some people take it better than others.
“I Got The News”…
That’s a great little feel. I love that song. Donald and Walter had written that song about three years ago in a totally different style and somewhat different lyric and we had tried it, I think it was in The Royal Scam days and it didn’t work so good, so they reworked it and we did it and it came out great. I was real happy with that. That was a surprise.
(Plays “I Got The News”)
And of course, closing out the album is “Josie.”
“Josie” is a great little nasty song. I love that song. No mommies and daddies like “Josie.”
(Plays “Josie” to close)
WBAI: Jazz and Conversation
“Jazz Radio in New York City in the Sixties” was the theme suggested to Donald and Walter in 1988 for a radio show in which the duo could take over the airwaves of the liberal New York City independent radio station WBAI for an hour or so. As they have never been slow to respond when asked about their jazz influences (‘Trane, Bird and Warne Marsh readily spring to mind, as well as “jazz jocks” such as Mort Fega and Symphony Sid), Don and Walt agreed to come into the WBAI studios and spin some of their favorite records from that turbulent era of their adolescence.
Unfortunately, this transcription is taken from an incomplete recording of that show, but we are reliably informed that only the first fifteen minutes is missing. It would be nice to know what their earlier picks were, but wit-wise they were just getting warmed up towards the end of the broadcast.
Walter Becker: Wow, that was nice. That was Johnny Hartman singing “Lush Life,” beautiful song … Duke Ellington or Billy Strayhorn wrote that one?
Donald Fagen: I think that was Duke Strayhorn.
WB: Duke Strayhorn, right. And that was John Coltrane of course, unmistakably, and his quartet of the time. John Coltrane on tenor, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones on drums. A very different kind of music than what that quartet might he heard to be doing in a club at that time. Probably a lot of our listeners are familiar with the Love Supreme style of jazz that they were kind of notorious for at the time.
DF: Yeah, a lot of people to this day, they don’t realize John Coltrane’s roots in bop and bebop and hard bop…
WB: And the lyrical quality to his solos, to his ballad playing.
DF: That’s true, he was great. Before that, we played Oscar Brown, Jr. doing “Dat Dere” which is a kind of a poignant song, a father talking about his kid and the questions he asks and so on.
WB: A couple of vocalists that you might have heard on Mort Fega’s show on WEVD or Dee Harlan’s show on WNCN.
DF: ‘Cause that’s what we’re doin’, we’re playin’ records from the sixties, early sixties that we used to hear on the radio in the metropolitan area. There were other singers at that time, but we don’t have time to play them: Sarah Vaughan of course, who is still active now, Sheila Jordan, she was most famous for that cut she was on with George Russell, no?
WB: “You Are My Sunshine,” yeah.
DF: Well, at least it was the one I remember.
WB: Maybe we’ll get to play a little of that later on, I doubt it.
DF– It’s quite long.
WB: It’s long.
DF: It’s a short show. Ellen Ross, of course, King Pleasure, Bob Dorough, Bob Dorough’s still active in New York.
WB: That’s right.
DF: Now we’re gonna play a record by Oliver Nelson. He, I guess at least after a while, was known as a west coast musician, Hollywood musician, he did scores for films and TV shows — he may have even written “Mission Impossible” or one of those…
WB: Yeah, he did a few of ’em, particular ones don’t come to mind.
DF: “Name Of The Game.” Whenever I think of Oliver Nelson I think of Susan Saint James (Becker laughs) at the same time. I don’t know what it is. At any rate, he was also a great arranger along with some other jazzmen who went to Hollywood, Quincy Jones, who of course you know is the conductor of the “We Are The World” video, and Albert Ayler. Lalo Schifrin another good player and arranger and this one was a record he made with some great musicians of the time including the great forward-looking Eric Dolphy, who you’ll hear on flute on this cut, and it also has Bill Evans on it who was rarely featured in a group situation other than his own trio, so that’s interesting, too. And we’ll tell you the other players after it’s over.
WB: Yeah, Modern Jazz Quartet playing a tune called “Django” and ‘course, we all know that the members of the Modern Jazz Quartet include John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Connie Kay and Percy Heath who I believe was the bass player?
DF: Connie Kay was impeccable, wasn’t he?
WB: Gosh, he was … in those days he was. Well, I think Don and I — and probably a large portion of the jazz audience — used to read Downbeat magazine and for some reason once a musician picked up an epithet in Downbeat such as the one that Connie Kay picked up, he was forever after the “impeccable” Connie Kay.
DF: It’s like Miles Davis and “middle register brooding.”
WB: “Middle register brooding” and so on. It was like in The Odyssey when some part of day or some characteristic became a sign to the character.
DF: You mean like “wine dark sea” and that kind of thing.
WB: The “rosy-fingered dog.”
DF: Those were the days. But not the days we’re talking about…
WB: Not at all.
DF: …the early sixties when we were growing up…
WB: And we’re talking about “Stolen Moments,” too, aren’t we?
DF: Oh, yeah, that’s right. Before that we played “Stolen Moments,” which is Oliver Nelson on tenor, Bill Evans, Roy Haynes, Paul Chambers, Eric Dolphy on flute and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet. That’s really all we have time for, that’s too bad. My name’s Donald Fagen and my partner Walter Becker and I have been playing jazz as we remember it as it was played in the early sixties. We used to listen to the radio then, we were little kids and all that kind of stuff and this is the music we heard.
WB: We’re trying to recapture our disaffected adolescence.
DF: Dither, I call it. The thither, you know it’s like…
WB: Of course, we are grateful to Will K. Wilkins for playing the records.
DF: We’re grateful to Will K. Wilkins, we’re grateful to John Scagliotti, the station manager who invited us down here, and grateful to all these great musicians who played on these records. Some are still with us and very active, others I’m afraid are not, but they…
WB: Those who are not with us will be picking up this broadcast in the next world from the WBAI satellite, I believe.
DF: You mean the one that’s shaped like a pair of bongos?
WB: That’s right, that’s in the tumbling orbit through the hyperspace.
DF: That’s incredible if they have it up there because NASA has such a tough time. Those BAI guys seem to send ’em right up there with no trouble whatsoever.
WB: Well, just using the talents of the people that they have working for them here at the station naturally lends themselves to this type of exploration.
DF: Well, these people know how to organize.
WB: They sure do and they’re sitting here brooding right now about the rally tomorrow. Scheming on how to get more people out there and I know that they’re gonna be doin’ a great job on that.
DF: After this period in the early sixties, jazz really changed a lot; it was a political upheaval at the time and you had a lot of changes in the music. I think the music we played tonight had a certain innocence which the music afterwards didn’t have.
WB: That’s right. There was a powerful, radical, political… kind of influenced the music to move in more radical directions…
DF: Like Albert Ayler was one of the tenors of the time.
WB: Albert Ayler was definitely one of the tenors of the time.
DF: And that was a whole different kind of music.
WB: You know, it was definitely a different kind of music. I remember Mort Fega putting on an Albert Ayler record, one night he was outraged and he played a few bars of the record, then he picked the needle up and put it down ten minutes later into the same record and picked it up and put it down later and it all sounded the same, I have to admit.
DF: It’s hard to really talk about these things … I mean it’s hard to be objective really about those times, it was a strange time and that music it was really … there were different motives for playing it, it had different purposes and this has always been a problem of politics and art, you know, it’s very complicated and…
WB: Some people say they don’t mix.
DF: I’ll be darned if I’m gonna get into it, ’cause we’re almost through with the show. And this is for the other people at BAI to ponder over in the next few days after we’ve gone, ’cause that’s what they’re really good at here and we’re not, we’re just musicians so…
WB: This is WBAI still. Ninety-nine-five.
DF: BAI. Some time after ten-thirty, I think, and we’re gonna close now, it was great being here — oh, by the way, we had thousands and thousands of phone calls asking what we’re doing now. Walter’s in town, we’re writing these songs and if we write any good ones, we’ll record them and hopefully that record will be coming out sometime next year.
WB: We’ve also been to some swell restaurants.
DF: We’ve been to some great restaurants here — they have this kind of art deco lighting, ’cause you know we have a few bucks. We go down to these places. They’re nice, you know, they have these red lampshades and these kind of … what do you call it, the Memphis look or something?
WB: The Memphis look and — speaking of bucks — I hope you keep buying those CDs because we need those royalties to continue so our lifestyles are not disrupted.
DF: We’re not that prolific, what can I say?
WB: There’s nothing wrong with those old tunes that we did.
DF: I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, I dunno, it takes us a long time to come up with this stuff. I’m sorry. These records we’ve been playing tonight, they used to go in and do them in half an hour. What can I say? I don’t know why it’s not like that any more. At any rate we had a great time, goodbye. Here’s Sonny Rollins, we’re gonna close with this, which actually came out towards the end of the period we’re talking about, ’65 or ’66, and it was the theme music for the picture Alfie. Remember that one with Michael Caine? Most people know the song Alfie that Dionne Warwick recorded that was by Burt Bacharach, and indeed that was in the movies, but this was some of the incidental music, I think.
WB: Yeah, conducted by Oliver Nelson.
DF: Who was playing on that?
WB: Ooo-hoo. I’m glad you asked me. We got Sonny Rollins, J.J. Johnson, Phil Woods…
DF: Wow. Phil’s in town next week.
WB: Yeah, I can’t wait…
DF: He’s playing over at Sweet Basil…
WB: …we’re gonna be down there to see him … Frankie Dunlop, Walter Booker, Roger Kelieway, Kenny Burrell … these are the big guys, the big guns.
DF: I’m so excited I just can’t hide it.
WB: January 26, 1966.
DF: I think I like it. Here we go, this is Sonny Rollins and “Alfie”. Goodbye and good luck.
Interview from EQ with Roger Nichols
Reprinted from EQ Magazine
Women often accuse their husbands of having no idea what it is like to get pregnant and to give birth. They also talk about the fact that after the birth, nature somehow makes them forget about all the pain and discomfort so that they will want to become pregnant and give birth again. Well, I beg to differ with this point of view. Those women never recorded a Steely Dan album. Nine or more months of gestation followed by intense labor (mixing) and finally the birth of each album. A short time period would elapse and we would be ready to jump right into the next one.
I just got back from a month working on the beginning of a new Donald Fagen album that Walter Becker is producing. It’s been eight years since the last Donald Fagen album, and I guess I forgot about the surgical precision with which Donald approaches his tunes. Squeezing 110 percent out of the machines and musicians like water squeezed from a stone.
Well, Chris Parker came in to play the drums. We recorded about a zillion passes of Chris playing along with a sequencer. After Chris was safely on a plane back to New York, we took his drum track apart piece by piece. Mind you, the performance wasn’t bad, he was just half a millisecond late here, a millisecond early there, you know, the usual stuff. What he played on the intro, bridges and fade were actually kept intact. All we really manufactured were the verses. We took a piece of hi hat pattern from one verse, some cymbal crashes from somewhere else, a bunch of snare hits from all over the place, and put them all together in a sequence and made them match the drum machine pattern.
Well, we got part of one track done (drums and real Rhodes played by Donald). Maybe by March, when we ge back in to do some more, I will forget how painful the increments were. The birth of a new Donald Fagen album will be worth the effort, I just wish we could keep the gestation period down to something a little more manageable. These albums have been known for pushing the outer limits of the envelope. By the time this album comes out, it may be about 5 milliseconds ahead of its time.
Besides the Donald Fagen project, I have been working with Walter Becker on a few other albums during the last year. In the same amount of time that it took to record drums and piano on two tunes for Donald, we recorded ten hours of music on 11 albums — and half of them are already in the stores. The two experiences are really the flip sides of a coin.
The musician list on the Walter Becker project has been a veritable who’s who: John Patatuci, Peter Erskine, John Beasley, Bob Sheppard, Dean Parks, Dave Weckle, Jackie McLean and many, many more. What a pleasure it has been. These were jazz albums for Windham Hill and Triloka records. It is a lot of fun to go into the studio, record a whole album in two days, mix on the third day and then call it done. Most of the albums contained about 60 minutes worth of music. Mixing was at the rate of ten tunes per day as opposed to ten days per tune.
Interviews with 3 session men
In the September 1987 issue of Modern Drummer, Robyn Flans conducted an in-depth interview with drummer Rick Marotta. We’ve reprinted some highlights of the discussion where Marotta talks about his Steely Dan sessions and also his recent work with Fagen’s own stuff.
Robyn Flans: You were arguing with engineers and producers, yet they called you all the time. Wasn’t that a contradiction?
Rick Marotta: It was — to say the least — a contradiction. It made my life miserable, and because it made my life miserable, I made other people’s life misserable. But it worked. So many times people said, “That is the most amazing drum sound.” I just worked; that’s why they called. If it hadn’t sounded great, they wouldn’t have called. Producers and engineers loved to take credit for stuff like that, but I didn’t care. There were a lot of people who wouldn’t use me because it just got too crazy.
The musicians who were real demanding, knew what they wanted, and always would experiment, even if they did it laughingly, were Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan. I would get my drum sound, and those guys would go crazy. They would say, “This is the worst sounding thing.” We would go back and forth. I remember one time Donald, Walter and Elliot Scheiner came up to me, laughing. They said “Rick, when you hit your bass drum, the toms ring louder than the bass drum does.”
RF: What was your response?
RM: “Trust me.” So we would always compromise. Those guys were so good, and the records sounded so good.
RF: You must have made Fagen and Becker crazy with their thing of everything being perfect.
RM: Everybody made everybody else crazy.
RF: That’s what people say about working with Steely Dan anyway.
RM: Not anymore. I love working with them, especially now. Last year, I worked on Fagen’s solo album, which didn’t come out because Steely Dan is thinking about getting back together. I worked on four tracks at Jeff Porcaro’s house, and Donald has a new way of recording, which is great.
RF: Do you remember how you did “Time Out Of Mind” and “Hey Nineteen”?
RM: When we did those tunes from the Gaucho album, we went in — just Donald and I and a click track — and it worked. The first thing I ever did for them was a long time ago, and the whole band was in the room. They would cut six different bands for one song.
RF: That’s lunacy.
RM: It sure worked for them because they made the best records I ever heard at that time. They were great guys to work with, but they would make the band crazy. And they’d make themselves crazy, too. Donald Fagen is one of the funniest guys in the world to work with. He’ll concentrate for six or seven hours, and then he’s gone. There are so many funny stories, but you probably had to be there.
RF: Tell me about “Peg.”
RM: “Peg” was one of the great tracks of all time. They had cut that track with a bunch of people. I walked in, and it was just Chuck Rainey and I. We had done stuff with them before and we knew what to expect, so we just started playing. Chuck and I had played together so much that we got into a groove. I don’t remember everything about it exactly, but I remember I was very sick, and Don Grolnick had to take me to the hospital in the middle of the night during a rainstorm to get a shot. Anyway, once Chuck and I started playing, you could have hung your coat up on the groove.
RF: Was there another drummer on the track when you came in?
RM: They never played us the tracks. Donald would sit down at the piano, and sing and play. When that guy plays and sings, it dictates what’s going to happen. They don’t walk around saying “Play this note, that note, and this feel, and play this with the snare drum.” Walter is always hovering around somewhere saying, “That’s great! Do that. Yes.” If you do something they like, they’ll say, “Do that.” Chuck and I just happened to fall into this amazing groove, and we started doing takes.
RF: You said it was easier working with Fagen recently.
RM: When I work with Donald, he just plays and sings, and I play with him — no bass, nothing. He puts the bass on afterwards. He’ll either show it to me on paper, or he’ll play it, or sometimes he’ll play just the left hand and Greg Phillinganes will play the right hand part. I have to say a lot of people don’t like to do these things the way I do them. My taste is different from other people’s tastes. I know where my groove is going to be. If you want the time and the feel to happen, I can do it alone. If I play and then the bass player puts himself on top, it works. It will never not work.
RF: But it doesn’t matter one way or the other to you?
RM: Don’t get me wrong: I like it a lot of times when the bass is there, but if it’s just a straight-ahead groove thing where there’s not a lot of interaction, I don’t mind doing it alone. On “Peg,” that thing was so much Chuck and I that you couldn’t take one away without losing the other. That was the basis for the whole tune. He and I did little nuance things on there. What kills me is that Walter called me up and said, “Man, the difference between the verse and chorus is that you opened your hi-hat about a billionth of an inch every couple of beats.” He called to ask me if I did it on purpose. It was just for a little lift. I am really proud of that record. A lot of times when people see me, they’ll say, “Rick Marotta: ‘Peg.'” Porcaro gave me the best compliment I ever got. He told me that he made a loop of “Peg” and rode around in his car listening to the groove for hours. Then Larry Carlton wrote “Room 335,” a track on his solo album that was an exact rip-off of it — every note and every instrument. I didn’t play on it; Jeff did, and he copped the part perfectly. When we do it live, Larry will say, “This is a tune I stole from Steely Dan.” He didn’t actually steal it; he called Donald and asked if they’d mind if he used the changes. It’s a real compliment to them, and it’s a compliment to me, too.
Greg Phillinganes, the keyboardist noted for his work with Stevie Wonder and Eric Clapton also brought some nice touches to The Nightfly. In fact, Greg’s solo album Pulse featured the catchy Fagen composition “Lazy Nina.” Greg recently talked to Robert L. Doerschuk in the August issue of Keyboard. In the following excerpt, Phillinganes discusses some studio tricks he used and learned during The Nightfly sessions with Fagen.
Robert Doerschuk: Is there an example of a tune on which you recorded a solo that you developed from a melodic motif?
Greg Phillinganes: Well, there’s the solo I did for Donald Fagen on “Ruby Baby.” I started it off by playing “You Really Got Me” from the Kinks, and developed it from that.
RD: That came from the lyrics, with Fagen singing about this girl?
GP: Yeah. You’ve got to give it some meaning. That’s a trick I learned from listening to a lot of soloists, like Charlie Parker: They would steal from other tunes, take melodies and put ’em anywhere. (Saxophonist) James Moody is brilliant for that too.
RD: Did you do the solo in one take?
GP: It was in two takes. The first time I played it, I had the basic idea. But I messed up at the end, so I did another take and fixed the second part.
RD: Fagen’s harmonies and chord changes are usually rather complex.
GP: Yeah. He writes it all out to every breath. He is intense, but he’s a sweetheart.
RD: If you were doing “Ruby Baby” with Fagen at a live gig, how would you get into that solo? Since its beginning is so familiar to so many people…
GP: That’s why I would probably play it at the beginning the way I recorded it.
RD: Can you think of a keyboard bass line you’ve played that might fool listeners into thinking they were hearing a bass guitar?
GP: “Walk Between The Raindrops,” from Donald Fagen’s Nightfly album. Don showed me a hip trick. I was elongating the notes a bit too much for him, so he said, “Put some space between them.” You breathe after every note. That makes it sound more like an upright bass. To this day, I take that approach when the concept calls for that.
RD: What else did you get from Fagen?
GP: Just how to be really intense (laughs). He’s very meticulous. I do things for him that I wouldn’t do for anybody else, just because he’s so bad. He believes in the highest possible quality.
RD: Were his sessions tough because they’re so exacting?
GP: They were, but I don’t care. After the first couple of songs, he felt more comfortable with me and let me get away with a little more stuff. And I was thrilled to be working one-on-one with him. The first song we did was “I.G.Y.,” and I loved playing that opening keyboard riff so much that I kept making mistakes on purpose so I could start it over (laughs). He writes everything exactly. Everything. All the chords, the voicings, the rests, when to press the sustain pedal. He wants you to do it all verbatim. But I was still able to put my personality in there.
In the November 1990 issue of Modern Drummer, seven studio drummers took part in a roundtable discussion on the pleasures and pains of session work. In this excerpt, Mike Baird talks with Jeff Porcaro about the importance of playing “good” all the time.
Jeff Porcaro: There’s a time when you have to keep artistic license. I’ve had it with playing stuff that I would otherwise never play. That is not good for the soul.
Mike Baird: That worked against me once. Whenever you show up in a situation, that artistic license is really important. There was a situation during the time that Steely Dan was really hot. Larry Carlton recommended me to those cats to play on a track. There had been a date that I had done three years prior to that recommendation, where it was some schlocky music and I said, “Ya know, I don’t really want to play this,” and I just played very mediocre. The “one thing” Fagen and Becker happened to have heard me play on was a tape of that one track. They told Carlton, “We’ve heard this cat; he’s not happening.” Carlton told me the story afterwards. So it doesn’t pay in the long run to do that.
A Floridian Odyssey
It was another steamy Friday afternoon in Manhattan. I was considering calling it a quits for the day when the call came in from Fogel over at Metal Leg.
“This the Will Annandale Detective Agency?”
“Yeah,” I answered. I’d dealt with Fogel before.
“Well, we got a problem only you can solve.”
I was all ears. I poured a shot as he began his tale. Seems someone had uncovered a long-lost Dan tape. A rare bootleg of outtakes and unreleased numbers. “There’s one copy floating around Miami,” he intoned. “Last known owner: Doctor Wu.” I was sitting on a potential gold mine. But first I’d have to crack the code. Knowing the clues would be scattered throughout the Dan library, I settled in with my collection. Eight hours of music and two bottles of Jack later, I knew just where to look.
One more call. This one to Babs Moreland. I hadn’t spoken to Babs in a while and it looks like I may never again. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I had 168 hours, exactly one week, to uncover that tape.
It wasn’t going to be easy. Wu, a once prominent Miami acupuncturist who’d stung one too many was now hiding deep in the Miami underground. Only two guys, Fogel said, knew his whereabouts — crime bosses Chino and Daddy G., who for obvious reasons could not be reached through conventional sources. I cabled my own and was off.
First stop Miami International, where Babs and I hopped a small charter to Key West. One thing about Babs, she was a sport. A real looker and always up for an adventure. It was ten to five when we checked into “The Banyan.” Third World Johnny was waiting behind the desk with a message from Chino and the tacit instructions to “Sign in, Stranger.” I chuckled to myself. Leave it to Third World Johnny to don a disguise just to get to me.
BOGOTA. JIVE MIGUEL ON THE TRAIL. GO TO MALLORY SQUARE AT SUNSET AND LOOK FOR A BIG BLONDE NAMED GRETCHEN. WHISPER “SUMMER SMOKER” IN HER EAR AND SHE’LL HAND OVER A LETTER WITH FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.
Good. I’d just have time for a quick shower. Jive Miguel was sharp. Too sharp, and I knew we’d have to he on our toes to stay ahead of him.
Gretchen was there all right. If ever a dame could hold her liquor, I knew this was the one. But there was no time for cordials. According to the note, a character named Hoops McCann was intent on a midnight meeting at Mr. Chow’s.
Babs and I downed a couple of Cafe Cubanos and hightailed up the coast. I had to hand it to Babs. She looked cuter than a Filipino on Saturday night. The neon that flickered “Mr. Chow’s” was not entirely promising, but in we went.
McCann was unmistakeable. He had a smile of gold and a tattoo on his left bicep that read: “Rose Darling.” He handed me a cassette with the words, “Sorry, we only have eight.” It had been years since I’d seen an eight-track so we asked Hoops where we might locate a player. A couple of Cuban Breezes later he came up with a name. “Cathy. Cathy Berberian knows.” Just my dumb luck. Two in the morning and the only player in town belonged to an old flame. This town was starting to feel real small.
Babs took the opportunity to get frisky in the car. We decided to call it a night.
The morning brought with it a tropical rain. I chose the linen suit I had laid out the night before. Babs lay languidly in the sheets.
“You think I need a shave, Babs?”
“WilIie, you’re already the cleanest guy I know.”
I lathered up anyway and prepared to meet my rival. It was close to eleven when we put the car in neutral and walked up to Berberian’s. Two knocks later we were inside. After all these years, the dame still had that touch of Tuesday Weld. I smiled. A bit too hard.
“Feels nice,” I said.
She shrugged. “You’re out of the rain.”
The air was thick with tension but we had to hear that tape. “Your dad still got that El Dorado?”
That got her going. Twenty minutes later, she hauled out her old eight-track and listened in.
We were instructed to find one Big Tony Belzoni, one of Daddy G.’s boys and the sucker who would inevitably lead us to Wu. One catch. Our instructions were indelibly marked somewhere on Belzoni’s person.
This thing was turning into a wild goose chase with us as the geese. We threw our kisses, said goodbye and poured ourselves into the car. There, on the windshield, was a note that caused my blood to boil: “Do you have a dark spot on your past?” It was Miguel. Someone along the way had squealed and we were being stuck to like flies on rice. We had to find Wu before Miguel did.
There was only one place in Miami a heavyweight like Belzoni would hang his hat: The Tower Room at Eden Roc. Babs squealed with delight at the mention of this hot spot.
“Not so fast,” I leveled. “For a stint in a joint like that, we’ve got to wire Fogel for more bread.” But first we’d have to throw the Gaucho off our scent.
We ditched the sedan and hired a local girl named Maxine to take us up the coast for a day of reef diving. I figured we were better off submerged should Miguel decide to come looking for us. Besides, I couldn’t come this far without stalking the dread moray eel.
Babs was quivering as we suited up. She mumbled something about the oysters from the night before. But we took the plunge, getting an eyeful of the undersea in all her glory. Babs came up choking, though, and the poor kid opted to remain tied to the mast as I went down again.
Getting Fogel on the phone was no easy trick. I finally tracked him down in a sleazy Manhattan night club.
“You want what?” he shrieked at the request for extra dough.
“Listen. We’re almost there. You want the job done right or not at all?” I inquired about his cousin Buzz, a Miami native who I was sure could hook us up.
“I’m through with that guy,” Fogel said disgustedly. “He takes all my money.” Trooper that he was, Fogel promised to wire some funds to the Eden Roc.
But my problems didn’t end there. That night, Babs started in. Seems she’d had a different sort of trip in mind.
“I’m tired of being dragged around. You never take me anywhere fun anymore,” she cried. “Take me where the music plays.”
“Babs,” I answered, “you knew this was business going in. You expected jazz and conversation? Look, let’s just go our own ways. No tears and no hearts breaking. No remorse.”
That broke her up. And truth to tell, I couldn’t take it either. I consoled her with tales of the other glittering Miami. Down the causeway by the big hotels. I promised to get her fixed up, buy her a zombie from a cocoa shell, you name it. She smiled. You just had to know how to talk to these dames.
We sailed up U.S. One — water on all sides, WJAZ on the radio, Babs’ green earrings glistening in the sun. It really was a pretty sight. At Biscayne Bay we asked a tired looking Cuban gentleman where we could get some grub. He directed us to a local joint called Louise’s for the cheapest red beans and rice I’d ever had. I was feeling good. We’d lost the Gaucho and things seemed smooth with Babs.
We checked into the Eden Roe without a hitch. I jumped into the shower and devised a plan. I knew Belzoni took a massage every day at four. We’d have to disguise Babs as a masseuse and beat the real one into the room. That way, she’d have unlimited access to Belzoni’s person and, of course, that code.
To my surprise, Babs agreed. At three forty five the next day, she entered the Tower Room.
Belzoni was big, a mountain of a man. And as luck would have it, he was already feeling no pain when the kid went to work on him. “Wow, you’ve never done it like this before.”
Babs continued to knead his overworked skin. Everything in the room was weathered. Even the carpet had a Florida suntan. She squeezed his fleshy calves, sunk her thumbs in the tops of his feet, worked her way down to his giant insteps and there, on his right sole, was the map to Wu’s.
Babs could barely hide her enthusiasm. She pressed and pressed as she tried to memorize the code. She must have hit a tendon because something made the big man sit up in pain. “Hey, you’re not Rikki!,” he growled. “Wait a minute, Sister.” Belzoni was no dummy and neither was Babs. She sprang from the room and down the service stairs before he could catch her.
The worst part is she hightailed it out of there without getting the complete code. And, unfortunately, I let her have it. I couldn’t help myself. We’d come so far and gotten so close. It’s just like a dame to panic in the clutch.
That was all Babs had to hear. She was packing her bags faster than a Mexican seamstress. I didn’t even have it left in me to beg her to stay. Last I saw her she was in the hotel lounge crying to a doomsayer in a cheap suit, “That’ll be the day I go back to Annandale.” It was a black Friday indeed.
There was one bright note. Before Babs left, she mumbled something about a dragon. A slight hunch and the Miami phone directory led me to the Dragon nightclub in West Dade and the tender arms of two sisters, Perfection and Grace. Much as I enjoyed their experienced hands roaming my body, I had a deeper mission. As I’d suspected, this was just the kind of joint where Belzoni, Chino, Wu, and all the others could spend a long lost weekend. If it took all night, I was going to get these floozies to talk.
It was four in the morning when some facts unraveled that I knew would make Wu’s hair stand on end. Seems he was involved in everything from money laundering to running a small-time prostitution ring. And that he talked in his sleep. Without much further ado, the pair disclosed his whereabouts.
At noon the next day, I made the move on Wu. He knew I hadn’t come to discuss acupuncture.
“What took you so long, Will?” he asked. The guy was sharp, but I knew I had the goods. “It’s over, Doc.”
I proceeded to let loose everything I knew. I made no bones about my desire to ruin him should he not come through with the tape. He was a beaten man. He nodded slowly. “You got me, Annandale.”
He slowly went through some file drawers, delaying until he came up with the bootleg, which he mournfully presented me. I wasn’t about to leave that fast. Knowing Wu, there was something behind his compliance. “Throw on the tape.”
“Yes,” he said. “I’d relish hearing it one more time.” At those first dulcid tones, I knew I had not let Fogel down. The sounds of Becker and Fagen filled the room as Wu’s eyes filled with tears.
“You won’t be sorry, Wu. Thanks to you, many people are going to derive untold pleasure. And your secret will remain safe with me.”
So that’s the story, friends. And it’s a bittersweet one indeed. In the end, I lost Babs but I got my hands on one of the richest sets of music available. There are plenty of dames out there, but only one Steely Dan.
Letters to the editor
Boxed Set Conspiracy
For several years now it has been known that there is a Steely Dan retrospective box set waiting to be released. However, there seems to be a major cover up and shroud of secrecy surrounding the reasons that it is not in the stores. And Metal Leg is, in fact, a huge player in this stonewalling!
When news of the set first surfaced, Musician, ICE Newsletter, Goldmine, CD Review, and Metal Leg refused to give ink to the growing controversy. When I orchestrated a write-in campaign to MCA there were those mysterious calls asking for the letters to stop and a call to MCA confirmed that they had received a “ton” of missives from the many musically underfed diehards who have been sustained over the years by the meager bones toss(ed) to them by B&F such as “Century’s End” and a few China Crisis cassettes.
No one at MCA will say anything about a release date or anything about what might be on the discs — Live “Hole in the Middle,” demos of “Rapunsel,” “Kulee Baba”? We may never know. When it looked as if Metal Leg was, finally, going to break their silence someone known only as “The Hot Shot” stepped in and nixed the expose at the eleventh hour. If your main goal in publishing Metal Leg is to print photographs of curvaceous cuties (Jenni deserves her own fanzine), then do so, but I think that you should concentrate on finding out how we can hear more Dan tunes.
Something is going on. I know that it is not B&F that are holding back the package because, as far as I can tell, they are major music fans just like we are. They are just as likely to pick up the new Dylan bootleg box set, or newly discovered Chuck Parker demos. They know that they have been stingy with their output over the years and that a few rough spots on tunes or lesser quality live songs should not deter them from releasing lost gems. Hell, McCartney puts out his own boots and even the BEEGEES have a box set out!
Tell us now, Mr. Fogel — a jury of your peers.
Metal Leg responds: Anyone who would like to find out more about this conspiracy can write to Mr. Kane at P.O. Box 91, Holyoke, MA 01041. And you can also write to the person at MCA responsible for the Dan boxed set project: Andy McKaie, Vice President, MCA Records, 70 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, CA 91608
The first of July I received all the back issues of Metal Leg, and also the last, that liked me very much for the great wealth of news, interviews and photos. I think that Metal Leg, thanks to your brilliant work will get bigger and better.
I was amazed to hear that Donald’s new record is finally in sight. I’m trying to imagine the new songs, the musicians involved, the lyrics; perhaps our ten years of abstinence are going to end. I thank you again for your great kindness, and wait the next issue, because as you said in your note, “there will be a lot to read about.”
Got my first issue of Metal Leg last week, and naturally declared the rest of the day a personal holiday. I locked the back and front doors, pulled the shades, disconnected the phone, slipped Aja into the CD player, and enjoyed reading your magazine. (Disagreed with the Boston Phoenix Review! (Vol.5, No.2); it was interesting though.)
As you can see, I’m also sending a check for the back issues, so I can find out what I’ve been missing. I remember hearing the “Off The Record” interview when it was first aired, and was happy to see it reprinted. Looking forward to Gary Katz in the next issue. Keep up the good work…
Bill, Pete and Michael,
I love “Metal Leg”! I’m a huge Dan Fan — I saw them from the 10th row on the Pretzel Logic tour. I’ll never forget that night! The MFSL Gaucho is currently living on my home player. Keep up the good work!
New York, NY