By Richard Cromelin
Los Angeles Times
Donald Fagen is known nearly as much for his reclusive nature as he is for his role in Steely Dan, the cerebral rock duo that combined commercial clout with artistic distinction before dissolving in depression and drug problems at the end of the ’70s.
It took Fagen two years after the breakup of Steely Dan to release his own album, the widely admired The Nightfly. And when its success had him poised for a thriving career, he virtually dropped out of sight.
Now he’s resurfacing after nearly a decade, and the surprise isn’t that he’s talking to the press — there’s a new album out to promote, and another one in the works — but the ease and openness of his conversation.
Though he always seemed the more human half of Steely Dan — his sarcasm was downright benign next to Walter Becker, a baby-faced sadist who delighted in turning interviewers into whimpering wrecks — Fagen was a wary, guarded figure.
Fagen can still strike a tense, forbidding pose, but now the defenses are pretty much down.
“I went through a lot of personal metamorphoses during the ’80s,” he explained during a recent interview. “I had to come to the end of whatever energy was behind the writing I had been doing in the ’70s and The Nightfly sort of summed it up for me in a way.
“I went into therapy shortly after I finished ‘The Nightfly’… and when I came out my mind was as clean and pure as the driven snow.”-Donald Fagen
“And although I would work every day, I essentially was blocked because I didn’t like what I was doing. I’d write a song and then a week later I just wouldn’t connect with it at all. It seemed either I was repeating myself or it just bored me. It wasn’t relevant to what I was going through at the time.”
While struggling to make his own music, Fagen took some side jobs, writing a song for the movie Heavy Metal and the score for Bright Lights, Big City. He also produced the music for the Off Broadway musical Gospel at Colonus, wrote a column on film music for Premiere magazine, practiced and studied composition.
“At the end of the ’80s I felt like I was ready to start writing again,” he said. “A lot of it had to do with a relationship I was in, and a lot of it really had to do with therapy.
“I think I was a very childlike person. I was very idealistic as a child about certain things, about the kind of life I’d have and the kind of relationship I’d have and when these things didn’t work out the way I wanted it was very disappointing to me.
“I went into therapy shortly after I finished The Nightfly…and when I came out my mind was as clean and pure as the driven snow.”
Fagen laughed heartily at his retreat into cliché, but the ease of his manner and his willingness to reveal himself does suggest that he’s shed much of the bitterness and misanthropy that fueled Steely Dan’s scenarios of desperation
“I had a lot of defenses that had been built into my personality, which became more of a disadvantage to me than serving any purpose, and I had to find that out,” he said.
“I know that I have a critical nature, in the sense that when I look at something I often look for the flaws. I love perfect art, and I had to learn that you shouldn’t look for perfection in life. I had trouble distinguishing art from life. So I don’t now, and I feel much better…
“I was escaping from myself. Even if I wasn’t taking a lot of drugs or drinking, I was still just as blind to a lot of things as someone who does drink or take drugs…The basic pattern that you go through in life remains: The idea that you have to change and go through a lot of pain to come out the other side.”
Fagen is resurfacing with not one but two albums, though in typically convoluted fashion. The first one is out, The New York Rock and Soul Revue, isn’t strictly a Donald Fagen album, and the next one might not be out until next fall. Meantime, some of Fagen’s slim ’80s output is being included in MCA Records’ new Steely Dan compilation CD. In the live New York Rock and Soul Revue, which was released last week, Fagen takes a back seat to former Doobie Brothers front man and Steely Dan touring singer Michael McDonald, Phoebe Snow, Boz Scaggs and others on a vintage set of soul tunes — with a couple of Steely Dan, Doobies and Rascals numbers thrown in.
The project grew out of dates Fagen began playing in New York clubs and restaurants — informal sessions that eventually expanded to the “Revue” performance at the Beacon Theatre earlier this year. The sharply played salute to soul is on Giant Records, the label run by Steely Dan’s last manager, Irving Azoff.
“In a way it’s a tribute to the producers and writers and singers who first invented this music,” Fagen said. “I hope there’s some spirit there that the singers are really connected to the songs. To me [the key element is] just a love of the music, and a desire to get together and play without sequencers or anything that encumbers live playing
“I think most of the people on the show are used to making records in a very tedious way — or at least I think of it that way. And [this was] a chance to play live without the pressure of doing an entire show, doing material that they don’t usually do, just getting together and playing music that everyone likes and has some feeling for.”
Fagen, 43, came into this music later than his colleagues. He was a jazz buff as a boy in New Jersey (his memories of late-night radio figured prominently in the themes of The Nightfly), and turned to soul and rock only after jazz went over the experimental edge in the mid-’60s.
At that time he was attending Bard College, a liberal institution in Upstate New York, where he met the like-minded Becker. They led some bands (one, the Leather Canary, featured comedy star-to-be Chevy Chase on drums) and began writing peculiar songs. Eventually they were brought to L.A. by their friend Gary Katz, a producer who landed a job at ABC Records.
Hired as staff writers by the label, they formed a band to play their songs and released their debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill in 1972. “Do It Again” and “Reeling in the Years” both became hits, but the team’s exalted musical ambitions quickly outgrew the conventions of radio pop.
“Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number,” in 1974 was their last big hit. They stopped touring after that and became studio-bound avatars of irony, dismantling the band and directing a rotating roster of ace musicians in the execution of their meticulous music.
In their sometimes vivid, sometimes oblique scenarios, characters struggled to connect–with each other, with changing times, with dashed ideals. The antecedents were more William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon than Chuck Berry, and though the team could be maddeningly obscure, their best songs have a depth that allow them to endure like literature rather than fade like disposable pop.
As defined an influential brand of pop music informed by jazz sophistication and rock dynamics, Steely Dan became, for many followers, an indispensable part of their passage through the ’70s.
“I think we definitely touched something in the culture that certain people identify with,” noted Fagen. “I’m not sure what that is, but I can tell there’s definitely a deep attachment of a lot of people to the music.”
It all fell apart during the making of the seventh Steely Dan album.
“We were both locked into the idea that you have to surpass what you just did or else it’s not good,” Fagen recalled. “Not only surpass, but do something completely different. I think on Gaucho we finally went overboard on that… We were trying to realize a technical perfection that started to deaden the material.
“At the same time we were very depressed, and I think you can hear it in some of the tunes… I very much wanted to do something of my own that reflected what I was experiencing separately from Walter. We felt we should take a break from each other. We were both not in the greatest shape at that time.”
That’s a reference to Becker’s drug habit.
“He was kind of leaping toward destruction,” Fagen said. “When he was having a really hotcha swell time, you know, he’d be late for sessions and that was not easy to deal with. Music was not his first love at that point, I think. But we never had that many arguments.
“I didn’t know how to handle him, and I was in the middle of doing this record that had been going badly, very slow, and without him helping on the level that I was used to, it was very difficult for me. As I say, at the time I just didn’t know how to handle it, and finally he luckily figured out how to handle it himself.”
Becker, having cleaned up his drug problem, and Fagen stirred up rumors of a revived Steely Dan when they tried writing together again in the mid-’80s, but they weren’t happy with the results.
But while a full-blown Steely Dan reunion isn’t quite in place, Fagen’s in-progress follow-up to The Nightfly is a tantalizing approximation: Becker is the album’s producer, and the song list includes one of those mid-’80s collaborations.
Like the thematically coherent Nightfly, the new album, which Fagen expects Warner Bros. to release next fall, has a loose concept: Set in the near future, it follows a protagonist on his journey in an unusual car (for one thing, it has a hydroponic farm in the back).
“I guess it has a social level on which you can take it,” Fagen said of the album. “It’s sort of a metaphor that can be seen on any number of different levels–as a personal life story, a cultural life story. It’s like, ‘What do you do with what you’re given, and how do you transform it into something worthwhile?’ That’s really what it’s about.”
Meantime, Becker (who lives in Maui) and New York resident Fagen have more co-written material stored away for refinement. They’re also holding other songs for an “unspecified” project, and Becker is preparing music for his own album–which Fagen hopes to produce.
But Fagen issued a qualified caution against hopes for the return of Steely Dan.
“I think of [Steely Dan] as being of its time, and it may be inseparable from its time,” he said. “The way we looked at things and what was going on at the time gave it a character which I don’t think it could even have [again].
“I’m not saying it couldn’t change into something else. But the spirit of it was a youthful thing. It’s not that I don’t feel terrifically spry and all that, but….
“In those days a lot of the songs were truly collaborative in the sense that we were always with each other, we were experiencing things collectively. That’s what really made Steely Dan what it was, and we don’t do that anymore. But who knows? It’s not impossible.