By Gary Graff
Detroit Free Press
When Donald Fagen began popping up a few years ago at assorted New York nightspots, heads turned and ears perked up.
As half of the late and lamented ’70s group Steely Dan, Mr. Fagen was hardly what you would call a road rat. In fact, the band had stopped touring by the mid-’70s, as Mr. Fagen and partner Walter Becker retired to the perfectionist environs of the recording studio, using a horde of hired guns to craft their blend of rock and jazz.
So it was surprising to find Mr. Fagen playing relaxed sets in small clubs, trotting out pop standards and old soul favorites. And it’s equally disarming that his first release in almost a decade — this fall’s “New York Rock & Soul Revue” — is an all-star, live album that documents the most extravagant of Mr. Fagen’s concert excursions. “I really do love to play live,” says Mr. Fagen, 43, who’s joined on the album by ex-Steely Dan mate Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs, Phoebe Snow and others. “The reason Walter and I stopped touring didn’t have much to do with not liking to play live. There were a lot of other circumstances — we didn’t like doing one-nighters, the kind of life you had to lead on the road. And I think we also were not really satisfied with the band at that point. But I had nothing against the concept of performing at all.
“And for me, [the Revue] was kind of like a break, something that was less demanding and maybe less intellectually consuming as my own music.”
Atypical as it may seem for Mr. Fagen, “The New York Rock & Soul Revue” has brought him out of a seclusion, marked by writer’s block and depression, that began after his 1982 solo debut, The Nightfly. In addition to the Revue, some of Mr. Fagen’s solo work has been added to a revised reissue of the Steely Dan retrospective, Gold. He’s also working on another solo album — with Mr. Becker producing – that should come out in 1992, and he hopes to produce an album for Mr. Becker after that.
But, Mr. Fagen cautions, all this activity does not mean Steely Dan fans should get hopeful about prospects for a full-fledged reunion.
“To me, Steely Dan was really a part of the ’70s, and I’d just as soon let it lie there,” he explains. “But we are contemplating some other projects together, so who knows?”
Radio stations regularly play such Dan favorites as “Reeling in the Years,” “Do It Again,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Peg,” while the group’s 10 albums — including three greatest hits collections – form one of rock’s best-selling catalogs. “I never thought the music Walter and I created would endure in the same way as the jazz I loved,” Mr. Fagen says.
That affection for jazz and a disillusioned world view were what drew the duo together during the mid-’60s at Bard College in upstate New York — where they played in a band with future comedy star Chevy Chase. After college, they moved to Los Angeles and found jobs as staff writers for ABC Records.
Instead of penning tunes for the label’s performers, however, Mr. Fagen and Mr. Becker ended up forming their own group. But Steely Dan was never a band in the normal sense. Even its first album, 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill, was filled with guest performers, and after three albums the duo dashed any notion of fronting a self-contained unit and instead developed a large corps of players that included such luminaries as Lee Ritenour, David Sanborn, Patti Austin, Mark Knopfler, Rick Derringer, Michael and Randy Brecker and Larry Carlton.
Mr. Fagen says he and Mr. Becker most enjoyed the merger of jazz and pop, though he acknowledges that the group’s fans probably didn’t draw as much humor from it as the musicians did. “As jazz fans,” he explains, “it was amusing to us to play jazz harmonies on these big, ugly, electric guitars.”
But after eight years during which Steely Dan staked a credible claim as the best American band of the ’70s, Mr. Fagen and Mr. Becker splintered. Neither survived intact: Mr. Becker’s drug use became debilitating, while Mr. Fagen’s depression drove him into therapy.
“A lot of it had to do with an unrealistic … extreme idealism I had,” he says. “I think you can realize a lot of these idealistic wishes in art, but you really can’t in life. Knowing the difference between what’s possible in art and what’s possible in life is something you learn as you grow up.
“I went through a personal metamorphosis during the ’80s. I think I’m just more comfortable with myself — I know Walter is as well. I think that as you grow older, you grow dumber, which is a great relief.”
As the Revue attests, Mr. Fagen has certainly grown more relaxed with himself — and with his music. In addition to rhythm-and-blues classics and ’60s rock hits, the album also includes a handful of Fagen originals that he agreed to play “in order to have everyone go away happy.” In the end, however, he enjoyed playing them and, most of all, adding some musical twists to the familiar arrangements.
“It’s basically always been a bore to me to reproduce the tunes onstage,” Mr. Fagen explains. “One reason I don’t mind doing these so much is I have a chance to rearrange a few things, change some of the horn parts. I’d actually like to stretch out with the arrangements a bit more. The point is that they’re living songs, like Gershwin tunes or Harold Arlen tunes. You can do them in a number of ways.”