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 Got The News
Randall’s Island: Elliot Randall Interview
“Thrillin’ Liner Notes”
Dan Promo Sheet
Reviews: The Last Three
Bassmaster General: Harvey Brooks Interview
Chuck Jackson: “Mr. Everything”
Walter Becker Interview
Ladies Like It Too
We look at this issue as a way of paying tribute to 20 years of Steely Dan. Although their output from the ’80s up until now has been practically zero, their tunes still hold up great and still are better than anything we hear on the radio today. I guess many of us really didn’t appreciate them until they stopped making music. Putting all this aside, Donald and Walter are back again (Thank God!) and maybe by the time we celebrate the 3rd decade of the Dan, we’ll have a couple more records to listen to.
In our centerfold, we have put in the original promo piece on Steely Dan from 1972. The piece is untouched and appears exactly the way it did 20 years ago. Check out the Elliot Randall interview done with Metal Leg founder Brian Sweet. We thought it was only appropriate to feature Elliot in the 20 Year Anniversary Issue since he was there from the beginning. Also, I had the pleasure of interviewing the living legend Harvey Brooks who will be playing bass guitar on The New York Rock and Soul Revue Tour. Harvey shares his thoughts with us on playing with Dylan, Hendrix, The Doors and Miles Davis as well as his thoughts on playing with Becker and Fagen live in the ’90s. All in all, I really love this issue and hope you do, too.
For those of you going to the shows, have a great time. Which reminds me, I gotta go now. I have to pack for St. Louis…
See you at the shows!
I Got The News
Becker and Fagen Hit The Road
Miracles do happen. After the July 1974 Santa Monica Civic Center show, Steely Dan retired as a touring band. As years followed, Donald and Walter decided their role was to create the best records possible and leave the touring to the Doobie Brothers and Eagles. And although they tried to put together a road show for Aja, the tour never made it past the audition stage since the union contracts of their backup band escalated to the point of making the venture extremely unprofitable.
When Fagen and Becker called it quits after Gaucho, not only was touring out of the question, but the prospects of getting another record from them were now gone.
But that was 1981 and we now find ourselves in 1992 with Becker and Fagen working together on each other’s solo efforts. And after the successful live reunion at NY’s Lone Star Roadhouse in October 1991, Walter Becker finally decided to join his partner in the 1992 incarnation of the New York Rock & Soul Revue on its three week/ twelve city tour. Many of you probably wonder why they just don’t go out and do a tour as Steely Dan. Well, we all know that Donald takes the Review very seriously and enjoys the fact that he can perform live without the burden of having to front an entire show.
Along with Michael McDonald, Phoebe Snow, Boz Scaggs, and newcomers to the Revue, Chuck Jackson and Walter Becker, they will get another opportunity to “perform the sort of music that inspired us to become musicians in the first place — the music we’d like to hear at a good party.” But instead of inviting only those who could make it to Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre for the last two years, the party has now opened its doors to those residing in the vast portion of the U.S. from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean. And instead of a dusty old Broadway Theatre, the Revue will be playing outdoor summer amphitheaters with the exception of Philadelphia’s Spectrum. All you need is a ticket and an appetite for some classic Rock and Soul music, and of course the desire to experience a once-in-a-lifetime event, Donald and Walter bringing Steely Dan music back to life.
And if the electricity of the audiences at these shows is anywhere near the levels of the Becker and Fagen reunion at The Lone Star, be prepared for the night of your life. The finalized dates changed just a bit from those we gave you in the insert in the last issue:
Aug. 14 – St. Louis – Riverport (Same place as the Guns ‘n Roses riot)
Aug. 15 – Cincinnati – Riverbend
Aug. 16 – Milwaukee – Marcus Amphitheatre
Aug. 18 – Philadelphia – Spectrum
Aug. 19 – Washington D.C. – Merriwenether
Aug. 21 – Boston – Great Woods
Aug. 23 – Long Island, N.Y. – Jones Beach
Aug. 24 – Long Island, N.Y. – Jones Beach
Aug. 25 – New Jersey – Garden State Arts Ctr.
Aug. 26 – Cleveland – Blossom
Aug. 28 – Indianapolis – Deer Creek
Aug. 29 – Chicago – Poplar Creek
Aug. 30 – Detroit – Pine Knob
Tickets have all gone on sale and like the first Jones Beach show, other venues might sell out by the time you’re reading this. A good number of these venues also have subscribers so they got the first crack at tickets. Musician magazine called the tour a “dark horse” in their preview of all the summer tours that could be a surprise hit.
The Revue’s backup band will be made up of many of the musicians that Donald has been performing with over the past couple of years. You will probably recognize some of the names from past issues of Metal Leg.
- Drew Zingg, the guitar player on the Revue CD, will be joining Walter Becker to share guitar duties. Drew will also be serving as musical director and doing the charts.
- Harvey Brooks, veteran bass player from the Little Big Band and most notably for his work with The Electric Flag, The Doors, Miles Davis and Bob Dylan, will be joining the Revue.
- Leroy Clouden, who is also involved on Donald’s solo record is joining the Revue, on drums.
- Kevin Bents, also from the Little Big Band, will be sharing the keyboard spotlight with McDonald.
- Revue veteran Mindy Jostyn will be doing backing vocals along with newcomer Catherine Russell, who is another Little Big Band regular, and Brenda White-King.
- The horn section is still being finalized but we know that Cornelius Bumpus and John Hagen will both be returning to the Revue on saxophone.
- Chuck Jackson, the influential soul singer best known for his hit “Any Day Now” and his appearances at Republican fundraisers joined the Revue as another headliner.
While we expect the Revue to play some of the same songs that appeared on the live CD, you should know that the CD was about an hour long and the live show will run over 2 hours so there’s room for some surprises. Now we know that
Phoebe, Michael, Boz and Chuck will perform some of their hits and some covers of their favorite songs. But what about the Steely stuff? And what songs will Donald sing? Since Fagen has started playing live in small clubs in 1989, we’ve compiled a list of all the songs he’s sung:
1. Drowning In The Sea Of Love (Joe Simon’s hit)
2. Black Friday
3. Pretzel Logic
4. Chain Lightning
5. Home At Last
6. I Got News For You (Ray Charles’ hit)
7. Down Along The Cove (Dylan’s composition)
9. Green Flower Street
11. Deacon Blues
12. Green Earrings
13. Sign In Stranger
14. My Old School
15, Land of Make Believe (Dionne Warwick’s hit)
Now with Walter having a say in the song selection, other songs from the Steely Dan collection may find their way to the set list.
The rehearsals for the tour take place in NY City at S.I.R. studios from August 4 through 12, with a closed dress rehearsal on August 13 at St. Louis’ Riverbend Amphitheater, the day before the tour starts. We expect the tour to be exciting not only for the fans, but also for the artists. Michael McDonald gets to play in his hometown of St. Louis, while Fagen and Becker will get to see that there is actually some intelligent life in the area between Maui and New York.
Although Metal Leg isn’t set up to have organized parties in each city for those of you attending the shows, we trust that you will prepare yourself adequately during the pre and post-show festivities.
WARNING: DO NOT YELL OUT REQUESTS FOR STEELY DAN SONGS — ESPECIALLY FROM THE FIRST TWO RECORDS!!!! THESE ACTIONS CAUSE SEVERE ANXIETY FOR DONALD AND MAY RESULT IN FURTHER DELAY OF HIS UPCOMING SOLO RECORD!!!
We’d also ask you to send us reviews from your local paper, any pictures you might sneak, your personal opinions of the show, any interviews should the artists take to your local media.
Also, you should keep a lookout for Pete Fogel, whom you will be able to recognize from the Editor’s Note pictures. If you see him, please feed him and give him shelter.
What does this tour mean for the future? At this time there are no plans for these shows to be recorded for another release, but you never know. But most important is the fact that Donald and Walter are hitting the road again and giving touring another chance, but this time entirely on their own terms. If this tour goes well, it could expand to the West Coast, and possibly even to Japan. And with both artists’ solo projects due out in ’93, a Becker and Fagen duo tour could make some sense (to us at least).
Aside from joining the NY Rock and Soul Revue for their Eastern U.S. tour, Walter Becker is still working on his solo album and the more we hear about it, the more intrigued we get. We have already heard two of the so titles from the project: “Three Sisters Shakin’ ” (a sequel to “Babylon Sisters?”) and also “Junkie Girl.” Walter is working closely with Donald as producer and long-time friend guitarist Dean Parks. Speaking of Parks, word has it that while in Los Angeles, he and Becker paid a visit to Denny Dias’ home (yes, Denny Dias) and jammed in his living room.
Walter is continuing his production work with Triloka Records and we’ve recently found out that he and Roger Nichols are partners in the company. Pianist Dave Kikoski’s “Persistent Dreams” was just released and Walter wrote the liner notes which noted that “…if hearing Dave for the first time doesn’t transform your life as utterly as it’s transformed mine, at least you’ll have a great new Triloka CD to play in your car on your way down to the unemployment office…”
While EWI player Steve Tavaglione’s work will be out this winter, Becker is currently working on Andy Laverne’s second Triloka CD which also features bassist Will Lee and drummer Anton Fig.
Speaking of liner notes, Walter wrote the technical notes for Spinal Tap’s new MCA release, “Break Like The Wind.”
In a recent issue of JazzTimes, Becker talked to Bret Primac about his up-and-coming career as a jazz producer. He emphasized that his relationship with engineer Roger Nichols is critical, “particularly for a jazz producer, where you go into a studio and everything happens very fast. On most pop records, you spend days getting a drum sound or experimenting. With the jazz records I’ve been doing, the whole record is done in two days so you’re really dependent on an engineer who’s going to make it happen quickly and do all the right things without a big discussion, or a trial and error type of situation.” Becker’s Triloka projects are recorded live with all the musicians in the studio at the same time. “I’ve really come to prefer the excitement of recording live and the interplay you get with musicians. The kind of “this is it, let’s make it happen’ kind of thing. It’s a much more appropriate situation for jazz records when you’re looking for interplay, improvisation, freshness and fiery performances.”
“If they hadn’t have invented the CD, I’d be playing in a lounge somewhere,” Donald told Q magazine in a recent interview. “For the last four or five years, I’ve been living off money from Steely Dan reissues. Those records obviously communicate something powerful to people, to younger people as well.”
Unfortunately, as things stand now, Donald’s new album will probably not make a 1992 release and so it looks like the new date will be sometime in early 1993. Yet, as we know that in the scheme of things, what is a couple of months when we’ve waited ten years.
What we know now is that Walter came back to New York in early July to continue work with Donald until the Revue rehearsals and tour. Although we haven’t heard the names of any new musicians, unnamed horn players have been coming in for the sessions. What we have heard is another two song titles, “The Trip” and “Tomorrow’s Girl.” These are in addition to “Snowbound,” “Dunes” and “Tea House.”
The album is following the “concept album” format that Fagen explored in The Nightfly. “It’s science fiction set seven or eight years in the future. It has a theme running through it. It takes the form of a journey undertaken by a protagonist who’s driving a steam-driven car. This vehicle is in other ways environmentally correct; it has a bionic hydroponics farm in the back. The journey is introduced in the first songs, and all the other songs are things he passes or dreams of on his journey. It has an actual conclusion — an ambiguous one — at the end.”
For those of you who want to hear Donald singing backup on a new release, you should check out “Big Noise, New York” on Jennifer Warnes’ new release The Hunter. Ms. Warnes, who is best known for her duet with Joe Cocker on “Up Where We Belong,” recorded the song at River Sound, but the most important fact about “Big Noise, New York” was that Fagen co-wrote the song with NY writer Marcelle Clements, and was originally written to appear on Donald’s aborted 1984-85 attempt at his followup to The Nightfly. So the song has been in the can for around 8 years. It’s a pretty good song, even though Donald’s shared backup vocals with Frank Floyd are pretty low key. The song is getting a lot of airplay on NY’s CD 101.9 contemporary Jazz radio station.
Moving on to the NY Nights showcases at the Lone Star Roadhouse, the last two took place on April 3 and 4 as Libby Titus brought some more great music to the Big Apple. This time, although Donald performed again, Phoebe Snow caught the flu and was replaced by Darlene Love most noted for her work with Phil Spector. Special guests on those nights also included a blues singer Sam (we didn’t get his last name) and John Sebastian noted for his work with the Lovin’ Spoonful and his theme from “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
Again, the Little Big Band backed the artists and while the music again was particularly tasty, the highlights of the nights were the addition of “My Old School” to the set, Leroy Clouden’s sitting in on drums on “Chain Lightning” and the slew of trombone jokes directed at the LBB’s Bob Smith.
In related Dan news, MCA has started releasing the newly remastered Steely Dan CDs replacing the ones from the inferior masters we discussed in the last issue of ML. They are releasing them in chronological order and everything up through Katy Lied is now in the stores and have identifying stickers. Expect the remaining discs to be released over the next couple of months.
Speaking of discs, Greg Phillinganes’ 1984 album Pulse has been finally released on CD in England on the RCA label. His U.S. label Planet Records went out of business and its catalog is hard to find. As most of you know, Fagen wrote and arranged the song “Lazy Nina” for Greg and it is always requested and played on NY’s CD101.9 radio station. Check with your local record store that deals in import CDs or call Rock Dream Records at 609-275-8171 or Yodelin’ Pig CDs at 301-788-2322.
Also, if you haven’t heard, Mel Torme covers “The Goodbye Look” and “Walk Between The Raindrops” on his Reunion album with the Marty Paich dek-tette on the 1988 Concord Jazz release. After a few listens, you can pretend you’re in an elevator.
In July, Jimmy Vivino and his brother Jerry from The Little Big Band were in Clinton Studios in NYC working on a “Vivino Brothers” record. Al Kooper, Ronnie Cuber and Catherine Russell will be among the featured guest performers on the album which will be released sometime in October on the DMP record label.
Jimmy Vivino also has made a name for himself in Hollywood with his work on the hit movie “Sister Act” starring Whoopie Goldberg. Jimmy coached the nuns, taught them all the songs and even wrote one of the movie’s original songs.
Saxophonist Ronnie Cuber’s CD is out on Fresh Sound Records and is called Cubism. Ronnie plays baritone on all the songs except “Ironic,” where he plays tenor saxophone. Check it out.
Jenni Muldaur, daughter of Maria (Midnight At The Oasis”) Muldaur, will be making her solo debut on her self-titled release on Warner Brothers records in early September. Ms. Muldaur was a regular guest with The Little Big Band in the Hades days, as well as at a couple of Lone Star and Woodstock gigs.
Rosie Vela’s follow-up to Zazu is finished and currently being readied for release on a new record label.
In video news, Naked Lunch has made a rather quick trip to home video. The movie, directed by David Cronenberg is pretty strange and is not a translation of the book (the Steely Dans are absent), but it is enjoyable if you are in the right mind set. The musical score by Ornette Coleman and Howard Shore is excellent. Look for the “Mugwumps” drug-secreting creatures that we featured in our table of contents.
Randall’s Island: Elliot Randall Interview
He’s most famous for playing the classic solo on “Reelin’ In The Years.” He also played on several other Steely Dan albums and, among other things, he was once a member of the Druids of Stonehenge, Seatrain, Sha Na Na and fronted his very own Randall’s Island. Last year, he was the guitar coach on Oliver Stone’s film of The Doors and has made three solo albums of his own. The last one came out in 1975, but he is currently working on a “guitar album” for probable release in 1993. Elliot Randall, selective session guitarist and keen photographer, agreed to talk about his work with Steely Dan and his own musical activities. He was interviewed, with his wife Jane overseeing affairs, by Metal Leg founder Brian Sweet and his friend Dave Edney in his sunny London “studioette.”
Brian Sweet: Who were your earliest guitar heroes?
Elliot Randall: Duane Eddy, The Ventures. At that point in the mid-fifties there were a lot of TV Western shows and almost all of them had that real deep, twangy guitar sound and I was instantly attracted to that.
BS: What about current guitarists? Any of those taken your eye?
ER: The ones that are in notoriety today, I really can’t say very much about.
BS: Let’s throw a name at you, Joe Satriani.
ER: Very impressive technique. Leaves me absolutely cold. The reason is if you were to equate this art form to another art form, how shall I put this? It’s a bunch of gymnastics to me. I’ve yet to walk away from listening to a piece by Joe Satriani: and remember a melody. I can remember plenty of Bach, plenty of Beethoven, plenty of Duane Eddy, even, but simply to play at what appears to be a thousand miles an hour isn’t much of an accomplishment. All that means to me is that someone sat in the privacy of their bedroom and practiced how to play as many notes as possible as quickly as possible. And I find that a dubious achievement.
BS: When you were playing in the Village, did you come across any future big names?
ER: That was 1963 and one of my very best friends from the instant we met is Ritchie Havens. We were playing in a place called the Cafe Bizarre, bizarre as in strange, and we would start a 7 o’clock at night and there were four acts and we would finish at four o’clock in the morning. It was the greatest, there’s no way I could think of anything being wrong with it; you’d play for an hour and then you’d have a couple hours off and then you’d play again. It gave you a chance to see what was going on all over Greenwich Village. And in those days the Village then was really one of the vanguards for interesting new music. You’d get rock and roll, folk, jazz, a lot of West Indian music at the time, everything from steel drum bands from Trinidad to the pre-Rastafarian Jamaica.
BS: You didn’t cross paths with Jimi Hendrix, then?
ER: I didn’t cross paths with him until a few years later.
BS: I think his band at that time was call Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.
Dave Edney: A Hendrix book that just came out mentions that Jeff Baxter once played in that band, I think it might only have been a couple of times. But he played bass guitar.
ER: In those days so many people got around and played with so many different people that it makes sense.
BS: Are you selective about what session work you do these days?
ER: If I was any more selective I wouldn’t be working! I spent years in New York being — among other jobs I used to do commercial advertising work which was extremely lucrative — I mean, I could go in and work for an hour and see $15,000-$20,000 as a result of that hour. Unfortunately, a lot of the clients that I worked for weren’t particularly pleasant, weren’t really fun to work with. The advertising business is really a business and has little to do with art, particularly these days when they want you to emulate whatever is the hottest new record. It became more and more of a tedium and a chore. I figured you could be a high-price hooker in virtually any profession. And not long before I decided to leave New York for London and see what it would be like living here, I would be coming home in some pretty raunchy moods. Jane would say, “What’s going on?” I’d say, “I hated that bit of work that I just did.” And she said, “Well, why don’t you just not work for the people that you don’t enjoy?” I thought that was a good idea and though I stopped doing the huge bulk of commercial advertising work, a lot of other work came in and a lot of the clients that I was working for in terms of the music stuff wound up making it more than worth my while. The money from the commercial things was down, but the money from the more artistic things that I really enjoy a lot more went way up.
BS: Donald and Walter used to say this quite often: if a guitarist is coming in to play a solo on their record, it will be more challenging than, say, a commercial for Uncle Ben’s Rice or whatever.
ER: It’s true, their music is some of the most challenging, without a doubt.
DE: Do you find that you are a better player now than, say, five, ten years ago?
ER: Yes, oh sure.
BS: Through experience?
ER: Through experience and again through my minimalist philosophy. As time goes on I find more and more interesting ways to cut through. Let’s say somebody’s showing me something with six chord changes in a matter of one measure, rather than either pulling my hair out and saying, “How am I gonna make all these changes?” Or rather than trying to be real fancy, I will have seen those chord changes more and more times and be able to say to myself, “Ah, I can play these two notes which work with five of these, and the sixth one will actually be dissonant and in my opinion it will be good, because it will lead you into the next chord.” So yeah, I think experience should make one a better player.
BS: You said you were demoing up your next album. Have you got a settled band?
ER: No, not at all. There are so many different players that I enjoy playing with both here and in America that I would like to be able to make use of as many of my really fine musician friends as possible, within the appropriate area. I mean, I don’t wanna use somebody just because I can use 28 musicians instead of 24. There’s a certain song that Pino Palladino will play bass on better than anybody else; there might be another song that Harvey Brooks will play better than anybody else. I would like to be able to use them both.
BS: That is Donald and Walter’s philosophy.
ER: Yes, indeed.
BS: You played on quite a number of demos with Donald and Walter. As far as I can see, the only one that you’re actually credited on is “Brooklyn,” the six-minute version of that song. Can you recall playing on any others?
ER: I would be on a number of them, I imagine. I haven’t seen those records and in those days I was doing so many different projects for different people that I have a hard time remembering. I do remember “Brooklyn.” I imagine Kenny Vance would remember a lot better than I would. Funny enough, there’s a defunct studio in New York called Mayfair where an awful lot of those demos were cut and I was working for five or six people just within the confines of that one studio. Gary Katz and Kenny Vance were doing stuff there, all sorts of other people who’ve gone on to do other projects.
BS: They went on to compose the score for a film called You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It, but you don’t appear to have been involved.
ER: I do remember that, but no, I didn’t have anything to do with that.
BS: The drummer was John Discepolo. Do you remember him?
ER: Sounds awfully familiar. There was a crew of guys from the East Side, I think he was one of them.
BS: Another one was Keith Thomas, who sang lead vocals on some of these demos. John Mazzi was another name, also a drummer who played on a few of them.
ER: John Mazzi, sure. He was another one of these East Side guys. They never really wound up being session guys. Some of the guys like Mazzi wound up playing in East Side nightclubs. I don’t know past around 1975 or so what’s become of them.
BS: Donald and Walter answered Denny Dias’ ad in the “Village Voice” and joined his group.
ER: That I don’t know anything about. I’ll tell you what I do know about that. Through my playing with Jay and the Americans — that’s actually how I met them — it’s a little hazy back then. Kenny, being one of the Americans, was really one of the only ones who believed in them when nobody else paid them a serious thought; he was convinced he had something. There was a production company, JATA, the acronym for Jay and the Americans, it was under that blanket Kenny was forever doing demos with them. Kenny would ask me to come and play on some of the demos and I did. Between that point and when Gary Katz took the tapes out to ABC, I don’t know much about what went on. The next thing I knew they were out there working on the first album and I had decided to move out to Los Angeles that summer of ’72. I was invited to come into the studio and say hello and that day was asked to do the solo on “Reelin’ In The Years.”
DE: That was the very first solo you did on the first day?
BS: Do you think the invitation was an excuse to get you in there to do the solo?
ER: No, because the initial invitation came from Baxter. I don’t think the other guys knew I was in town. When I did and played the solo, I was then asked if I would join the band right away the next day and I declined.
BS: Was David Palmer there then, because he came in about halfway or even two-thirds of the way through?
BS: Donald wasn’t happy about doing the vocals, was he?
ER: No, he wasn’t. This would be like July of ’72, the record was a fair amount done.
BS: It came out in the fall of ’72, didn’t it?
ER: Possibly. Yeah, because “Reelin'” didn’t become a hit until the following year. They had a long stand with “Do It Again” back in America, it was on the charts forever before they released a second single.
DE: Can you remember any of the sessions that you did?
ER: Most of them would probably be things that you’ve never heard of. They were in the small time moving up to the big time; there was a wonderful singer named Susan Carter out of California who had a big chunk of the Blood, Sweat and Tears band on her record. The engineer for that, funnily enough, was a young assistant named Elliot Scheiner. That would be 1969.
BS: Do you look back on that time touring with Jay and the Americans with any degree of fondness? Donald and Walter use it as a constant source of jokes.
ER: Oh, I do, I do, but Donald and Walter thought they had a higher calling.
BS: Where does Thomas Jefferson Kaye fit into the story?
ER: Oh, Tommy Kaye, I love him. Injun Tommy Kaye — he claims to be an Indian. Tommy’s great. Tommy is one of the most serious groovemasters of contemporary music, from funky New Orleans style on. Remember the Supersessions album with Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield, Stephen Stills? Tommy produced that.
BS: Was he actually one of the Americans?
ER: No, he was part of the crew that hung out and was friendly with them. He produced some wonderful Loudon Wainwright stuff, he did two albums himself and I believe he’s just recently got a third album done and ready for release.
BS: Donald and Walter wrote a couple of songs for “First Grade” called “American Lovers” and “Jones.”
ER: I was in the initial band that Tommy Kaye had. It was Rick Slosser, an LA drummer, Tom Salisbury, who among other jobs was musical director for the Pointer Sisters, beautiful keyboard player; a guy called Gene Santini on bass and myself in 1973/74. It’s funny because there was a bit of a row that I had with Tommy and Gary Katz (who produced the record), ’cause they did want me to do particularly the second album, but I decided not to do it for a number of reasons. I think we didn’t talk for a good chunk of time after that. Gary and I have a wonderful, sometimes stormy, but always intense relationship.
BS: Here’s a name from the past, Eric Mercury, Electric Black Man.
ER: In those days, Gary Katz was Gary Kannon. He changed his name back to Katz.
BS: He co-wrote one of the songs on that album with Shelly Weiss called “Long Way Down.” So Gary had aspirations to be a musician also?
ER: Well, Gary always fancied himself a musician, a singer, he used to play acoustic guitar and it’s his love of music that has moved him into the strong positions that he finds himself in now. I just spoke to Eric Mercury two days ago and Gary’s producing a new album, I’ve been asked to play on it. Eric is, to my mind, one of the finest singers of the 20th century, he’s unbelievable. There was a big clique of friends in those days. Eric was from Toronto, David Clayton Thomas was from Toronto. The engineer on Eric’s album was Tony Bongiovi who went on to design The Power Station in New York.
BS: When you played the solo on “Reelin’ in the Years” did Donald and Walter say “OK, you’ve got 16 bars and you solo in there,” or did they actually guide you as to what they wanted you to play.
ER: In the case of “Reelin’ in the Years” all they said was “Look, Baxter’s been trying to do this for two days, so would you please do it?” In the case of other pieces of material that were done later, for example “Throw Back the Little Ones,” they said they wanted me to follow the horns for a couple of bars, then I had two bars of freedom, back to the horns again and so on.
BS: What was a typical Steely Dan studio day?
ER: For me, it usually entailed going in around 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon or 7:00, 8:00 in the evening for five, maybe six hours.
BS: How did they go about ensuring that a musician was doing their best when they were being put through their paces? For instance, you said that on The Royal Scam you did about sixty takes and they still weren’t happy and when you started getting really way out, that’s what they wanted.
DE: Would that be “Sign In Stranger?”
ER: Oh, yeah, I did that one. That was probably some of the most laughs. There’s an instrumental dialogue that goes on between the piano and the guitar, constantly answering their lyrics and the keyboard and guitar and each other. That was actually one of the quicker ones. I’ve never found their stuff particularly difficult. If you listen to the lyrics, the lyrics have a lot to do with the way I respond playing. Do you have me saying I did sixty takes?
BS: It was a quote from this article from years back.
ER: I’d like to see that article ’cause I never said that.
BS: This was from 1976. (Said article is produced for Elliot to inspect.)
ER: I’ve never seen this. I would never have used the word tracking. This is filled with wrong information, it says “his next gig is playing for an international fashion show in Japan”; in fact it was Hong Kong.
BS: Would they rehearse the session musicians in the studio with the tape rolling.
ER: I think with the basic tracks they would do that. Again, regrettably I never played on any of the initial tracking sessions. According to someone like Will Lee, for example, they would work on the same tune two or three days in a row. It’s very difficult for me to comment on a situation that I wasn’t involved in. If a musician is playing for two days and doesn’t see a smile of satisfaction from the people he’s playing for, then they would get rather frustrated. I can’t say that for myself, ’cause I wasn’t in that situation.
BS: Tell us about the guitar solo on “Kings.” You said yourself that was a trip into schizophrenia-land. Did they come to you and say, “Elliot, we want something really schizophrenic on this”?
ER: No, not at all. I was simply going through some pretty difficult times in terms of my own change of life at that moment.
BS: So that solo was reflecting something that was going on in your personal life?
ER: Oh, yeah. Nobody told me to play a crazy whole tone scale, then go into something more melodic. To this day I work that way; I don’t see locking myself into a particular melody. In fact, it took me years to just get to the point that if somebody said “Could you play that again?” I’d say, “OK, let me work that out.” I just like to play and if I can let it come through my subconscious, if I can let it flow — I didn’t mean that to be in a New Age way at all — it’s just that you react to the music. I can’t even identify the process. If I’ve just done something and somebody wants to hear something else, then I’ll take it from a completely different point of view, unless they say “That was really close, can you do something similar.” But without that instruction I’ll just keep trying from different angles and at certain points it will click. One always hopes it will be the first take, but sometimes it’s the hundred and first take.
BS: Have you ever known a musician who was trying to play something for Donald and Walter which they weren’t satisfied with and he walked out or gave up?
ER: Again not having been in that situation I wouldn’t know. I’ve been around for the other side of overdubs, where I remember spending the afternoon with them. They invited me to come around while Phil Woods was doing the solo on “Dr.Wu.” That was one take. It was one of those where Phil said, “I think this is what you guys want,” played it and at the end we just laughed, we laughed for half an hour.
BS: This may be an apocryphal story, but I read that Donald asked Phil to play it once more just so he could hear him.
ER: I don’t remember that. I was there, but I don’t remember that. I remember that everybody was in a great mood, they would certainly have showed their admiration to Phil. One solo, I mean everybody was expecting to be there for the whole afternoon, and 15 minutes after it started, the session was over.
BS: What would you say was Denny’s strong point as far as the guitar goes?
ER: He has quite a few. I’ve always seen Denny as a wonderful guitarist, I’ve always had a lot of smiles with him, both interpersonally and musically. He’s mellow, he’s got a great sense of humor. I think we both attack the solo in the same way, which is not only musically how you can be, but there’s also a sense of quirkiness to his playing. Throwing you a left hook when you’re least expecting it. I have all the admiration in the world for him.
BS: Some session musicians have claimed that Donald and Walter were the real producers of Steely Dan records. Would you say that was true?
ER: I can understand someone thinking that but I don’t think it’s accurate. Because there’s an awful lot that goes on in terms of dialogue between the three of them. Gary’s job as the producer is to see that the artist is happy and being served well, and in the midst of a session, it’s generally Donald and Walter that’ll say a lot more than Gary will, but Gary is someone who won’t let his artist feel like they didn’t make the right decision. He’s always there to play devil’s advocate — “Are you sure that’s great? Are you sure that’s what you really want?” — and so on. That’s an invaluable participation.
BS: They did somewhat jokingly refer to him as the “Third Ear.”
ER: I have been producing music for several decades now and I started out wanting to be a producer along the lines of someone like Bob Crewe, who back in the early ’60s did all the Four Seasons things. A madman, total madman, brilliant man. But his records are not the artist’s records, they’re Bob Crewe records. In fact, Bob Crewe produced me in ’75 and it was the lesson of a lifetime. I’m at a point now particularly with one group that I’ve been asked to produce from America, my job is not going in to create their record, because they’ve written some great things, it’s my job to be more like I’ve just described Gary Katz; to make sure that when the record is printed up and released and they get to hear it on the radio hopefully, they won’t go “Oh, I wish the producer hadn’t let us do that.” There’s a fine line between everybody’s jobs, and great product comes when there’s really good communication between working together. And everybody walking away with a smile, I still believe that’s when you get a really good product.
BS: For instance, Rick Derringer said that The Royal Scam was Walter’s album, presumably because of all the guitar work it features and also because it’s more strident, if you like, than the other records.
ER: With all due respect to Ricky — and I also have worlds of admiration for him, I think he’s a terrific musician — I would respectfully disagree. I still think it’s the three of them. That would have been Ricky’s experience, I wouldn’t deny him his experience.
BS: Did you get the impression that Donald and Walter were exerting more influence latterly, say during Royal Scam, Aja? Would they have been more in control for those records than Can’t Buy A Thrill?
ER: No. Possibly the other way around, but I wouldn’t be sure of that.
BS: Donald said himself, “We were very arrogant teenagers and we always figured that one of our songs would be a hit.” So when they went into the studio for Can’t Buy A Thrill they were really confident and knew exactly what they wanted?
ER: Yeah. Think that everybody’s made really nice transitions from being arrogant teenagers to understanding more about cooperation, and obviously more good communication exists, the finer the product would be.
DE: Did their methods change at all?
ER: I think we’ve all become more mellow. More understanding, more trying to tune into one another’s needs…
BS: More tolerant, perhaps?
BS: If Gary Katz was the third member of Steely Dan, then Roger Nichols was most certainly the fourth.
ER: Without question.
BS: What influence did he have on the sound of a Steely Dan album?
ER: I think that everybody was always impressed by the fact that Roger always had unbelievable ears. Even as a very young man he understood the relationship between the proper mike and the proper application. You’ll find that in the first batch of material there’s a statement on one of the albums that nothing has been EQed in terms of the initial basic tracks. I think it was simply the mike on the instrument. He’s great at it, he has a wonderful set of ears. In addition, his knowledge vis-a-vis electronics and computers has been invaluable. His original Wendel is the great granddaddy and still better than all the other drum machines. It served much more musical purposes, he understood about digital sampling, he’s a real pioneer.
BS: He’s been trying to build another model, but has been so busy that he hasn’t yet found the time to dedicate to it.
ER: There was Wendel, Wendel II and there was Wendel Junior production model, too. Maybe he’s on to another, I don’t know.
BS: Do you have a favorite Steely Dan song or album?
ER: My two favorite albums are Can’t Buy A Thrill and Scam. Can’t Buy A Thrill because of its whole mood that’s very true to that era of our lives, we wanted it to be great, there’s a vitality to it…
BS: That really was an amazing debut album, wasn’t it?
ER: It was. It’s just filled with desire, with lust to be known and famous. I think Scam was an interesting turning point because it was not quite as technically perfect as the albums after. But it’s a different identity really, principally with the R&B legends’ playing, certainly all the foundation stuff, I just like it, I like what it says, I like how it says it, I like how it sounds.
BS: Apart from your own work, what is your favorite solo — sax or guitar — on a Dan album?
ER: The Phil Woods thing was great. One of Ricky’s solos I absolutely adore on Katy Lied. Wait, I’ll tell you what it is. (Elliot gets up and fetches the CD.) “Your Gold Teeth II.”
BS: Can you recall any amusing incidents in the studio with Steely Dan?
ER: Well, it wasn’t amusing at the time, but the first solo that I did on “Reelin’ in the Years” should have been the keeper. Unfortunately the record button wasn’t on. Our relationship has always been fun, but we’ve had some pretty deep belly laughs. I wish I had some really good Steely Dan anecdotes, unfortunately I don’t.
BS: Gary’s a baseball fan, right?
ER: Oh, yeah, a total sports fan. Basketball, hockey, you name it, he loves it. In fact, I was doing one album he was producing five or six years ago, and he would have the video tape recording the game and if you told him the result, that’s it, you were out of there. He wants to see the game for himself.
BS: Was there ever any likelihood of you going on tour with Steely Dan?
ER: Not really. I guested on some shows. In those days my time was pretty taken up with other bands, there was the Tommy Kaye Band which lasted for close to a year. After that I joined Sha Na Na — I was with them for a year. By early ’75 that was it for the touring span of Steely Dan.
BS: How often were Donald and Walter wrong in their choice of musician for a particular part or solo?
ER: I don’t know that wrong is an appropriate word in that different musicians will treat music differently. On many occasions in my own experience as a producer I’ve said “Well, let’s see what this person will do,” and I’d like to think that I wasn’t wrong in my choice, but then I’d say, “I think that someone else might do a better job.” You try something and if it works, great. Again, it’s back to the canvas analogy, you try a color and if it doesn’t complement what you’re trying to do, you paint over it. I’m not being diplomatic, mind you, that’s really the way I see texture.
BS: There’s a widely held view that once Steely Dan as a group broke up they lost some of their edge. They came in for some criticism later on as being too slick, too perfect. Do you subscribe to that view?
ER: I do subscribe to that, actually. Yeah, I think it was also a learning process for them. Once you go beyond slick you find yourself back where you started from. Listening to Donald’s album, I think that there’s a certain humanness that if you searched back to the early archives you’d find it’s that. I think they went past the technological perfection and now I think that they’re working through all of those things because they’ve got as much technological perfection as they need, and the experience of having done things from simply gutsy to simply perfect and now they can take the best of both worlds.
BS: Walter once said that Aja was so smooth and so perfect that they really didn’t know how they were ever gonna surpass that. Hence the three years between Aja and Gaucho…
BS: …they had set themselves such a standard that they couldn’t imagine how they would equal it, let alone surpass it.
ER: I’m told they’re doing it now. A number of years ago Walter and I had a conversation about building up a catalog; unless you had a really good number of pieces of material to choose from, it wasn’t worth trying to go in and make a record. Before you go in, you wanna know that you’ve got x albums’ worth of material and that’s the way that they’re going about this next project.
DE: How long have you been here in London?
ER: We came over last June for the summer. The entire second part of the summer and all the fall were taken up with Kirsty. Since the beginning of ’92 I’ve been working and one to four times a month, I’ll go out to do what I consider really fun work. It’s like writing a book. I think one needs a lot of time to plan outlines and make the ideas more and more concrete. I’ve been fortunate because a week ago Saturday I was asked by Guitarist Magazine to do a show up in Manchester, so I was able to take a lot of the material that I’ve been working on and give it a run on stage. Often you do an album, then you get up on stage and you play it and get a great idea and you think, “Oh, I wish I had that idea three months ago so it could be on the record.” Fortunately I was able to get some of those ideas, so now I’m working on changing some of the tracks around. But it’s a long process I want to take my time with it. I’d love for it to be ready tomorrow, but there is the need to really feel satisfied with it. I don’t mind taking the extra time to do that. London is just a lot more conducive to that situation than New York I find. There are fewer interruptions, I can isolate myself, turn the phone off in this room, if I need a breather I can go out to the garden. It’s not like you open your windows and you hear sirens all the time as you do in the middle of Manhattan.
BS: What were your impressions of the live Steely Dan?
ER: I played with them several times. I did something with them at the Westbury Music Fair at one point, which was a lot of fun. I did a show with them at the Filmore West in ’73, which is when I met Sha Na Na. They were on the same bill. It never really developed itself fully as a good stage show, for any one of a number of reasons, principally because that wasn’t what they were looking to do. They were looking to make really great records — as a consequence that was their strong point. The last time I saw them was getting ready to do a stage show in New York and they had brought Jeff Porcaro in.
BS: What do you make of Donald and Walter’s dislike of touring?
ER: Well, they didn’t enjoy it. Donald and Walter had a real problem around producing music live that didn’t hold up to the quality of their records and that was the issue. I don’t think there was any other issue. If one raised the issue that Donald used to get sick, it was a result of the fact, in my opinion anyway, that he was anxious that it wasn’t gonna come off as well as they would have liked. There was a good deal of integrity in terms of the intent — had it been a few years later, possibly with some personnel changes, they would have found that the could have done their records as well. There were interpersonal difficulties…
BS: Between them and the rest of the band, you mean?
ER: …some of the rest of the band. I can sympathize with them now a lot more than I could back in those days, because I can understand them wanting to put on a great show or do no show at all.
BS: Who were the other members of My Old School (short-lived band that toured Australia in 1988; played some Dan tunes) apart from yourself and Jeff Baxter?
ER: Probably no one that you would have heard of. An American ex-pat over there whose name escapes me, and Australian drummer. Jeff had spent a fair amount of time in Australia before and had gotten to know these people. He really fucked it up. He got as a tour manager a guy who should have never been given such responsibility and Jeff Baxter’s not a stupid person. I question his choice. I questioned his choice the moment I met this fellow and Jeff said “Oh, don’t worry” and this guy wound up stealing a lot of money from us. Even worse is the fact that he guaranteed me personally a rather large sum of money which he’s never paid. As a result of the rift I don’t think I ever wanna speak with him again. The worst part of it is the betrayal of a childhood friend. We’ve known each other since the early ’60s when he used to work at Jimmy’s Music Shop and I used to work at a place called Ben’s Music Shop, both of which have become parking lots in New York’s Tin Pan Alley. I got him tons and tons of studio work all over the world and to be paid back with a slap in the face or a rather large sum of money missing, leaves me with nothing but bitterness.
BS: Which Steely Dan tunes were you doing on this tour?
ER: We did “My Old School,” “Reelin’ In The Years,” two or three others, those two standing out most in my mind.
BS: Have you heard or seen the New York Rock & Soul Revue yet?
ER: I keep missing it. My timing has really been piss-poor. It seems like they’re playing either a week before I get there or a week after I leave.
BS: Have you heard any of Walter’s jazz production work?
ER: I haven’t, but I’m sure they’re great. I know Rickie Lee gave him a lot of aggro.
BS: She said that she was really apprehensive about working with Walter because of his reputation and she referred to Steely Dan songs as “boy music.”
ER: There’s more than a hint of misogyny in some of their lyrics, too. No question about it. But they’re different now. Time really changes people. Walter has changed remarkably, nicely.
BS: He’s working on Donald’s album which has been in production for two years on and off. Then he and Roger go in and record and mix two jazz albums in ten days. It seems to be both extremes of the scale.
ER: Yeah, but jazz as an art form is that it’s music of the moment. If you do an overdub, to what extent one takes it is their own business; jazz is not overdub music. Jazz is what happens when the piano player plays the chord and the drummer accents there and the bass player does a slide. To treat that sort of music, it sort of becomes not jazz any more, I think. It may be somewhat of a purist attitude — and I’m certainly not a bebop fanatic — I appreciate well-played interactive jazz music — but I think it really is that instant interaction that makes it fun to listen to. Back in the late ’60s, early ’70s we used to cut an album in two days. You did six cuts one day, six cuts another day, possibly you may need to do a bit of overdubbing, but that was really it and the music didn’t suffer for it. It was a different approach. You didn’t wait till you were in your eighteenth week before you called in the arranger. He was there doing the integral charts for the drummer and the bass player and everybody else and within an hour, everybody was looking at their watch and they wanted to get it done in two sessions’ worth of time, which is six hours with a one-hour break in-between.
BS: Roger Nichols occasionally writes an article in EQ Magazine about Donald’s perfectionism. Donald talks in milliseconds. He has his drum machine there and when the drummer comes in to play that part, Roger says that if the hi-hat is a millisecond out, “it’s not there yet” (for Donald) and Donald would say things like “We had the feel on that beat.”
ER: Funny you should say that, because in terms of the technology and all that stuff, I have found that in my work with Roger and Gary and that whole crew, to shift pieces of beat around is a very interesting and sometimes very effective way to put the feel on something. I used to have a studio about eight times the size of this in my living room in New York, and Gary Katz used to come up and work there frequently. One of the things that we would do is slide time around. We had a cheap digital delay and if you want to do a shuffle and you want that snare to lay back a couple of milliseconds more, you dial up a couple and delay the snare and the feel is different. It may be that one out of every million drummers can do that. But assuming that you can’t get that one drummer in and that the track is perfect but for that, there’s no reason not to delay it or advance it as the case may be. If you have enough memory in your computer you can actually take pieces of a track and shove them around in time. So it’s an effective device. It’s 180 degrees from doing an album in two days, but it’s an effective technique.
BS: What hobbies do you have outside music?
ER: Computers, photography. At some point I’d like to do a book of my photographs. I was a student of Ernst Hoss and Jay Mazelle, I’ve really had some unbelievable teachers.
DE: Have you thought of putting together an exhibition of your photographs?
ER: I would like to. I don’t feel that it’s ready yet. But yeah, I’d love to. In the Guardian yesterday there was a thing about an Italian author and it blew my mind. It had taken him a long time to publish and he published very reluctantly and his reason was “this way I have the option until I die to change this around and make it better.” I can see that.
BS: Do you like going to the movies?
ER: I do, I do. Movies are suffering a lot from the same thing that popular music is, which is to put out loads and loads of shit and the standards are in need of heightening. We just saw “The Player.” I’m a big fan of Bob Altman. He had a movie about 1975 called “Nashville.” I actually cried when I saw that movie. It got me, he pinned the music business, it was it, it was like watching my life in front of me. It was a tremendous flop and the reason is because it didn’t pander to anyone’s romantic notion about the music business. It was for real. Its moments of comic relief weren’t enough for the masses and as a consequence he practically got thrown out of Hollywood. I think he learned his lesson and what he’s done is made another “Nashville,” but about the movie industry and with enough comic relief to where it’s absolutely palatable. Anybody who still wants to see the movies as being stars and so on doesn’t get disappointed but sees this unbelievable life lesson. If I could participate in the making of a movie, I would want it to be like that.
BS: What do you think of Walter as a guitar player?
ER: He’s very good. I haven’t heard him play in years, but things that he played — look at “Black Friday” — it’s from the heart, from the gut. There’s something tangible there.
BS: He’s very modest about it.
ER: Well, look at all the other guitarists that he works alongside. In his mind, they’re really way up there. Steely Dan has never been shy on guitar work. I, for one, really like his stuff a lot. If I look at the other guitarists on the Steely Dan stuff, excluding myself, my three favorites are Ricky Derringer, Denny and Walter. I think that they serve the music best. Mind you, I love Larry, I love Dean, I think that they’re both phenomenal guitarists, but there’s something about those guys (Rick, Denny and Walter) that was the most integral part of the Steely Dan music machine.
DE: If you had the opportunity would you play with them again?
ER: I would consider it. I certainly wouldn’t jump and say no the way I did in 1972. I admire their writing no end. I think that they’re phenomenal songwriters, phenomenal producers of music and there’s not one experience I’ve walked away from feeling bad.
DE: What would you say are their strengths and weaknesses, as people as well as musicians, separately?
ER: Sarcasm, on both ends. They’re masters at it, they’re wonderful literary buffs. They’re not lacking on the intellectual side and I think their sense of dark humor has brightened up and as such it makes it more fun to be with them. I’ve not had a lot of contact with them over the last few years but I’ve run into both Donald and Walter fairly recently and I must say that I was very impressed by the fact that I think that we’ve grown up a lot. Walter has gone from being very sardonic to… I kept trying to pinch him to see if he was real. This guy can’t be this nice, but I really get the feeling that he is.
BS: In the ’70s they were painted as being hostile and uncooperative interviewees.
ER: They were angry. They were angry that seemingly no one understood that they had something to contribute to music and I can’t say that I blame them. Their treatment in the pre-Steely Dan days was really not very good.
BS: Well, Elliot, it’s been great. Thanks a lot for talking to us.
“Thrillin’ Liner Notes”
One of the problems with CD reissues is that some cheapskate record companies don’t faithfully reproduce the packaging that was created for the original album. In the case of MCA’s CD issue of Can’t Buy a Thrill, they failed to provide the following liner notes which were written by the at-the-time unknown Tristan Fabriani (alias Donald Fagen).
It has been said many times and in many ways that what the world needs now is another rock and roll band. This could very well be the one of which the pundits spoke.
The crisp and exacting music of STEELY DAN has been a long time coming, although the group itself was formed only shortly before this inspired recording was made. The DAN consists of six parts: composers Becker and Fagen performing on electric bass guitar and keyboards, respectively; Jim Hodder, percussionist, bronze god, pulse of the rhythm section; guitarists Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias; and vocalist David Palmer. For the past ten years or so each of these fellows has been pursuing his own private destiny within the confines of the “pop music jungle.” Their varied apprenticeships include stints with infamous groups from the short-lived but illustrious Ultimate Spinach. As is so rarely the case, the whole of STEELY DAN is greater than the sum of its parts, and the newly formed amalgam threatens to undermine the foundations of the rock power elite.
The selections on this first album tend to run the gamut of musical expression from the pastoral lyricism of “Dirty Work” to the urban sturm and drang of “Do It Again.” From the vacuous historical romance of “Kings” to the modern-as-tomorrow angularity of “Fire in the Hole.” From the east coast cynicism of “Only a Fool Would Say That” to the sun-struck L.A. optimism of “Change of the Guard.” From the frank, industrial-grade polish of “Midnite Cruiser” to the rhapsodic “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again.” And so on.
The superlatives commonly found in liner notes are often as empty as the music they applaud. This is not the case on your new STEELY DAN album. For example, hear the raw urgency of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s solo on “Change of the Guard” and savor his tasteful utilization of the spinal vibrato. Or hear how he displays the cunning of the insane on steel guitar in “Fire in the Hole.” Can you believe visiting guitarist Elliot Randall’s exultant chromaticism on “Kings”? Or David Palmer’s bittersweet rendering of “Dirty Work”? Or drummer Hodder’s driving beat throughout?
And there’s more. Tradition and experimentation reign side by side when Denny Dias accepts the burden of resurrecting the electric sitar on “Do It Again” and makes it sound easy. On the same cut, an inexpensive, imported plastic organ (an instrument which long ago fell into disuse in most rock circles) is competently fingered by Donald Fagen. And dig those startling high-register bass effects on the final cadence of “Heartbeat”!
Thus treads heavily the titanic STEELY DAN, casting a long shadow upon the contemporary rock wasteland, aspiring to spill its seed on barren ground, and at the same time, struggling to make sense out of the flotsam and jetsam of its eclectic musical heritage. With a solid first album under its belt, and with an ever-expanding reputation as a dynamic performing group, it would appear that the DAN’s place on the American musical scene is assured.
Dan Steele. Outre Daniel. Steely Dan.
Reviews: The Last Three
Robert Christgau, the record reviewer for The Village Voice published the following reviews in his book “Rock Albums Of The ’70s: A Critical Guide.”
Can’t Buy A Thrill: How about that — a good album with two hit singles attached. And as you might expect of New York natives who reside in the City of the Angels, both brim of ambivalence: “Do It Again,” a catchy modified mambo with homogenized vocals that divert one’s attention from its tragic tale of a loser so compulsive he couldn’t get himself hanged, and “Reelin’ In The Years,” a hate song to a professed genius. Think of the Dan as the first post-boogie band: the beat swings more than it blasts or blisters, the chord changes defy our primitive subconscious expectations, and the lyrics underline their own difficulty of the reality to which they refer– with arbitrary personal allusions, most of which are ruses. Original grade: B plus. Now: A.
Countdown To Ecstasy: With the replacement of lead singer David Palmer (who fit in like a cheerleader at a craps game) by composer-pianist-conversationalist Donald Fagen (who looks like he just got dressed to go out for the paper) they achieve a deceptively agreeable studio slickness — perfect licks that crackle and buzz when you listen hard, Grass Roots harmonies applied to worlds that are usually twisted. Not only does “Bodhisattva” come on like a jazzed-up “Rock Around The Clock” — it shines like China and sparkles like Japan. But somehow I don’t think Fagen really intends to hold hands with an Enlightened One, not even out of base curiosity. Original grade: A minus. Now A.
Pretzel Logic: This album sums up their chewy perversity as aptly as its title– all I could ask is a lyric sheet. “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” blends into AM radio with an intro appropriated from Horace Silver, while the other side-opener builds a joyous melody of Bird riffs underneath a lyric that invites one and all to “take a piece of Mr. Parker’s band.” The solos are functional rather than personal or expressive, locked into the workings of the music. And even when Donald Fagen’s voice dominates as it comes out of the speakers it tends to sink into the mix in the mind’s ear — recollected in tranquility, the vocals seem like the golden mean of pop ensemble singing, stripped of histrionics and displays of technique, almost … sincere, modest. Yeah sure. Original grade: A minus. Now: A plus.
Dan Promo Sheet
Steely Dan press kit
The following is a reproduction of the original press kit put out by KUDO III Management in 1972 for the debut of a new group that had recently finished recording an album for release on ABC-Dunhill Records.
The nucleus of Steely Dan is the songwriting team of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Becker, then a 17-year-old Piscean bass guitarist, ran into 19-year-old Capricorn keyboard wizard and vocalist Fagen, about five years ago at Bard College. They have been playing and writing together consistently ever since, “mostly writing together. Our only playing experiences have been scattered studio work, pick up band stuff, and about two years with Jay and the Americans in their little back up orchestra.”
That was until about a year ago when their producer Gary Katz became staff producer for ABC/Dunhill, in Los Angeles, and took, “everyone that he knew along with him and that included me and Donald. We went out as staff writers but we began secretly in the basement of the Dunhill offices to assemble a rock and roll band. Jeff Baxter and Jim Hodder came out when we did, and then there were four. Shortly thereafter, Denny Dias came out, making five. And two-thirds through the album Dave Palmer came out for a grand total of six. That, I trust, brings you up to date.”
Although Walter and Donald write for and play in a rock band, they both appreciate, in fact revere, certain jazz musicians, “the best, from any period, the best. From post Bebop, to John Coltrane, and earlier stuff too, like Bix Beiderbeck, Jelly Roll Morton, of course, Scott Joplin and his Maple Leaf Rag, Sonny Rollins and his Apache Haircut. Anyone who’s good, really good, who doesn’t have to think about anything when he’s playing except playing.” Donald also particularly enjoys certain classical composers of the 20th Century, Igor Stravinsky, Berg… “All those composers responsible for bringing Classical music to an end.”
As good as Steely Dan is as a whole, it is still the songs which are the most unique and impressive aspect of the group’s music. Donald points out that “the typical Steely Dan song would include a penetrating verse, a rousing chorus, an inspired bridge, and of course, a no-holds-barred instrumental of some sort. Pop songs with some kind of structure that’s interesting and can be developed. We’re actually pretty traditional in that, but the chords are usually more interesting than most rock and roll, I think.”
“We have certain recurring themes but we don’t have any particular fixations. Anything is grist for our mill. There’s no real limitations on it. We can write about anything.”
“Our lyrics contain certain associations which we hope will evoke in our listeners the sensation that they are remembering something they forgot a long time ago. Perhaps thousands of years ago! Before they were even born!”
To Steely Dan, everything comes down in the end to the music. Their image, their self-image, all their work relates to the music and the music alone. As they say, “It’s a matter of everyone understanding that the music is the most important thing.”
Jeff Baxter (Instrument: Guitar, pedal steel guitar)
Jeff Baxter, better known to his friends and foes alike as Skunk, (“because I never used to change my socks”) was born and raised in Mexico City. There, his generous parents treated him to eleven years of classical piano training, with the result that Jeffrey joined a rock and roll band that played at the “Gringo School” dances in Mexico. He left Mexico to attend The Taft School for Boys in Conn. where he listened to rock music, began playing the guitar, and met Dave Palmer, who recalls him as, “a little freaky 17-year-old dude running around saying he loved music and everything.” His real career as a rock musician began when he moved up to Boston and began working in a record store. One day a member of Ultimate Spinach happened by, mentioning in passing that his band was looking for a dynamite guitar player. “Me!” Jeff cried, and that was that. Eventually, Ultimate Spinach broke up, Jeff tired of the “nothing happening” Boston scene, and next found himself in LA, guitar player for Steely Dan. His aspiration: to be “the best stringed instruments player in the world.”
Danny Dias (Instruments: Guitar, electric sitar)
Denny Dias began playing the guitar when he was 13, in Hicksville, Long Island. “I picked up an acoustic guitar my father brought home for about five dollars. It only had three strings on it.
His career as a musician began nine months later when he formed his first band, called The Saints, whose theme song was “When The Saints Go Marching In.” He studied guitar steadily for several years, and finally decided to drop out of school to devote all his time to his band. School for Denny, by the way, was The Downstate Medical School, College of Health Related Professions, where he majored in Biomedical Computer Science. “I figured I’d devote my full time to music. Really, it doesn’t matter how talented you are in music, you can flop just as easily, but I figured I would give it a whirl. I had this band, and I quit school, and then the bass player quit the band. So I put an ad in the Village Voice and…”
Walter: Guess who showed up?
Denny: A bass player and a piano player, Becker and Fagen showed up.
Walter: The band immediately disintegrated.
So Denny wasn’t doing much musically when the call came from California to come out, that things were popping. “This band is what I’ve wanted to do since I met Walter and Donald and heard the songs they wrote.”
David Palmer (Instrument: Lead Vocals)
Dave began singing with high school bands in Plainfield, N.J., New Jersey being, he claims, “about 50 miles outside of Newark.”
His first professional gig, just out of high school, was with a band called Middle Class, which was produced by Jerry Goffen and Carole King. “We came to New York and started to play in the Village, at the Cafe Bizarre and that whole terrible scene. All those people who have become Village legends, I knew them all back then.” Eventually, even Goffen and King could not prevent the “Frustration. Futility. Poverty. Any number of things.” that caused the Middle Class to break up.
Following this, Dave:
1) Went to Florida, flipped out for a month or two, went crazy.
2) Came back up North and decided to go to Emerson College.
3) Flipped out.
4) Joined Jake and the Family Jewels. Of his Jake period he says, “It was a good band. Jake is one of the best writers out of New York. He’s great. He’s a legend in his own time.” Anyway, the band broke up in six months.
5) Joined a band in Martha’s Vineyard called Quinaimes, made an album for Elektra, broke up.
6) Went to Boston; got a job in a factory.
7) Came back to Jersey; got a job in a factory.
Of this period in his life, Dave says, “This was the lowest point of my life, believe me. So when Jeff called and said “There are these two writers out here and they’re completely insane. Come out right away.” I was scared. But I looked around at all my New York friends who were down and out, couldn’t write, couldn’t do anything, so I said all right. Took off across country.”
(Says Walter Becker, “We saw his teeth and then we knew. Anyone with six eye teeth is OK with us.”)
Of his image as a performer Dave says, “I’m not really trying for an effect. Just energy on stage which is good, healthy. That’s all. I sweat a lot. I bathe a lot. I guess I’m working toward what makes us all the best, that’s all.
Jimmy Hodder (Instruments: Drums, percussion, vocals)
Jimmy began his musical career in Boston as a child when he learned to play the accordion. But he knew even then that he was not following his natural calling because “I was always banging something.”
Eventually he got his first drum kit and just kept banging away until he joined the Bead Game, Boston’s own resident hippy band. “You know, we all lived together in one house, never rehearsed, and when we got on stage, we were really sloppy. But people came to hear us anyway.”
At this time, Jimmy met Gary Katz, who became the producer of the Bead Game and eventually brought Jimmy out to LA to become the drummer for Steely Dan. “I like what I play in this band. I like to play strong rhythms, nothing too fancy, but strong. I like to make things go.”
Bassmaster General: Harvey Brooks Interview
In the Sixties, bass player Harvey Brooks played with three of the most enduring legends of popular music: Bob Dylan, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix. In addition to that, he played with Miles Davis, was a member of The Electric Flag, The Rhinestones and a major influence on Jaco Pastorius. And the living legend who was also a member of The Little Big Band is now taking to the road with the New York Rock and Soul Revue this summer. ML Editor Pete Fogel conducted the following interview at Harvey’s Westport, Connecticut home in early July. Harvey’s lovely wife Bonnie sat in on the conversation which covered his amazing past, his current work and talks about the future. Interview transcribed by Brian Sweet.
Pete Fogel: Was the electric bass your first instrument?
Harvey Brooks: Actually, no. My first instrument was the guitar. A friend of mine, Bob Rose, who plays sessions in Manhattan now, was in my French class at junior high school. He brought his guitar in one day, but I’d never had anything to do with one before and I really liked it and he showed me how to play a few chords. I did my first gig with him — two guitars for 50 cents at a local church and then we formed a band, got a drummer and a saxophone player and a manager and the manager said, `You gotta have a bass’ so I became the bass player.
PF: Why were you chosen to be the bass player?
HB: Because there were only four strings and it would be easier to do. I wanted to be the lead guitar player. The band played dances and then we also got to play all different kinds of weddings.
PF: How old were you then?
HB: Fifteen, sixteen.
PF: How did you get your first break?
HB: My first break came through just playing more and more gigs. Then I was playing at a club in the city and I got a call from Al Kooper telling me that he was at a Dylan session and he needed a bass player.
PF: So did things snowball from that session onwards?
HB: Yeah. I did that session and on that I met Mike Bloomfield and that led to The Electric Flag eventually. But also being in Albert Grossman’s stable — he managed Gordon Lightfoot and Richie Havens and Peter, Paul and Mary — through them I also met a guy called Arthur Gorson who managed Eric Anderson and Phil Ochs and I got involved in the folk scene. I moved to Greenwich Village and I played at the Cafe a Go Go almost every night with a different artist and this all through the Dylan thing. I became a sort of folk hero, electric bass player. Felix Pappalardi was the other guy who was doing it, he was a great bass player, he eventually produced some of the early Cream records. I did a Richie Havens’ Mixed Bag, his first album.
PF: What Dylan albums did you play on?
HB: Highway 61 and New Morning.
PF: Did you know at the time that you were playing with a legend?
HB: He was becoming a legend, and for me it was just a good step. I was doing okay, I had just bought a new Mustang and I was making money on my gigs, but I never imagined what the difference was when you were involved with a phenomenon or in that case musical history. One thing, you’re in a club playing your gig and the next day you’re in a limo.
PF: What do you remember most about the way he worked in the studio?
HB: Bob worked really spontaneously and fast and we didn’t spend a lot of time looking for the perfect notes, it just had to feel right. The way we’d listen was “Yeah, that’s okay, there’s a couple things there that might not be right, but they felt good.” If the take felt good we went on. There were no microscopes at that session. The only microscope was in Dylan’s hand, and from his point of view did the song come off. That’s all he was concerned about.
PF: Tell us how The Electric Flag came about.
HB: Mike Bloomfield originally came from Chicago with Paul Butterfield; they were discovered there by Paul Rothschild for Elektra Records. He got them to New York and right about this time it had been a couple of years and Bloomfield wanted to do his own thing and so he had a friend, Barry Goldberg from Chicago and Nick Gravenites. We met at the session, so I got on the train and in a short period of time Albert Grossman was behind the project and we went to California and started The Electric Flag.
PF: You were white guys playing black music?
HB: It was a mixed color band. Buddy Miles was the drummer, who we got from playing with Wilson Pickett. Over the couple of years that the band was together we had three or four black guys, but it was predominantly guided by a white blues mentality.
PF: Did the band sound too white or did it have some soul?
HB: No, the band had a lot of soul. It was based on James Brown and rhythm and blues with Michael’s psychedelic blues. If you listen to the Butterfield East West album, what was he doin’? Nobody knows to this day. It was his version of the blues, he could play some serious blues, but he really stretched out. And the electric playing sort of symbolized the blending of the blues, R&B with pop. We were the first band to bring in the horn section, The Electric Flag and the American Music Band. The idea was it was based on American music. We were combining the rock, rhythm and blues and the psychedelic environment that we were in in San Francisco in 1967.
PF: So you were there with the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane and all those bands?
HB: Yeah, we were all playing at the Fillmore. Having been in San Francisco, I sort of lost my memory.
PF: You always considered the Monterey Pop festival as the great event. Why?
HB: It was great in the sense that it was the first outside the Newport festivals. It was really the first pop festival and it had all the legends of pop: Otis Redding, Janis Joplin. It was a phenomenal thing. I remember being in a hotel room with The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix was there and everybody was floating around and it was quite an event.
PF: I read that you and Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix talked a lot. What did you guys talk about?
HB: It was funny. Brian Jones was the English version of blues, we were talking about the blues and he was talking about how all the English musicians really loved American blues and Jimi was saying that he found the English version of the blues kinda funny. He said he thought it was honest, but he thought they played pretty funny.
PF: How many live gigs did you play with Hendrix?
HB: I played a bunch of gigs on the same bill with him at the Cafe a Go Go, just jamming at the club.
PF: What was the crowd’s reaction to Jimi when he was playing?
HB: People always loved Jimi, he was always a crowd pleaser, even when he was wearing his multi-colored mohair suits he’d do that stuff and you couldn’t help but like it.
PF: You also played live with The Doors?
HB: Yeah, I played with The Doors at the Forum and at Madison Square Garden.
PF: How did you meet Jim Morrison?
HB: Robbie Krieger, the guitar player, was a big fan of The Electric Flag, and he really liked my playing and he invited me out to his house and we jammed around. This was probably 1968, ’68 and ’69, I spent a lot of time in LA doing different albums and doing gigs and hung out with everybody.
PF: How true to life is the Oliver Stone movie?
HB: Okay, I’ll lead into the whole scenario. Morrison was a very introspective, nice kinda guy, but he had a lot of deep thoughts from how he grew up and his family. As The Doors developed and he started doing a lot of drugs his personality was taken over by the success of the band, the excess of the band, and the problems they began to have.
PF: Were you brought in because they needed some new blood?
HB: They just came up with some incredible music and they were looking to go forward. Basically what I had to do was take a lot of song fragments and put them together and help them make songs out of them. A partner of mine called Paul Harris did horn and string arrangements and there was a good hit out of that, “Touch Me.” I played bass on that. “Touch Me” represented the start of another era, but they couldn’t keep it going. I think they were pretty burned.
PF: Did you ever play the upright bass?
HB: Yeah, when I was a kid. I didn’t start on it. I always wanted to play it because I felt that was a legitimate instrument. I was brought up with the bass being a bastard instrument, you weren’t a real musician unless you played the upright. All the bass players that I admired were the upright players. I bought a bass and I was gonna start lessons on it and my mother came in and accidentally knocked it over the night before I was gonna start. It broke the neck so I never started.
PF: Who were the bass players who influenced your playing through the years?
HB: Mostly Scott LaFaro who used to play with Bill Evans, a fabulous bass player. Paul Chambers and Ron Carter and then Monk Montgomery who was Wes Montgomery’s brother and one of the first guys to play electric bass in live performances. Really he brought it out and that was one of the great experiences, because it made me feel valid. Although I don’t consider myself a jazz player my style is basically a jazz style, very in the feel, in the pocket.
PF: But is it true you don’t read music?
HB: I do read but I know I’m not a real good reader. My reading has improved a lot, I’m self taught and it’s getting better.
PF: How about when you work with someone like Fagen when it seems like everything is complicated with lots of changes. Is that hard?
HB: Well, a big part of it is if I get the charts ahead of time I do some homework and then I use the charts as a guide. But also my ears are real good and my feel is good and as long as I can do a little prework on it, it’s okay. But if you stuck it right in front of me without any rehearsals I’d have a problem. I’d still play it and you’d love it, but it might not be perfect.
PF: I was reading that Miles Davis called you a white, fat motherfucker. It seems that he treated everybody like that, what was he like?
HB: Miles, he challenged you, he put it in your face and if you went away he’d rather not talk to you. He related to the fact that you could take it, and he put the probe out to see who you were. He figured in his mind he’s a guy who’s been around, done a lot of things and if you’re gonna be in his world, you’re gonna have to be tough enough to stay there.
PF: What was it like recording Bitches Brew?
HB: That for me was a wonderful experience; it was the first actual sessions with jazz players of that caliber. I’m a very big jazz fan, I have a great amount of respect for the music. I felt very honored to be in that company; I still felt like a bumpkin, but they made me feel real comfortable and I just did my thing. Miles wanted me to go out on tour, but I didn’t feel that it was my forte and I didn’t want to be embarrassed.
PF: But didn’t you feel that he had been around and that he felt you were good enough? Do you regret it now?
HB: I do on the level that all the players that did those things with Miles really grew a lot. Although I don’t think that was my element, I really don’t.
PF: You trusted your own opinion more than you trusted Miles’?
HB: Yeah. One thing I did learn is that if you’re gonna make mistakes, you might as well make your own mistakes, but on the other hand it would have been a good thing to do. I should have been more adventurous. I didn’t feel like I was at home.
PF: What music do you prefer to play?
HB: I like music that’s in a band context with horns and singers. This is what I love about Donald’s project, it’s perfect music for me because I’m a real aficionado when I play — I like to listen and it’s similar to Electric Flag. There’s a horn section, everything’s defined and I love pop R&B music.
PF: Do you think that Fagen picked up on that?
HB: Absolutely. I think maybe that’s why I’m in it. Also, Donald and I have had some discussions about what we like- we like a lot of the same stuff, just growing up who we saw and what kind of music we listened to and so those jazz roots are in the way I play. Cause I’m a very tasteful player, I look to pick just the right note for the right feel for the thing. It’s just instinctive to me.
PF: Let’s get to the main question: How the hell are you gonna learn all of Chuck Rainey’s bass parts?
HB: (laughter) I’m not. I’ll see the chart, read what it is and just embellish it because…
PF: You don’t wanna play exactly what’s on the record?
HB: What for? Paul Shaffer preaches, “Learn the way it’s done on the record.” Well, it’s good to learn how it is, but that doesn’t mean that you have to play it that way. That’s the starting point, so I do it to the best of my abilities to absorb the part and then play the music.
PF: How did you meet Donald?
Bonnie Brooks: A funny story is that the first night that he came down to Hades, we didn’t know who he was. He came down with Jeff Young and sat at our table. When the Little Big Band finished, Harvey came over and Jeff introduced him to us and that he was from Steely Dan. We then got into a discussion with Donald over Bandaids. We went next door and I had a cut and we only buy these medicated Bandaids. They were standing behind us and I said “Oh, I’m really excited because we found these medicated Bandaids.” And Donald says to Harvey, “Have you tried slimy razor blades?”
HB: As soon as he said that I thought, “Oh, I like this guy.”
PF: Did you get a kick out of when Donald started playing Dylan’s “Down Along The Cove”?
HB: Yeah, I thought it was an interesting arrangement, it took me a long time for me to relate to it.
PF: I think it took The Little Big Band a long time to relate to it. So were you familiar with Steely Dan’s music throughout the seventies?
PF: What did you think of it as music?
HB: It was like Steely Dan was something I would listen to. Their records were very well crafted. I feel that they may have overindulged a little bit from time to time, like on Aja spending a few million dollars or whatever…
PF: They were working completely differently from the way Dylan was working.
HB: Oh, this is another world. Dylan at that time just threw it out, I don’t like either extreme. I like to put the preproduction in and make the music happen and take the time to really do it right, but God bless you if you have the time to do it and get it the way you really want it. I’ve never had that in my life. I’d love to be a part of anything like that. That’s the best musical scenario to be able to take it and get it right. But also to be able to say yeah, it’s right now, and know that you’ve got what you want.
PF: What’s it like working with Donald on stage?
HB: It’s a pleasure. I’ve found him to have a very wry, good sense of humor.
PF: Can you see a difference from the Hades days to now?
HB: Oh, yeah, he’d be coming through the back door, but now he’s walking through the crowd like he doesn’t care any more.
PF: But it’s been great seeing how his fans appreciate him.
HB: I think he needed to know.
PF: My thinking was when he came out and started playing, if we put his best fans in the room the vibes would be so great that he’d keep coming out and playing.
HB: I think he’s a fabulous musician and I enjoy playing music with him. Because I like his music, I enjoy playing what he writes just as a musician interplay-wise, he listens and it’s very friendly and very respectful. All I wanna do is just play. I’m not there for any other reason than to make the show happen. I’m not a frontline entertainer, I’m not looking for anyone’s thunder, I just wanna support a good focus. He’s a classy guy.
PF: When you’re on stage with Donald and The Little Big Band and you see the crowd’s reactions to all the songs that he plays like “Black Friday” or “My Old School.” Could you compare it with when you played with The Doors or Jimi Hendrix?
HB: I think with Donald it seems to be more musically earned than it is an event. A lot of other people that I’ve played with in an incredible situation with hundreds of thousands of people, it still wasn’t as musically earned, it was more like an event.
PF: Do you think the fans who come out to watch him play are more knowledgeable about music?
HB: I think because he’s more knowledgeable and he’s really a musical person I think his fans really appreciate the music more than anything else. And the sardonic twists, there’s good lighting, when that’s together I think the show can be really incredible. I think he’s learned a lot from the Beacon show and just in what they want to do with the proper lighting and staging and developing these things. I think it’ll be a phenomenal show.
PF: How did you like playing with Leroy Clouden at the Lone Star on “Chain Lightning”?
HB: I found Leroy to be a very tasteful drummer. If all this continues to work out and I’m on tour, Leroy and I will be a very great fat pocket because he’s a simple player and he’s delicate and he’s very musical and I relate to that a lot. I think the pocket will be monstrous. It won’t be big, it won’t be very boisterous, there’ll be room for everybody. One of the things about a lot of playing is that everybody has to cram their music in and it’s just like a wall of sound. When it’s very tastefully done and very specific, there’s room for everybody and the tones and the sounds and the colors of the music will be a lot cleaner.
PF: When Steely Dan toured Walter played bass. So this’ll be the first time that Donald and Walter have toured together where they’re using another bass player. Walter’s gonna play guitar and speaking of guitar the other guitar player is Drew Zingg. Who do you think will play lead?
HB: Walter will probably be the lead guy.
PF: Tell us about Chuck Jackson.
HB: Chuck Jackson is a fabulous R&B singer from the fifties. He did a tune called “Beg Me,” he’s just a big, deep, powerful voice. “Kentucky Bluebird”, “Take A Message To Michael,” he used to record on Venture Records. Everybody will love him. That’s the thing that’s so good about the shows, we’ve got a wide selection of material. I can see Donald’s whole plan — to make it valid you gotta have some valid people. He’s got a lot of people from different types of music and from different eras. Strong show.
PF: Catherine Russell and Mindy Jostyn on back-up vocals.
HB: Catherine’s a great spirit. Killer voice, soulful, happy person, great presence. Same for Mindy. Mindy’s very versatile, she plays harp, violin and everything else.
PF: If you had a musical philosophy what would it be?
HB: Enjoy and listen first and then play. That’s while you’re playing, listen and enjoy what’s going on around you and pass it on to your fellow musicians, then play.
PF: When you look back on your career do you feel that you’ve accomplished a lot?
HB: I do and I’m proud of it and I feel there’s a lot ahead. I’m very thankful to have some opportunities to continue to do what I do. Things are getting good now. I’m practicing more, generally, my career’s feeling very strong. I have a lot of support, I’m a happily married man.
PF: Have you ever written music or published music?
HB: Yeah, I’ve written not a lot of music, but I wrote something back on the Super Session album called “Harvey’s Tune” which had some success. I did a lot of writing with The Rhinestones. I’ve recently recorded four tunes at Donald’s new studio, River Sound, which is a fabulous studio and which I’d highly recommend to anybody.
PF: Do you want the songs you did at River Sound to be a group?
HB: I’m shopping it as a group and I’m also shopping it as tunes for somebody else to do. The group is called Human Condition and I’d like to see that happen. We have that up at Columbia, Arista turned it down. We’ll see what happens. We have Jeff Young, Catherine Russell, whom we met through Jimmy Vivino and Jimmy’s on there, too.
PF: What are your three favorite Steely Dan songs?
HB: I like “Home At Last,” actually there’s a lot of them…
HB: Yeah, I love “Josie.” I also like “Green Flower Street,” “Do It Again,” “Peg,” I couldn’t just name you three.
PF: Thanks, Harvey. I’ll see you down at the shows.
Chuck Jackson: “Mr. Everything”
While Jackie Wilson was known as “Mr. Excitement” and James Brown was tagged as “Mr. Dynamite,” Chuck Jackson has become known as “Mr. Everything.” With his incredible baritone voice and powerhouse style of singing, Chuck is a soul legend of the highest order. And in August, this legend will be gracing the New York Rock and Soul Revue stage with Becker and Fagen and company.
Born in Winston Salem, South Carolina on July 22, 1937, Chuck spent his formative years in the northern city of Pittsburgh where he joined the renowned Del Vikings vocal group just after they cut their 1957 classic “Whispering Bells.”
The Revue format is not anything new to Mr. Jackson. After his Del Vikings work, Jackie Wilson persuaded Chuck to do a solo spot with his own Revue. As a pioneer, Chuck Jackson is one of the first performers ever to be called a “soul singer.” With 23 singles to his credit, his million-selling single “Any Day Now” was also the very first hit record written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. His bandleader Bobby Scott was also noted for his arrangements which always provided the perfect framework for Chuck’s powerful and emotive vocalizing.
Recipient of the 1992 Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award, Mr. Jackson also performed at President George Bush’s Inauguration Celebration. His influences on popular music include artists as diverse as The Beatles and Tom Jones.
Chuck still holds the world attendance record at the famed “Twenty Grand” nightclub in Detroit and will be sure to be setting more records on the road with the New York Rock and Soul Revue.
Walter Becker Interview: ‘Close Your Eyes And You’ll Be There’
The following interview was recorded on November 29, 1989 when Walter Becker was out promoting his production of Rickie Lee Jones’ Flying Cowboys. D.J. (and ML subscriber) Jason Wright — on-air talent on CBS-owned and operated “Oldies 103″/WODS, Boston — was one of only twenty jocks granted permission for an interview; he was in the studio while Walter was on the other end of a phone looking out of a time window. All will become clear… Interview transcription by Brian Sweet.
Jason Wright: Jason Wright with you, and it will become readily apparent that I will have extreme difficulty in containing my admiration for the man I’m about to introduce. Much of this man’s music and vernacular I’ve incorporated into my lifestyle and those of us who hope to be musicians can only hope to do justice to articulate and emulate the best. We all have our heroes, yours out there may be from the world of sports and politics, my heroes are musicians and this man is a musician’s musician. I have to confess that this man shares the number one spot with Donald Fagen at the top of my list. His hit list includes “Do It Again,” “Reelin’ In The Years,” “My Old School,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Hey Nineteen” and he’s gone on to produce recordings for China Crisis, and most recently, Flying Cowboys by Rickie Lee Jones. Please allow me to welcome to the airwaves Walter Becker.
Walter Becker: That was a helluva welcome, Jason.
Wright: We try Walter. This is an absolute dream of a lifetime. I wanna get to the latest creation, Flying Cowboys by Rickie Lee Jones. From what I’ve been reading it seems that you had to draw on all your recording experience, namely that portions of Rickie’s material was from demos. Where do you begin to sort through all that material?
Becker: Well, Rickie had a lot of stuff. And she worked on the tunes for this album, I guess, over a period of about four years. So every once in a while she’d check into a recording studio and commit some stuff to tape, and on most people’s home demos the technical quality is not adequate to use in a real recording. But these were real well-executed demos. Often when an artist finishes writing a song and they do a demo right then, that demo contains the essential creative spark of that song. Years later it may be difficult of impossible to duplicate that. So in a couple of cases with Rickie’s things, we just found that the demos were so good, that it didn’t make any sense trying to recreate them. So we just polished ’em up a little bit.
Wright: I am sure that digital technology was a tremendous advantage in accomplishing this.
Becker: That’s true. Although her demos were not digital — we transferred them all to digital tape and in particular we used some digital EQs to try and create a kind of consistent sound picture from cut to cut, so that it wouldn’t sound like a couple of new studio recordings and a couple of old demos. The digital equipment was very helpful in that way.
Wright: Is it the producer’s function to provide structure and cohesiveness in a recording project?
Becker: It’s the producer’s function to provide whatever is needed to make the project happen, and I think in the case of Rickie Lee Jones, she had been writing for quite a while and she had multiple versions of some of her songs that were mutually exclusive, so we had to make some choices as to what material to use. Also for the stuff we recorded from scratch we had to decide on an approach — personnel and instrumentation and so on — and Rickie and I did that together, but basically she is the overall cohesiveness to her album and it was my job to just make sure that got captured as well as possible.
Wright: Who contacted whom on this project?
Becker: In different projects it works in different ways, but in this particular case I had known Gary Gersh who was her A&R guy over at Geffen Records for some time, and I was aware that he had signed her and that she would be making an album at some point. When the time came, he talked to Rickie about the possibility of me doing it and then he gave me a call and sent me a tape.
Wright: Part of a producer’s function in the recording studio is to extract a performance. How do you know when it’s right? Cause when you’re committing it to tape, you could almost go on forever, so how do you know when it’s right?
Becker: Well, usually if it’s right it’s easy to know that it’s right because it just kinda smacks you in the face with how great it is. Although I must say in the case of Rickie’s vocal performances, she essentially produced them herself. She was primarily the judge in most cases of what was her best vocal performance. But in other cases it’s usually pretty obvious when something is right there. It used to be that you were much more severely limited in terms of the tape resources and the number of tracks that you had available, so before you did another take with somebody you used to have to erase the previous take in many cases. Now you don’t have to do that and so you can do a bunch of takes and then listen to ’em afterwards if you need to do that.
Wright: And with the digital technology somebody could have a home studio and if it was a relatively decent recording to begin with in analog, it could be very easily dressed up and sound aurally better with the digital technology and, of course, the producer and engineer’s expertise.
Becker: That’s true. As a matter of fact a lot of work now is done at home studios, which are essentially the same as the professional studios that we’ve been working in for years. Others are much scaled-down and even the semi-pro consumer equipment now is so good compared to what it used to do that you can do professional quality work on it.
Wright: Were there times when you yourself, Walter, had to pull on your own reins as it were, so as not to overshadow the project?
Becker: I don’t think there was ever any danger of me overshadowing the project, but Rickie was certainly aware at all times that there were certain aspects of what Steely Dan records had been that she didn’t want her record to be, and she made that abundantly clear to me at various stages during the project. So we were working with a common aesthetic direction.
Wright: You also work with somewhat of a regular ensemble of engineering people, namely Roger Nichols. Is it true he was a nuclear physicist?
Becker: Yes, it is true that he was a nuclear physicist. He used to work at a nuclear power plant in California when it first opened.
Wright: What advantages does that bring to the recording studio?
Becker: In the case the reactor containment is broken at the recording studio, Roger knows exactly what to do.
Wright: That’s right, in case of meltdown call Roger, right?
Becker: That’s right.
Wright: Would I be correct in saying that a great producer must be transparent?
Becker: I kinda think so. That’s how I feel about it, and that’s not always appropriate. There are projects where many successful producers who are known for a certain sound that they always get or certain style that they bring to things, but when you’re working with somebody like Rickie she already has the style. She already has most of those ingredients, so what you really wanna do is just capture what she does as faithfully as you can and in an appropriate context. And that’s what makes the best Rickie Lee Jones record in my opinion. So when you have an artist who has a powerful musical personality to begin with, it would certainly be a mistake to try and compete with that.
Wright: So she’s approaching recording from a more spontaneous type of performance?
Becker: I think that the way Rickie likes to work is very casual and in the mood of the moment. That’s what’s really appropriate for her.
Wright: I was just reading the credits on the album cover. There’s a host of outstanding session musicians on here; Greg Phillinganes, I also noticed you played synthesizer bass. You put down the guitar and switched to the keys for this one?
Becker: Jeez, I did something, I can’t remember what it was.
Wright: (laughing) How much of your producing talents do you owe to Roger Nichols and Gary Katz? Has anything rubbed off on you from them?
Becker: Oh, well, I think that Roger and Gary and Donald and I over the years learned how to do things by trial and error together, so I think that collectively we developed a lot of ideas and techniques that I continue to use and so do they.
Wright: I understand from Yvonne at Geffen Records when she notified me yesterday of this incredible opportunity, that we’re working in a limited time frame…
Becker: Yes, our time window is about to slam shut.
Wright: There is a devoted legion of Steely Dan fans listening and some are so fiercely enthusiastic that they, yours truly included, even went so far one time as to have midnight reservations at Mr. Chow’s. (incredulous laughter from the other end of the phone.) I’m talking devotion, Walter. Way back you and Donald Fagen were involved in Jay and the Americans?
Becker: That’s true.
Wright: Now was this when Jay and the Americans were on tour?
Becker: This was 1968 or 1969, and yeah, they were on tour, but they were touring mostly little clubs. We weren’t playing too many big arenas; we did play Madison Square Garden in an oldies show and we played a few larger venues on double bills with the Four Seasons. So this was kind of the beginning of the rock revival thing, and Jay and the boys were from that, as were Donald and I.
Wright: From that time after Jay and the Americans were you involved in a project called Ultimate Spinach?
Becker: No, I had nothing to do with that. I think Jeff Baxter had something to do with that.
Wright: Okay, so that was the Skunk connection right there. You know, from time to time on late night
talk shows — as a matter of fact it was on the Tonight Show a couple of years ago — Chevy Chase was a
guest and he made a passing comment that he played with you and Donald Fagen. Is that true?
Becker: That is true. Chevy Chase went to the same college that Donald and I went to, and he was the
drummer in a band that we had that played a Halloween dance one year.
Wright: No kidding, which college was that?
Becker: That was Bard College.
Wright: Uh huh. Myself playing the part of the devil’s advocate throughout the rest of the interview. Was the name Steely Dan adapted from William S. Burroughs’ novel “Naked Lunch?”
Becker: Yes, it certainly was. I wouldn’t say it was adapted, I would say it was expropriated.
Wright: As you can tell there are some questions early on in the career of Steely Dan. Walter, I have to know these things so that I can amaze my friends at parties.
Becker: All right.
Wright: The first album as Steely Dan was the soundtrack to a film called “You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It Or You’ll Lose That Beat.” We get to hear early Denny Dias on guitar, of course, but could you tell me who speaks the line “One more tomato before the gynecologist office?” Do you recall that?
Becker: Oh, God, I don’t know, I can’t remember.
Wright: Okay. Now early on Donald Fagen was not the only lead vocalist of Steely Dan. Is there a story behind that with Gary Katz naming Donald as the voice?
Becker: What actually happened was Donald kinda became the vocalist by default. I used to do some of the singing and I think Donald hated my singing, too. I used to sing a little flat, and as soon as was practicable I stopped singing and that left Donald. He didn’t seem to appreciate as much as the rest of us how effective his vocal stuff was, how special it was.
Becker: We had to convince him that he would be a good lead singer.
Wright: Am I understanding Steely Dan’s lyrical content correctly when I say that it reflects the spicier side of life?
Becker: (long pause) Yeah, I’ll go along with that.
Wright: Am I reading more into it than should be there, or am I picking up on it?
Becker: I think inevitably when you write something, you hope people will read more into it than what you intended… prerogative.
Wright: Staying along the lines of the lyrics, most people treat them lightly, but I have to say that there’s a veritable plethora of double entendres that can be unearthed in Steely Dan music, which is why I feel that both you and Donald Fagen have created something that most musicians envy. Steely Dan can be played end to end and over and over — it just never seems to get stale, very few musicians have achieved this. How is this done, Walter? What really makes Steely Dan click? What is it? What is the sound?
Becker: Gee, I don’t know. I think it’s a combination of Donald’s voice and a particular jazz-influenced harmony writing and melody, and however you would characterize the lyrics — I hesitate to do so myself, but there is definitely an approach there. We did work very hard when we were making those records to try and have good songs that were basically really good enough songs to put on a record. It always seemed to us that most people’s records had two or three good songs and the rest of ’em were just okay. We tried to weed out the ones that were just okay.
Wright: I guess that’s exactly what I was asking. There is not an ounce of filler material on any of your albums. I mean, it’s just incredible, you can listen to every song on every album. Throughout the anthology of Steely Dan albums, there seems to be an undercurrent theme of East Coast versus West Coast i.e. from “Pretzel Logic” there’s “Barrytown (I’m presuming the Barrytown in Upstate New York), there’s the “Boston Rag,” then we segue a few years later with “The Royal Scam,” but we’re ending up with the jazzier Gaucho LP. Aja is in a class by itself — I would need a month to kick that album around — that is in a category all by itself, but due to the time frame I’m not going to touch it, but that is a reference piece in my book and most people’s as well. However, getting back to the original question, is there an East Coast versus West Coast undercurrent? Is there a dichotomy?
Becker: Yeah, I think so. In jazz music in the ’50s and ’60s there was also a kind of East Coast versus West Coast theme going on, and I think Donald and I, having grown up on the East Coast and then moved to the West Coast, would have been remiss in our duties to the loyal fandom to not have played up this schism to the maximum extent possible.
Wright: The break seems to occur right after Katy Lied. Everything from that back seemed to be a hundred percent East Coast and then after Katy Lied it started to get jazzier, a lot slicker which in most people’s minds denotes West Coast, you know.
Becker: I think what happened to some extent was the moment we moved to Los Angeles, we started thinking and writing about New York all the time. The moment we started going back to New York to do things, we started thinking and writing about the West Coast. So I’m sure this is perfect outline for a suitable case for treatment or something, you know?
Wright: This is kind of a difficult question — I don’t know how you’re gonna answer this — if you only knew. Why do I feel so associated with your music?
Becker: I don’t know. Do you associate it with some particular event in your life?
Wright: There have been times because it seems that your music has always been there when I need it. No matter what kind of mood I’m in. If I’m in a good mood I reach for the Dan, if I’m in a lousy mood I reach for the Dan.
Becker: I think that good music of any style has a kind of quality like it’s always been there, like it’s always been there, like it hasn’t been written so much as discovered, and I would hesitate to put our records into that category, but I know that I feel like that about certain recordings and certain pieces of music. Jason, our time window is beginning to crunch my fingernails here.
Wright: All right. I guess the final question is: Is there still a Steely Dan?
Becker: Well, I guess somewhere in the hearts and minds of men, there will always be a Steely Dan.
Wright: Uh, huh. No plans for the future, I read briefly something about bouncing tracks via satellite?
Becker: No, that was science fiction, I’m afraid.
Wright: Okay. Well, Walter Becker, it’s because of artists like yourself that I’ve made the commitment to always reach a little bit higher and dig a little deeper, and anyone out there who is familiar with the music of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen knows what I’m talking about. Approaching twenty-odd years ago when I first picked up on Steely Dan I said to a friend, “Can you imagine what it would be like to hang out with these guys?” Well, twenty years later, Walter, the dream has turned into reality, and to paraphrase a line you are one half of Steely Dan and I’m saying this, “Close your eyes and you’ll be there/It’s everything they say.” Walter Becker, thanks for the music.
Becker: Hey, thanks so much, it’s been great talking to you, Jason.
Wright: Thank you very much, Walter.
(Plays “Hey Nineteen” to close.)
Ladies Like It Too
The following is a compilation of thoughts and impressions of Steely Dan songs from the smaller, but no less enthusiastic segment of Becker and Fagen fans — women. Questionnaires dispatched from the author to female Metal Leg subscribers were informally tabulated and researched with the intent of gaining insights into the mystique of Steely Dan.
Many thanks to the ladies who were kind and courageous enough to share with us their own perceptions of the music of Steely Dan. They are: Melanie Cameron, Christine Kavaliauskas, Suz Sachs, Cindy Schafran, and Annie Silver. Special thanks to Nancy Hesford, Roxie Lucas and Amy Rolfes.
Most honorable thanks to Jan DeRoos.
By Linda Kirsininkas
Being a Steely Dan fan is an exercise in patience to the “Nth” degree. Patience is the glue that keeps a Steely Dan fan sane. Fans of Becker and Fagen who longingly desire to see their favorite songwriters rise above and beyond their enormously successful but regrettably tortured past have their hopes dashed with year after desolate year ending in disappointment. “Damn! No new releases from Becker, or Fagen, or Steely Dan,” we scream. “We’ll just have to be content gnawing on our old Pretzel Logic bones for a while?” Why do we put ourselves through it — the emotional turmoil of it all?
Perhaps being a Steely Dan fan is a lot like being a fan of your favorite sports team. Win or lose, we know we’ll stand behind them whate’er fate betide them. There’s an attraction there, a brain chemistry, something about them that just makes us feel good when we root for them. But wait — out there in the cheering crowd! Look! There’s women out there, too! Oh, they must be here just to get a glimpse into the players’ locker room. Or maybe they just like watching guys spit and adjust their cups. Why would women maintain an adoration for such “manly” things as sports and Steely Dan, for crying out loud?
Yep, Steely Dan, known the world over as probably the most notorious of all the “thinking man’s bands.” What is it about the band that entices women into their strategic snare of cagey drollery? Why would “any” woman like such a seemingly misogynistic entity as Steely Dan, anyway? With the help and support of our fellow female Metal Leg subscribers, and perhaps by using a little bit of our “female intuition,” we shall illustrate for you why women love Steely Dan.
A Historical Refresher
As we begin this exploration into the legacy of musical excrescence put together by the prodigious talents of Messrs. Becker and Fagen, looking around, the first question that arises is this: Why “are” women the minority in the realm of Steely Dan fans? Flip our question to wide angle and the question we face mushrooms into this wonderment: Why are there not more women who are rock and roll fans in general? The historical and sociological studies needed to answer those questions may entail more time and discussion space than that allotted to us in this prestigious chronicle of cultural reflection. Yet to understand the sexual imbalance of Steely Dan fans and examine why, for example, the readership of Metal Leg is mostly male is to view a small representation of the larger rock and roll megacosm in which Steely Dan is merely situated. Insights garnered from the answers provided by female Steely Dan fans on their questionnaires has led your author to the following theory as to why this rock and roll divergence of the sexes has occurred.
When we recall the early days of rock and roll (or, for those of us too young to remember, the way it is portrayed), there were no gender rules. Rock and roll was a hearty, hermaphroditic being, calling listeners and dancers alike to action without regard to race, creed, “or” sex. In fact, dancing seemed to be the main attraction to rock and roll in its infancy, giving the boys and girls a chance to dance and have some fun. But something happened to rock and roll in the mid-’60s, although it might have occurred earlier, where the record industry decided that the dance attraction of rock music wasn’t going to help it survive. Rock and roll had to become more serious about itself, it had to say something more meaningful, more important. To do that meant sloughing off the sweet stuff. The industry created a splintering of rock and roll bands with images tailored to whatever market segment the record companies wanted to target for profits. Hence came the divergence of bands suited stylistically for the sexes. The more “radical, creative, psychedelic, and ‘serious’ ” bands were marketed for sales to men, while the more “harmonious, softer, cleaner, and ‘frivolous’ ” band were marketed for women.
As time passed and the more “fluffy” bands faded away following, for all intents and purposes, the pattern of their mass-marketability, so did their soft-core female listenership. If there were any ladies left around who were still interested in “nice girl music,” the industry provided clean-up men like Engelbert Humperdinck and Neil Diamond for them to enjoy.
Nevertheless, there lurked on the other side of the rock and roll fence a group of ladies who didn’t care what the industry said they should like. This small minority of women thrived off the rebellion and energy they found within the channels of the “bad boy music,” indulging themselves with groups like the Stones and the Who. They scoffed at society’s notion that “nice” girls don’t enjoy “that” kind of “boy music,” and went on to join their brothers at the rock and roll party. And today, by being a female Steely Dan fan, we feel we’re carrying on the great legacy and tradition laid down by our foremothers — the common thread that runs between rock and roll women known as the certain predisposition to partying.
The Social Animal
Okay, guys, don’t think Steely Dan women are not aware of what’s going on here. Sounds to you like women are the brunt of Becker and Fagen’s cruel joke, fair game for their salacious wit and terrifying sense of humor. Perhaps you’re smirking inside because you think we don’t see the ignominious depictions of whatever poor women folk had the misfortune of being twisted around in our favorite composers’ collaborative minds. We realize that the depiction of male characters wasn’t all that flattering on occasion, but it seemed that they were just doddering, pathetic hoots who didn’t know any better, or didn’t care to. But women in many ways are portrayed as sorrowful, perhaps even evil beings who are only out for blood or tears. At least the lucky ones got off easy — they’re mentioned to us by name, and maybe even with a little tenderness attached. Ruthie, Rose, Lucy, Peg, Josie, Hey 19, Louise, Katy, Babs, and Cathy, along with others who appear on various demos. Despite some of the put-down they might have received in their respective songs, they must have charmed Becker and Fagen in some fashion or other to garner the questionable honor of a personalized place in their bebop assemblage.
Yet one can’t help but feel sorry for the hapless girls who were so reviled by Becker and Fagen that their names cannot be revealed to us because of their scheming, insidious deportment. These unfortunate gals are known only to us through their rueful operations: “she serves the smooth retsina,” “you were a roller skater,” “you’re a screamer,” and on and on. What kind of women were these guys hanging around with to inspire them so savagely? Song after song we hear the character “woman” being equated with treacherous two-timing, lies, and deceit. To the casual outside feminist observer, no woman in her right mind would put up with that kind of crap in her entertainment!
But we’ve already seen that rock and roll women are conditioned early on to fraternizing with men simply because of the nature of the beast. If we’re going to hang around and enjoy rock and roll, we’ve got to like, or at least put up with, the fellows who inhabit it. Rock music, already quivering with an overdose of testosterone, constantly suffers to keep its hard-ass image intact. Unfortunately in doing so, woman-bashing becomes a favorite subject of many, many rock bands only because, obviously, these bands are made up of men.
Conversely, if women were the majority of rock and roll songwriters and musicians, man-bashing in music would perhaps be a little more flagrant and conspicuous than it is now. Imagine your favorite record store filled with albums from Sinead O’Connor. Okay don’t. But with the way the world is waging a constant battle to invade women’s bodies, you’d probably hear a heck of a lot more records with complaints from the woman’s perspective. Look at it this way, there are times in every woman’s life when she gets tired of being poked and prodded and would just love to give somebody the nudge for once! (Thank goodness for the Steely Dans of the world!)
Hey, it’s just human nature for men and women to rant about the things in their lives that they don’t understand! For centuries the battle of the sexes has raged while both sides tried to figure out what the other was attempting to accomplish. That’s the main reason why Steely Dan women let Becker and Fagen off the woman-hating hook. We understand that they were just doing what guys do when they hang together — rag about the opposite sex. And, happily for us ladies, hindsight has afforded us the benefit of the knowledge that Becker and Fagen’s bad-boyish facade was (dare we say?) just a dodge to cover up their “adoration” of women. As they got older and their anger held over from their college years faded away, they kind of relaxed their outlook and attitude with women. Just take a chronological look at their depictions of women from the first Steely Dan album on through to “The Nightfly,” and you’ll see a most interesting progression, for the most part, from angry mistrust giving way to mild misunderstanding going on to madly devotional.
The Long-Term Effects Of Steely Dan
As you can see, the brave ladies who responded to our Steely Dan questionnaire have taken into consideration the ideas of these Becker and Fagen songs, transforming their abstract theorem into the coherent sociological study we present for you here. Yet we know that every Steely Dan fan has a story of their own that accompanies or even parallels the stories that Becker and Fagen have presented to us over the years. And the stories these female Metal Leg subscribers told us of how Steely Dan music has fit into their own lives seem to convey a certain charm from the feminine perspective, almost the grist for soap opera material. Stories of lucky kids and dogs having the dubious fortune of being named after various distinguished Steely Dan characters. However, it is unfortunately impossible to determine exactly how many children, or canines for that matter, had actually been conceived to the accompaniment of Steely Dan records.
Stories of romance, of the newly-wed couple sharing their first dance at their wedding reception to the sound of “Maxine.” Or of the well-omened young lady who found a romantic interlude in the eyes of a handsome face at an exotic seaside restaurant while Fagen’s “Ruby Baby” played ubiquitously in the background.
Stories of nostalgia, of a couple of then-12-year-olds spending a New Year’s Eve jangling the telephones off the hook at their favorite radio station requesting “Reelin’ In The Years,” and finally succeeding in their quest at the stroke of midnight.
Stories of broken hearts, as copies of The Royal Scam were exchanged as the last and final act of a broken romance. Or the fights and subsequent break-up with boyfriends over who had better taste in their musical entertainment, the gal who liked Steely Dan or the guy who liked James Taylor.
Perhaps the most compelling of these Steely Dan stories shared by these Metal Leg subscribers is the one of the courageous woman battling chemotherapy and surgeries in her fight with breast cancer. The words and music of Becker and Fagen have helped her keep the right attitude through the hell of her affliction. And no one could be happier than she is with the re-emergence of Becker and Fagen after all these years. It has coincided with the diagnosis of her cancer now being completely in remission.
We also asked the ladies to give us examples of what they like most and least about the Steely Dan style of rock and roll, and of what these songs sound like to the female ear. Their choices may surprise some of you, but overall it gives us a pretty good insight into the music of Becker and Fagen we all love so much. Although there were no “right” or “wrong” answers, and other songs and albums were suggested along with the “winners,” the majority choices are listed here. Think about your own choices for these Steely Dan song style headings and see for yourself how your choices compare with the
The first exposure to Steely Dan music: Well, reeling in the years, we can see that the one song most successful in snagging many lady fans was: “Reelin’ In The Years.” It seems to have been the foremost fisherman for reeling in new fans for twenty years running now. Older fans (okay, most of us over 30) remember hearing that song originally in 1973 and enticing us into the providential snare of Steely Dan from which we shall probably never escape. And “Reelin’ In The Years” continues to perform its legerdemain on the second generation of Steely Dan ladies, those hearing it for the first time on classic rock radio stations. Ah, the Steely Dan spell is cast all over again for these fortunate young ladies. With the Steely Dan door opened by “Reelin’ In The Years,” it’s an introduction which leads on to the larger expanse of mysteries and sarcasms on all the other albums.
Even though Cindy Schafran says she hates this song because “it’s so popish, so redundant, and so overplayed,” and it has become something of a rock and roll cliche, we can’t deny that its commercial sound made a lot of fans out there for Steely Dan, as well as making tons of money for ABC, and now MCA Records. But hey, Becker and Fagen were just doing their jobs as songwriters, weren’t they?
Favorite album of the ladies: Katy Lied was the foremost album stated by the ladies as their favorite. They said they enjoyed the overall mood of it the most. Although she states that all the Steely Dan albums have been her favorite at one time or another, Suz Sachs says she always comes back to Katy Lied. “There’s something so personal and evocative and haunting about it,” she observes. Cindy Schafran notes, “It’s such a smooth album, one song goes into another and it flows so nicely.” Runner up: a tie between The Royal Scam and Countdown To Ecstasy.
The ladies’ favorite song: Need you ask? Of course, it’s “F.M.” Becker and Fagen really understood the minds of rock and roll women when they cut a song about party-time. Party? Where! We stick our noses up in the air in an effort to sniff it out. What rock and roll woman would turn down an open invitation to an “affaire d’amour” washed down with just a tad of that non-fattening grapefruit wine? Just make sure the mood is right, darlin’. Close second runner up favorite song: “Deacon Blues.”
Worst album (Sorry for the wrong choice of words, ladies! How about least favorite album?): The early material of Steely Dan, before they were as fully developed as later years, was listed primarily as the least favorite stuff, with Can’t Buy A Thrill leading the way. That first album “sounds too much like a garage band, ” Amy Rolfes laments. Second in the least favorite album category, but probably tops in terms as a source for fan confusion, was Pretzel Logic.
Worst (O.K., least favorite) song: Perhaps there isn’t a respiring woman walking the face of the earth, Steely Dan fan or not, who doesn’t think that “Throw Back The Little Ones” hits home as some kind of intimidating threat. Just the idea of menacing squeezes sure can make the ladies squirm, no matter what it is exactly that is being squeezed. Next notch up on the least favorite scale is Everyone’s Gone To The Movies. Too much sex packed into too little afternoon, one would guess.
Most ironic song: Gentle reader, an apology must be made for using such a metaphorical locution to describe these songs. There seemed to be a bit of confusion about this heading from the respondents, and, we were subsequently unable to determine a champion in this category. Perhaps the men will be most gracious in settling with this notion for their consideration. Two of the ladies’ least favorite songs reside on the ladies’ most favorite album.
Funniest songs for the ladies: It’s a three-way tie here between “Everything You Did” (man out of control), “Haitian Divorce” (woman out of control), and “Bodhisattva” (disciple out of control). Sex, politics, religion — all the forbidden topics, hey, we’ve got ’em all right here, folks!
The saddest songs: Another three-way tie between “Third World Man,” “A very haunting sound,” says Annie Silver, “Pearl Of The Quarter,” “The saddest song, content-wise, of loss,” says Suz Sachs, to which Amy Rolfes adds, “It’s got the failed romance theme that runs rampant through many of their lyrics”‘ and “Any World (That I’m Welcome To),” which Christine Kavaliauskas says, “Just sounds so lonely.”
The happiest song: Here the ladies had to do some scrounging since there really are not that many truly joyful Steely Dan songs, but they did seem to agree that “Time Out Of Mind” has the ultimate position here. “Does it get any better than perfection and grace?” asks Nancy Hesford. “It’s downright blissful,” adds Suz Sachs. No real second place contender here, although “Rose Darling,” “My Old School,” and “Bad Sneakers” were mentioned.
The sexiest song: Many ladies volunteered the thought that “Babylon Sisters” is indeed the sexiest song in the Steely Dan catalogue. In fact, they believed Steely Dan music overall to carry an evocative, sensual feel, perhaps even tactile in some of the grooves it provides for female listeners.
And, according to the ladies, the strangest Steely Dan song? Uh, oh, there’s that forboding specter of potential molestation rearing its ugly head again with “Throw Back The Little Ones.” Also mentioned for the strangest songs were “Green Earrings,” as Christine Kavaliauskas observes “it’s got such few words but it’s such a BIG song!” and “Everyone’s Gone To The Movies,” with Nancy Hesford declaring that it’s “maybe the strangest thing anybody ever recorded!”
But there’s one collection of Steely Dan songs that is most influential, most endearing to these ladies. A group of songs that female Steely Dan fans hold closest to their heart, and that is Aja. It is the one album that makes them proudest to call themselves Steely Dan fans. No other Steely Dan album seems to have the effect that Aja has in opening new horizons for these ladies in terms of new experiences and lifestyles. Melanie Cameron explained that with Aja being “their most ‘jazziest’ album, I listen to more jazz music because of it.” Roxie Lucas relates to that album because Aja reflected “a major transition time for both Steely Dan and myself.” Nancy Hesford identified with Aja as “a remarkable piece of work. Art, without question. Greater than the sum of its parts.”
Now that we’ve considered the details, what do Steely Dan women like overall about the band? Their answers hold the key to the continued popularity of Steely Dan music, even after a decade after their last release. For Annie Silver, its their attention to detail that makes them her favorite. “Donald and Walter have contributed so much to the art of music, and still keep it going,” Annie says. “They may be perfectionists too much, but that’s what makes me love each song, each album,” she concludes.
For other ladies, it’s the way Steely Dan’s music has withstood the test of time. “Their music is timeless, never tiresome, and very appealing to all my different moods,” says Cindy Schafran. To which Suz Sachs adds, “They’ve provided 20 years of consistently riveting music — often cryptic lyrics that can be wry, sardonic, downright funny, or just pleasing to the ear.” Suz also described it as “music that’s lush, lean, evocative, or foot-tapping — always makes you want to hear more, and it always gets better with each listen.” And Christine Kavaliauskas described it as “music I’ll never tire of with words that will always comfort me.”
For the majority of Steely Dan ladies, the attraction to the words and music of Becker and Fagen lies in their own commitment and dedication to go their own way. They identified with the way Becker and Fagen allowed their free-spirited creative whim to carry them where it willed. Amy Rolfes explained it as the fact that “Donald and Walter never sucked up to the press and the pressures of the music industry. I’m glad they were never marketed the way today’s bands are,” she says. Nancy Hesford enjoyed the belief that Becker and Fagen “allowed for a certain intelligence on the part of their listeners,” she says. “I always took it as a challenge, not a put-down.” Roxie Lucas focused it for us by saying “Unlike lots of other bands of the period, these songwriters were not afraid to express their own vulnerabilities, fears, mistakes, love affairs gone wrong, etc.,” and adds, “Even at their darkest and most raucous, a tenderness comes through, and always with a solid dose of humor.”
Perhaps Melanie Cameron stated the best reason why women would love a group like Steely Dan with her exclamation of, “They’re a damn good band, too bad they’re not making records anymore!”
So what can we conclude from our portrait of female Steely Dan fans that probably can’t be said about ALL Steely Dan fans — male or female? We’re highly intelligent. We’ve got inquiring minds that are never satisfied with superficial explanations. We enjoy musical entertainment that challenges us, makes us question our world, or helps us work out some answers for it. Steely Dan fans are a distinct group of people who refuse to be spoon-fed by an entertainment industry that is all too eager to tell us what to like. Oh, yes, then there’s that bonding adhesive we all seem to possess within our personality make up known as a truckload of patience.
Steely Dan — long in pleasure, second-to-none in ease and control, tops in endurance. Man or woman, Mr. Steely Dan knows how to tickle that musical Graefenberg deep within each and every one of us.