By Steve Morse
Remember when rock ‘n’ roll used to be such sheer fun that it didn’t matter what clothes you wore, what hairstyle you had, what record label you were on, what video you made, what agency you were with? Or what chameleon image you had this year as opposed to last?
Those days of innocence live anew in the New York Rock & Soul Revue, a touring group of veterans from such acts as Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, who just wanted to go back and sing hit songs from their youth.
“We wanted to have some fun and sing the kind of music we grew up with, rather than our usual repertoires,” says Donald Fagen, the Steely Dan founder and guiding light behind the two-year-old New York Rock & Soul Revue. The group, which plays Aug. 21 at Great Woods also contains Steely Dan partner Walter Becker, former Steely mate Michael McDonald (later with the Doobie Brothers), plus Phoebe Snow, Boz Scaggs and soul singer Chuck Jackson. “Michael McDonald, for instance, has been singing ‘Takin’ It to the Streets’ for years, but now he really enjoys singing Jackie Wilson tunes in our show — the kind of songs he loved as a kid. So it’s that sort of thing,” Fagen says in a recent phone interview from New York.
In addition, Snow sings the Temptations’ “Shakey Ground.” Scaggs takes on the old Gamble & Huff song, “Drowning in the Sea of Love.” McDonald and Snow combine on the Memphis classic, “Knock on Wood.” All these tunes appear on the highly successful Live at the Beacon album cut at the Beacon Theater in New York last year.
Most of the attention, though, has focused on Fagen and Becker — the songwriting core of Steely Dan, the ’70s giants who had such Top 10 albums as Pretzel Logic, Aja and Gaucho. The reason for the excitement is that Steely Dan songs have been added to the New York Rock & Soul Revue’s tour.
“The Steely Dan stuff is really just due to popular demand,” says Fagen, who sings, plays piano and emcees the shows. “There was always a vocal minority who were screaming for these Steely Dan songs and I just felt obligated to do a few. I don’t mind singing them, but I try to pick ones that fit into the show. I tend to pick a lot of blues type structures, like “Chain Lightning” and some other things that are interesting blues; and things that have a kind of R&B flavor to them. So I do five or six of these during the show. That satisfies the fanatics. As the show goes on, there are some people that wait for me to do these old tunes, but for the majority of the audience, the show is so much fun — and all the other singers are so good — that they don’t care; they really get into the whole show.”
Steely Dan songs like “Do It Again,” “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number,” “Deacon Blues” and “Bodhisattva” have endured impressively through the years, earning a solid niche on classic hits radio.
“I’m surprised the Steely Dan catalog still sells quite a bit,” says Fagen. “It’s lucky, because that’s how I made my living during the ’80s. I was basically at a writing block and wasn’t producing that much. So I’m grateful for the Steely Dan catalog.
“On the other hand, I think we approached the Steely Dan albums in such a way that we never had any filler on them. We took a lot of time. They were made to last, essentially. All the songs were of a certain quality, at least at the time we felt they were.”
Fagen, now 43, still finds it hard to fathom the writer’s block that befell him after Steely Dan broke up. “I used to write every day, which I’ve always done. But I’d listen to what I did a couple of days later, and it didn’t feel good to me. That was very frustrating. I was really pretty depressed and that had a lot to do with it. I had to change my life in order to get the juices to flow again. I was also going through a relationship which had a certain trajectory which did not end satisfactorily. It was a long-term relationship that just didn’t work out.
“Toward the end of the ’80s, I went to therapy for a while — and that helped a lot,” he says. “And as the ’80s went along, I started to recover.”
Further recovery — and the spark for the New York Rock & Soul Revue — came when Fagen was approached two years ago by Libby Titus, a producer-friend who asked him to play some low-key club shows in Manhattan. “She asked me if I wanted to do a gig with Dr. John and a rhythm section. And it was very successful,” he says.
Then Fagen played a show at New York’s Lone Star Cafe that was a tribute to ’60s songwriters Bert Berns and Jerry Ragavoy. Berns had written the Isley Brothers hit, “Twist and Shout,” and together they wrote “Cry to Me” for Solomon Burke, plus “Hang on Sloopy,” “Piece of My Heart” (Janis Joplin’s theme song), and “Time Is on My Side,” a hit for the Rolling Stones.
“Anyway, this show was really popular too, so we just kind of started doing these rock ‘n’ soul shows which got more and more miscellaneous,” says Fagen. “And we started adding people. Boz Scaggs saw the Lone Star show and wanted to join. Libby Titus was a friend of Phoebe Snow, so Phoebe came down. And I’d known Michael McDonald for years. And our special guest, Chuck Jackson, has been playing ever since the ’60s and is still in very good shape.”
Fagen’s future plans include a solo disc (a science-fiction oriented concept record produced by Becker) for release early next year. It’s the same time that Becker hopes to issue his own solo album. And then maybe the two will cowrite songs for a possible Steely Dan album. “If it turns into something resembling a Steely Dan album, then that would be fine,” says Fagen. “But at this point, I’m not sure.”
Regardless, Fagen has come a long way from the summer he spent as an indigent music student at Berklee College of Music in 1966. “I lived on Symphony Road and it was a foul summer. I had almost no money and was eating a lot of brown rice. But I picked up a lot of good stuff from the Berklee course. I remember the practice rooms at Berklee were always being used, so I’d take the bus up to MIT and use their practice rooms. Amazingly, MIT has these great practice rooms with little pianos in them. You’d go to this huge vault-like door and open it up and go in. I’m sure I could have survived a nuclear holocaust in one of those rooms. But it was great. The pianos were tuned up really nicely and I’d just play scales all day. And eat brown rice.”