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.
Hey everybody, we’re back.
The first thing that came to mind after I heard Steely Dan would be touring was “Does Donald know he has to sing most of the night?” Anyway, I just bought an apartment in NYC, so I have no more money left. The tour is going to California and I’ll have just enough bread for the plane ticket. If any of our West Coast subscribers could help me with transportation, lodging, food (which is most important), please write and let me know. The Midwest subscribers came through for the NY Rock & Soul Revue Tour so please, don’t let me down now!
I got to hear Donald’s new record Kamakiriad a couple of weeks ago. I have to admit that I was in this complete daze for the first four songs and don’t remember a thing. As the shock wore off and everything settled in, it was smooth sailing through this most pleasant “trip.” Oh yes, what a great time it is to be a Steely Dan fan, a new record, a tour… Well, we’ve waited long enough. But as Walter Becker once said about Steely Dan fans, “They can keep it up the longest.”
I Got The News
Donald’s “Kamakiriad” out May 25th…
and a Steely Dan tour!!!
Well, it’s about fucking time.
Donald Fagen’s new album Kamakiriad, not to be confused with Boy George’s 1984 release, Karma Chameleon, is finished, done, complete, honest-to-God. The master tape was delivered to Warner Brothers in March and the release is set for May 25th, 1993.
In the April 3, 1993 issue of Billboard, Fagen talked to Timothy White about the meaning of the name “Kamakiriad.”
“Kamakiri is an invented car,” he said. “The word in Japanese actually means ‘praying mantis,’ but a Kamakiriad would be a journey, like the Iliad. The story takes place a few years in the future, when this guy gets this environmentally correct car, a multi-screen magical exploration vehicle with a bionic backseat vegetable garden.”
Fagen gave some more detail on the car in the August 23, 1992 issue of The Indianapolis Star saying, “it’s a combination of high technology and organic technology. He’s in contact with a routing satellite that tells him where he’s going. The songs on the album are each stops or things he passes on the way or even thoughts that he has on his journey. He finally ends up in a nasty little town.”
Fagen elaborated to Timothy White, “It’s a hero story in which this guy’s depressed and suicidal until he arrives at a place called Flytown, where he hears this strain of music and encounters old friends that enable him to go forward into the unknown. The songs represent his sensual adventures.”
The songs, in order, are: “Trans-Island Skyway” (changed from “The Trip”), “Counter Moon,” “Springtime,” “Snowbound” (co-written with Walter), “Florida Room,” “Tomorrow’s Girls,” “Dunes,” and “Teahouse On The Tracks.” The first single to be released will be “Tomorrow’s Girls,” which is supposed to come out 2-4 weeks before the actual album. The song is a science-fiction story about a legion of female beauties from outer space that land on the New Jersey shore and seduce gullible earthmen. The lyrics include the lines, “They’re speeding towards our sun, they’re on a party run. Here come Tomorrow’s Girls.” Donald finishes off the song by singing the names of the girls, one by one. The “Tomorrow’s Girls” advance CD single will also include some bonus tracks. They are “Shanghai Confidential” (the instrumental B-Side of “Century’s End”), “Home At Last” (Live NYR&S Revue version that didn’t make the “Live At The Beacon album), and Donald’s version of “Confide In Me” (originally performed by The Manhattan Transfer on their 1991 “Offbeat of Avenues” release).
In the Billboard article, Timothy White, who apparently has heard the album, described the music as “prime Steely Dan terrain, exuberantly batty orbit of cabaret funk, proto jazz, sci-fi boogaloo, and hallucinatory pitstops wherein harpies and satyrs crash an end-of-the-world rent party co-hosted by LTD and The Ohio Players.” Calling it “turnpike groove music,” White continued, “As produced by bass-playing former Steely Dan partner Walter Becker, the album’s fluctuant fantasy environment overflows with bantering horns, beckoning female backing harmonies, and a tremulant keyboard sound that sustains Fagen’s amorphous vocals with the ease of an Eames chair.”
Metal Leg has also heard the album and the only thing we can really say is that Kamakiriad doesn’t sound like anything Donald or Steely Dan has done in the past and it is well worth the wait.
The musicians that backed up Fagen that we now know of are: Walter Becker on bass and guitar, Georg Wadenius on guitar, Chris Parker on most drums, Denny McDermott on drums, Cornelius Bumpus and Blue Lou Marini on saxophone, Alan Rubin and Randy Brecker on trumpet and Catherine Russell, Mindy Jostyn, Jenni Muldaur and Brenda White-King on backup vocals. There are a few other artists on the album whose names we can’t remember now, including a trombone player who does some great stuff on “Teahouse On The Tracks.”
Although it doesn’t really matter now, the album could have been finished earlier. Dave Smith, Director of Recording Operations for Sony told Metal Leg that Donald erased most of his already-finished vocals and re-recorded them after coming across a UM92 microphone, one of the best mics in the world. It is a variant of the U47 microphone, manufactured in Berlin and a favorite of Adolph Hitler, who used the U47 in most of his radio broadcasts.
Becker and Fagen to tour as Steely Dan
If Donald’s release of an album after eleven years isn’t enough, how about a Steely Dan tour — yes, billed as Steely Dan — after nineteen years? Well it’s going to happen. What made them decide to do it? Well, Mike McDonald had said that Becker and Fagen had a great time on the New York Rock and Soul Revue tour this past summer and were interested in doing something after Donald’s album was finished. And to confirm the tour rumors, Walter Becker told DJ Mark Drucker on Philadelphia’s WMMR, “Well, it is very flattering to hear there is that faithful group of Dan fans out there and that the music has stood up on its own so well after all these years. We must show our appreciation, and we’re looking forward to going out and performing live for our fans.”
The first question is who will be in the band? So far, Michael McDonald (keyboard and backup vocalist with the 1974 touring Dan), Cornelius Bumpus (saxophonist with Doobies and NYR&S Revue 1992 Tour) and Warren Bernhardt (piano player, has worked with numerous artists in the studio and on the road). Pat Metheny has also been asked to join the group on guitar, but has not been confirmed yet. Rumors also have Elliott Randall being asked to play guitar. Bass player Tom Barney is also supposed to have been asked to play on tour. We don’t know if Walter Becker has decided whether to play bass or guitar. The strangest Steely Dan tour rumor circulating has it that no female backup singers will tour with the band. Again, these are only rumors and everything should shape up in the next month or so.
The next question is what will be the tour route and what venues will they play? The tour schedule is very sketchy right now but this is what we have:
Aug. 15-Pittsburgh-Starlake Amph.
TBD- Boston (2 shows)
TBD- Saratoga, NY
Aug. 24 & 25-NY-Jones Beach
Aug. 27-NJ-Meadowlands Amph.
TBD- Wash., D.C.
TBD- Raleigh, NC
TBD- Costa Mesa, CA
Sep. 7 & 8- Los Angeles-Greek Thtr.
Sep. 12- San Francisco
The venues are expected to be mostly outdoor amphitheaters. We are hoping to have the confirmed dates before we mail this issue and send them with the mag.
The third question is what material will be played? For now, we don’t know, but the LA Times reported that the shows will be recorded for a live album.
One thing we do know for sure is that the Steely Dan T-shirts will sell like hotcakes.
Stay tuned for more information.
What about Walter’s record?
Walter Becker is working on a solo album, but we don’t have anything new to report on it at this time. Walter did talk to Ken Sharp in an interview he did after the NYR&S show at the Philly Spectrum about his project. Becker told Ken that he finally broke down and decided to do his own vocals. “I decided that there was no point in being coy about it and there’s something about when you get to be a certain age you’re more willing to just let it hang out, so to speak. It was just the only way for me to go. I still think about if I could just get a singer I could be doing this or doing that but at this point I think I should just give it a try.
Walter also said that it was tough for him to write without Donald’s input, “I found it was difficult for me to recognize the standard of excellence that he made possible for us to have. So two things happened. I started to use a sequencer to write with and which enabled me to make up for some of my technical shortcomings as a musician. And the other thing was I realized that I had to suspend my own critical faculty while I was writing, to just do something and go with it and let it become what it wanted to be and then at some later point you could decide whether you liked it or didn’t like it. As long as you’re trying to critique, as you’re doing basically, that’s a very inhibiting thing and counter-productive. So if I have an idea I start it and I work on it as long as I can until it’s either finished or I don’t know what to do with it.”
“In many cases I write a complete song and then decide that this isn’t really the way I want it to be. But usually at some future date I get to use the lyric idea or some part of that again. I would also say that writing music always kind of seems to me that somebody is piping me ideas in from another galaxy. You just find that you have these ideas that have already evolved to some state when they arrive. That’s my experience, anyway. I find myself all the time driving my kids to school or out riding a bike and suddenly I’ve got a great idea and I’ve got to maintain the tempo or the riff until I get back home.”
When Ken asked Walter if he would be playing most of the instruments on his album, Becker replied, “No. It’ll be a band, basically. It’ll be as much a live band playing as I can make it.”
Now the rumor on Walter’s band is that it will be the New York band, The Lost Tribe, which he recently produced for Windham Hill Records. According to a review of a show in the November 5, 1992 issue of The LA Times, The Lost Tribe’s music comes “from the Brooklyn-based movement known as “M-Base.” It’s a fresh variation on the idea of jazz-rock-funk fusion, full of propulsive energy, but also using intricate polyrhythmic and polytonal strategies.”
Donald Fagen is supposed to produce Walter’s album, but with the release of Kamakiriad and the upcoming Steely Dan tour, we don’t know yet when the project will be released.
The Lost Tribe album that Walter produced is supposed to be released by Windham Hill in the summer. Walter has also produced another jazz album by pianist Andy Laverne for Triloka Records which is also supposed to be out this summer.
In Other News…
Goldmine, a magazine for music collectors did a cover story on Steely Dan in its January 22, 1993 issue. Along with a discography and history of the group, Ken Sharp’s recent interviews with Donald and Walter appear in their entirety. Also included are some great rare photographs, as well as some recent photos supplied by Metal Leg.” You can call “Goldmine” to see if they have any back issues available.
We would like to make a belated correction to a story on the “Hoops McCann Band Plays The Music Of Steely Dan” album that appeared in the October 1988 issue of Metal Leg. The name of the piano player, Michael Lang (also a ML subscriber) was omitted from the list of performing musicians.
Jenni Muldaur, one of the backup vocalists on Kamakiriad has just had her self-titled debut album released on Warner Brothers Records. Jenni has made a number of guest appearances at some of Donald’s NY area club gigs. In fact, she was signed by the record company after an appearance at Hades, the NY Upper East Side dive bar where Donald started his low-key reappearances in 1990. Her album was produced by Russ Titelman and features some studio musicians that have played with Fagen in the past including Rob Mounsey, David Sanborn, Jeff Pevar, Michael Brecker, Dave Tofani, Randy Brecker and Ronnie Cuber. Donald Fagen also did the horn arrangement for one of her songs, “What Goes Around.” Ms. Muldaur, the daughter of Maria (“Midnight At The Oasis”) Muldaur, has also worked with Todd Rundgren in the studio and on the road.
Another version of Donald Fagen’s composition “Lazy Nina” appears on Welcome To The Club, an album by the Canadian group Monkey House, which features Don Breithaupt (another ML subscriber). “Lazy Nina,” an unbelievably catchy tune was written by Fagen and originally was performed by Greg Phillinganes on his 1985 Pulse album. Monkey House’s version of “Lazy Nina” is excellent also, as is the rest of the album. It has been getting good reviews in Canada and moving up the charts.
Larry Carlton will be following up his “Kid Gloves” release with a new project called Larry Carlton and the Renegades and will be a blues and rock & roll album. It should come out sometime in late-summer.
Jeff “Skunk” Baxter has joined a new band in L.A. called Cheap Dates. The band also features drummer Slim Jim Phantom (Stray Cats, and yet another ML subscriber), bassist Tony Sales (Tin Machine), guitarist Jamie James, and vocalist/actor Harry Dean Stanton (“Escape From New York,” “Repo Man”).
The Vivino Brothers, featuring Jimmy and Jerry Vivino, will be following up their Chitlins Parmigiana album with a second release on the DMP label. Jimmy Vivino has also recently gone to LA to work on the soundtrack for Sister Act, II. Jimmy’s work on the first Sister Act contributed to the film’s tremendous success as a musical consultant and singing coach to Whoopie Goldberg and the other singing nuns in the flick. Go get ’em Jimmy!
A Tribute To Jeff Porcaro
Universal Amphitheatre, Los Angeles
Some of the biggest stars in the music business gathered at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles on December 14, 1992 to pay a musical tribute to the late drummer Jeff Porcaro. The proceeds from the performance were set aside for a trust fund for Jeff’s children.
The featured artists that performed were Toto (with Simon Phillips on Drums), Michael McDonald, David Crosby, Donald Fagen, Boz Scaggs, Don Henley and Eddie Van Halen. Toto also served as the backup band. Mike McDonald performed “I Keep Forgettin”‘ and “Takin’ It To The Streets” with David Crosby singing backup. Donald Fagen performed “Chain Lightning” and “Josie” with Denny Dias, original Steely Dan guitarist and close friend of Jeff’s, joining in. Afterwards, Toto guitarist Steve Lukather announced to the audience “Jeffrey and I had two favorites: Steely and Jimi. You just heard Steely, here’s Jimi.” Lukather then launched into Hendrix’s “Little Wing.”
Boz Scaggs followed and performed “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle.” Don Henley did “Dirty Laundry,” “You Better Hang Up” and Cole Porter’s “Come Rain Come Shine.” And Eddie Van Halen did Hendrix’s “Let Me Stand Next To Your Fire” and his own “Ain’t Talkin’ About Love.” Eddie also joined in on Toto’s “Hold The Line” as part of the encore and participated in an amazing guitar battle. To close the tribute, ex-Beatle George Harrison joined the full ensemble for “With A Little Help From My Friends.”
A lot of Jeff s friends were in the audience at this show including Steely Dan producer Gary Katz. Many other musicians who didn’t perform on stage were also there and spoke about how this show was a fitting tribute to the memory of Jeff Porcaro.
The New York Nights continue
Donald Fagen continued to make his unannounced NY Nights appearances at the Lone Star Roadhouse in New York City in January and March. The first gigs were on January 8 & 9 and featured a backup band consisting of Joe Caro on guitar (from Dr. John’s band), Will Lee on bass (Late Night with David Letterman, The Nightfly), Steve Ferrone on drums (Eric Clapton) and Leon Pendarvis on keyboards (Saturday Night Live Band). At these shows, Donald debuted a live version of “FM.” The crowd’s reaction to the opening of “FM” was as enthusiastic as when he debuted “My Old School.” It was quite a hoot to hear 500 people singing in unison “Give us some funked up Muzak!” sort of like hearing 15,000 people at the Philadelphia Spectrum sing “Oh no, Guadalajara won’t do now!” with the NY Rock & Soul Revue. Pat Metheny sat in with the band for most of the night and played wicked guitar solos on “Black Friday” and “Josie.” Metheny captivated the audience and the idea of his joining the Steely Dan tour is something that is really appealing.
Phoebe Snow was another special guest and wowed the crowd as usual. Chaka (“I Feel For You”) Khan made an unexpected (or was it uninvited?) guest appearance and sang a few oldies and tried to sing backup on “FM.” It was obvious to the crowd that Ms. Khan didn’t know the words to “FM” and she seemed to be a bit dazed by the complexity of the song.
The second set of New York Night shows took place on March 5 & 6 and featured The Vivino Brothers Band as the backup. The show was set up as a benefit for Woodstock artist Barry Feinstein who is currently recovering from a serious automobile accident.
In addition to The Vivino Brothers Band, Chuck Jackson (from the NYR&S summer tour) and guitarist Elliot Randall (Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years” soloist, among others) were also on the bill. Special unannounced guests were Al Kooper (Blues Project, original Blood, Sweat & Tears), Phoebe Snow and Jenni Muldaur and of course, Mr. Donald Fagen.
The Vivino Brothers opened the show with fours songs from their Chitlins Parmigiana release including a great vocal performance of “Fools Gold” by Catherine Russell. It was also neat to hear people in the audience yelling out requests for Jimmy’s “Miss Mona” and other songs from the album.
The rest of the show was a casual, free wheeling affair with each performer taking the spotlight and strutting his or her stuff. Mindy Jostyn did a great version of Art Neville’s “Oooh-Whee Baby.” Jenni Muldaur did a couple of songs from her album which was released later that week. Chuck Jackson did a couple of his hits including an ambitious run through Leiber & Stoller’s “I Keep Forgettin’.” Al Kooper played it cool on the Hammond B-3 organ and played a bit of guitar. Phoebe Snow sung the blues and demonstrated her trademark vocal acrobatics.
The man of the hour, however was Elliot Randall. Mr. Randall had a big grin on his face the entire night and performed some acrobatics of his own on guitar. Elliot played almost the entire night and backed up every artist who performed.
The work he did on the Steely stuff was also impressive. Elliot, who did the original solo on “Green Earrings” eighteen or so years ago, took it to the next level at these shows. Randall also traded licks with Jimmy Vivino on the other songs that Donald performed, “FM,” “Josie” and “Chain Lightning.”
All in all, it was another exiting round of NY Nights. Let’s keep ’em coming.
Donald Fagen talks
From the January 1983 issue of High Fidelity magazine
From the dark, jaded regions of Steely Dan
emerges an intellectual with an album about innocence
By Sam Sutheland
Few pop or rock musicians in recent memory remained as intentionally faceless as Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. In defiance of the usual course of events for platinum record winners, they succeeded in creating a provocative, richly stylized body of music while becoming, if anything, less recognizable as “personalities,” tucking the intimate details of their private lives cryptically into their oblique lyrics. As they transformed their original working band into an elusive entity that emerged only in recording studios, the duo edited out the few clues of earlier songs, where allusions to their days together in college evoked the cultural ferment of the late ’60s.
Even photographs of the two men were rare. Their album portraits and publicity glossies were usually grainy black and white shots that looked more like wanted posters than the idealized images of their rock peers. The unsmiling faces, often hidden behind sunglasses, looked uncomfortable before the camera lens. In the interviews they cautiously granted, their day-to-day lives remained undiscussed beyond the most superficial and fragmentary details. Music was the only topic that could reliably lure them beyond a closely guarded perimeter of ironic detachment.
That reclusive aura explains the ultimately startling impact of Donald Fagen’s first solo disc. His perverse croon was the duo’s vocal persona, and it remains unchanged on The Nightfly.
Likewise his melodies, arrangements, and intermittent keyboard work are extensions of Steely Dan’s sleek, precise pop synthesis. On closer examination, though, the album is a departure in its most fundamental respect, the songs’ content. In contrast to the Dan’s large cast of distinct characters and disparate settings, The Nightfly revolves around just one individual — Fagen.
He himself is quick to confirm that. And the record’s specific time frame strongly suggests that the idea for The Nightfly predated the duo’s decision to stop recording.
“I had wanted to do something by myself for a year or so,” says Fagen, “before we decided to ‘take a vacation,’ as Robert Palmer put it in a New York Times article. The concept of a theme piece was an early element, if not a motive, in that decision. “In all the albums I did with Walter, we never said, `We’re going to write about a certain period or a certain motif.’ And I think that accounts for a lot of the difference right there.”
Not that The Nightfly is an autobiographical narrative. Fagen cites as its unifying premise his own recollection of childhood, and of the dreams that carried him through adolescence. In the atypically straightforward liner note, he describes those dreams as “certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late Fifties and early Sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight, and build.”
Those fantasies weren’t entirely unique. Rather, they touched upon what he now describes as the “myths” of that era, shared by young Americans struggling to cope with a culture he repeatedly damns as “stultifying.” The hipster myth, the science fiction myth, the romantic myth, above all, for Fagen, the jazz myth were doors outside a repressive everyday existence.
“The ‘E.T.’ in my bedroom was Thelonious Monk,” he recalls. “Everything that he represented was totally unworldly in a way, although at the same time jazz to me seemed more real than the environment in which I was living. It was one of those developments with a thousand homes that all looked exactly the same. The houses had just been built, so there were mounds of dirt instead of a front lawn, and twigs held up by wires instead of trees.”
“It was pretty barren, actually. But jazz was an escape, not only from the architecture and the landscape, but also from the climate of thought at the time, the Cold War mentality and all that.”
As a child, he had been smitten by early black rock & rollers like Fats Domino and especially Chuck Berry, but as he grew older that strain of rock was supplanted by more formularized, safer fare: “When I discovered jazz — I was about eleven or twelve — it sort of coincided with the time when rock & roll was losing a lot of its vitality. It had been taken over, and there were a lot of white groups. I don’t know if I was conscious of what was at work there; in fact, I probably didn’t connect it to a racial thing.”
He refers to the jazz he heard on late-night radio stations in New York as “my lifeline to urban life.” His first jazz LP was “probably the first jazz record a lot of people got, a Dave Brubeck record, Dave Brubeck at Newport, 1958 — a great album, which I still have.” Brubeck led to Miles Davis and his seminal ’50s quartet and quintet records, and then to Sonny Rollins, Monk, Mingus, and beyond.
It’s no accident that The Nightfly” begins at about this point in jazz history, or that its title character, Lester the Nightfly, is Fagen’s wry but fond composite of those wee-hours deejays he listened to, and portrays in the cover portrait. “I was born in 1948,” he says. “In ’58, the International Geophysical Year, I was ten years old. I sort of started (the record) in that year and covered the territory up to about the Kennedy era.”
“I.G.Y.,” the opening track and first single, is a sharply rendered portrait of the technological optimism and underlying ideological turmoil that reverberated during that global celebration of post-war science. From there, Fagen proceeds to offer personalized vignettes punctuated by carefully chosen details of the culture at hand. He also provides glimpses of the era’s mores: Romantic encounters are edged with dewy innocence, sex is spicy and forbidden, confined to exotic fantasies set in far-off lands or back alleys.
The music, too, bears evidence of the age, although here Fagen’s handiwork is less obvious since Steely Dan’s later albums incorporated prominent elements of post-war pop and jazz. Still, such references have been sharpened to fulfill his goal of “mating the lyrics stylistically to the period, and the music as well.”
“Walk Between The Raindrops,” for instance, is built around a swinging, husky Hammond organ that Fagen plays with the right mix of fluid jazz attack and R&B-derived momentum, pointing directly to the soul jazz combos of Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff — “The organ at the studio where we were working was very funky sounding, which is unusual. I think it was broken, which is probably why it sounds so good.”
“The Goodbye Look” mates the gallows humor of its exotic fantasy of Caribbean revolution, with an outright samba, an observation that extracts a chuckle from Fagen. “I love bossa nova,” he admits, going on to cite the early ’60s recordings of Luis Bonfa, Astrud Gilberto, and their peers for their “delicacy.” He also offers a surprising insight into his singing when he cites an array of favorite vocalists like Frank Sinatra and Mose Allison (“he was an influence on the phrasing”) and singles out Brazilian vocalists for their studied lack of vibrato and offhand precision.
But Fagen asserts that while the arrangements and lyrics consciously refer back to that era, his solo vocals aren’t deliberately altered from his usual approach. Still, on the coolly longing “Maxine” and Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller’s 1955 gem “Ruby Baby,” Donald is unquestionably a crooner.
“I think that’s basically the way my voice sounds superimposed over those sorts of changes,” he suggests. And what changes. Both songs use close intervals and chromatic relationships seldom heard in contemporary pop. He confirms that their rich choral backdrops are “takes on typical four and five-part harmony of the period.”
The chromaticism is especially striking on “Ruby Baby,” best known to most listeners from Dion’s early ’60s version. As it turns out, Fagen hadn’t even heard that recording until after he cut his own. “I sort of based it on the Drifters’ version,” he says. “I threw in a lot of other jazz chords and basically made it sound like a big, R&B party situation. But it has a lot of dissonance — it’s pretty strange, in a way.”
“I love the lyrics,” he continues, referring to the protagonist’s determination to win his indifferent love object. “That song really fit in with the concept because it’s very innocent.”
Innocence may, in fact, be the quiet bombshell in The Nightfly, the single most pronounced shift in tone from the Steely Dan recordings. Fagen agrees that, in that respect, the Dan was anti-romantic. “I was more concerned with first love,” he says of this album, “which is part of growing up. There are some extremely idealized versions of high school romance here.”
If he means to place innocence and its implied vulnerability safely in the past, he is still able to view the careful irony of the Steely Dan songs as “highly cerebral.” Restricting irony was, in fact, a basic concern throughout the writing of these songs, although “for me, of course, that’s almost impossible.”
The detachment once so central to his work (and perhaps destined to resurface in the future) is something he can trace to “the hipster myth I keep mentioning. You know, in a lot of ways it’s a defense mechanism, all that one had to hang onto at that time. It was a part of an alternative way of living.”
“But I think there comes a point when you have to let these myths go, or at least stand back and take a look at them for what they are. In rock & roll, a lot of performers and songwriters take (the myth) very seriously. You know what I mean?”
Fagen won’t apologize for his earlier songs’ social criticism, nor does he find fault with their oblique imagery. Yet his willingness to share his childhood and adolescent fantasies and to connect them to a larger cultural scheme suggests a new accessibility. Still, he isn’t likely to pop up on “The Tonight Show.” As was Steely Dan’s policy from 1974 on, there are no plans for live performance, beyond his vague reference to the possibility of “some local gigs around New York.”
As for his remaining links to Walter Becker, Fagen reports, “We’re tending to keep it open. I have a few film projects I’m working on now, and Walter’s talking to Warner Bros. about some production things. Aside from that, I guess we’ll just play it by ear.”
With or without the titular identity of Steely Dan, the introverted, suburban New Jersey kid of 1958 has become a sophisticated and thought-provoking master of modern pop.
Donald Fagen, Please Come Home!
The following article appeared in the South Brunswick Central Post in 1987 or 1988
By Mario Constantino
Every week I go through the painful experience of reading South Brunswick’s Central Post, usually cringing at my own stories. I’m sure there are others who have the same reaction.
I don’t always read Gerry Jurrens’s column (sorry, Ger) because by the time I’ve done my own, I’m more in the mood to take my own life.
But I read Part II of his wistful remembrances of South Brunswick, back when South Brunswick was just a child of a town and not the growth monster it is now.
In his column, Gerry hinted upon a bit of trivia that I knew about and which has been tempting me for many months now.
Anyone who has the slightest bit of interest in popular music has heard of Steely Dan. Fewer people probably know that one of the founding members and principal songwriters of that very popular band was a South Brunswick (Kendall Park to be precise) resident — Donald Fagen.
Mr. Fagen played keyboards and sang for the ’70s group, which began in 1972 and ended about a decade later. Steely Dan was different than a lot of other bands because it not only was a hit with fans but with the critics as well. The band was comprised of Fagen and bassist Walter Becker, who made a dubious name for themselves in the music world by touring only once, early in their career, and then canning their band mates in place of top-notch studio musicians on their highly-polished recordings.
Some of their great hits were “Do It Again,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “FM,” “Peg” and “Hey Nineteen,” and their albums were distinctly different from one another while the songs became increasingly more jazz-flavored in their melodic structure.
Donald Fagen graduated from South Brunswick High in 1965, not 1967 Ger. Unfortunately, rumor has it that Mr. Fagen has about as much interest in returning to South Brunswick as a Soviet Jew emigre does in returning to Russia.
That only whets my appetite more in doing some kind of story on Mr. Fagen. Maybe this column is the best I’ll do.
I did do some preliminary research on the topic sometime back. I got a copy of the 1965 high school yearbook, and sure enough, I found Donald’s graduation photo with skewed lips, glum expression and all. Years later, he let his locks grow which prompted a music critic to aptly describe him as a cross between Victor Mature and Tiny Tim.
Apparently, Mr. Fagen wasn’t overly impressed with his surroundings and peers at South Brunswick. He has been described by those who knew him as anti-social, eccentric, even unfriendly.
However, he was a member of the school newspaper and was touted as being a “journalist extraordinaire.” Under his yearbook portrait, it also says “jazz enthusiast,” giving really the only indication of his future occupation.
Mr. Fagen also is shown in a few candid shots playing ping-pong in the gym and there are two shots of him in his journalistic guise. In the group portrait, he actually looked pleasant with his shoulder resting on a fellow compatriot as he stood front and center.
There are two particularly revealing items in the yearbook that give an indication why Mr. Fagen is where he is now — famous and out of South Brunswick. One is pure conjecture on my part, but there is a photograph in a section called “Hootenanny” of a three-piece band with a fellow, his back to the camera, on stage jamming away on a piano. It looks like a small jazz combo. The only indication that the keyboard player is Mr. Fagen is his jacket, which looks dark and suede. In the journalism group photo, he is wearing what appears to be the identical jacket. Is this Mr. Fagen doing his best George Shearing at age 17?
The other item is the class will, where students usually “leave” mundane things to other students, something like, “I, Joe Jones, leave my bad grades in gym to Billy Smarms and my crusty gym shorts to his younger brother, Lancelot.”
In Mr. Fagen’s case, he wrote, “I, Donald Fagen, leave seven barrels of steaming, fetid boredom.”
Hmm. Sounds like of Donald wanted to get the hell out of South Brunswick, huh? I think he immortalized his feelings succinctly in song when he sang, “I’m never going back to my old school.”
Well, over 20 years have passed since Mr. Fagen bid adieu to South Brunswick. I heard that he just purchased a brownstone in New York City and, at age 40, is comfortably living off his royalty checks. Considering he hasn’t released a record since his 1982 solo album The Nightfly (which, by the way, sounds great on compact disc), he must have a heck of a wad collecting interest in the bank. To let his amazing talents fester for five years, however, is something for which he cannot be forgiven.
There is one final fact to suggest that Mr. Fagen is softening in his old age. His liner notes to The Nightfly state: “The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e. one of my general height, weight and build.”
This is an obvious fond reference to South Brunswick (with no cynicism!), but why no mention of the town? Umm, Donald, lighten up a little more.
Even though he may not be proud to say he was from South Brunswick, I don’t think South Brunswick feels that way about him.
Thomas Wolfe, be damned, you can come home, Donald, anytime.
Roger Nichols interview
Roger (The Immortal) Nichols has engineered all of the Steely Dan records, Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly and upcomingKamakiriad as well as many of the jazz and pop efforts produced by Walter Becker. He also discovered and broke the news that MCA had been using inferior master tapes for nearly all of the Steely Dan CDs manufactured in 1990-92. In the following piece put together a few years ago by Metal Leg founder Brian Sweet, Nichols talks about how he got into the recording business and then gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the how Becker and Fagen operated as Steely Dan in the studio.
Brian Sweet: Tell us about your background.
Roger Nichols: I was born in California and lived all over the U.S. until junior high school because my Dad was in the Air Force. He flew B-47s. When he got out of the Air Force in 1957 I went to high school in Cucamonga, the same one Frank Zappa went to. Frank actually used to come over to my house and mess around with guitars and things. After that I went to Oregon State University where I studied nuclear physics. Then I worked for Southern California Edison at the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant as a nuclear operator from 1965 to 1968.
BS: How did you make the switch from nuclear power to rock?
RN: Me and a couple of friends built a recording studio, Quantum Studios, in Torrance, just south of Los Angeles. It started out as a four-car garage and when we’d converted it into our studio in about 1965 we recorded high school bands in our spare time. We built a hi-fi store also and began to supply custom equipment to people in the music business. That led to a lot of business for the studio and a lot of contacts. We made commercials — Karen Carpenter sang on a lot of the ads and Larry Carlton did arrangements and played guitar. We also did some work with Kenny Rogers when he was still with the First Edition. So we expanded, building a larger studio out of an old post office and moved up from 4 tracks to 16 tracks. Then we started supplying equipment for other studios, including all the machinery for ABC’s first studio. Phil Kaye was in charge of that studio and he hired me in about 1970 to do maintenance and engineering. I started right in working with Steve Barri and Phil Kaye on albums by the Grass Roots and Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds and John Phillips and Denny Doherty of the Mama and the Papas.
BS: How did you get together with Steely Dan?
RN: Gary Katz came to ABC about a year after I did and he brought in Steely Dan. No one at ABC quite knew what to make of Donald and Walter so by default I started working with them. We hit it right off. The main reason I had gotten involved in the music business and recording was that I hated clicks, pops and ticks on records. I wanted to be able to play 2-track stuff direct from the studio on my system at home and have it really hi-fi. The only way I could get 2-track 15 i.p.s. masters was if I was working on them, so that was my big incentive for doing it. The strive for true hi-fi was common ground with Donald and Walter and Gary — we’re all perfectionists, especially Walter with his quad electrostatic speakers at home and the latest tone arm. It wasn’t a drag for me to do things over and over until it was perfect, as here it would have driven a lot of other engineers up the wall. In my own way, I’m just as crazy as they are.
BS: At what stage are the Steely Dan songs when you are brought in?
RN: It depends. Either they haven’t cut anything or, if Elliot Scheiner has been engineering in New York, I’ll come in from the first overdub. They do their demos — just the piano and voice stuff — just the three of them, but as soon as anything is recorded, Elliot or myself is there.
BS: By that time, they have a good idea what they’re after, right?
RN: It’s amazing, my mouth still hangs open. They seem to know what’s going to fill a little hole in a chorus that won’t be recorded for a year. I don’t know how they do it. I don’t know if they know how they do it either, but they do. It makes it very easy to work. We never have to do things over again because of arrangement problems or because one instrument conflicts with another. Stuff will get done over again because a player’s style won’t match the tune, or a player’s execution isn’t good enough, or the horn section is out of tune, or something like that.
BS: Was Donald and Walter’s contribution equal?
RN: It was always Donald and Walter together. They’re both equally talented and it really was a fifty-fifty operation. Either one of them could’ve done the records alone, but you can tell there is a difference when both of them bounce ideas off each other. They get fine-tuned that much more. Walter’s a great guitar player. The only thing is, he takes a long time to do solos, about an hour a bar, so it takes us a day to do an eight-bar solo. When we started using studio musicians, Walter would show ’em what he wanted, so the later guitar parts were very much influenced by him.
BS: How did Fagen and Becker get so much out of jaded session musicians?
RN: It’s like the musical Olympics. Here’s a musician whose style and capability they know, and they’ll push him to ten percent beyond his limits. Just the chords they’ve written and the things they have in their mind; maybe Larry Carlton’s not used to playing these scales over these chords. Another big factor is that we don’t care how long it takes. The musicians will say, ‘Hey, I’m really sorry it’s taking so long. It’s a great idea, I’m trying to execute it,’ and we say, ‘We don’t care how long you take.’ It’s all constructively done, and it just takes a long time to do it. But every time somebody comes out, they say they’ve never played that well in their lives. And then they always want to come back.
BS: What’s the story behind the solo in “Peg,” which apparently frustrated an awful lot of guitarists?
RN: There were only eight guitarists who tried that tune, not thirty. It was just that everyone had their own idea of what the solo should be, and it just didn’t match up to what Donald and Walter expected of it. Jay Graydon was their last ditch effort — it became the Jay Graydon solo by default. It came out pretty much the way they had in mind, though. Usually they’d put a band together for the rhythm sections based on the tune and the style of the musicians: ‘These three guys will work together on this tune, let’s put ’em together and try it.’ Sometimes it worked out, sometimes it didn’t quite work out, so you’d put together another rhythm date later with a different combination. But it wasn’t like there were ten tunes to cut and you tried to cut five different bands on all ten, and then picked the best one. It sort of got blown all out of proportion by the times the rumors started spreading around ‘Eighty-five bands tried that tune!’
BS: How were the duties of Gary Katz and yourself divided?
RN: It worked out pretty well. Once in a while I’d have to slam him against the wall, keep him in line. ‘I’m not doing that! Kerrump!’ But it’s just one of those things that clicks. The musicians pretty much know what they want. They’re in charge of that, I’m in charge of getting it on tape and making it sound great.
BS: And Gary Katz’s specialty?
RN: Hiring and firing musicians. (Roger laughs) No, Gary’s good at getting the most out of Donald when he’s doing his vocals. The rest of the time it was pretty much Donald and Walter leading the musicians down the right path, and then Gary Katz more or less the executive producer.
BS: As Steely Dan’s records grew more mature, the complaint began to be heard that they were too perfect, that the raw edges had been homogenized out. How do you feel about that?
RN: We achieved perfection and abandoned it on the second album all in one evening. I remember mixing “King of the World.” Everyone else went home; Gary Katz fell asleep on the floor and Denny Dias and I stayed until seven in the morning, doing it in little sections, getting the balance between all the instruments perfect, then on to the next section, all of it perfect. Then we spliced the 2-track master sections together, which is how we used to mix down before we got the Necam digital mixing system. The next afternoon we came to the studio and played it back; the song started, and then the fade came. We went, ‘Wait a minute. Did we leave something out? What’s going on here?’ And we played it back again and we had to really concentrate to realize the song was going by. You could hear everything, but you couldn’t hear anything, like sonic wallpaper — really strange. We ended up using the mix we’d done ten hours before which had more three-dimensionality to it.
BS: Tell us about Wendel, the drum machine you designed.
RN: We found that there were certain feels that we couldn’t get out of real drummers — they weren’t steady enough. So we had to design something that would do it perfectly, but with some human feeling, the right amount of layback. Instead of just one high-hat sound that repeats machine-like over and over, we had sixteen different ones, so it had the inflections. Wendel can play exactly what the drummer plays — if he plays a little early or a little hard, Wendel plays it a little early or a little hard. Play it once, Wendel memorizes the song, then you play it again and it repeats what it hears.
BS: What happened to the song “The Second Arrangement?”
RN: A maintenance guy at Soundworks accidentally erased it — the best tune on the album. We tried to recut it but it never came out well, so it was never on the album. That track was impossible to get anyway.
BS: Weren’t there any safety copies made?
RN: No, because we’d made up our minds a long time before that we’d never use a safety, and we didn’t want to be tempted to, because it’s a copy, and it wouldn’t be as good as it could be.
BS: Was there any special outboard equipment that you used with Steely Dan?
RN: When we were recording, we didn’t use anything. Instead of using eq on the board to change a drum sound, for instance, we’d bring in 52 different kick or snare drums to try to get the sound we want. We found it’s better to make the adjustments at the instrument end rather than try to fix it with eq and things. So we’ll try many different instrument and microphone combinations with minimum or no eq at all to get something that sounds right.
BS: So Fagen and Becker were methodical but quite conventional in recording. What about mixing?
RN: When we were mixing we’d use a lot of limiters, especially the dbx limiters because they’re nice and fast and you can’t hear them do anything. We’d use those on most of the vocals just to level things out. We’d try not to bounce tracks together. A lot of people I’ve worked with would take backgrounds, which might be on 5 or 6 tracks and then bounce them together onto 2 tracks or 1 track, just as a matter of course. Or they’d ping-pong all the guitars together or all the horns together just because it’s easy that way: one knob for the guitars, one knob for the horns and so on. But bouncing is a generation down (in analog recordings) and if you listen you can hear the difference, no matter how good the machine is. And the ambience disappears when you ping-pong things together. So, we tried to keep all the instruments apart on the separate tracks they were recorded on, so that you get true hi-fi, with the least amount of generations before it gets to record.
BS: Did you and Elliot Scheiner work together on the mixes?
RN: The way it started was, when it came down to mixing The Royal Scam, they wanted to do it at A&R Studios in New York. They wanted me to do it, but I figured it would be better if Elliot did because he works in that studio every day and he knows the board and the room and he knows what things sound like on those particular speakers. I came in on it later and we worked as a team. I thought that was better than doing it all myself just out of ego or something. Also, bringing in someone who hadn’t heard the material before, with fresh ears, helps. The stuff came out great because Elliot was new to the songs and would work the knob while I, who had already been working on the recording of the songs for about a year, could contribute more on the balances and the overall sound. It’s just different levels of concentration and we’ve found that things come out best that way..
BS: How about explaining how you got the nickname ‘The Immortal’?
RN: That was just a series of things over the years. See, they were trying to kill me. I was working on a Johnny Winter session on the weekends, with Steve Barn all day and with Steely Dan all night, so they had me going 24 hours a day. They tried running me into the ground, but it didn’t work. Then there was the time when we were working at Cherokee Studios when two of the tape machines were grounded improperly and I touched both of the machines and everything shorted out. The face plate on one of the machines was completely melted but I didn’t feel a thing. They figured something weird was going on.
BS: It must have been those years you spent in that nuclear power plant.
RN: Right. Radiation poisoning.
Inside The Nightfly sessions: An interview with Daniel Lazerus
If you look closely at the credits of The Nightfly you will see that listed among the well-known engineers Roger Nichols and Elliot Scheiner is the Overdub Engineer, Daniel Lazerus. At the age of only 24, Daniel had the unique opportunity to play an integral part in the recording of one of the best-sounding albums of all time. In this interview conducted in Winter 1992 at Memphis Restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Daniel talked to Metal Leg editor Pete Fogel and publisher Bill Pascador about his career and working with Donald Fagen. And if anyone can shed some light on the meaning of the term “boogie showers,” please drop us a line…
Metal Leg: How did you get started as an engineer?
Daniel Lazerus: If it hadn’t been for Dick LaPalm and Roger Nichols, nothing would have happened for me.
ML: So did Dick LaPalm put you in touch with Gary Katz?
DL: Yeah. What happened was I was working at the Village Recorder Studio and Gary Katz was at the session. Gary was producing and Roger was engineering. Roger had a couple o f commitments at the time and he just said to Gary Katz, “Use this guy.” I really owe a lot to Roger and Donald.
ML: You had already been working with Gary?
DL: Yeah, as an assistant engineer. I’d done everything from working with the Stones to Fleetwood Mac. I started off at a studio called Wally Heider Recording, which was in Hollywood. I worked in a couple smaller studios around Hollywood until I got the gig at the Village.
ML: How does Gary work in the studio?
DL: He’s like Roy Thomas Baker — he’s got this amazing, outrageous style of recording guitars. Gary’s style is very room-oriented, really strong concern and focus about getting the room really tight, getting drums really tight, getting the bass, and building these tracks up, really concentrating so much on the room and certainly that’s how The Nightfly was done. It was an exacting, perfectionist style of concentrating on really getting the groove so solid.
ML: At what stage of the recording process did you become involved?
DL: They came out to the Village and I was the assistant engineer. Elliot Scheiner cut all the basic tracks in LA and when they decided to go to New York, Roger was gonna be building the new Wendel computer. He was going to have to dedicate a lot of his time to that, because he was literally building it from scratch in his home. Roger suggested to Donald and Gary that they take me to New York, which was the chance of a lifetime. I was twenty-four years old and they let me record the remaining eleven months of The Nightfly. I literally moved to New York to do that album.
ML: Were you part of the entire recording process?
DL: I was there for the whole album, but Elliot did the basic tracks in LA and I was the assistant engineer on that. And I recorded one of the basic tracks, because it was a song that Donald wrote towards the end of the album, “Walk Between The Raindrops.” So I recorded that entire track and then Elliot mixed the album.
ML: You had said that if you listen carefully, “Walk Between The Raindrops” has a different sound than the other tracks.
DL: That was for two reasons: one is that Elliot did all the other tracks and he is one of the best tracking and mixing engineers that exists and at this point he had been doing it for something like fifteen years. The other reason was that I was a very young and a very new engineer. All the other tracks were recorded at the Village Recorder in LA and the room there sounds much different than Soundworks in NY. So it’s actually the sound of that room. Soundworks wasn’t the most opulent place for me to think of recording live drums; it had a very low ceiling and was kind of a boxy studio. It’s a good studio, don’t get me wrong, great for overdubbing, but I would’ve preferred a “liver” room with maybe higher ceilings. So it’s a little bit of a tighter drum kit sound on the rest of the album.
ML: What is River Sound studio like?
DL: It’s a really happening little room there. It was great to see that happen, because for years it had been a dream of Gary and Donald’s. Back after The Nightfly they had been talking about having their own place and I was really happy to hear from Roger that they got their own place.
ML: You worked on Rosie Vela’s Zazu. Were you in the studio for Rosie when Donald and Walter got back together, when Walter started playing Tonto on that little keyboard?
DL: Yeah, it was in LA at the Village Recorder. I knew it was kind of a big deal that Walter would be coming by, and as it turned out, he sat down with the little keyboard thing and started playing a bit for “Tonto” that we used.
ML: Rosie Vela said that while Walter hadn’t even gotten to the studio, Donald’s favorite track was “Tonto.” When Walter came in, he said his favorite track was “Tonto,” also.
DL: That was a good moment. Up until that time I hadn’t met Walter, I had only heard of him and had been a fan like anyone else and so I knew it was a pretty significant moment for Donald also to be in the studio with Walter.
ML: Zazu is a good sounding record. It did much better sales outside the United States.
DL: Yeah, they seem very aware of that album in Europe also. Funny how that is; I don’t really know what happened there. I’m not sure why it didn’t move so big, ’cause I thought it was a great record.
ML: Are you involved in Rosie’s second album?
DL: No, I moved back to Los Angeles. I’d been in New York about five years and after I finished doing Zazu — Elliot mixed that album — I went back to LA to sort myself out a bit. I spent about three years just doing various mixing projects and decided to make the move to London. The move to London’s been great, the only thing that’s different is I’m a musician actually; I’ve been a drummer since I was a little kid and I play jazz piano and blues harmonica and some guitar and since then I’ve been able to write again and play on albums and sing and do things like that. The projects that I’ve been working on now I’ve been co-writing, playing keyboards, playing blues harmonica, doing all the programming, it’s been my route to production. What I’ve enjoyed about producing is getting back to the playing.
ML: Have you worked with anybody that we know?
DL: Well, one is an artist named Natasha Oldfield, sister of Mike who has quite a career in Germany, so I’ve played on quite a few of the tracks on that album. That’s the album that I mastered a few days ago with Bob Ludwig, which is why I came to New York. It’s a very strong record.
ML: Speaking of mastering, did you hear that MCA is using deteriorating master tapes for the Steely Dan CDs in production right now?
DL: No, that’s unreal! That’s pathetic. I’m pretty certain that we put a lot of those masters into the digital domain. Roger and I worked on that together. I cannot believe that MCA did that, especially with a band that’s winning Grammys for their audio.
ML: You were involved in recording Donald’s song “Shanghai Confidential” for David Parsons the dancer.
DL: When was that released?
DL: From Bright Lights, Big City. Somebody told me they’d seen this thing — the name when we did it originally was “The Squash Lesson.” (He hums the melody.) Kind of a Clint Eastwood thing. Donald did it for a friend of his. I love that track, it’s a really cool groove, it’s so simple, it’s really just like a streamlined four-piece thing with Marcus Miller, Steve Khan. Donald did all the programming of drums and he did all those keyboards. He was studying albums of Chinese orchestras and actually recreated all those sounds on one synth. He really worked hard at it and he came in and just punched up all of those different things on one synth. It was like something out of England with the little plopping on keyboard and he just worked really hard till he had his sounds.
ML: You were also involved in the Hoops McCann album.
DL: Yeah, did that album actually come out? Donald and I actually did two mixes for that. We did “Rapunzel” and we also did a version of “Black Cow,” only to find out that the person who had been involved in the arranging…
ML: Joe Roccisano?
DL: Yeah, had been sent the wrong master. There were two or three different takes of “Black Cow” and they had sent us the wrong one. So Donald and I did this really great mix of “Black Cow” but it wasn’t the right take. So I never knew if they used what we did or not. That’s the only mix we did together. I would love to get a copy, I haven’t heard it. The Hoops McCann Band, that was a really sweet idea… It’s funny, this is the second time I’ve been back in America in three years but it’s great to come back and speak about these people. I kinda would have liked to see Donald if I could stay longer. I got some great album projects out of just doing The Nightfly. Jean Michel Jarre did an album called “Zoolook” in 1984. He came to New York to work with me because he liked The Nightfly. It was the first album that he had done using real musicians and using all this keyboard stuff.
ML: Do you have any good Nightfly stories?
DL: You can’t imagine. I couldn’t believe I could be paid to do a job like that. Larry Carlton was so brilliant, we just used his Fender Speed amplifier, not very loud. On “Walk Between The Raindrops” we did the “Oh, Miami” vocal the last day of recording. It was an idea that Donald had talked about. Gary, Donald and I ran out and did that on mike about three times. That’s me, Gary and Donald going “Oh, Miami.”
ML: We heard stories that to get the party sound on “Ruby Baby,” you hid a microphone in Studio 54.
DL: We talked about that. We actually threw a party in Automated Sound and recorded it, so it’s the first digitally-recorded party in history, I’m sure. We set up a bar and invited everyone who was involved with the album, girlfriends and everything and played “Ruby Baby” over the monitors in the studio. We had mikes in the room and played it kind of low — Donald was standing on top of a chair at one point clapping, that was pretty energetic for Donald. And we multitracked and did a couple of different takes. It was a great night.
ML: There were some problems with “Ruby Baby,” right?
DL: What we found out was the piano in Los Angeles on which Greg Phillinganes had played his solo had been a little bit out-of-tune with itself, the piano itself was out of tune, but Donald loved Greg’s solo so much that we re-recorded “Ruby Baby” and then tore it down then re-recorded it, re-recorded it all to try and make the tuning of all the other instruments fit the out-of-tune piano solo. Donald spent a lot of time and his own financial investment to make that track work around the solo because he loved it that much. He actually tried to tune the whole track to the out-of-tune solo.
ML: “Maxine” had an interesting history, too, right?
DL: He actually created the song “Maxine” by taking an existing track that he’d recorded in Los Angeles doing the basic tracks. That was a different song and up until he decided that he didn’t want to do that song for the album, he took the drum track which was Ed Green, studied at home, took that vocal and wrote that song. That album was originally gonna be called Talk Radio and the track The Nightfly was also Talk Radio, but Donald eventually decided on The Nightfly.
ML: What do you think of his choice of doing “Green Flower Street” live on the New York Rock & Soul Revue?
DL: I haven’t heard that album — I’ve only heard of it. I actually made my singing debut on “Green Flower Street.” It’s one little ad lib at the end of the song.
ML: One thing that we want to ask you about is on “I.G.Y.” At the very end of “I.G.Y.” you hear a miniature electric piano that sounds like…
DL: Yeah, that was from the original tracking date in LA. I think Donald decided it sounded cool coming out of the fade. Yeah, you’ve gotta have your headset on and be a real audiophile to catch that, but I know exactly what you’re talking about. I think that goes back to Donald’s original rough scratch part.
ML: What was the first song Fagen put on that album?
DL: “Ruby Baby,” “Green Flower Street”…
ML: What about “New Frontier”?
DL: What a great drum track, does that guy play steady or what?
ML: Is that Jeff Porcaro?
DL: No, that’s Ed Green.
ML: He’s on Aja as well. He played on “I Got The News.” Are there any other tracks Donald didn’t use?
DL: There was a beautiful track that we did later use for David Sanborn for the soundtrack for The King Of Comedy. “The Finer Things” was originally gonna be a track for “The Nightfly.” It was cut during those days.
ML: Were there vocals on that?
DL: Just a sax bit and at the very end there’s background vocals.
ML: Was there anything else that didn’t make The Nightfly?
DL: Just this one track that he later made into “Maxine.” It’s funny, I’m not really clear what the track was or what it was that he didn’t like about it.
ML: Donald was supposed to have started on a follow-up to The Nightfly in 1983 or 1984 and then stopped. Did you work on it?
DL: The second album we did definitely start around ’84. And we recorded basic tracks for it in Los Angeles at Jeff Porcaro’s home studio, but it was quite a remarkable studio. We did tracks with Phillinganes and Donald was doing some keyboard work and Rick Marotta was playing drums. He did three things, one of them I remember was called “Big Noise, New York,” I’m pretty sure that’s what Donald called it. And it was great, really good. We did those basic tracks and then came back to New York and seemed like within a few months Donald didn’t want to go with any of those tracks.
ML: Was it like Nightfly style or a different type of style?
DL: From what I remember, it was kinda like Nightfly style. “Ruby Baby”-ish groove, always groove with Donald, monster grooves. We got through about four tracks for the album. I did the recording of it with Roger and he was doing his Wendel stuff. I had no reason to assume that it wouldn’t be the next record. It was a kind of “Third World Man” — a kind of a monstrous, elephant-sized groove, it was real nice, too. I had only done The Nightfly and that was remarkable but I am also a fan having loved Steely Dan up until that time. I did The Nightfly which was a bit more unique ’cause it was a solo project, but I listen to stories like you do and can only say that I’m aware that Donald and Walter have at different times obviously shelved remarkable tracks.
ML: They were supposed to have done some writing in ’86 and also are supposed to do an album with a guy who was in the The Gospel At Colonus, Sam Butler.
DL: Oh yeah, Sam, great guitar player. Donald and I produced that album together. He sings so good that guy and he’s a killer guitar player. The way that album came about was The Gospel At Colonus was being done at the Academy of Music — New Wave Music Festival — and it was getting a lot of amazing reviews. Donald went and saw it and then called me and said ‘Daniel, I’ll even pay for you to go see this show, it’s wonderful.’ So I went down to see it and then just got it into my head that I should find out if anybody had approached Bob Telson about recording this amazing show. He said there had been some talk about it and I said ‘Let me speak to Donald ’cause he really likes the show,’ and Donald approached Warner Brothers and they went for it. We were recording the album within about a month or so.
ML: How did Donald react when people recognized him on the street?
DL: I’d been with Donald when we were doing The Nightfly and people would stop him and say ‘Aren’t you Donald Fagen?’ and he would just say no. I’ll never forget after we had done The Nightfly Donald and I went to some restaurant and the waiter was obviously gay and after we’d finished the meal he came up to Donald and he said `Aren’t you Donald Fagen?’ and Donald was very elusive. Then the guy said, ‘My boyfriend and I take boogie showers to your album all the time.’ Donald just goes `Oh.’ When we get outside Donald turns to me and says ‘What the hell is a boogie shower?’ I think that haunted him for a few weeks. All that work and that’s the accolade he gets.
ML: Any other Nightfly stories you’d like to share?
DL: Here’s a classic story from recording The Nightfly at Soundworks. About six months into recording the album — it took a couple of days less than one year to do — I was working five days a week, taking weekends off. I came in and Donald was doing some vocals and he goes “Something smells weird.” And so we kind of go “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” But as the day goes on there “is” a peculiar smell in the control room. So next day we come in and we mention it and it’s a little bit worse the next day and Donald’s going “I can’t work, there’s something nauseating in the room.” What it is we have no clue. This goes on and on and finally Donald says “I’m not gonna come in and work until you can find out what it is.” So he starts to take days off and that is a concern for Charlie Bonatti who owns Soundworks. So we said “Call us if the smell is gone and we’ll come in and work.” We arrive at the studio and there’s candles and sticks of incense burning and that’s how they got rid of the smell. They tried checking everything; he has people coming in and going through all the air conditioning and finally they just start to tear apart the studio and literally tear out part of the control room, all the equipment, they take away the console, they tear up carpeting, they tear up floors; the studio is gutted and finally they start tearing up the floorboards and back in one corner of the room is a little drainpipe and there is a very moist, very dead, very big rat. And it just came out of this pipe and died from eating poison. We literally took about a week off from the album because of this dead rat.
Joe Sample interview
The following interview with jazz pianist Joe Sample was conducted by Metal Leg editor Pete Fogel in October 1992 at New York’s Power Station studio, where Joe was recording his new Warner Brothers album, Invitation. Born in Houston, Texas, Joe is most noted as a co-founder of The Crusaders, one of the most successful instrumental jazz bands in popular music. Mr. Sample has also earned a reputation as one of the finest studio musicians in the business working with artists such as Diana Ross, The Jackson Five, Michael Franks and numerous others, including Steely Dan. Joe has also been a friend to Metal Leg since 1987 and has invited Pete to his Spellbound and Invitation recording sessions. In this “acoustically perfect” interview, Joe talks about The Crusaders, Larry Carlton and Steely Dan’s demanding and sometimes frustrating Aja and Gaucho sessions. Grab some popcorn, relax and enjoy the interview.
Pete Fogel: Joe, let’s talk about your new album, it’s different from what you’ve done in the past, right?
Joe Sample: I guess the album has come from a desire to record some of the old standards. It actually began in the late ’70s after the Carmel album. At that time I wanted to do a direct-to-disc recording of Fats Waller. Of course, because of all the madness in the business, I couldn’t get around to it then. I was not allowed to do it. In the MCA years up to 1988, all I was trying to do was survive, anyway. As soon as Warner Brothers and I began to work with Tommy LiPuma, I knew that eventually somewhere down the line it was possible, ’cause Tommy loves to do those kinds of things. At the same time I had conversations with Natalie Cole, and she had this desire to do her father’s hit songs. I guess after Natalie and everyone else involved with that project, they said you can do those kinds of things.
PF: A lot a people really liked Spellbound. Was that the first time you worked with Tommy LiPuma?
JS: No, no, I go back to the Blue Thumb days when he owned it with Bob Krasnow. At one time The Crusaders were signed to Blue Thumb Records. I did all kinds of work with Tommy in the early ’70s with Minnie Riperton and Michael Franks. Even when the new management came around or the old management went nuts, Tommy was shoved out of my life because these guys wanted to control me. Most of the people that I had any sense of compatibility with were removed out of my life. Tommy came back into my life again during the Spellbound and Ashes To Ashes albums and they did well. Now I would be foolish to try to do a third album with that formula with a trio and with synths.
PF: I think Dave Grusin did the same kind of thing — a collection of standards. How does your new project differ?
JS: He actually chose one composer. I am actually doing a lot of composers. Also, I tried to make sure that I could take and reshape each of the compositions so that eventually these pieces would sound like a Joe Sample composition.
PF: I don’t remember your records having too many vocals.
JS: No, they didn’t.
PF: So what made you use Michael Franks, Al Jarreau and Take 6 on Spellbound?
JS: That was an idea of the record company, and also that was my first album after MCA and we wanted to come back with a strong album that would be noticed. If we put the vocals by very talented people and very meaningful songs, then the vocals would be a platform so that I could be noticed again. All of the MCA albums were just loaded with problems — you know, the right musicians, the engineers. The record company would say ‘You have to make music for black radio, you can’t do what you have been doing with The Crusaders.’ Everybody was telling me that was over, finished, done.
PF: What are you going to call your new record?
JS: “Invitation.” It’s an album of ten songs, old standards and jazz standards.
PF: Going back to The Crusaders, most people probably think you discovered Larry Carlton. Is that true?
JS: He was in the studios working as a musician one day and I looked at him and I said to myself ‘This guy can really play well.’ I guess we did two more sessions and then it began to enter my mind that he would be a great addition to The Crusaders. I mentioned it to the band and they were reluctant. Everyone said it’s a good idea if you have the right guy, but you never know if you have the right guy. Eventually, Larry proved to be the right guy. I don’t know if he even soloed on the first album, but he made sure he got his solo space on the second album, because he got his shit together rapidly.
PF: Is The Crusaders done with now?
JS: Yes, I believe so. I feel that Wilton Felder and Wayne Henderson have involved themselves so deeply into being Jehovah’s Witnesses that Stix Hooper and I have decided we simply cannot tiptoe around them. Now at 53 years old, I am looking forward to the rest of my life.
PF: I saw you working with engineer Al Schmitt on Spellbound. Was this the first time you worked with him?
JS: No, I used to work with Al during the late ’60s. Al did his first recording in New York in 1950; eventually he moved out to LA. In those days everybody would be in the studio together: a singer, a rhythm section, a horn section and a string section and we would record everything at the same time. That’s the way Al came up in this business, where you had to record it all at the same time. No overdubs or punch-ins. So this man knows how to get the best sound that you can possibly get.
PF: Al engineered some of the songs on Steely Dan’s Aja record and you also played on it. What were those sessions like?
JS: Every Steely Dan session I went to had a leader. It was some guy who would sit down with Donald Fagen and they would go over songs. He could have been a keyboard player or a guitarist, and they would come up with the piano score and the form of the song and everything was beautiful. But when I would go to a recording session and we would begin to record, a lot of times I could feel things that were not right in the track. But I never could say anything because all these other players had characters and personalities that were super-dooper strong. There’s a lot of ego in there with musicians. I remember saying to Gary Katz one time that I have a difficult time in getting my music played, basically because I can’t talk to these guys. And Gary read it the wrong way and he said to me, ‘Joe, I remember when you didn’t have the interest in the Steely Dan sessions, because on every playback you were running next door to get popcorn.’ But what Gary didn’t understand was that if I couldn’t say anything to musicians on my own sessions, there was no way in the world I was going to come into a Steely Dan session and start telling those musicians what they were doing wrong. The bottom line was they knew when a track was right, they knew when it was wrong, but they did not know WHY it was wrong.
PF: Is that why they took so long and spent so much money?
JS: I think so. The leader was there and was going around and telling everybody what to do; in other words, I was in a position where you just had to sit there and shut up. I remember a particular session where I kept suggesting ‘Why don’t you guys let me play the clavinet?’ Eventually, I got around to the clavinet and then we got some takes. I knew what rhythm to play on it to pull everything in together and I felt that the rhythm was missing.
PF: On “Black Cow” you played clavinet. Do you remember who was the bandleader on that song?
JS: Yes, Larry was the leader on that session. I had no right to tell Larry what wasn’t working. I was put in a position — Steely Dan was there and there was the leader, and he would tell me what to do, which was basically play the music which was written on the chart. I was a sideman and that’s what I was. Then they tell me, ‘Joe, you’re not grooving right.’ I go, ‘It wasn’t that I wasn’t playing it right. NOBODY was playing it right.’ If it wasn’t grooving, it wasn’t grooving. I’m getting back to the point that you can spend a lot of money in a recording studio if you don’t know exactly what to do to make it right. The only way you’re going to make it right is to stop it being wrong.
PF: A while back you mentioned to me that you would walk into a Steely Dan session and see something like Larry Carlton playing rhythm and Dean Parks playing lead and you would say to yourself ‘Something’s wrong here.’
JS: I thought so. Larry’s forte is in playing leads and Dean’s forte is in being a rhythm player. Sometimes the roles were reversed and I’m looking at Dean and Larry and thinking ‘Why don’t you guys just switch what you’re doing and everything’s gonna be all right?’
PF: Do you think the bandleader had too much control?
JS: I think they could have gotten a lot more if every player had the sense that he could suggest things. I remember a session that was very, very strange. They asked Larry Carlton to play exactly what was written on the piano chart. So what was going on was Larry was doubling me. And to me, that’s totally absurd. You can’t double someone’s part and play it with them, unless it’s the horn section or you got four violins playing the same line. But when it comes to rhythm, you can’t have two people there playing the same rhythm part. They’re not going to play the same. All you’re gonna do is sit there and listen to the other man and try to play like him and he’s gonna try to play like you. What you have then is nothing. So that was a big mistake. On that session, Larry was the leader. So I couldn’t say, ‘Larry, stop playing the piano part, man.’ They wanted that double sound. I wasn’t going to say anything. They gave us a difficult task. The best way to have done it was let me play the piano part, then overdub the guitar part with the piano part, so at least there’s one precise way to play it. I remember Donald telling me, ‘Joe, you’re not playing the piano right. You’re not doing this on the piano right.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t you ask Larry to stop playing it? I’m following Larry, or maybe Larry’s following me. I don’t know who’s following who.’ It was a little bit crazy to me.
PF: Do you remember anything else from those sessions?
JS: Every second I played with them… most of the time it was a pleasure. They had a lot of trouble in getting their music played because it was complex music; it was half R&B, pop and jazz — the chords in it. And when you get into music like that, the likelihood of your finding the right musicians to play it are very limited. I would come in and there would be these jazz chords in there and maybe there was a guitar player who played funky, they just had to keep searchin’ and fishin’ until they got the right guy. I used to come in here and there were all these guys from New York City and everybody was cocky as I don’t know what. And Bernard Purdie used to put up his sign ‘The World’s Greatest Drummer’ in the middle of the floor. There were some egos in the room.
PF: Would you ever like to record with them again?
JS: Oh, yeah. But if I come in there now, I don’t give a damn who’s in the room. I’ll just open my mouth and if they don’t like it, fuck `em. Get the leader out of my face. I’ll sit there and have a ball, but I won’t be put where I feel like I can’t say anything, and then get accused of not showing an interest. If they are expecting us to come up with the goods, then I have to feel like I have the OK to open my mouth to say something.
I found your short message in magazine Rolling Stone (December 12th-26th, 1991). Of course it is enough old issue, but I noticed your advertisement a few days ago. It was dedicated to U.S. citizens, ’cause you asked to mail a stamp. Sorry I’m not able to send you a post stamp. I could mail you some Lithuanian stamps but they were only souvenirs, they are only available in Lithuania. But I hope that you’ll answer anyway.
As I understand you are publishing the Fanzine. That’s very interesting. I’m sure that U.S. music fans get a great deal of information every day: TV, radio, paper, magazines… and the Fanzines. That’s incredible.
I can’t imagine my life without music. I’ve got an idea to publish Fanzine. There are a few groups of young people who tried to publish ‘zines, but they have the same problem — lack of information. Maybe it’s impossible for you to imagine that we have only one youth newspaper, no magazines, no music TV channels. All papers and magazines are fulfilled with politics articles and other shit. Thank goodness we’ve got three music radio stations. That’s all.
I’m going to found the music club and in the future to publish my own magazine. But at first I plan to start with little Fanzine. Would you give me some information about your Fanzine? Maybe we change records, issues, music news…? Of course Lithuania is a province, but rock is still alive there. I think that a piece of information from my country would be suitable in your Fanzine. Best wishes from Lithuania!
S. Zukausko 18-15
Kaunas 3043 Lithuania
If anyone is looking for a pen pal, you can drop this guy a line and and send over some old copies of Rolling Stone and other music magazines. It’ll make his day.
Hi Pete & Bill:
Congratulations on another fine year of top-notch news on Steely Dan. You know, I used to make weekly trips to the newsstands to scour mags for any little tidbit of info on Becker & Fagen. Now I just sit back and relax because I know you guys will hear about it and publish it. As a huge fan from the early Seventies, I really appreciate the spirit and enthusiasm you bring to it.
It sounds like you guys will be having a busy summer! I can’t wait. I’ve already put May 25 for a vacation day so I can listen to Fagen’s new disc about fifty times without interruptions. I’ll be there when they are unpacking it, hell I might even hijack the truck en route from the warehouse to the record store.
Keep up the good work!
#1 Dan Fan
I feel I must respond to you immediately. My first issue of Metal Leg arrived yesterday — issue #20, (where have I been the other 19, I’m still asking myself) and I was floored by it. I couldn’t put it down. Pete, you and your staff are doing an incredible thing. I really thought, for years, that I was this obsessive Dan/Fagen fanatic all by myself. Obviously not!
I’m proud to share with you, my quick Fagen encounter. I was sitting at the first table, stage right at the 1/7/93 Lone Star gig — this is where the artists enter to get on the stage. Though I had heard that asking Donald for an autograph is absolutely “uncool,” I still brought my “Countdown to Ecstacy” record cover and a fat black sharpie marker.
At the end of the gig, when Donald was passing my table, I stuck out the record cover and the marker. I couldn’t really see if he was looking, because he had his dark glasses on. To my shock, though, he grabbed the marker, and as he was still walking, signed the record cover. I thanked him and searched for one of the things I said I would always tell him if I met him, but nothing came out and that was it, he was gone.
I looked at the record and it said DF on it (I wonder if that was his sense of humor, or that he never signs his full name?) Pete, maybe you can shed some light on that one, but I was thrilled anyway.