By Steve Morse
Take two alienated suburban kids. Throw in an early love of jazz, blues and Bohemian culture. Send the youths to Bard College, where they meet and become fast friends. Add a fussy, workaholic nature. Toss in a zest for strangely alluring lyrics that Frank Zappa once dubbed “downer surrealism.” Then add a reclusive mystique. And what do you have?
The two youths — Donald Fagen and Walter Becker — are now forty-something adults making their first tour in 19 years. They play sold-out shows tonight and tomorrow at Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts in Mansfield, Mass. It’s one of the hottest tickets of the summer, but don’t call it a nostalgia show.
“To us, it’s like a new project, so we’re going to approach it with that in mind,” Fagen said in a recent phone interview from New York. “We’ve got a fresh bunch of guys playing with us, so we’ll approach the material in a fresh way.” Listeners can expect a bumper crop of their ’70s hits, which span such easy-on-the-ear, jazz-rock-informed tracks as “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Deacon Blues,” “Peg,” “FM (No Static at All),” “Black Friday” and “Josie.” To which they’ll add four or five songs from Fagen’s new solo album, Kamikiriad (which Becker produced) and a few from Becker’s next solo album (Fagen plays keyboards on it), which won’t be out until next year.
It’s a creative renaissance that the public never expected — and it’s come with a far more accessible stance by the once-reclusive Fagen and Becker. “It’s been so long that we’ve been away that I figured I should get out and do some hype, you know?” Fagen said with a laugh, explaining why he’s doing interviews.
Another surprise is that the tour could be followed by a full-fledged Steely Dan album. “During the ’80s, Walter and I got together every once in a while and wrote some stuff. We’ve just been holding it,” said Fagen. “But we’ll probably have enough for an album soon.”
Steely Dan — zanily named after a phallic prop in the William Burroughs novel Naked Lunch — has not released a studio album since 1980’s Gaucho. After that, the two members mostly went their separate ways. Fagen contributed to the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy, released a solo album The Nightfly (which received seven Grammy nominations) and wrote for the scores of “Arthur” and “Bright Lights Big City.” Becker produced discs for Rickie Lee Jones and China Crisis; and played on a debut album by Rosie Vela. He also moved to Hawaii to clean up a long-standing drug problem, while Fagen battled his own demons (stemming from writer’s block and a broken-up love affair) in psychotherapy, a process that’s allegorically addressed on his fine new album, Kamikiriad.
But they never lost sight of Steely Dan, despite the public’s perception to the contrary.
“I think we both enjoy working alone, and it’s also fun to collaborate, so it’s really a different feeling, and you get a kind of product out of it,” said Fagen. “Gosh, I can’t believe I just said the word product. But it’s like anything’s possible as far as the music goes. The Rolling Stones proved pretty much with some finality that you can really be a white rock ‘n’ roll musician when you’re into old age. I think that’s the greatest contribution that rock stars have made, that you could just keep going and produce interesting material.”
Fagen, 45, and Becker, 43, aren’t that old, of course; and they’re well shy of the fifty-something Stones. In fact, Fagen, who was born in Passaic, N.J., and Becker, born in Queens, were on the tail end of the Stones’ ’60s generation.
“We were too young to be part of the ’60s bands, but we were too old to have a normal, career-minded approach,” said Fagen. “We were both sort of part of the ’60s and that idealistic generation. But because we were also detached from it, we could see a lot of its flaws and made fun of it at the same time.”
Fagen was 19 and Becker 17 when they met at free-thinking Bard College in New York. They quickly realized they had a lot in common.
“I think we have a similar upbringing and similar family problems, although Walter’s were probably more severe than mine,” said Fagen. “But we both had an ironic way of seeing things when we were very young. I think both of us as suburban kids looked in the same direction for alternative cultural experience. We both were attracted to the Bohemian tradition. We were jazz fans from a very young age — 10 or 11 years old — and we knew the same books. We both read sci-fi and were fans of Vladimir Nabokov’s books. Maybe because we did this at such a young age is one of the things that’s a little strange about it.
“We both, as we got older, started listening to blues, Chicago blues. It was fashionable in the Northeast, at least, for white kids to be in a blues band, to get together and do Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf material, to make sort of a delta cry with strange off-beats. That was very big at the time and that’s what we were into.”
But what was to become the signature “Steely Dan sound” was also strongly influenced by jazz. “We both like jazz of the ’50s and jazz from other eras as well. Swing bands were a big influence, too, but the way we saw a groove was maybe a little different from a lot of people whose main fame was rock ‘n’ roll. We saw it as something that should always be very relaxed, but also have a lot of forward motion. Essentially, it’s almost a groove of the ’30s or ’40s, only with a big fat backbeat.”
Early Steely Dan songs suffered from “juvenilia,” in Fagen’s opinion, but he liked the Dan catalog as it went along. “When you get to Aja, that’s a pretty solid record,” he said of the duo’s 1977 effort. “I particularly like the songs on Katy Lied (1975). I thought that was an underrated record. It didn’t do quite as well in sales as some other ones, but I always felt it was a very neat, kind of minimal record.”
Contrary to popular belief, Fagen and Becker remained friends when they split up in 1980. “We’ve gotten along pretty well, even through pretty bad times,” Fagen said. “It was only a year or two when we didn’t see too much of each other. That was 1981 or 1982. Then we started writing together in ’83 and ’84; and our relationship has actually improved tremendously as we got older. We only used to talk music in the old days. We were just workaholics. Really, I think our adolescence extended deep into our 30s. But I think we’ve both had a parallel evolution in the last decade. We had to grow up very suddenly, in a way. Now he’s my best friend. When you’ve known somebody for 25 years, you can’t get rid of them. There’s just no way.”
In concert this weekend, Fagen (voice and keyboards) and Becker (voice and guitar) will be joined by a backup unit of drummer Peter Erskine (of Weather Report fame), bassist Tom Barney, pianist Warren Bernhardt (who has worked with the Brecker Brothers) and guitarist Drew Zingg, who was part of the New York Rock & Soul Revue – an outsized bar band that Fagen and Becker led last summer. The Revue also starred Phoebe Snow, Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs.
On that tour, which played Great Woods last year, Becker and Fagen played several Steely Dan tunes. They were testing the waters for a future Steely Dan tour, but they’ll plunge into those waters tonight.
“I had some low-level dread at first,” said Fagen. “But I think it will be a good show.”