Two-Decade Countdown to Ecstasy

After a 19-year hiatus, those sophisticated, subversive jazz punks Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are back to do it again live, out on the road. It’s not some kind of nostalgia sell-out thing, is it?

By Chris Willman
Los Angeles Times

Flash back to the late ’70s, exact date undetermined. You turn on “The Donny and Marie Show,” and see one of the most weirdly funny things ever on national television: The teen sibling hosts in spangles and bell-bottoms are doing a tribute to nostalgia, in the form of a bouncy duet of Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years.”

“The weekend at the college didn’t turn out like you planned,” a beaming Donny Osmond sang to Marie, by all appearances clueless to the absurdity of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s unwieldy verses in his beaming mouth. “The things that pass for knowledge I can’t understand.”

What kind of weekend — at which branch of Brigham Young University — did this brother and sister share? What sort of knowledge passed between them? Did Donny have the slightest idea what he was singing?

Did Steely Dan fans, for that matter?

Donny and Marie weren’t alone in being oblivious to the often hidden meanings of Fagen and Becker’s hits, which were just hooky enough to be permanently embedded in many millions of craniums despite a popular lack of comprehension of what subversive ideas might lie therein.

“And it was just a quirk of Donald’s and my natures that we thought superimposing jazz harmonies on pop songs was subversive in a much subtler way. But I guess most people who are writing music and songs don’t really look at it that way … luckily for us!”

What American of a certain age can’t sing a few seemingly random phrases of Fagen and Becker’s strange design: “Babylon sisters, shake it.” “Drink Scotch whiskey all night long, and die behind the wheel.” “Drink your big black cow and get outta here.”

The dangerous, funny, possibly misanthropic elusiveness of the lyrics was matched by Becker and Fagen’s relative reclusion as pop personalities. It was up to Donny and Marie and a lot of lounge singers to publicly perform Steely Dan’s hits because Donald and Walter wouldn’t. The duo disbanded its backup lineup and quit touring in 1974, ceasing all live performances well before most of their major hits were even released.

It was frustrating to some fans that jazz-influenced music that benefited from some of the best studio playing in the business couldn’t be heard in a live setting. But to the true aficionado, Steely Dan’s unwillingness to waste time touring in order to focus on the bigger rewards of record-making was just the ultimate measure of their ornery integrity.

Flash forward to the present, at which point Fagen, 45, and Becker, 43, have done the unthinkable and — an astonishing 19 years after their previous gig — booked a brief U.S. tour under the moniker of Steely Dan, which itself has been retired for well over a decade. Nearly all of the shows — including dates at the Greek Sept. 7-8 and Irvine Meadows Sept. 10 — sold out within minutes or hours of going on sale. (Tickets still remain for a show at the Blockbuster Pavilion Sept. 11.)

And while fans salivate at the idea of the Dan made flesh, a few couldn’t help but be nagged by the fear that, after all this time, a “reunion” tour might represent another kind of sell-out, in which the Steely ones finally cave in to the demands of the masses after all.

Will their “Reelin’ in the Years” end up like Donny and Marie’s: taking what was written as a backhanded look at memory-mongering, and unfortunately resurrect it as an irony-free anthem to nostalgia?

Far be it from these fellows to dissuade anyone else’s hard-fought cynicism.

Contacted by phone for comment on how the opening Midwest dates on the tour went last weekend, Becker answered, “Well, not too good. It turns out that show business isn’t really in my blood anyway, and I’m looking forward to getting back to working on my car …”

Whew. Incorrigible after all.

Older fans may still think of Becker and Fagen as bad boys, but talk up the band to any self-respectingly “alternative” teen or twentysomething “Lollapalooza”-goer, and the image they have of Steely Dan in their young minds will produce about the same look of distaste as if you’d suggested they attend a Kenny G show. It’s hard convincing them that, for all the inherent musical “slickness,” Steely Dan was the alternative band of its time.

The generation gap is obvious enough that you could update the lyrics of the group’s 1980 Top 10 hit, a tune about dating a girl too young to be familiar with Aretha Franklin, to apply to Steely Dan itself: Hey nineteen, that’s Donald Fagen / She don’t remember the Kings of Scorn…

The instrumental warmth and smoothness of the sounds was a necessary tonic for the bitterness sometimes infecting the sentiments (or lack of them). Theirs could be a chilly, emotionally barren landscape, filled with fictional characters and place names that had less to do with Dylan’s or Springsteen’s use of the same devices than their own post-Burroughsian, pre-cyberpunk uncharted universe.

Steely Dan’s key oldies get played on most of the available radio formats. But in trying to figure out exactly who it was that snapped up all those tour tickets so instantly, it comes to mind that there are probably two core audiences for Steely Dan:

First and foremost, there are those lingering, literarily minded, misanthropic anarchists who always dug the Dan’s bad attitude.

And then, of course, there’s the pacifist army of modern “Wave” listeners.

“I’m sorry?” asks Fagen, apparently not familiar with the latter radio format.

“People who listen to the light jazz radio station, like ‘The Wave,'” says Becker, jumping in to help.

Given the cultural divide between these two camps, we continue, does the duo worry that any brawls might break out between the surly old hepsters and the gentler sax-lovers at these shows?

“They’re probably just exactly the same people,” muses Becker.

“They’ll all have an inner conflict,” Fagen offers.

“Right,” says Becker, “they’re probably different shadow personalities of the same people.”

“Dupe-elgangers,” puns Fagen.

“If you will. And I think you will,” adds Becker, with a hint of menace.

It is a funny split, in any case, this leap between the anger in many of Steely Dan’s songs over the years and the easier-listening strains the group eventually became best known for.

A handful of rock acts, from Randy Newman to Was (Not Was), have emulated this dualism of purpose. But historically, musicians informed by jazz rapids have drifted toward unchallenging lyrical currents, whereas, conversely, bands with subversive intentions tend to deliberately drift toward unsophisticated styles of music. As a group with credentials toward serious musicianship and an intellectually insurgent attitude, Steely Dan remains widely adored, and hardly imitated.

“Why is that?” says Becker, leaping ahead to the question. “Well, in that respect the situation hasn’t changed in 20 years. It’s the dichotomy that you mentioned a moment ago: The ‘anarchists,’ or people who are interested in more interesting lyrics, are generally speaking not interested in jazz harmonies. They want something more raw and what they perceive to be subversive-sounding, which usually means clanging guitars.

“And it was just a quirk of Donald’s and my natures that we thought superimposing jazz harmonies on pop songs was subversive in a much subtler way. But I guess most people who are writing music and songs don’t really look at it that way … luckily for us!”

Adds Fagen, “I think people who are sophisticated in the sense that they want to hear some substance in the lyrics are musically going to tend to be primitivists … ”

“Or some sort of socialists,” points out Becker.

Fagen: “Yeah. They have that kind of nostalgia de la boue, they’re into this purity thing of rock ‘n’ roll — they see it as once being the sort of revolutionary teen-age thing and they want to maintain that.

“It has to do with when we were born and how we grew up,” Fagen explains. “Even though we were really too young to experience a lot of the golden age of jazz in the ’50s, nevertheless that’s what we were into, through recordings, although we saw live jazz as well at the tail end of that era. And we also had literary aspirations, I suppose.”

A developmental quirk of fate?

“Quirk of fate. Of course, there are no accidents … as they say in Vienna.”

As the oft-repeated story goes: Becker and Fagen met at New York’s Bard College in the late ’60s, where they shared an equal love for black humor and Charlie Parker and disdain for many things hippie-ish. They participated together in a series of bands before joining up with, of all groups, Jay & the Americans, the first of their bad touring experiences.

After selling a few of their songs at the famous Brill Building in New York, they moved to L.A., set up with a publishing deal as hired hands of ABC Records. Their early songwriting demos — widely bootlegged and disseminated — show that the duo had their unique “voice” from the start and were hilariously ill-suited to writing generic hits for mainstream stars (although a few compositions did get recorded, including “I Mean to Shine” by Barbra Streisand).

Eventually the ABC label was convinced that these boys were better off writing for themselves. The year 1972 brought the name Steely Dan (borrowed from a dildo of the same name in William Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch) and the debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill, with an auspicious first single, “Do It Again,” that went to No. 4.

“When we went out (on tour) in support of the first album, the record company in a way forced us out,” Fagen explains. “That was a thing that you were supposed to do. The original band was put together very quickly — almost instantly, really. And we were dealing with musicians we didn’t know very well. Toward the end of our touring days, after two years of touring around and with some additional personnel, we were starting to get pretty good.

“Although the players were good players, we wanted to do a variety of types of music and work with other musicians. And they basically — and very justifiably — wanted to go out and play and make money. And so we decided to disband and concentrate on recording and writing music, which takes a lot of time and thought, and to eventually put another band together, perhaps, and go out. But I guess inertia set in, and we ended up just making records.”

The retirement from the stage was never meant to be permanent. In fact, Becker and Fagen put together and briefly rehearsed a band to tour behind their biggest album, 1977’s Aja, but got fed up with the logistics and the musicians’ financial demands before any dates got booked.

Like another quintessential ’70s group, the Eagles, Steely Dan followed up its most successful album (Aja equals Hotel California) by becoming perfectionists in the studio and spending years on a final effort whose painstakingness effectively killed the band (Gaucho/The Long Run). In 1981, while still considered commercial superstars, Becker and Fagen announced the dissolution of their partnership.

Fagen released a very successful solo debut in ’82, The Nightfly, and Becker produced a few jazz and pop albums. Otherwise, the two men who produced one of the most enduring pop oeuvres of the ’70s were maddeningly invisible throughout the ’80s.

The collaboration officially resumed with Becker’s production of Fagen’s recent Kamakiriad album, on which he also played bass and guitar; Fagen, in turn, has co-written songs for the album Becker hopes to have out next year, on which he’ll be singing lead vocals for the first time since a few errant verses on Steely Dan’s debut 21 years back.

The tentative step back toward the dreaded touring process was a result of the New York Rock & Soul Revue, a combo Fagen put together in 1991 to play R&B oldies. A few Steely Dan oldies found their way into the set, and eventually Becker even sat in on a few dates.

“I just got comfortable being on stage again,” Fagen says of the Soul Revue shows. “Now we have an opportunity to go out with musicians of our own choosing (a 10-piece band including players such as Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine and saxman Bob Sheppard), and we’re touring under conditions which can’t even be compared with what we were doing then, which was opening for a lot of heavy metal groups. And the technology of touring has become refined and much more comfortable, much more human.”

As for the ever-present danger of unseemly nostalgia, Becker readily admits, “I don’t know if it’s really possible to transcend that danger and do old songs at the same time.”

But, the danger surrounding the N word is allayed — if not transcended — by the fact that, by Becker’s rough reckoning, the 3 1/2-hour shows are composed of “half Steely Dan stuff, half stuff from Donald’s record, and half stuff from my record.”

There’s another factor working in Steely Dan’s favor to wipe out any would-be mustiness here, and that’s the fact that almost none of the material from the band’s 1972-80 life span sounds dated. In terms of the massive contemporary appreciation of irony as a replacement for old-school rock idealism, it rather seems the world caught up with the cynical voice that Fagen and Becker were able to claim from the get-go.

Go back and listen to The Royal Scam — which many fans consider the pair’s best, most literary-minded and darkest album — and marvel at its seeming topicality: An ominous narrative about a normal guy who up and snapped, well-armed and holding off a SWAT team (“Don’t Take Me Alive”); a cheerful ode to the importance of always wearing a condom (“The Fez”); a hauntingly lyrical paean to dream-laden immigrants who wind up among America’s homeless (the title track). All virtually ripped from today’s headlines, despite the album’s 1976 copyright date.

But as the popular culture seems to have become as cynical as Steely Dan at its peak, our heroes may have themselves grown a slight bit kinder and gentler, if Fagen’s emotionally richer Kamakiriad is an indication. (Ironically.)

“Actually Walter and I are very sweet-natured lads,” Fagen insists.

Not that they’re ever likely to be renamed Softie Dan. “We were angry kids, there’s no doubt about it,” he continues.

“To a lot of people, the ’60s is now some sort of incredible layer cake invented by the media. But the fact was that we did have the attitude that we were brought up with inauthentic values, etc., and were trying to find some other kind of alternative values. We were looking for that in a very aggressive way. And as you get older, you’re not that angry anymore.”

So maybe now — nostalgia be damned — even they can sing “Reelin’ in the Years” with a slight smile.

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