You Can Buy A Thrill With Steely Dan

By Prentiss Findlay
Charleston (SC) Post and Courier

Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are comical and serious, excited and droll, confused and clearheaded.

They are ready to “Do It Again” and don’t mind spending some time on the phone “Reeling In The Years.”

Oh, yes, they’re looking forward to playing at North Charleston Coliseum on “Black Friday.” They think they’ve been to Charleston before, or maybe it was just a local “FM (No Static At All)” radio station they picked up one night on the road. Becker isn’t sure why the new Steely Dan tour begins in North Charleston, but he’s happy to be here and says his 11-year-old son, a Civil War buff, is excited about the visit.

As if seeking guidance on the issue, he questions Fagen about his feelings. “Are you looking forward to being in Charleston, Donald? Yes or no?” In the background, Fagen responds with an excited “Yes!” Reassured, Becker continues talking. “He’s looking forward to it. We love it there. I don’t think I’ve ever been there… In fact, I had a dream already that I was in Charleston. It was a good dream. I was in this beautiful, little port city and I was standing on a hill,” he says, his voice trailing off. “Oh, what’s the difference!” he says in mock exasperation.

Becker is a bit late for the phone talk because he got stuck in New York City traffic. He and Fagen have been in town with their nine-piece band for rehearsals at the coliseum. They bring to the Lowcountry a legacy of 10 Top 40 hits and some of the most innovative rock and pop music of the ’70s and ’80s.

“I think that what we were doing, if you listen to it against the backdrop of the ’70s, was kind of anomalous,” Becker says. “It has evolved from what we were doing then, but I think it’s still true that it’s not particularly a part of the stylistic milieu of the moment. “It’s something that hopefully will be able to co-exist with what’s happening now and have its own musical integrity. Either that or we’re washed up. We’re hoping to continue to be interesting and different or find a new line of work.”

Steely Dan formed in 1972 and drew inspiration from American jazz, big band and R&B artists like Charlie Parker, Stan Kenton and Ray Charles, as well as pop music, to arrive at their sophisticated rock mutations. The band was more of a studio vehicle for their songwriting and arrangement concepts than a real live touring unit.

Becker says he is having fun touring, but when he was younger and stronger it was kind of a drag. Back then, much of his attitude toward touring was shaped by the band’s circumstances on the road. These days, Steely Dan can have the band that it wants every time out and optimize the performance conditions, he says.

On this tour, the band will be fine-tuning songs for a new album. “I can’t say too much about them for the simple reason that I’m not too sure at this point which ones will be performed and which won’t on any given occasion.

“I think it will be interesting for Charleston, being the first show. It may very well be that we will play songs there that we won’t play anywhere else. That’s happened before. Let’s just put it that way,” Becker says, laughing.

Fagen says Steely Dan has six or seven new songs that were written during the winter, but only four of them are complete enough to perform. It’s been more than a decade since the last Steely Dan studio album. “The idea, actually, is to work these things out with the band and record them in the fall,” he says, adding that the new album would be released next year.

“I think it’s probably unusual these days to tour with new material first and put out the album afterwards. But we decided we really loved the band we’ve got this year and we wanted to work things out in the way we did it in the ’70, when we first started touring by trying out the pieces in front of audiences and tooling around with it before we record it,” Fagen says.

Fagen says he always loved touring, but “extra-musical problems” forced Steely Dan off the road in the ’70s. Now, with the new technology of touring, the band hits the concert trail with more ease. “It’s just much more user-friendly to tour these days,” he says.

The original Steely Dan band was thrown together rather quickly and there were some stylistic problems among the musicians. Now, Becker and Fagen can bring along musicians “who will really represent what we’re doing now in the best way.” Fagen says his current band will be getting a workout on the road. “We know we have a really great band this year and we’re going to try to hone it down and come out of it with a recording band as well,” he says.

Although the Steely Dan band has evolved over the years, the distinctive sound of Fagen and Becker has remained a constant. Some view their lyrics as cryptic, cynical or jaded. Fagen says their songs are just realistic. “I think that for whatever reason Walter and I have a certain view of things. I wouldn’t really call it cynical at all. I think that, uh, we try to present life as we perceive it. I think that we all, in getting through life, we’re all playing roles and fooling ourselves all the time.

“I think every once in a while we tend to see through ourselves, see through other people and see what’s really going on. It’s sort of those moments that we really like to write songs about.” The Steely Dan songwriting style borrows from music, poetry and literature in its approach to a subject.

“I think we were really just trying to bring the material of literature into popular music,” Fagen says. “It’s just a combination of a bunch of things you know. Whatever we like, music, literature, we kind of try to stick it in there.”

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