On the Road, Steely Dan is Reeling in the Cheers

By Kevin D. Thompson
Palm Beach Post

PALM BEACH — Walter Becker and Donald Fagen – better known as Steely Dan – are in the music business, but could very well star in their own vaudeville act.

Example: Ask Fagen about the time he came down with a serious case of writer’s block and underwent psychotherapy, and then try to get a straight answer.

“Aw, it wasn’t that rough,” Fagen says quietly. “It’s not like I was in a gulag, or something.” “Hey, how about that time you had an infected toenail,” the more animated Becker jumps in on cue.

“That was a rough couple of days,” Fagen deadpans.

“Remember when you were using those eyedrops?” Becker quips.

“Yeah, that’s when I poked myself in the eye with a Herb Geller record,” Fagen jokes, breaking up his longtime partner.

Today Becker, 48, and Fagen, 46, are doing more than hokey Abbott and Costello shtick. Steely Dan just started a 28-city tour that will take the group from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Palm Beach County. The group will appear at the Coral Sky Amphitheatre at the South Florida Fairgrounds on Saturday.

Despite Steely Dan’s longstanding popularity, fans aren’t rushing to buy the band’s CD, Alive in America – its first in 15 years, and first-ever live record.

That wasn’t the case in the ’70s. The group was one of the most successful – and mysterious – bands around. Formed in 1972 and named after a certain sexual appliance in William S. Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch, the jazz/rock group combined distinct pop hooks, jazz harmonies, cryptic lyrics and signature irony. The result was that Steely Dan sounded like no one else.

A pair of perfectionists

The band recorded such hits as Do It Again, Reeling in the Years, Deacon Blues and developed a loyal, cult-like following. Becker and Fagen, who met at New York’s Bard College in 1967, however, were staunch perfectionists and notorious for refusing to tour. Instead, the songwriting duo opted to hire session players and barricade themselves in the studio in search of pristine sound quality.

“When we finished our first record,” recalls Becker, “the vice president of the record company who was in charge of dealing with scum like us said having a band on tour was the cheapest form of promotion. They told us that if we didn’t do it, they wouldn’t promote the album in any other way. We had no choice but to get a band together.”

In 1981, after a decade of hits, bassist/guitarist Becker and singer/keyboardist Fagen called it quits. Fagen released his solo album The Nightfly in 1982 to rave reviews. Becker battled drug problems and dealt with the death of his girlfriend from an overdose. He also produced such artists as Rickie Lee Jones and China Crisis.

The rock ‘n’ roll dinosaurs got back together again in the early ’90s and appeared in concert with the New York Rock and Soul Revue alongside Boz Scaggs, Phoebe Snow and Michael McDonald. “We just fell into writing together again,” says Becker. “It was a natural progression for us.”

Becker and Fagen made it official in 1993 when they formed an 11-piece band and hit the road for the first time since 1974.

“The audiences were much more friendly and receptive than they’ve been in the past,” recalls Becker. “Our last concert may have been in 1974, but our reputation continued to grow.”

Adds Fagen: “People were interested in hearing the way the music would sound on stage.”

This time around, Becker admits Steely Dan will not rely as heavily on rotating session players. “Now, we don’t want to have a bunch of guys join our band and live in a house with them,” cracks Becker, “but we want to have an integral unit that performs on all our tracks. That’ll give our music a stylistic coherence.”

Steely Dan maintains their music has undergone some changes to keep pace with the ’90s. “Obviously there are certain things that we did then that we wouldn’t do today because it would no longer be fresh, exciting or surprising,” explains Becker.

For instance, Becker notes that the Steely Dan jazz harmonies of the ’70s were much more striking then than now. Pop music at that time, he adds, was primarily guitar-driven and derived from folk music. A decade later, much of pop music was developed from keyboard players who used more sophisticated jazz-based harmonies.

“The average soul ballad is liable to have some interesting chord change going into the chorus,” says Becker, “which was pretty rare in our day.”

One thing the band refuses to do is change its sound to sell more records or please radio disc jockeys. “There’s a tremendous pressure to conform,” says Becker. “If you don’t do something that fits into their pre-existing categories, nobody’s going to play it.”

Steely refusal to conform

Refusing to conform, notes Fagen, “made us sell a lot less records.”

Becker, though, isn’t fazed. “We don’t conform,” he says firmly. “We’re not in compliance. So, when Donald’s record or my record comes out, most of the stations won’t play it because it doesn’t fit with a station’s format. We don’t even know what the formats are. We’re just making music.”

Surprisingly, touring has been fun for Steely Dan. It’s not only the warm receptions that have made crisscrossing the country easier. “Back in the ’70s,” recalls Becker, “it was a free-for-all, kids in rented cars. Now it’s turned into a well-organized adult endeavor. We have benefited immensely.”

And the group hopes that will continue. “Music is fun for us,” says Becker. “I’m not 100 percent sure why people are so interested in our music. Even though most of it was recorded in the ’70s, I guess it doesn’t sound dated.”

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