By Eric Deggans
St. Petersburg Times
As might be expected from a group named after a fictional sex toy, Steely Dan masterminds Walter Becker and Donald Fagen present a cynically hilarious, though sometimes confused, demeanor in person.
Taking on interviewers like two tag team wrestlers over the telephone, the duo makes sure that — whatever happens during their brief interrogation — at least they’re going to be entertained.
Of the two, Becker is the one who’s most obviously witty — alternating between laugh-out-loud jokes and half-hearted attempts to seriously answer questions. Fagen, however, quickly gives up on any pretense at being interested — peppering the conversation with his own dry humor, most often at the interviewer’s expense.
“No other musicians can be mentioned during this interview,” Fagen says, mock-seriously, calling from the group’s rehearsals in New York City. “We want everybody to bow before our shrine.”
“We got tired of the begging and pleading,” Becker chimes in, trying to explain why the pair suddenly decided to start performing shows in 1993, nearly 20 years after Steely Dan’s last, official concert tour. “We wanted to get to the moaning and groaning – which comes while we’re playing. Basically, we look good in rust … that’s what we’ve got going for us.”
Rusty stage chops notwithstanding, the two have made up for lost time — staging live tours with an 11-piece “orchestra” in ’93 and ’94, documenting their efforts with last year’s live album, Alive In America.
When the pair first decided to get off the road and jettison the remaining members of Steely Dan (at that time, including soon-to-be Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro, about-to-be Doobie Brother Jeff “Skunk” Baxter on guitar and his future bandmate, keyboardist/vocalist Michael McDonald) in 1975, critics cited the pair’s notorious perfectionist streak.
To a duo known for putting legendary players such as jazz saxophonist Phil Woods, drummer Steve Gadd and guitarist Larry Carlton through the wringer while recording, the road was deemed too haphazard a place to house their exacting spirit — or so the legend goes.
It’s a story Becker admits has some truth. “The quality of the shows (in the ’70s) was really up and down,” he says. “We were trying to do ambitious music for a bunch of kids. Back in the ’70s, if we had been able to present our music the way we wanted to, we would have done it.”
“Now, we have these really ace accommodations … we fly around in a plane,” Fagen adds, before his partner butts in.
“He’s going to think we own our own jet or something, man,” Becker says, laughing.
“What do you think we are, the Rolling Stones?” Fagen cracks back, noting the airline transportation is actually chartered. “Wait a minute. We weren’t supposed to mention any other bands, were we?”
“Everything now is much more comfortable and conducive to doing a good show,” Becker adds, before the interviewer can think of a suitable punishment for Fagen’s slip of the tongue.
“There’s a much larger pool of musicians out there with the training and wide-ranging tastes to cover the gig. It’s much easier to find musicians for our band.”
Indeed, one listen to Alive In America shows how the duo’s collision of jazz and rock/pop — one critic called it “boprock” — is ably re-created by musicians drawn from the best jazz/rock fusion outfits around.
Featuring the alumni of groups such as Weather Report, Steps Ahead and Parliament/Funkadelic, Becker and Fagen’s backing band adds far-ranging solos and looser grooves to such classic rock staples as Josie, Peg and Aja.
“Our band has always been fueled by the sideman process — the idea that changing players could spark the band,” Fagen says. “It has to be as un-boring a process as possible for us. That means changing up the structure of the tunes and allowing a lot of solo space … like Duke Ellington did: a composed piece, with spots for soloists to improvise.”
Some might argue that although the duo has been sparking their own interests, they’ve left some fans in the dust.
Strangely enough, it’s not because their newest material has been particularly challenging. If anything, the pair’s recent solo efforts, including Fagen’s 1993 solo disc Kamakiriad and Becker’s 11 Tracks of Whack in 1994, have failed in recapturing past creative heights — leading fans to wonder if their current live outings are just a way to recapture past glories.
Becker admits performances of some tracks from Whack during the Dan’s recent live shows prompted more than a few in the audience to take a beer break — deserting their seats until the group came up with more familiar material.
“You can only imagine the perverse thrill in seeing people head up that aisle,” he says. “Some of the true fans probably never even leave the concession stands. Hey, it’s their show … let ’em enjoy it whatever way they want — as long as they pay that ticket price.”
Still, he’s not willing to let some writers blow off their recent resurgence as shameless nostalgia. “You may see it as a nostalgic thing, but for us it feels very new and exciting,” he asserts. “If we would have kept doing this (since the ’70s), we probably would be sick of it now. But, as you should know by now, we don’t do anything we don’t feel like doing.”
Glance at a capsule history of the group’s life, and you’ll see the truth in Becker’s words.
Friends since college in the late ’60s (Chevy Chase once sat in on drums for a few of their gigs), bassist/guitarist Becker and keyboardist/vocalist Fagen scored post-graduation work as staff songwriters for ABC Records before drafting an early version of Steely Dan in 1972.
With a name taken from a sex toy in William Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch, Steely Dan assembled its first album, 1974’s Can’t Buy a Thrill — which spawned the runaway hits “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ In the Years.”
Before long, the group’s distinctive mix of jazz influences, pop flavor and rock style had coalesced into a series of increasingly more ambitious studio albums, ranging from 1976’s The Royal Scam to their critical and commercial masterpiece, 1977’s Aja.
Whittled down to a duo by the mid-’70s, Steely Dan perfected an oddball style: sardonic, cynical lyrics about the seedy side of life delivered in Fagen’s reedy, distinctive voice and bolstered by an increasing number of jazz luminaries.
Realizing that Aja was their creative peak and burned out from the immense effort required to make their records, the pair called it quits after the release of Gaucho in 1980 — with Fagen going on to intermittent solo work and Becker producing artists like China Crisis and Michael Franks.
It wasn’t until Fagen began performing with a loosely defined group of notable artists — McDonald, Boz Scaggs and Phoebe Snow among them — in the R&B cover band the New York Rock & Soul Revue, that the seeds for Steely Dan’s return were sown.
Becker and Fagen eventually had so much fun performing together with the Revue and making Whack (Fagen produced the record, which sounds like a bunch of Steely Dan demos sung by Becker), that they decided to tour.
Now, a new chapter awaits, an album of new material recorded as Steely Dan.
It’s a project the two say they’ll tackle toward the end of the year, after this 28-city tour concludes.
But don’t bother asking when it’ll be released. This is a group that missed deadline after deadline for writing the liner notes to Alive (four versions of the notes were eventually published).
“Even if there were some schedule, knowing our history, what would be the purpose?” says Becker, laughing. “That crumpling sound you hear? That’s the schedule hitting the floor.”
But even these mad scientists of pop music know it may not be easy to find a place for their new material in the post-punk ’90s.
“There’s been a shift in the values people had for records,” Becker says. “We were trying to get this relaxed feel we had heard on jazz records … but bands nowadays want to charge you up. That’s just naturally what happens over time.”