By Lenny Stoute
TORONTO — After all these years, the Greta Garbo of rock bands is finally coming to town. Garbo was a movie actress as famed for her elusiveness and aversion to appearing in public as for her over-acting. She gave the language the phrase, “I vant to be left alone,” and two guys named Becker and Fagen took it to heart.
They started a band in college, which was normal, doing the usual thing of playing the bars. They got very good at it, the band mutated into Steely Dan along the way, pioneering a style of lush, orchestrated pop that became a genre unto itself. It also became the essential makeout music for the ’70s. But they never did much like playing in public and when they pulled a Beatles and announced Steely Dan would tour no more, few insiders were surprised. Among the many places the duo didn’t get around to playing in its brief touring career was Toronto, despite strong record sales in these parts.
Fast forward to 1996 and Walter Becker’s on the phone from New York and keeping the myth alive by being elusive about a Toronto show every chance he gets. “I think at least three times we were supposed to play up there,” he says, “but somehow it never came about. Typical of the period.”
But Becker’s certain nothing will go awry this weekend, when Steely Dan makes its long-awaited Toronto debut Sunday at Molson Amphitheatre.
“It wasn’t a difficult decision,” he says of the band’s original break-up, “although it was not without pain. At bottom, it was nothing more than frustration overload that put an end to us playing live.
“It seemed like the more complex the music we were playing, the less able we were to guarantee its consistency. There were changes in band members, every venue had its own specific limitations and this music didn’t fit well with limitations. It just simply became too frustrating to know going in you couldn’t guarantee the sound’s authenticity and these weren’t the kind of songs that you jam out.”
The original Steely Dan, which included Mike McDonald and Jeff Pocaro among its stellar cast, played its final live show in the fall of ’75. Donald Fagen and Becker couldn’t wait to get busy recording and soon emerged the grand sorcerers of what became known as “bop-rock.” With the commercial clout to attract and pay for the best in session players, the Steely Dan duo entered their most productive period, the golden years of which yielded the acclaimed Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, Aja and Gaucho albums.
The mix of densely orchestral pop and quirky lyrics that first tweaked on Countdown To Ecstasy in ’73 came to full and most baroque fruition by the time Gaucho’s last track was laid.
“Unquestionably, that period was our best work,” says Becker. “We’d had time to sift through the clutter of ideas and had a very clear vision of each song.
“Sure, like any band coming up at that time, the influence of the Beatles was unavoidable. But – and this may come out sounding wrong – at that point, we were beyond influences, if only because this was something we’d talked about all along. So it wasn’t like a big change that was being forced on us.
“We weren’t looking for inspiration outside of our own vision. The ideas came rolling out easily.
“Maybe that’s why it was easy for both of us to recognize when the end had come. Steely Dan had simply run its course. We’d taken the concept of a certain kind of pop-rock as far as it would go.
“We were probably aware even before we went in, that if we did it right, the excellence of those albums would guarantee the end of Steely Dan. That made for a most amicable parting and we always stayed in touch.”
For a few years, they touched base by phone. While Fagen stayed in New York to record his solo debut, The Nightfly, Becker relocated to the interior of Hawaii to grow avocados.
The story could have ended there happily enough. But their rep as pop music wizards endured. Fagen never left the game, penning tunes for such as Diana Ross and Jennifer Warnes and scoring movies, including Bright Lights, Big City. Becker found full-time avocado farming to be the pits and was soon up to his elbows in faders, producing albums for China Crisis, Rickie Lee Jones and a slew of jazz artists.
But there was no talk on reincarnating Steely Dan. That wouldn’t come until ’92 and the second tour of the New York Rock and Soul Revue, a group Fagen and singer Libby Titus put together to play classic rock ‘n’ soul.
Becker had already signed on to produce Fagen’s second solo album, Kamakiriad, and it was during those sessions he was invited to tour with the Revue.
“It was the most fun I’d had in a long time,” enthuses Becker. “Just to play those fine old tunes with a great band was a big thrill. But the Steely Dan reunion really happened, quite matter-of-factly, when Don’s album went platinum and a tour was being planned. We took the same guys out that cut the album and, since I’d produced the thing, it seemed like a good project to put the name to, so we went out on tour as The All New Steely Dan Orchestra ’93.
“It felt good, it felt really natural. We took it to Japan and I knew then that Steely Dan was back on.”
When the boys play Molson Amphitheatre Sunday, they’ll be riding on the wings of the Alive In America album, a collection of live tracks from the ’93-’94 tour. There’s a new studio album waiting in the wings for a fall release. The tunes are all written and Becker says their quality is easily up to the band’s established standards. Beyond that, he won’t talk about specifics, claiming an aversion to discussing the songs before they’re heard.
“To talk about them at this stage might set up incorrect expectations,” Becker explains. “I’d hate to create a situation where people feel they know what the music’s going to be like before they’ve heard a note. For the same reason, we won’t be doing any new songs at the show.
“This tour is about classic Steely Dan; the new tunes belong to a different time, so it doesn’t seem right to lump them in together.
“Besides, in the markets we haven’t played, what the audiences are wanting is to see us perform the vintage material.
“Reinventing Steely Dan we’ll leave for the next tour.”