Steely Dan’s “Jazz Weenie” Roast

By Jerry McCulley

Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen aren’t exactly providing their undivided attention as they check in via phone from New York to promote Two Against Nature, their first studio album in 20 years. “There’s a cartoon on the TV here with the sound off. This one concerns a disconcerted beaver, I would say,” notes Fagen dryly. “A disgruntled beaver,” opines Becker. Welcome to the Walt and Don show, a rhythm & blues humor revue barely tarnished by the hiatus of its self-described “jazz weenies.” By turns thoughtful and freewheeling, Steely Dan’s smart alecks seldom miss an opening, as contributor Jerry McCulley discovers. Why did you pick this moment in history to derail Walter’s budding solo career?

Walter Becker: [laughs] A pique of jealous rage, I guess!

Donald Fagen: You disguised that question really well, because usually we get things like: [whining] “So why now?” Round about Gaucho, you seemed weary of just about everything but each other.

Becker: And, as it turned out, we were tired of that, too.

Fagen: Right up to making Gaucho, we were having sort of fun. Things started to come apart in the late ’70s as they did for many people of our generation. Personal problems?

Fagen: Of various sorts. And cultural problems. We were concerned about certain trends we noticed in the culture.

Becker: The disco thing was putting a lot of stress on us.

Fagen: The rate of simulation changed by a league. For instance, around 1966, if you’d see a TV commercial, they’d figured out what kind of music kids were listening to. At first it was maybe 10 years behind. Then they were five years behind. And by the ’80s they were actually gaining on the artists they were copying. In the ’90s, you hear more interesting music selling wheat cakes.

Becker: Well, you can’t call that “simulation” anymore, then.

Fagen: No, now you’d have to call it something else, sort of “meta-simulation.” You know what it is? It’s like reflux. Maybe it’s the reflux century.

Becker: Cultural reflux. Maybe the culture needs a Maalox.

Fagen: It needs some Maalox and a time machine. How does this partnership, and in a larger sense, your friendship work?

Fagen: A lot of it revolves around work, because we’ve been thrown together a lot lately. We don’t particularly want to see each other too much during the two days we don’t see each other. We have wives and girlfriends and stuff like that.

Becker: With what we do and the writing and the way we work there’s a lot of room for humor and joking around and whimsical experimentation and so on.

Fagen: Somehow we’ve never lost that playtime/recess thing when we’re writing. The title Two Against Nature implies both conspiracy and conflict.

Becker: For our personal situation, we felt that we were collaborating to keep the bubble of artistic concern that we live in inflated and thus spare ourselves the necessity of dealing with the mundane world, where all sorts of natural processes like aging, death, and decay are going on.

Fagen: As you get older, nature impinges on your play/free area. You have to be aggressive in defending it. I think you have to broaden the spectrum of the things you think are funny as you get older. Like, say, death. You have to take a different attitude about it. Your lyrics invite a listener’s participation in a way that’s almost passe’ since the advent of videos.

Fagen: That’s why we’re not doing videos anymore. We did a little concert film for PBS that they may excerpt. But with the little experience I’ve had from my solo albums, I’m steering clear of them. It turns the listener into a zombie to be looking at pictures. And pictures tend to overwhelm soundtrack by nature. You’ve been lumped in with a genre generally known as smooth jazz. Somehow Kenny G has become your bastard child.

Becker: We refuse to even acknowledge that. That’s a scurrilous accusation. How smooth can jazz be and still be jazz?

Fagen: Would you call Ray Charles’s mid-’50s band smooth jazz? It has jazz chords and is pretty polished, but you wouldn’t call it smooth anything.

Becker: You’re speaking about marketing categories that aren’t particularly meaningful in a discussion of real musical substance. Still, it’s a fact of life that has to be dealt with.

Becker: We’ve been very lucky over the years in that people just sort of let us do what we want to do. And then, when we’re finished, someone comes along and tries to sort out how it might be marketed or promoted. Obviously it affects how people may or may not get to hear our music, which affects us. But it doesn’t affect how we conceive of it or make it.

Fagen: For instance, in the ’70s when we first started putting out records it was pretty straightforward: they’d pick a single from the album and try to get it on a Top 40 station. Then toward the end of the ’70s there were different formats of stations, soft rock or whatever, that they’d have to try and get on. Now, there is no radio for us. The classic stations basically just play our old records and Top 40 really won’t play anybody over 25 or 30. Now all you can do is do like a PBS special and go touring. No one can get any airplay except 16-year-old blondes and beautiful black girls. But you’ve always been both insulated and isolated from the mainstream. Was that a willful tactic?

Becker: On the part of us or on the part of mainstream? [laughs] We had this particular thing that we wanted to do that we thought was a good idea. We were successful enough that they just kept letting us do it. It just didn’t particularly correlate to what the mainstream happened to be at that moment. Were you surprised at your ongoing success?

Becker: We were both optimistic and foolish enough to have thought all along that people would like what we had in mind. So we weren’t that surprised.

Fagen: I think we were surprised when the numbers of sales went way up with Aja and Gaucho. But we figured that was payola or something.

Becker: Or a bubble in the marketplace. The time when Aja came out was a year when album sales in general increased a lot and there were several blockbuster albums around that time. Aja was a good record and it was a good combination of elements in terms of the public’s perceptions. Also, I think it’s true that that was time when was rock and roll was a real important pillar of popular culture. Unlike today, when rock and roll is essentially the soundtrack for a runway model.

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