Only two people in the world understand how jazz licks, R&B rhythms, pulp novels, and Napoleonic history combine to make great pop music. Luckily, they met. On the occasion of their first album of new Steely Dan material in 20 years, Chris Ingham meets Messrs Fagen and Becker.
By Chris Ingham
It’s been 20 years, a hiatus almost unheard of in rock. In the 1970s. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen — studio auteurs infused with the influence of jazz, R&B and pulp ‘n’ beat literature and blessed with the chops and intellect to do something extraordinary with them — set lofty standards. For those who got it, there was Steely Dan and there was the rest.
Now, their new album, Two Against Nature, faces the kind of expectation that Francis Ford Coppola must have felt on eventually producing The Godfather III.
“I hope we do better than he did,” grunts Fagen. They do.
It’s a deliciously sunny, crisp December day in New York as MOJO awaits two of the most intimidating characters in rock. History is strewn with journalists (not to mention musicians) who have failed to engage the shockingly bright and insular Messrs Becker and Fagen, so it’s a surprise when, after shuffling into view wearing puffy winter jackets and carrying comforting cartons of steaming coffee, the Dan that once was Steely resemble nothing so much as two eccentric gentlemen hobos going about their day.
Walter Becker – bright eyes, wispy beard not quite hiding his baby face — sits alert and perky, ready to communicate, his voice crackling clear. Donald Fagen — all surprising physical and facial angles — slouches
inscrutably, his drawled, droll contributions hauled from the depths of a warm bed somewhere. They’re on charm offensive and guess what; they’re pretty charming.
They must be aware of the anticipation that surrounds the first Dan album since 1980, but they’re wearing in lightly, with the confidence of men who feel they’ve taken care of business.
Becker: “It was an unspoken assumption between us that, if we did this, we were going to try and do something that was as dense and as well planned and has as much work and thought and quality of execution — hopefully — as the things we used to do. Probably, if we’d been a bit more objective about it we’d have been a bit more worried in advance. We hope that it is good and we hope that people will like it. We thought we’d ensure that by working really hard on it. I think there’s a certain arrogance that has carried us through.”
Fagen: “A kind of self-contained megalomania.”
Becker: “It takes a certain sort of self-confidence that probably we wouldn’t have in other realms of life.”
Other realms of life for Becker and Fagen barely figured in the ’70s. A pair of hipster misfits who became college jazz pals and Brill Building wannabes writing rock songs with aspirations to lyrical depth and melodic sophistication, combining a jazz-inspired harmonic complexity with the rhythmic drive of R&B. In 1972 they founded a “must have jazz chops” band of musicians named Steely Dan after a dildo in William Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch; Fagen was keyboardist and reluctant vocalist, Becker was bassist, Denny Dias and Jeff
“‘Skunk” Baxter were the guitarists and Jim Hodder was the drummer, though even on their debut, Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972), the famous twin guitar lick of “Reelin’ In The Years” was performed by imported
guest guitarist Elliot Randall, an early indicator of their preferred way of working.
Countdown to Ecstasy (1973) and Pretzel Logic (1974) confirmed the band as a critics’ favorite and though their live show was one of the most admired of the period, they got bored with touring and retreated to the studio to make Katy Lied (1975) and The Royal Scam (1976). It was clear from these increasingly smart and
accomplished records that Steely Dan music was by now the singular vision of two driven men (plus producer Gary Katz) as realized by the cream of studio musicians of the period.
Aja (1977) was their commercial — possibly also artistic — peak, a glorious compositional triumph with meticulous production values which reflected their increasing preoccupation with precision and the highest quality of performance. But by the time Gaucho (1980) appeared, Becker and Fagen had virtually burned themselves out as a partnership. For the time being.
Becker: “Our relationship had been totally dominated by our work process; by the time we got to Gaucho it was not satisfying, not fun, not easy and we didn’t quite know what to do about it. And there was personal stuff going on for us as individuals, certainly for me.” Further plagued by the tragic death of his girlfriend in an accidental overdose at his New York apartment, Becker retreated into recuperation. Fagen found the energy to complete his highly accomplished, personal and inspired solo album The Nightfly (1982) but for several years afterwards essentially ceased composing and recording. He agrees that he and Becker never really fell out; “I think we maybe drifted out. We both had our own private lives so when the work stopped we didn’t see each other with the geographical thing. We used to talk on the phone occasionally in ’80/81 but I think after more than a decade together we needed to take a break anyway.”
As Fagen was abandoning a second solo album in 1984, Becker was producing British band China Crisis. In 1985 the two found themselves playing on the same Gary Katz-produced sessions for ex-model Rosie Vela’s Zazu album (whatever happened to her?) and this mini-alliance was received by many as a Steely Dan “warm-up”. Becker/Fagen liaisons did in fact ensue.
Fagen: “We visited each other. Walter came to New York and we worked on a couple tunes in the mid-’80s. I went to Hawaii, wrote a few tunes.” Fagen has said of that period that their efforts at rekindling something “had something sad about it – both of us felt at the end of that, Well, that was another time.” Now he’s not so sure.
“I forget about what work I was talking about but, you know, I had a couple of years there where I was clinically depressed, so everything was a little sad, you know. It may have been too soon then.”
Becker remembers the practical struggle of writing. “What we discovered was when you’re writing continuously together — as we had since college — there’s always something going on, there’s always an unfinished song, and idea, some little fragment to work on. When we got back together in the mid-’80s we were starting from nothing. In some way it was more difficult than before.”
Was it in their minds even back then that this was something they weren’t going to let just founder, that sooner or later they were going to get round to being Steely Dan again? Fagen: “Well, we didn’t have any other friends really, you know. It was pretty lonely there for a while. We had relationships with women of various sorts, some of which were very serious, but as far as camaraderie went, I guess it’s hard for both of us to develop that kind of relationship.”
Wary of anything that might be construed as a revival of Steely Dan, Fagen became an occasional contributor to Premiere magazine, co-composed the soundtrack to the movie Bright Lights, Big City and formed the New York Rock and Soul Revue for some low-key shows, eventually submitting to including the odd Dan song. Becker produced Rickie Lee Jones and China Crisis once more and in 1990 was hired as Donald Fagen’s producer for what would become Fagen’s second solo album Kamakiriad (1993), with Fagen eventually returning the compliment for Becker’s own debut, 11 Tracks of Whack (1994).
You couldn’t stay away from each other, could you? Fagen: “You know, like people who are married, we have a kind of language we communicate in. At this point there are so many sub-references, we got a real shorthand going.”
Becker joined the 16-piece New York Rock and Soul Revue for a 12-date tour in 1992 which by now presented a three-hour show including “Green Earrings,” “Josie” and “Deacon Blues.” The “level of pandemonium” which greeted the Steely Dan songs made the next step inevitable; heavyweight band, brand-name Dan tours in 1993, ’94 and ’96.
Becker: “We got to enjoy the reward for having written all those songs in the ’70s, going out and playing them and having people clap and so on. And at the same time, after a couple of seasons, we started to get tired of playing them and thought, Well, if we’re going to keep doing this, which is a lot of fun, we can’t just carry on playing our old songs as though we couldn’t write any new ones.”
Becker was finding it hard enough to hold the audience’s attention with his already released solo stuff, let alone unheard Dan material. “As a practical matter, it’s difficult to play songs in a concert that the audience haven’t heard before; it doesn’t really work out as well as you might hope. So at some point we realized this is essentially a pretty good ongoing thing for us and to keep it that way, we have to make a new record.”
Gaucho, the last album they made as Steely Dan, was a shattering experience. Does the residual memory of how hard it was to make records to their standards still linger?
Becker: “It’s always hard to make good records.”
Fagen: “We figured it would be hard, I guess we may not have thought it would be quite so long.”
Becker: “It’s a lot of work, just the main body of the songwriting was almost a year.”
Fagen: “Some days we’d be working and we’d only get one line, two lines. For a couple of hours we’ll just be sitting there and just sometimes the biological rhythms are wrong, sometimes you’re tired and you don’t feel like doing it but you do it anyway. It was good if we just got the one line. We’d say, Oh cool, well at least we have that. Next day maybe you’ll get a whole bridge. Then you throw a lot of stuff out, only pick the best stuff and then to execute them according to what is now a fairly specific vision of how they’re supposed to come out. Takes a while, you know.”
And what about the legendarily painstaking recording sessions:can they still handle them?
Fagen: “The music was fun. That’s part of the reason we filter out songs that we don’t think are up to that standard, ‘cos to work on something that mediocre for a long time is impossible. If something has a good groove and you can see that it’s really gonna come out good, you don’t mind listening to it.”
Did they work the usual way? Trying out several rhythm sections, multiple solo takes, agonizing over the microseconds in the grooves, all that?
Becker: “I would say it was out usual way of doing it if you can define our usual way as doing whatever the hell you needed to do to make it work given the entire range of possibilities.”
Fagen: “We started out wanting to do something radical, something different. But by the time we got round to actually doing it we kind of threw all that out and ended up flying in the drummers, stuff like that.”
They’ve had some disasters with technology in their times: did they go straight for the cutting-edge gear this time?
Becker: “No, in fact we started out optimistically thinking that we wouldn’t need to use certain things that everybody uses, such as the computer editing software. We thought we’d record it on tape and do some really simple editing using two machines. We did that for a while until we realized it was taking 10 times as long. At that point we switched to digital audio software, which opened up a whole range of possibilities. You end up using it to do things you really couldn’t have done in any other way. But that’s the same thing we’ve always done, it’s just the details of the technology have changed.”
Do they ever wobble as they worry away at the details, so they never say to each other, We’re chasing a rainbow here?
Fagen: “All the time, all the time.”
Becker: “We’re usually saying stuff like that as we’re doing it, cursing ourselves. It doesn’t seem to stop us, though.”
Fagen: “By the time we start saying that stuff we’re so deeply into it that it would be just as hard to do it some
other way. But we’re always saying, I can’t believe we’re doing this. I asked the engineer to execute me if I asked for one more variation.”
Unlike Coppola, who had to suffer all kinds of corporate directives about Godfatherness in his preparation for The Godfather III, Becker and Fagen were, predictably, left to make the music they wanted to: “Nobody told us anything, they were just happy we were doing it.” But what about within themselves? Did they have discussions about stylistic tendencies, what makes up Steely Dan-ness?
Becker: “We had many of ’em.”
Fagen: “None of them had to do with sounding like Steely Dan. One thing that people don’t realize is that we never, ever went for a specific kind of sound, even in the ’70s. It’s really what we like to hear. We never really thought of it in an overall way.”
Becker: “Yeah, if we have style talks, it might be about some radical departure we might consider and we haven’t actually done any of them yet. In the end, it dawned on us that probably the best way to start would be not [to] set up too many rules or constraints or artificial anything.”
Fagen: “So in the absence of rules and limitations, in comes out more or less the way it does. The style has its own limitations without us imposing any, just by virtue of what we like, which is within a somewhat narrow frame.”
The jazz, the R&B, the grooves, the instrumentation (rhythm section, electric piano, horns) Fagen’s vaguely sinister vocals, Becker’s increasingly distinctive guitar obligatos, a certain crypto-caustic lyrical approach, all factors in a consistent vision and present in spades on the new album. Becker refers to other visionaries — tellingly, an engineer, a producer and a composer/band leader:
“Those Impulse label things that were all recorded over a period of four or five years by Rudy Van Gelder, produced by Bob Thiele, all of these records sound like they were made on the same day, it’s really remarkable. And the reason is they had a really clear idea of what they thought things should sound like. If you have a sense of what you’re going for that is innate to you, that’s the kind of thing that happens. Same
with Ellington. Granted there was consistency in his bands too, which he fought for, but here was a guy who obviously had a vision of something and it didn’t change a whole hell of a lot over time. He enriched it and added to his vocabulary but it sounds like the same guy. Why wouldn’t it?”
The first thing one notices about Two Against Nature is that it opens just like Kamakiriad; “Gaslighting Abbie” has the teasing syncopated noodling and eight bars in — bam, you’re cruising in backbeat heaven.
Fagen: “Yeah, I guess. It never occurred to me. I think there’s something dramatic about something that sounds like an orchestra tuning up. Walter was fooling around in the intro before playing his part, we left that in.”
Becker: “I think it’s sort of our default intro technique these days, unless we have a better idea. It’s an artifact of sequencing too, punching something out.”
And again, like Kamakiriad, the melody dances for quite a while on a single chord, building a fabulous tension before the resplendent release. One-chord groovers combining with elaborate chord structures, as ever.
Fagen: “It’s the contrast between the static rhythm and bluesnor funk-based rhythm section and something that goes through quite an interesting series of progressions. Sometimes the more chords you use it stops the forward motion, even over the exact same rhythmic base. Which is why – aside from ignorance and so on — other people don’t use too many chords, it’s easier to keep it going.”
So finely tuned to the groove are Becker and Fagen — they’re said to measure tempos in tenths of beats-per-minute — that they’re hypersensitive to how a harmonic element can affect the rhythmic thrust.
Becker: “You’re vamping on a dominant 7 chord, getting ready for the chorus, then there’ll be some less solid, more ambiguous chord for a bar and every time that would be where the groove would fall apart.”
So the one chord keeps things moving in that near-surreal, seamless way, but the craftsmen in them won’t allow the melodies to just blow along. Becker: “We’d sit around with these dominant 7th vamps and be playing with melody ideas forever trying to get something that had an angular or unusual quality to it, but that was still singable and not ridiculous. We came up with all sorts of little strategies, handing on 2nds or 4ths or whatever.”
Fagen: “If anything starts to sound like a cliché, we examine it.”
Becker: “We call it on the carpet.”
Fagen: “We say, Is there any way to avoid this? Even if it maybe sounds good, there’s something annoying about it because of that. So we’ll try some off things and say that’s pretentious. You have to find the midway between cliché and pretension.”
A handy midway point between cliché and pretension is the variants on the blues that they have fashioned in their career; blues with knobs on.
Fagen: “A lot of what we do is blues-based at least — and grappling with how to make the blues more interesting.”
Becker handles most of the guitar solos and his given approach (“I don’t know why any right-thinking person would play anything but a blues-based style on electric guitar”) means that much of Two Against Nature drips with the blues. Supremely confident about their music, Becker and Fagen have been famously insecure about their instrumental abilities and while Fagen remains a spotlight-shunning player, Becker emerges here as a deep, affecting, authoritative soloist.
Fagen: “Walter’s playing really well and when it came time to overdub a guitar part it was, Well, you try it first. He plays in that Chicago pocket, that’s why I particularly like it. It’s hard to find younger musicians who can lay that far back, yank it around.”
Becker: “Donald encouraged me a lot and I think because of the kind of stuff on the record, it was more important to have a take on what the music was about than a lot of chops and stuff. There has been a rhythmic shift over the years that’s caused us no end of difficulty, where people feel the center of the beat in a different place than what we’re trying to do. It was already starting to happen by the end of the ’70s.”
Fagen: “Yeah, people weren’t hauling the groove around like they used to with that kind of confidence. You can hear it in Miles Davis’s playing, Thelonious Monk, Muddy Waters.”
Part of the Steely Dan legend is the exacting, often perplexing personal standards they have for the performances of guest musicians. There is a scene in the recently aired Classic Albums TV Program on
Aja where they re-visit some of the rejected guitar solos of Peg — which sound pretty accomplished — fading them up and down with terrifyingly dismissive comments. It’s a fascinating glimpse at that select ‘Club Of Two’ that has daunted so many musicians. But saxophonist Chris Potter seems to make dandy work of the
fiendish requirements of “Gaslighting Abbie” and “West Of Hollywood” here, adding himself to an elite pantheon of players to have pleased Becker and Fagen.
Becker: “We just couldn’t shake him. He seemed prepared to improvise soulfully and swingingly over any kind of chords we gave him. Jeez.”
Fagen: “No matter what we came up with it didn’t seem to really matter to him, running the changes usually at first or second sight.”
You should have made him play by ear.
Fagen: “Without the chords in front of him? We’re gonna do that next time.”
They get conspicuously more respect from the jazz world these days — indeed they’re jazz education favorites — than they did when they first asked Phil Woods and Victor Feldman down for a blow in the early ’70s.
Becker: “Victor always treated us good. There was another generation of jazz musicians who resented the idea that young guys would be popularizing elements of jazz music in their pop music. We would hire someone and not know whether that guy was going to show up and be interested, amused and delighted, as say Victor was, or angered and disgusted the way certain other musicians were.”
One of the later interests of Becker and Fagen — which can be heard on Gaucho’s “Hey Nineteen” and “Time Out Of Mind,” much of Kamakiriad and tracks like “Janie Runaway” and “Cousin Dupree” on this album — is
the spacious approach to a groove, lots of oxygen, a few carefully chosen scribbles of sound bouncing off each other.
Becker: “Perhaps it was just a more self-conscious approach to what we’d been doing all along, but we had a little manifesto that had to do with more contrapuntal movement, less bourgeois sustained harmonic stuff, eating up all of the air in the track, making things sound less propulsive.”
Fagen: “What musicians call footballs, where you hold a chord through the bar; ‘cos a whole note looks like a football. It’s sort of fun when you hear some sustaining instruments and then they suddenly disappear and you’re left with the rhythm track and you can hear the detail of what the rhythm players are doing. Not unlike Count Basie.”
Fagen had said at the time of Kamakiriad that his interest in harmonic complexity was on the wane in favor of The Groove. Admirers of his chordal abilities will be delighted to know that it was a temporary thing. “I like Kamakiriad. I was into this very stripped down mode where I listened to a lot of soul music, but it didn’t last that long I guess. Maybe I just needed to go through that period.”
Lyrically, Two Against Nature is as rich as anything that went before. There are familiarly sordid situations with a fresh cast of named characters (Bobby Dakin, Madame Erzulie, Lou Garue, Jerry Garry, Aunt Faye, Anne de Siecle) who you’d swear seem to pop up in each other’s songs. For instance the “bad through and
through” mistress character of “Gaslighting Abbie” could easily be the “exhausting and luscious” heroine of “Negative Girl” who has to see “a doctor friend up town.” Then a “Doctor Warren Kruger” is introduced in the following song, “West Of Hollywood.”
Becker: “I don’t think there’s a strict narrative strand but I’d like to think by trying to write songs that were actually of some moment to us at this point, it hangs together thematically because it’s true to us.”
It’s a babe-fest. There’s the “ripe and ready” bad girl in “Abbie,” the “wonderwaif” who is “Janie Runaway,” cousin Janine’s “little tops and tight capris” in :Cousin Dupree,: the “deliciously toxic” “Negative Girl.” The protagonists of Dan songs have been loving “a little wild one” since “Do It Again,” but there’s a palpable
preoccupation here with dangerous young things that’s borderline creepy.
Becker: “Yeah, slightly manic, slightly inappropriate I would say.”
Fagen: “Definitely descriptive of certain symptoms of a mid-life crisis. I think we’re actually in a little post-mid-life crisis where we can make jokes about it. We’re not afraid.”
Becker: ‘If there is one thing we would like to make clear to your readers it’s that we have discovered there is not one but a seemingly unending series of mid-life crises. They just start somewhere around the middle of your life, then it’s one after another.”
Most of which appear to involve having your heart flipped over by young girls. Becker: “Well, just because you’re having a mid-life crisis doesn’t mean you’ve taken leave of your senses and lost sight of what’s really important about human existence.”
Fagen: “Who wants to hang around with an old crone, you know, really?”
Becker: “Heh-heh. Is this the point where we get the publicist to get a signed agreement, that will not be used as a pull quote?”
Fagen: “Who wants to go to a party and hang around with young girls? Oh God. What a drag.”
“Cousin Dupree” leers without flinching (“Well we used to play when we were three/How about a kiss for your Cousin Dupree”) before suggesting “What’s so strange about a down-home family romance?” “Janie Runaway” is particularly unwholesome and predatory, with the singer asking “Who has a friend named Melanie/Who’s not afraid to try new things?” The Dan play dumb.
Becker: “I think “Janie Runaway” is a very happy song.” Fagen: “The protagonist at the moment is extremely elated.” Becker: “What an exuberant, Hallelujah Chorus kind of thing…”
Fagen: “You make me feel like painting again!”
It’s no surprise to hear that “Janie Runaway” was rejected by a key radio station in America as Two Against Nature’s promotional focus track. What is surprising is the reason. Fagen: “They said, ‘We can’t play it because it has a saxophone solo on it, we only play records with guitar solos.'”
What about the song’s seedy undertones? Fagen: “Oh no, they loved that, they don’t care. You see, the moral climate of the country being what it is, we don’t have to worry about that any more, apparently. But the saxophone solo… it’s like going back to Charlie Parker or something.”
Becker: “So they went with Cousin Dupree.”
Fagen: “An even seedier track! But it has a guitar solo. You could talk about fucking your grandmother, it wouldn’t matter, as long as it has a guitar solo. I was told Lenny Kravitz was putting out a tune called “Blow Me” and there wasn’t a peep. So, you know…”
Those tracks are actually a scream, “Cousin Dupree” especially is laugh-out-loud funny.
Fagen: “Oh good. It actually has a few jokes in it. I think that’s because it’s based on a kind of country or Chuck Berry-type model. He uses punchlines.”
Becker: “Country music can be quite funny without breaking step, it’s sort of part of the songwriting tradition. When we were starting out, we were writing rock songs that were too funny and
it just confused people and the humor in the lyric undercut the authenticity in the song I think.”
There’s a couple of surprisingly touching moments on Two Against Nature. One is the point in “What A Shame About Me” where the down-on-his-luck-hero refuses a possibly rejuvenating invitation to sleep with his old girlfriend, explaining that she’s merely “talking to a ghost”; it’s a moment of genuine pathos.
Fagen: “We like to imagine that later that night he relents, but we don’t know. We were pulling for the guy, though.”
Becker: “We were pulling for him all the way and then boom, he just couldn’t make it. In a way I think it rang true.”
Fagen: “There’s a quality of self-loathing in real life that causes people to defeat themselves or think that they’re not worthy.”
Becker: “If you create characters and hope to see them take on a life of their own in their interactions, you have to let things happen that seem right. Also, there’s a kind of fiction — Raymond Chandler comes to mind — where what makes it interesting is the protagonist does something at some particular moment for some
surprising reason. And you are shocked slightly by the reaction in the circumstance and that’s how character is developed.”
Fagen: “Often the reason has to do with Philip Marlowe’s personal morality. If you carry that over to “What A Shame About Me,” it may be that there’s some kind of fakery that he sees in this girl that violates this inner precept that he lives by. Maybe it’s good that he turns her down, maybe it’s not self-destructive but rather conservation on his part.”
Becker: “Or essentially an affirmation that this life, such as it is, is my life.” Fagen: “Just trying to keep the bullshit away, even though it’s attractive at the time.”
And yet the pervading sense is of self-pity, “what a shame about me”.
Fagen: “That could be disingenuous on his part. Shame may be a code for Heroism…”
Becker: “…Or Idealism. And put yourself in the position of the songwriter with that chorus ending ‘What a shame about me.’ How’s that gonna work if he goes back to the hotel with this girl?”
It could work because he’s made the weak decision.
Fagen: “Yeah, that’s true. Good work. We’re gonna go rewrite it.”
Another poignant achievement is “Almost Gothic,” and extravagant celebration of a passionate intellectual and romantic intoxication with a mercurial temptress; “First she’s all feel then she cools down/She’s pure science with a splash of black cat/She’s almost gothic and I like it like that.” You wait for the twist; there is none. It’s a Steely Dan love song!
Becker: “[Set] during that 15 minutes when that’s actually possible. Before one harsh reality or another intrudes.” Fagen (rather wistfully): “Pure idealization. It’s very subjective, you know. As far as I’m concerned, she was indeed perfect, though some people might call it an idealization. Unless you got to know her better, you’d never know, you’d never know.”
Becker, to Fagen: “As Proust would say, after 700 pages of Swann In Love, all of this for a woman who basically wasn’t your type.”
The way the album is programmed, the listener is in relatively familiar territory (save “Almost Gothic”) until the final two tracks, “Negative Girl” and “West Of Hollywood,” ambitiously sprawling and slippery pieces that seem to say, you think you’ve got the measure of us, take this; we’re still moving, still got stuff to do.
Fagen: “Oh great, I’m glad it unfolded like that. We feel like we have stuff to do. That’s a pretty dense pair of tracks actually, now that I think about it. We knew those songs were difficult in some ways. Especially “West Of Hollywood” which has an apocalyptic quality.”
Becker: “A Heart Of Darkness kind of thing going on there. We wanted to offset the funk-song vibe with other elements. These two are probably — along with “Almost Gothic” — the ones that fit the mould the least. As we worked on them, we particularly knew that “Negative Girl” was a whole different rhythmic thing and “West Of Hollywood” was experimental.”
Fagen: “I think that maybe people gotta get their feet wet a little bit before they hear those tracks.”
The title track, a thunderous 6/4 piece, features a particularly impenetrable series of stand-alone lines forming a puzzling collage of malevolent, defiant goings on (“Two against nature slinging dread/These boys wanna bang the skulls of things undead”) which culminates in an entire stanza of pest control metaphors. One had to confess to not getting it.
Fagen: “It’s really a case of us defending our generation against these demons in a certain way. It has a lot of ways you can go with it but, OK, the two against nature are Walter and I. If the album has some kind of theme statement, perhaps that’s it. It also goes back to the blues in the sense of blues lyrics are advertisements for oneself and we’re stating by the fact of our being artists and cognizant that we’re in a young person’s milieu still trying to get along when we’re circa 50 years old, we know you’re doing the same
and we’re making a generous offer to help our listeners with their problems.”
Becker: “Those who are plagued with the same pantheon of demons.”
Fagen: “We have a lot of techniques to deal with it. We’ve got that spray…”
Becker: “…the firemop.” Fagen: “The firemop is very effective.”
And so we leave our heros to their semi-private banter. There was little of that we’re-so-bored-we-must-amuse-ourselves double act, but at this moment, they’re playing the game, happy that people are still interested, delighted to find themselves still with stuff to do. Two against nature love this gig. Lucky us.