By Mike Weatherford
Las Vegas Review Journal
There are some things Steely Dan’s members will do to conform to the modern demands of music marketing. And some things they won’t.
“We stopped short of Jay Leno, actually. I didn’t want to spend that sad a night in the aftermath of it, really depressed,” says singer-keyboardist Donald Fagen.
For those familiar with Fagen and guitarist Walter Becker — who together are the Dan — it’s just the biting, dry wit that fans expect.
But it’s also balanced by honesty. For an act that released its last studio album in 1980 — before today’s record-buying teens were born — a new album and tour mean reconnecting with grown-ups through channels that weren’t available during the duo’s heyday.
A PBS “In the Spotlight” special. VH1’s “Storytellers.” An outdoor street concert on “Today” and an appearance on the “Late Show With David Letterman.”
“Someone at the record company told us that it doesn’t matter how good the record is. Unless we make it into some kind of event, (we’re) just not going to sell any records,” Fagen says. “That’s just the way it is now. You’re going to have to do a little TV. There is no more Top 40 — they don’t play anyone over 28 on those stations.”
“So we said, ‘What do you want us to do?’ ”
When they found out, “we didn’t agree to do 80 percent of it,” Fagen says. “But we’re doing, like, 20 percent of it.” Letterman was “about as far as we could take it.”
It is, after all, still Steely Dan, with a misanthropic reputation to protect — the quintet that dwindled to a duo during the course of its first four albums in the ’70s. By the time of its landmark Aja in 1977, the Dan had ceased to exist as a live act; Becker and Fagen instead drafted top jazzmen and session players to craft a pristine blend of jazz, R&B and pop.
The 1980 album, Gaucho, seemed to be the final word on smart, shiny pop singles such as “Hey Nineteen” and “Time Out of Mind.” Becker and Fagen parted company, with Fagen remaining slightly more visible through two solo albums, The Nightfly and Kamakiriad, that came 11 years apart.
“It seems like all I do is work, maybe it just doesn’t show,” Fagen says. The 52-year-old Manhattanite spends “a lot of time studying music. I practice, I go through a lot of music trying to learn from listening to records and looking at scores, things like that. When I’m not working, I’m kind of a student still.”
But in 1993, Becker and Fagen surprised the world by coming out of the cryogenic deep freeze with a reunion tour, which carried on for three summers and included a pricey August 1996 date at the Hard Rock Hotel.
Most of 1,400 Hard Rock tickets were priced at $200 or more. For average fans, Saturday’s Two Against Nature concert at the 8,000-seat Mandalay Bay Events Center will be the group’s real Las Vegas debut, with tickets more modestly priced at $35, $75 and $150.
The summer of Steely Dan also includes Me Myself & Irene, the new Jim Carrey comedy. The movie soundtrack doubles as a Steely Dan tribute album, with Becker and Fagen classics such as “Do It Again” and “Bodhisattva” being remade by Smash Mouth and the Brian Setzer Orchestra, respectively. The album arrives Tuesday, in advance of the movie’s June 23 release.
The shift from famine to feast for Steely Dan fans came when the duo discovered they actually enjoyed touring, erasing their early ’70s nightmares of the fledgling arena rock industry. Their ecstatic reception also eased Fagen’s stage fright and insecurities as a live performer.
“It’s easier to be confident when you have a really good band behind you,” he says. “My singing improved a little over the years. It’s fun for me now. The conditions are good and the sound systems are good. The band is really fun. Now I’m really into it.”
Though many fans never expected to see the band live, Steely Dan music proved to be a natural for a large, rotating cast of players. The songs are flexible enough to allow new twists and solos, with Becker, 50, and Fagen hiring new players for each tour to keep the sound fresh. This time, there’s a four-piece horn section.
“I like big bands, generally speaking, (although) one day we’ll go out with a little band and see what that’s like,” Fagen says. For now, “I like the way all the parts come together. I’m like a huge Duke Ellington fan. I love the way the sections fight each other.”
While no one will mistake Two Against Nature for anything but a Steely Dan album, it does reflect the passage of time since Gaucho. The hooks take a back seat to the lyrics in “What a Shame About Me” — about a wannabe-writer’s reunion with a college flame — and “Cousin Dupree,” the story of a lecherous musician who sees his cousin in a new light.
“I think the lyrics are much more lucid and successful in a way. It’s hard to tell a story in such a short time. I think we’re just getting better at it really,” Fagen says of the more focused narrative. “The limitations (to songwriting) are massive.”
Musically, the album delves a bit more into dissonant jazz (“West of Hollywood”) and sounds just a bit rougher around the edges than the Aja era. Fagen acknowledges “it’s a struggle” to battle Steely Dan’s own past, since the the duo’s pioneering ’70s sound has been copied to the point of banality by today’s “smooth jazz” radio format.
“It’s definitely not as weird-sounding because people now are used to hearing complex jazz chords played with some kind of dance beat,” he says. “They hear it in supermarkets and elevators. You are fighting that to some extent.”
However, “I think the way we do it and what we use it for is different. You just have to have faith you’re going to pull it off.”
“At one point,” he adds, “Walter and I were thinking of using some alternative method. We have a lot of ideas that involve using technology and samples. But once we started writing the songs, we kind of defaulted to our usual methods.”
“It would have been dishonest for us to do something just to be different,” he says. “A lot of the differences between music then and music now I think is very superficial, actually. Music was more creative and newer (in the ’70s), more original because all these genres of folk and rock music, rhythm and blues, and jazz had just been combined. It was sort of a more fun thing.”