Steely Dan Takes on Life in ‘2vN’

By John Soeder
Cleveland Plain Dealer

Donald Fagen doesn’t consider himself a dirty old man. But he plays one — several, actually — on Two Against Nature, Steely Dan’s first new album in two decades.

“There’s a certain amount of denial in older men who say they’re not attracted to younger girls or to women other than their life partners,” Fagen says, speaking by phone from a New York rehearsal studio.

As the keyboard-playing, lead-singing half of Steely Dan, the jazz-rock outfit he fronts with bassist-guitarist Walter Becker, Fagen gives voice to a series of barely legal infatuations in new songs like “Almost Gothic,” “Janie Runaway” and “Cousin Dupree,” a catchy number about an incestuous crush.

“It’s not necessarily that you have to act on it,” says Fagen, who is married to songwriter Libby Titus. “But beauty, to me, is beauty. I love hanging around with girls. I love having background singers in the band. It’s fun, you know? It keeps you young.”

Lusty themes are nothing new for Steely Dan, named after a sex toy in the William Burroughs novel Naked Lunch. The band’s last Top 10 hit, “Hey Nineteen,” concerned an aging hipster smitten with a girl who was too young to appreciate “‘Retha Franklin.”

Fagen, 52, says he and Becker, 50, are “huge fans” of Vladimir Nabokov, author of the ultimate May-December romance novel, “Lolita.” Fagen majored in English literature at Bard College, where he met Becker in 1967. They wrote a tune for Barbra Streisand, backed Jay and the Americans on tour and worked other odd musical jobs before the release of Steely Dan’s debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, in 1972.

“Nabokov treats a lot of the same themes – the connection between love and death, youth and decay,” says Fagen. “It’s a way to express a certain sadness about life in a very strong way.”

Steely Dan’s songs aren’t strictly autobiographical, according to Fagen. “They’re more journalistic,” he says. “They combine personal experiences with observed material and some stuff we just make up, the same way a short-story writer gets material from different sources.”

The collaborative chemistry between him and Becker hasn’t changed much since the ’70s, when they employed a rotating cast of session musicians to craft swinging, impossibly smooth-sounding albums such as Katy Lied and Aja. The respective songwriting contributions of the band’s main men are “pretty even,” Fagen says.

“Walter and I have the same sense of humor, we’re both from the New York area and we were both jazz fans at a very young age, like 10 or 11.” Fagen says. “We have very similar tastes. We also came to like blues and soul music as they became more available to us.”

Following the release of the 1980 album Gaucho, Fagen and Becker each pursued solo projects, although they stayed in touch and continued to write and record together. A couple of well-received Steely Dan reunion tours in the ’90s led to the recording of Two Against Nature.

“As a real band without any new material, we were starting to feel a little fictitious,” Fagen says. “Since we both had ideas, we said, ‘Hey, let’s see if we can get together and come up with a Steely Dan album.’ I can tell that having some new things to play has energized the band.”

Fagen and Becker will be joined by nine other musicians and three backing singers when Steely Dan performs Wednesday at Blossom Music Center. The group toured early in its career, before Fagen and Becker abandoned the road to develop the best studio tans in the music business.

“In the early ’70s, we had this band that was kind of on and off, depending on the alcohol content of the various bloodstreams involved,” says Fagen. “Since the ’90s, we’ve been able to play with the musicians we love. … Frankly, we’re not that interested in reproducing the albums. We just play whatever we come up with, really.”

Fagen says he and Becker have “a bunch of songs in various stages of completion” that they hope to turn their attention to in the fall, most likely sparing Steely Dan fans another 20-year wait between albums.

How long it will take the group to land a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is anybody’s guess. Steely Dan has appeared twice on the ballot of nominees, although the band failed to get enough votes for induction in 1999 or the previous year.

“If you want to know the truth, it’s of tremendous indifference to me,” Fagen says. “I used to go to the yearly ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. It was really fun because you never knew what was going to happen.

“When they started televising it a couple of years ago, it lost all the spontaneity. … It used to be a very strange affair because it was set up like a normal awards ceremony, but all the participants were psychotic. So it was quite funny.”

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