By Tony Norman
Somehow, when we weren’t looking, Steely Dan became part of the background static of our lives. When Donald Fagen and Walter Becker recorded “Do It Again” in 1972, they were a couple of wily obscurants still smarting from an unrewarding stint as songwriters at Manhattan’s legendary Brill Building.
Though young, Fagen and Becker weren’t fools. Neither harbored illusions they were the second coming of Leiber and Stoller. But as the new kids on the block, Steely Dan’s greatest audacity was to believe they had as much right as anyone to impose their experience as work-for-hire composers on a pop music world recently abandoned by Simon & Garfunkel and the Beatles.
The Vietnam War was raging. There was chaos in the streets and gnashing of teeth as a shifty-eyed president, soon to be immortalized in Steely Dan’s vaguely seditious minor classic “Kings,” bombed Cambodia and spied on political adversaries at home. It seemed as good a time as any for the winds of irony to blow over a country suffocating from earnest melancholy and suspicion. In those pre-Letterman days, Fagen and Becker not only supplied an ironic breeze to those tempted by the flamboyance of Elton John, they brought a whole damn wind-machine to what was then the dusty obscurity of FM radio.
But the more you scratched beneath the surface of early songs like “Razor Boy,” “Pearl of the Quarter” and “Only a Fool Would Say That,” the more obvious it became that Steely Dan was in possession of thoughts and feelings best left sublimated. To use the banal parlance of the morbidly introspective age-to-come, Fagen and Becker had “issues.”
Funny how songs that once sounded subversive, even titillating in a dark and menacing way, have become familiar splotches covering the walls of perception over time.
Any visit to a dentist’s office will confirm Steely Dan’s cultural hegemony. You’re likely to hear a Muzak version of “Hey Nineteen” or “Peg” while filling out dental insurance forms. And a trip down the aisles of Giant Eagle wouldn’t be complete without “The Royal Scam” playing in the background. Steely Dan’s music, interpreted by younger artists on the movie soundtrack, is practically a character in “Me, Myself and Irene,” the No. 1 movie in America.
Nearly 30 years after generating their first snickers for naming themselves after a “marital aid” in a William Burroughs novel, Steely Dan is still recording vitally obscure music.
Having reconnected with their audience by launching a series of tours that began in the early ’90s and continue until now, Fagen and Becker are no closer to being Leiber and Stoller than they were in ’72, but they’re universally recognized as classic writers and performers in their own right. They’re certainly head and shoulders above their current rivals, though neither would be likely to brag about such a comparison.
With the release of “Two Against Nature,” their eighth album of original studio material, Steely Dan is once again forcing us to confront a menagerie of shady characters and warped ambitions embedded in their songs, some of which is uncomfortably familiar.
On Sunday, Steely Dan returns to Pittsburgh after two previously acclaimed tours here in the early and mid-’90s. When Fagen and Becker take the stage of the Post-Gazette Pavilion this time, there won’t be any accompanying shock that they’ve actually returned.
Once known for their discomfort on stage, Fagen and Becker appear quite relaxed in their new roles as rock ‘n’ roll elder statesmen. Where once obscurity and distaste at defining their role in the scheme of things abounded, Fagen and Becker have become regular chatterboxes in recent years.
Their recent appearance on VH-1’s “Storytellers” was shocking to behold for longtime Dan fans. There they were, smiling and goofing with the audience like they actually wanted to be there. Gone was the chilly diffidence that characterized much of their tenure as studio wizards in the ’70s.
They answered questions about their songs, performed several of their greatest hits like they were newly minted and introduced “Cousin Dupree” and “What a Shame About Me” to an audience that seemed to understand them immediately.
Looking like a slightly vampiric version of Ringo Starr with his two-toned glasses, close-cropped hair and beard stubble, Fagen has evolved into a very animated performer possessed of a Borscht-belt kind of charisma.
Fagen is the really cool, but weird uncle everyone wishes they had. The PG spoke to him by phone shortly after Steely Dan recorded VH-1 “Storytellers.” The following excerpts are from a much lengthier interview.
This is a wonderful album, but how important was it for you, given the mixed reviews “Gaucho” got back in 1980, to create something that was critic-proof? Did you feel a lot was riding on it?
Nothing is ever critic-proof. I’ve seen some not exactly negative, but disappointed reviews. But that doesn’t really bother us very much. We’re not indifferent to the critics, but we’re not exactly catering to their tastes necessarily. Their values are somewhat different from ours.
Did you know who your audience was from day one?
Because we came out of a jazz and rhythm ‘n’ blues background, we were never sure what audience we were appealing to in the beginning, except that it was probably people who liked the same stuff we do.
When I interviewed you in ’96, you were already working on new material. Did any of those songs make it onto “Two Against Nature?”
Some of those songs fell by the wayside. We were doing “Jack of Speed” in our shows in ’96, but many of the songs on the album were written at the last minute. We wrote “Almost Gothic” in ’99, so a few are very new.
What’s the story behind “Almost Gothic?”
It was a song I started fooling around with in my living room. I showed it to Walter and we started working on it together. We finished the music and wrote the lyric. It’s sort of a love song, or at least the closest thing to a love song on the record.
My favorite song on the album has to be “West of Hollywood” at this point.
“West of Hollywood” is interesting because the basic chord progression and structure was from something we’d developed together in the mid-’80s when we got together once in New York. It was originally a reggae and had no lyrics. We started writing a piece in ’97 and realized we’d already written it except it was a reggae. So we looked at the old tape and realized we were writing the same thing over again at a faster tempo. It worked pretty well as a reggae, but we had an idea for a lyric that probably wouldn’t have worked as well.
You guys performed “Cousin Dupree” on Letterman. What was that like?
We didn’t have much contact with Letterman himself, we just shook hands with him. He tries to keep detached from the musical acts.
Given that Steely Dan practically created irony, didn’t you feel a kinship with him?
I don’t know, I don’t really know him. My problem with the Letterman show is that he keeps the temperature of that studio at 56 degrees. It’s cold. Our background singers were shivering.
What was the VH-1 “Storytellers” session like?
It was kinda fun. The producer is a nice guy. He was a fan so he made it very comfortable for us. We didn’t have to do anything in particular. We had a question-and-answer period that was fun, too.
This isn’t like Steely Dan, doing so much television.
We’re doing one of those morning shows from Rockefeller Center. I’m glad that will be our last gig on television. It’s nerve-wracking because it’s easy to fail on television. Not because the band will play badly, though that’s a possibility, or that I will sing badly. It’s just a fact that sound can easily go bad on television and you never know what’s going to happen.
So you and Walter won’t be sitting down with Oprah anytime soon?
We’re thinking about doing our own talk show. We’re thinking about getting a spot on New York public access. Anyone can be on television now if they want to. We were thinking about doing a nightly wrap up of the day from the hotel while on tour and giving it to public access.
Hey, like U2?
I don’t know that much about U2.
Whatever happened to David Palmer, Steely Dan’s first lead singer?
David Palmer was put in at the last minute when we were finishing our first record. He did a really good job on it. After touring for a while, we sort of decided he didn’t have the kind of attitude we were looking for. He understood that, too. I haven’t seen him recently. We’re lucky in that for all the people who played in the band, there’s no hard feelings. Most of them went on to very good careers.
Any more solo albums on the horizon?
I’d like to do an album that would complete a trilogy of “The Nightfly” and “Kamakiriad.” I have an idea and I’d like to do it eventually. But right now we’re concentrating on the band and putting a really great show together.
Are you thinking about the next new Steely Dan record?
We have some songs left over from “Two Against Nature” that we like very much, but couldn’t fit on the record. We’d like to finish them eventually so we wouldn’t have to start from scratch on the new record. We should be recording a new record sooner than later.