By Robert Wilonsky
Steely Dan no longer exists. Forget about the name, despite what you read in this paper’s music listings; since when did “in print” mean “the truth” anyway? Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are sick to death of the name–ah, if only they had gone with one of their original choices, among them Virginia Mastic Wiener Whistle, The Don’t Fucks, Penis Whip, The Pewterberg Faction, and just “The”– and besides, it don’t mean much anymore. So, lest they be left behind by time and technology, Becker and Fagen propose a new moniker better suited to these glory days of record company-Internet service provider mergers. They now wish to be called, simply, “The Content Partners,” which, as they describe it on the quite official Steely Dan Web site, is “fresh… edgy… and absolutely guaranteed to make the New Paradigm bigwigs… stand up and take notice of who we are and what we are about and where we want to go from here.” Becker and Fagen, known from here on out as “The Pards,” will no longer make music their top priority — as evidenced by the fact that 20 years passed between Album No. 7 (1980’s Gaucho) and Album No. 8 (2000’s Two Against Nature). Becker and Fagen released a handful of solo albums during the interim, including Fagen’s so-called The Nightfly and Becker’s alleged 11 Tracks of Whack, but they have since been revealed to be repackagings of Can’t Buy a Thrill and The Royal Scam and a collection of demos dating from 1968 to 1972, hence the reason why they’re paid little attention by critics who express amazement at the 20-year gap between “official” recordings.
In lieu of writing and recording and touring — the latter of which they loathe to this day, as evidenced by the title of their co-written autobiography Trudging Across the Flyovers — they will concentrate on online retail sales “and partnering with whomever is so hip as to be in the vortex of what’s happening now.” To that end, they are beginning work on developing a film based on the very, very true story of 12-year-old Burmese rebel twins and their bizarre Army of God. Though casting news has been scarce, likely Becker and Fagen will play the twins–or, possibly, the Army of God. The two hope to release the film sometime in early 2001, possibly during the month of The Iceman or Cycle Sluts. (For those not keeping up with The Pards’ doings, they recently renamed the months of the year, as befitting their new Philian Calendar, which was created to circumvent potential Y2K complications–which never arose, but it seemed like such a good idea they stuck with it. The Iceman, incidentally, used to be known as “January”; Cycle Sluts once went by the rather mundane moniker “February.”)
(This is as good a time as any to point out that Walter Becker really was interviewed for this story, and he proved an amiable enough dude willing to answer any question asked of him, save for the one about his ill-fated marriages to Fiona Apple and Edie Brickell during the late 1980s. Some random answers are included forthwith, but it should be noted that their earnestness belies deep-rooted post-ironic irony, meaning they should be taken with a grain of sand. For example:
“Our songwriting is always a balancing act: Songs can’t be too funny, they can’t be too obscene, they can’t be too nasty, they can’t be too pretentious,” Becker says. “We have to sort of try and juggle the different elements that we’re using in the songs, and I think we’ve learned how to do that over the years so that the songs will sort of work on a bunch of different levels at once. You can listen to them one way and hear one thing, and you can listen to them one way and hear something different.” If you know what this means, send your essay to The What The Hell Is Walter Becker Talking About Contest? c/o Dallas Observer, 2130 Commerce St., Dallas, TX 75201. Winners will receive a copy of Becker’s novel Expressions to Avoid During a Recording Session, which includes such chapters as “My Spirit’s Already Sore from the Last Thirty Takes,” “My Girlfriend Sings Great Background Vocals,” and “Play Something Paul Would Tell Linda to Play.”)
If, at this point, you are unfamiliar with the works of The Pards, then you clearly have not listened to classic-rock radio in the last six minutes. (Hurry, dude, turn on the radio — KZPS is playing “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” right now. Wait, I mean “Peg.” No, damn it, I mean “Deacon Blues.”) The Dan is, suffice it to say, a band beloved by men and women old and older, most of whom, men and women, at one point looked a little like Walter Becker–glasses, beard, long hair, and a dull look in the eyes that suggests cynicism, disdain, and a vague, unspecified illness. The only people in the world who look like Donald Fagen are disbarred attorneys, podiatrists, and Talmudic scholars who quit the Yeshiva for a life directing pornographic movies.
That’s not to say The Kids haven’t picked up on the Dan in recent years: Just hours ago, Elektra Records released the soundtrack to the Farrelly Brothers’ “film” Me, Myself & Irene, which features extant Pards compositions covered by mostly irrelevant youngsters, including Ivy (“Only a Fool Would Say That”), The Push Stars (“Bad Sneakers”), Smash Mouth (“Do It Again”), the ironically named Marvelous 3 (“Reelin’ in the Years”), and the Brian Setzer Orchestra (“Bodhisattva”). The disc isn’t completely disposable–Wilco’s version of “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” keeps it from drink-coaster status, and Ben Folds Five’s “Barrytown” proves that band sucks because of its own songs — but it’s no doubt available in the cutout bins at your finer used-CD stores. It shipped gold and returned platinum.
(Another honest-to-God Becker quote, vaguely related to the preceding paragraph: “Most people are not interested in the kind of harmonies we use or are not interested in using elements that suggest jazz or pop music that dates before rock and roll. I think what we do is quirky enough in a lot of ways that it’s only a good idea to be inspired by it in the most general sort of way. It’s like Thelonious Monk is another example. Not to compare what we do with Thelonious Monk, but he’s an example of somebody that I think has been inspirational to many musicians in a variety of ways, but generally speaking, you don’t hear anybody doing anything that sounds like Thelonious Monk for the same reason. It would just be silly.” If you can guess what question was asked to solicit this answer, send your essay to The What The Hell Was Walter Becker Asked Contest, c/o Dallas Observer, 2130 Commerce St., Dallas, TX 75201. Winners will receive a copy of Donald Fagen’s book Words Not to Use in a Song, which includes such chapter titles as “Fistula,” “Desuetude,” “Gonad,” “Cervix,” and “Calculus.”)
Various histories of the band have been floated around during the past three decades, but none is more accurate than the supposed “authorized” bio provided by the band on, once more, the band’s Web site. Donald Fagen was born on January 10, 1948, in Passaic, New Jersey; Becker followed two years, one month, and 10 days later, or thereabouts, in New York, “steps away from a popular midtown Manhattan bar.” Historians would have the two meeting at Bard College in Annandale-On-Hudson, New York, in 1967, where they formed some early bands, among them The Leather Canary (which featured Chevy Chase on drums, during his Funny Years) and the Don Fagen Trio. They began writing and recording demos during the late 1960s and early ’70s, many of which keep popping up on unauthorized releases sold on Amazon.com. (“And I think that’s a drag,” Becker says.)
At first, the duo fancied themselves jazz musicians along the lines of Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, going so far as to record Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” on their 1974 album Pretzel Logic. But soon enough, they sold out (for pennies on the dollar) and went Pop, hiring session musicians and refusing to tour, prompting years of speculation in the music press that Walter Becker was actually David Sanborn and Donald Fagen was really Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. The Pards would release Katy Lied in 1975, The Royal Scam in 1976, Aja (pronounced “Asia”) in 1977, then part ways after the release of Gaucho (pronounced “Steve”) in 1980.
(About their so-called “music,” Becker has this to say: “When Donald and I independently started to move away from jazz and into the field of pop music, it was basically because it seemed like the door was being thrown open in pop music to a much wider and deeper kind of writing, particularly of lyrics. That was because of Bob Dylan and other more ambitious songwriters of the day, so that was the deal we had with pop music: We could do something a little bit beyond the minimal thing that had been happening for a long time.” If you know what’s the deal with pop music, and you’re a hot woman, send your naked picture to What’s The Deal with Pop Music, c/o Dallas Observer, 2130 Commerce St., Dallas, TX 75201. Winner will receive a copy of The Pards’ new music-business book Studio Glossary, which includes such chapters as “Schneckability,” “Heimlich Sound,” and “Fmeh!”)
The Pards did regroup in 1986 to write the entirely-in-German novel Die Rauckinhaus, under the pseudonym Emil Kayser III; for the book, they received the prestigious Bôlus Prize, which is now handed out to all of Oprah’s Book Club selections. Somewhere along the way, Fagen also found time to release The Nightfly in 1982 and 1993’s Kamakiriad (which is not to be confused with “Karma Chameleon”), and Becker allowed for the 1994 release of 11 Tracks of Whack, which actually contained 13 tracks — two of which Becker considered “freebies,” though he will not say which two he’s talking about.
(“It doesn’t bother me that people are writing about our new record without mentioning the solo albums, because I realize that it’s a good story this way, and I think that’s part of the reason people have chosen to write about it and present it that way — the return,” Walter Becker is saying now. “I don’t argue with that. And frankly, in most cases, pointing out that in the intervening years we’ve produced several solo albums and various other things and movie soundtracks and produced albums for other artists does not seem to lessen the appeal of the good story of the guys who disappeared into the time warp and reappeared in the year 2000. People think in terms of the brand name, the collective artistic identity we’ve established for ourselves as Steely Dan, and they have a perfect right to persist in being more interested in that than they are in our own individual efforts or things we produce. I think it’s perfectly valid.”)
Now, they’re on the road in support of Two Against Nature. It would not be hyperbole to say that it is, without question, the best Steely Dan album in 20 years.