By John Soeder
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Less than two weeks before their band, Steely Dan, would be welcomed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were still going back and forth about what to perform at the induction ceremony.
Becker giggled mischievously.
“Think about it,” Fagen said.
It really would be a fitting choice, now that the music industry has come to see about Steely Dan. Between making the rock hall’s honor roll and scoring big at the Grammy Awards, these low-key, laid-back jazz-rockers have found themselves squinting in the limelight, despite a reputation for not getting out of the studio much.
Fagen and Becker (known as “D and W” within Steely Dan’s inner circle) will be inducted into the rock hall tonight, with electro-auteur Moby set to do the honors. Also on the list of incoming Hall of Fame performers are Michael Jackson, Paul Simon, Aerosmith, Queen, Solomon Burke, the Flamingos and the late Ritchie Valens.
The induction dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York will be simulcast live at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Ceremony highlights will be shown Wednesday on VH1.
For the wisecracking mystery men who call the shots in Steely Dan, the induction is the cherry on top of their sweet victories at last month’s Grammy giveaway, where they walked away with three awards, including Album of the Year.
Why all the kudos? Speaking from their home bases of New York and Maui, respectively, during a recent conference call, Fagen and Becker were hard-pressed to provide an explanation.
“We’re not exactly sure,” admitted Becker, 51. “We’re investigating.”
“It would be nice to think it was merit,” said Fagen, 53. “But this is America, after all.”
Neither of them could muster much sympathy for Eminem, whose The Marshall Mathers LP was favored to win the Grammy for Album of the Year. The award went to Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature in a major upset.
“I don’t really know the chap,” said Fagen. “But he seemed like a pretty centered person. I don’t think he needs anyone to feel sorry for him.”
“Sure, he has some issues,” Becker added.
Aside from the occasional tour, Steely Dan had been lying low until last year, when the release of Two Against Nature announced the band’s return after a 20-year hiatus.
“We both put out solo albums during that time,” Fagen said. “We did a live album and all kinds of other projects, from producing to movie scores. It wasn’t as if we weren’t working.”
“We were just playing hard to get,” said Becker. “And it worked.”
Steely Dan had been nominated previously for induction into the rock hall in 1998 and 1999, although the band came up short on votes. Fagen and Becker poked fun at the snubs on www.steelydan.com, where they posted accounts of attempts to bribe high-ranking rock hall officials with crates of honey mustard.
Before the 2001 inductees were announced last year, Fagen told The Plain Dealer that getting into the rock hall was of “tremendous indifference” to him.
When he was reminded of the quote, Fagen was amused. “Did I say that?” he asked, chuckling.
“Well, that was back when we were lumped in with the perennial losers,” Becker offered in his partner’s defense. “It turns out, as we now realize, that it’s an incredible honor.”
Singer-keyboardist Fagen and Becker, who plays guitar and bass, met at Bard College in 1967. They backed Jay and the Americans on tour and worked other odd musical jobs before Steely Dan made its debut with the 1972 album Can’t Buy a Thrill. The band was named after a sex toy in the William Burroughs novel Naked Lunch.
Steely Dan had Top 10 hits with “Do It Again,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Hey Nineteen.” The band’s sleek, swinging albums were recorded with a rotating cast of musicians, including Michael McDonald of future Doobie Brothers fame. If Fagen and Becker had their way, the rock hall would induct the dozens of sidemen who have accompanied them, too.
“All the musicians who ever played with us should be inducted, if they really want to be fair,” Fagen said.
Steely Dan’s music has been sampled by numerous hip-hoppers, although nobody has come close to duplicating the cool, cerebral and catchy sound perfected by Fagen and Becker. Why?
“Inferior copycats,” quipped Fagen.
“There have been very few people over the years who really wanted to do the kind of thing we’ve been doing,” Becker said.
“We have some kind of old-fashioned, somewhat marginal musical values by today’s standards,” said Fagen.
The chemistry between them hasn’t changed much since the 1970s.
“It’s very similar,” Becker said. “We’re essentially doing what we did all along.”
“The difference is most of the chemistry between us now is generated by our own bodies,” said Fagen. They’re writing songs for a new album, with plans to start recording “in a few months,” said Fagen.
“It’s really the only job we’re trained for,” Becker said. “We don’t have a fall-back position. We don’t play the stock market.”
“We’re not looking to star in an action picture or anything like that, although someone had approached us about turning us into action figures,” said Fagen.
“We’re still looking for the right people to make the mold,” Becker said.
In the meantime, they’re not letting the overdue attention go to each other’s heads.
“When I was in L.A. walking around the day after the Grammys, I got noticed more times than ever before in my life, by far,” said Fagen. “The next day, it was completely back to normal. Nobody recognized me.”
“No, they still recognized you,” Becker teased. “You were old news by then.”
“Oh,” Fagen said, cracking up. “They just didn’t want to meet me … Yeah, I was old news. They just didn’t care. When you’re right, you’re right.”