By Mark Felsot
It took four years of eligibility, but on March 19, jazz-rock brainiacs Steely Dan were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The honor was truly a momentous occasion for guitarist Walter Becker and singer-keyboardist Donald Fagen, but you wouldn’t know it by their nonchalant demeanor at the ceremony. Asked backstage if he had any feelings about being immortalized alongside the likes of Elvis, Dylan and the Beatles, a cheeky Becker responded, “Apparently not.”
A spot in the Hall isn’t the only accolade Steely Dan garnered in 2001. On Feb. 21, Becker and Fagen nabbed three Grammys — Best Pop Vocal Album and the highly coveted Album of the Year (for their 2000 “comeback” album, Two Against Nature), and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal (for the tune “Cousin Dupree”). Quite a year for the duo, and one that’s been a long time in the making.
Becker and Fagen met in 1967 as students at Bard College in upstate New York. The two formed several college bands together, including an outfit with future comedian Chevy Chase on drums. Upon graduating, the pair briefly stopped off in New York — taking odd jobs, such as recording the soundtrack to the low budget Richard Pryor vehicle You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It — before heading to Los Angeles, where they secured jobs writing songs for ABC Records.
While penning tunes for such acts as Three Dog Night and Dusty Springfield, Becker and Fagen began working on songs of their own. The pair recruited a handful of musicians to record their debut, Can’t Buy a Thrill, which dropped in 1972. Steely Dan — named after a metal dildo that appears in William S. Burroughs’ classic underground novel Naked Lunch — were born.
Can’t Buy a Thrill, a jazz-rock fusion piece buoyed by graceful melodies and cryptic lyrics, spawned the hits “Reelin’ in the Years” and “Do It Again.” The disc would serve as a blueprint for the band’s distinct and rarely imitated style. Becker and Fagen employed a rotating cast of musicians as Steely Dan, and the group went on to drop a string of best-selling albums and hit singles. Among their classic songs are “Peg,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Deacon Blues,” “Aja,” “FM” and “Hey Nineteen.” Fagen and Becker announced they were calling it quits in 1981.
Becker retreated to Hawaii, while Fagen pursued a sporadic solo career. The 1990s saw the duo reunite a couple of times to tour, but they didn’t release another Steely Dan studio album until 2000. Two Against Nature, the combo’s first studio effort in nearly 20 years, was met with critical praise and commercial success and spawned another reunion tour. In the wake of their Grammys success, Two Against Nature was recently certified platinum.
Becker and Fagen recently rang us to talk about the Grammys, “bribing” their way into the Hall of Fame and the mysterious case of Fagen’s missing first piano.
Grammys and Pappies?
Walter Becker: Naturally, my first assumption was that [our Grammy nomination for Album of the Year] was some sort of mistake, that it was some sort of screwup.
Donald Fagen: I thought it was Walter on the line playing a practical joke on me.
WB: But when we figured out it was the real deal — I think I speak for myself and Donald — you could have knocked us over with a feather.
DF: To me, it brings up the question, ‘Is Paul Simon or Steely Dan the token senior?’
WB: I think what it means in this case is an all-expenses-paid trip to Los Angeles. It’s kind of like winning The Dating Game or something.
DF: Well, not quite as good.
WB: Speak for yourself. All kidding aside, I think it’s a great honor and very flattering that we were nominated, and very satisfying for us. I think, as much as anything else, it’s a tribute to our fans, really, who are still evidently listening to our music and enjoying it and to whom we are very grateful also.
Hall of Shame
DF: [Being honored by the Hall of Fame] is really just another kind of snub.
WB: In this case, perhaps. But the thing is that … [it was] pretty much inevitable that we would [eventually] be inducted.
DF: It is possible that they just couldn’t take the pressure anymore of the mail we were sending them … I will [miss our verbal assault against the Hall]. An unprovoked tirade only comes forth every once in a while.
WB: Three or four times a day. Tell me how you like this idea, Donald — they’ve asked us for things to submit to the exhibition at the museum. I was thinking we would make some sort of presentation of the actual Hall of Fame letters from the website.
DF: We could do an official presentation.
WB: In other words, we would ask that part of the exhibit include the record of our letter campaign [to get into the Hall].
DF: I think that’s a good idea. Maybe we should even print it up in Gothic [script] and send it along. It could be, like, on a parchment.
WB: That’s what I’m thinking. Another thing could be that they would be mounted on a series of electric guitars and other musical instruments.
DF: Let me ask you, Walter — did you ever send the honey mustard to [Rolling Stone magazine publisher and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation vice-chairman] Jann Wenner?
WB: I certainly did.
DF: Now we know why we got in.
WB: I sent the honey mustard after …
DF: That’s right, you did it after the fact. Maybe he just had confidence in the fact that we wouldn’t welsh.
WB: Maybe last year’s winner sent them a case of canned hams or something and he needed the honey mustard.
DF: Maybe so.
WB: Maybe there is some simple culinary explanation for all of this.
DF: He’s going to have us killed.
DF: I don’t know [if the piano I first learned to play on will be exhibited in the Rock Museum] because, for one thing, I’ve heard a rumor that it is actually being stored somewhere in the Hall of Fame in Cleveland. That’s interesting, because I have a letter here that I just got the other day that says — it’s from the associate curator for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — and it says, ‘I was excited to hear Steely Dan would be inducted, etc., etc. We are beginning to collect materials. It’s my hope you would be willing to loan some material.’ It says, ‘We would be interested in various items like musical instruments, stage clothing, etc.’ But it has no mention about the piano, so I’m not exactly sure what to do.
WB: I think we’re going to have to go out there.
DF: We’re going to look through the attic.
WB: We should have a surprise inspection of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
DF: Remember how our master tapes are missing for Aja and [the record label] said, ‘Well, you can go in and look yourself?’ It’s the same thing. We’re going to have to crawl around in the storerooms of the Hall of Fame looking for that stuff.
WB: Incidentally, anybody out there who may have, by whatever means, come into possession of the master tapes of the song “Aja” from the Aja album, the reward has been increased to $625 if you have this tape. So please don’t deny yourself and your family the added income that could be yours by returning those tapes.
DF: Or you can just send it care of the Hall of Fame and there will be no questions asked.
WB: They’ll put it with the piano and then we’ll be out $625 and we still wouldn’t have our tape.
DF: Oh wait, you’re right.