The Backpages Interview

This week sees the release of “Everything Must Go,” the follow-up to Steely Dan’s Grammy-grabbing “Two Against Nature.” BARNEY HOSKYNS discusses war, economics and online smut with WALTER BECKER and DONALD FAGEN

RBP: It’s ironic that you’re now on Reprise. Shouldn’t you have been on that label from the start?

WB: Well, in fact we did make a deal to be on that label in 1976 or ’77, but we had to play out our ABC deal.

Was “Everything Must Go” easier to make than “Two Against Nature”? I’m thinking it may have been the fastest record since “The Royal Scam.”

WB: Yeah, especially since we took big chunks of time off within that time frame.

And all done in New York?

WB: All except for a couple of weeks in Hawaii, in the winter.

DF: And a weekend at Bearsville up in Woodstock.

Where you still have a house, Donald?

DF: Yes.

How did you end up on Reprise?

WB: Well, Giant Records was absorbed into Warner-Reprise, and simultaneously Irving Azoff decided it would be much more fun to be a manager again anyway.

DF: At any rate, just as we were about to return from our triumphant 2000 tour, the label dropped us.

WB: They failed to pick up our option.

DF: Also, “Kamakiriad” was on Reprise -– I always thought because they were ashamed to put me on Warner Brothers. Like they wanted to keep us out of that Joni/Randy thing.

WB: Well, I don’t know that they were not on Reprise, for that matter…

They were.

DF: Oh well, wrong again.

WB: You know, at different times you would sort of get different explanations of what it meant to be on Warner versus what it meant to be on Reprise. And I think right now that Reprise has an independent promotion staff and so on.

You were obviously at one remove from the whole Warner-Reprise singer-songwriter scene. What was your view of it at the time?

WB: Well, to say that we were on the fringes of it would be to exaggerate our closeness to it. Once we had Gary Katz hire Richie Furay, but that was about as close as we got. And we hired Tim Schmidt to do some high parts on our records, before he was in the Eagles.

DF: We had already known Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman [the Turtles] a little bit, and I think my vision of LA was coloured by them before we even moved there, because of those Frank Zappa parodies of hippie culture in LA. So I already knew about the Whisky a Go Go and what it represented –

WB: And Ben Frank’s on the Strip –

Did you ever meet Zappa?

DF: We opened for him on a run in the Midwest in the ’70s, so I talked to him a little bit on the plane a couple of times. He was great.

You must have overlapped with the world of the Eagles back in the ’70s, since you shared a manager in Irv Azoff.

DF: But we were pretty isolated, socially speaking.

“Everything Must Go” is bookended by songs of capitalist crisis – it’s like “The Royal Scam” redux.

WB: In a way –

DF: Just on a much more global level.

WB: Whatever was under way then is more or less being mopped up now. So we wanna throw in our two cents’ worth before it’s too late.

The title track, on one level, is about a small business going belly up, but on another it could be a swan song for Kenneth Lay and Bernie Ebbers.

WB: “Going Out Of Business, Everything Must Go” is a real New York cliché. But as we ended up writing the song, and it became not guys with a little shop but a more corporate sort of thing, there was an element of liberation to it as well. There’s an explosion of sexual energy that’s released by the event, and there’s a whimsical embrace of some of the more enduring elements of life – an attempt to reach out to them, anyway. And all this is in the context of where they knocked down the buildings in New York just a couple of weeks after we started the record.

“Things I Miss The Most” reminded more than anything of “The Nightfly.” In the song you sing about houses on the Vineyard and the Gold Coast -– it’s a kind of rich man’s blues. Is it fair to say that Steely Dan has for some time been associated with expensive taste?

DF: Well, first of all I don’t think with any song that we should be taken as the protagonists ourselves. I don’t have houses on Martha’s Vineyard or the Gold Coast. But I think that as the whole house of cards is starting to come down, people at the top are beginning to feel it as well as the other economic classes.

WB: That was the most fun part about writing the song. Though if anyone out there has my ’54 Strat, I’m willing to take it back, no questions asked. There’s a small reward.

“Blues Beach” could be an outtake from “Kamakiriad.” Are you still smitten with that “faux-luxe” vision of a Utopian future?

WB: I think that particular song to me, rather than being about a possible future, was more of a world of imagination and constructs.

DF: To me it had a lot more in common with “Deacon Blues” and the idea of a sort of bohemian utopia. In “Blues Beach,” the guy definitely has mixed feelings about the place once he gets there == hence the line “the long sad Sunday of the early resigned”.

Is ‘Godwhacker’ George W. Bush?

WB: Somebody else asked us that, but no, we didn’t think of that.

DF: We were just thinking of the Western deity –

WB: Mr. Big –

What’s your view of the current polarisation of the U.S. versus the World?

WB: My fear is that this is analogous to the buildup to the First World War. Even what’s happened already has changed the rules by which international conflicts are addressed. A lot of the restraints on the system have been loosened now.

DF: Very similar to 1914, which was preceded by a long era of peace.

WB: Although in that war, part of what happened was a domino effect of people coming into the war because of treaties and alliances and deals that they had made. And now, in a way, what you’re seeing is that all the deals are being undone, and that’s the scary thing. I fear that it’s the beginning of an era of real lawlessness.

Why was “Slang of Ages” earmarked for you, Walter?

WB: Well, uh, I always want to help out with the vocals, because it’s a lot of work.

[Fagen sniggers.]

WB: Well, it is –

DF: No, yeah –

WB: I always do wanna pitch in, but happily until now I’ve been able to avoid actually having to do anything except offer. This time out, y’know, we got down to the end and here was a song -– unlike almost any other song we’ve ever done – that I actually could sing, even in the key that it was cut in.

DF: And I was extremely delighted to oh-blige. One less nightmare for me.

Is it fair to say that “Green Book” may be the most urbane song yet written about online pornography?

WB: Not exactly. We imagine a pornography beyond online pornography – a pornography involving some sort of magical remote viewing, that flirts somewhere on the borderline between jealousy and intense arousal.

DF: With things like virtual sex, you get this sense that reality itself has become kind of fugitive. Which is part of what’s created the problem we have now, because commercial reality is really a kind of virtual reality.

Isn’t it a little ironic that some people think that Steely Dan are a pair of old farts – the Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau of jazz-funk – when actually you’re writing more trenchantly about this fucked-up virtual world we live in than almost anyone?

WB: Well, I think part of the reason that we were able to slip through the cracks or get in the door in the first place was because you could see what we did at that level and it was mildly humorous yet palatable. It wasn’t necessary to know or be troubled by anything beyond that level.

Gina in “Lunch With Gina” seems to be cast from the same mould as, say, “Janie Runaway”? Do you both have this fixation with difficult women?

DF: Well, y’know…

[Laughter]

DF: I think it’s true that most of the people I am attracted to, male or female… it’s not that I’m attracted to people with mental illness, but people who have a certain kind of creative energy that’s attractive also have certain problems which manifest themselves in different ways.

Steely Dan have become so friendly in recent years. For so long you erected this kind of shield of enigma around you –- could you have been this approachable and cheery back in, say, 1975?

DF: Well, depending on our mood…

WB: Some of the sort of rough edges have been worn off, certainly in my case.

For an act that sold millions of records, you didn’t appear to have much interest in stardom.

DF: Well, maybe. We may have been a little disingenuous about that, I think because we came from the jazz world originally. I think we were probably as arrogant as anyone else in those days, but the emphasis on actual music and composition maybe outweighed some of the other stuff.

I saw you at Wembley a couple of years ago, and you were having a lot of fun.

DF: Yeah, the last couple of years… because we have a good band…

WB: You can even stop playing and they just keep going.

So touring is a far more pleasant experience than it ever used to be.

WB: Well, it wasn’t a pleasant experience before, for a variety of reasons.

DF: That’s why we got off the road, because it was too depressing. It wasn’t all because of the players, and there were good nights in the ’70s.

WB: There was an astonishing gap between our pretensions and the reality of our performances in those days, and it didn’t make us feel any better about what we were trying to do.

DF: We wanted Duke Ellington men behind us, and we wanted to be Duke Ellington men, but we weren’t and they weren’t –-

WB: Absolutely –-

DF: And we still aren’t, but at least we have some hope.

Which old songs do you most enjoy playing live?

DF: We only do the ones we like onstage. Some of them seem to mean something different now.

You didn’t play “Reelin’ In The Years,” and I didn’t particularly mind.

WB: Neither did we.

You didn’t even play ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’.

WB: We very rarely do.

DF: That’s one of our least favourites.

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