By Steve James
NEW YORK – Somehow the idea of rock musician Donald Fagen working in a Borders book store or teaching high-school literature is about as likely as an unambiguous Steely Dan song lyric.
He is, after all, a creative force behind Steely Dan, one of rock music’s most quirky but literate bands. Yet, the singer-keyboardist never thought much would come of his college-days collaboration with guitarist Walter Becker.
“We had fall-back plans. We used to joke that if it didn’t work out we’d end up working in book stores in Manhattan, both of us being quasi-literary types,” Fagen said. “I thought if worse came to worse I’d go get a teaching degree. Luckily I didn’t have to do that.”
By that, he means the more than three decades of accolades for Steely Dan albums dating back to 1972, Fagen and Becker being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the 2000 best album Grammy award for Two Against Nature.
Fagen-Becker music can be deliciously complex and subtle and their lyrics oblique, ironic or cryptic. Rock, by its very definition, doesn’t do subtlety or irony well. But Steely Dan records have sold, even as critics put them down as purveyors of “elevator music” — or worse.
“I don’t care what they say,” Fagen told Reuters in an interview. “They play Mozart in supermarkets too. There’s nothing you can do about it!”
They’ve had their hits, like “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Hey Nineteen” or “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” — from the 1970s. But generally, Steely Dan’s eclectic style appeals to more discerning fans, who appreciate a mesh of jazz, rhythm and blues and rock, electric guitars and horns and sardonic, articulate lyrics.
“I don’t like to lecture and I don’t want to bore people, but I think it’s nice to have pop music that has substance to it,” said Fagen, whose new solo album Morph the Cat, is being released March 7.
‘…With Jazz and Conversation’
“Morph the Cat” is Fagen’s third solo album, following 1982s The Nightfly and Kamakiriad, released in 1993. The 58-year-old singer says they represent three stages of his life — youth, middle age and death.
While not necessarily contemplating his own demise, the death phase was inspired by the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center. New Jersey-raised and now a resident of New York, Fagen also says it’s about the death of culture and politics — subjects explored on the last Steely Dan album, Everything Must Go.
“Tales of love and dread in a time of terror,” is how the The New York Times described Morph the Cat songs about New Yorkers dealing with the aftershocks of Sept. 11. But in typical Fagen style, the backdrop is not always evident and only one song, “The Night Belongs to Mona,” has any specific reference to “the fire downtown.”
The album, which Fagen produced himself, is richly textured with his hallmark organ, guitar and horns, set against the metronome-precise rhythm that upsets some critics.
Addressing the persistent charge that Steely Dan sounds like Muzak on LSD, the singer/songwriter made a big admission. He and Becker once spent $50,000 from an album budget to develop a computerized rhythm sequencer. “But in the end, it was worth paying for a real drummer,” he said.
“There’s a certain effect that happens when you play jazz primarily on electric instruments. There is a kind of leveling out that happens; it does make it easy to listen to while you’re working,” said Fagen.
Sitting beside an electric piano in Warner Bros’ Manhattan offices, Fagan tells of his love of jazz and lists his heroes as Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, as well as Miles Davis’ pianist Red Garland, who he learned to imitate from records.
‘From the foot of Mount Belzoni’
But what of those lyrics, with their literary references, sly word-plays and aural sleight-of-hand?
“I don’t characterize them,” he said. “Maybe it’s for other people to characterize them. I just write what comes into my head, essentially.”
Just as 1960s academics pored over Bob Dylan’s song-poems, Fagen sometimes laughs at the thought of people dissecting his lyrics. “Most of the people who’ve seen these lyrics pretty much get the idea,” he said. “I think we’ve become better at writing more lucid, narrative things than we used to do.”
His solo songs are different from his work with Becker, whom he met when they were both fledgling jazz musicians at Bard College, a liberal arts school in upstate New York (immortalized in Steely Dan’s “My Old School” in which Fagen talked about never going back to Annandale.)
“I think mine are perhaps more subjective (lyrics), more personal,” Fagen said.
He has considered writing some kind of musical theater piece, but prefers the short format, he said.
“I think some people who are good at short-form things often overreach themselves when they try to do long-form,” he said. “I was never that fond of Duke Ellington’s longer pieces. I think he was great at writing four-minute pieces that were perfect.”