By Tom Lanham
San Francisco Chronicle
NEW YORK — For the past 35 years, with his smooth-jazz outfit Steely Dan, Donald Fagen has cultivated an ice-blue, cocktail-hour profile that’s always been several notches classier than whatever rock was happening at the time. Ditto for his three solo albums — 1982’s The Nightfly, 1983’s Kamakiriad and the just-issued Morph the Cat. With his often funky keyboards, feathery vocal delivery and metaphorical wordplay, Fagen has become so cool all he needs is the beatnik beret and Wayfarer shades.
So it’s startling to meet the man and find him open, unassuming and droll to the point of goofiness. Comment on his casual attire — jeans, sweatshirt, New Balance running shoes — and he recoils in mock-defensive posture.
“So what did you expect?” he sneers. “Is Mick Jagger gonna be here?”
Actually, Jagger is in evidence, in rather unusual form.
“Wanna see something funny?” Fagen says, waving his cell phone overhead. “I went to see the Rolling Stones at MSG recently, and I had seats right next to the stage, and look!” He punches a button, and a muffled video starts playing of Jagger prancing onstage.
“That’s my Mick Jagger film,” Fagen sighs, flipping the device closed.
Somewhere in his vaults, Fagen says, there’s footage of him and longtime Steely Dan partner Walter Becker looking animated when their names were announced as winners of rock album of the year at the 2001 Grammys for their reunion set Two Against Nature. The duo almost didn’t attend the ceremony.
“Because we were nominated a couple of times, and my first solo album was nominated, too, and I went whenever that was, ’82 or something, and it was so boring I said I’d never go again,” Fagen says. “So I’m amazed that we went. And I think it was more of a career acknowledgement or something like that, because we’d never won anything.”
So yes, Fagen says, it was nice to finally clutch one of those gramophone-shaped statues.
“But the big Grammy thrill for me, actually, was meeting Faith Hill,” he says. “I didn’t know her music very well, but it was a thrill to meet her anyway — she was very gorgeous.” He sighs, rolling his eyes. “And then I found out she was with that Tim McGraw guy. Oh, well.”
He pauses to let the gag sink in. Then a smile slowly creeps across his unshaven mug.
Fagen is like a good in-joke. His humor is so subtle, his lyrics so laced with double-entendres, his motifs so deceptively simple, you either get him or you don’t. From Steely Dan’s more rock-oriented Pretzel Logic years through the stark sociopolitical commentary of 1976’s definitive The Royal Scam to its fusion-soulful about-face on subsequent breakthroughs Aja and Gaucho, the band was, like the most elegant mixed drink, an acquired taste.
Only Fagen’s most devoted followers will understand that his solo albums were intended as a life-spanning trilogy.
“The Nightfly was about the point of view of a younger adolescent,” he says. “And Kamakiriad was about midlife, so I figured, ‘Well, I should do one more about the endings of life.’ In that sense, I wanted to complete that trilogy. And with Morph the Cat, I felt, ‘Yeah, I did that. I got it right.'”
The silky vibes/sax/trumpet-buttressed title track sets the laid-back pace, and the disc never wavers. Fagen, 58, easily keeps his cool while dipping into R&B (“What I Do”), Fender-piano funk (the dancing-with-death rumination of “Brite Nitegown”), hushed cabaret smokiness (“The Great Pagoda of Funn,” a celebration of his 13-year-marriage to composer Libby Titus) and the gently jagged jazziness of “Mary Shut the Garden Door,” a tongue-in-cheek slam on neocons.
Lyrical undercurrents, Fagen says, revolve around death — “on a personal level” with the death of his mother in 2003, “and I think Sept. 11 on a sort of social level.” Even his Morph creation — a huge feline reminiscent of “My Neighbor Totoro” that floats benevolently above Fagen’s native New York — has a certain post-Sept. 11 creepiness to it. It seems friendly, but is it?
Fagen sips his morning coffee, settles back in a comfy couch at his label offices and chuckles.
“The good thing about Morph the Cat is that it has many meanings,” he says with a wink. “But I do see it as something that narcoticizes the populace, the sum of whatever has numbed the brain for the past 40 years. When I was a kid, I used to read Mad magazine, in the early days when it had a bit of a bite. And one of their main targets was what the youth was then calling Madison Avenue, which meant the advertising business. So I grew up being very wary of Madison Avenue, but they’ve won. Despite Mad magazine, they’ve won, in the sense that it’s hard to know what reality is anymore, because there’s almost nothing to compare it to. So Morph has stolen reality from the world — he makes everybody feel good, but he’s just an old reality thief.”
Fagen believes that technology now rules us, not the other way around. Which is why he no longer fears death.
“It’s so complicated just to use the phone these days that you figure the human lifespan is just about right,” he says. “You have to memorize so many numbers and acronyms, why bother to go on? At this point, technology is finally making life so difficult, but it’s funny, because people don’t seem to be aware of it — how much time it’s taking out of their day. But I’m acutely aware of it, to the point where I don’t even want to make a phone call anymore.”
Yet the portable camera-phone can capture a decent fuzzy likeness of Mick Jagger, if necessary. Or a quick shot of Morph, should you see him floating overhead.
Fagen swears that he does hit the town a lot these days, in contrast to his reclusive ’80s days, when he endured debilitating writer’s block for most of the decade. He can laugh about it now, but back then, it was no joke.
“I think when I did The Nightfly it was more personal and exposed than the stuff I did with Walter, because Walter and I had this kind of collective persona that was the Steely Dan operation. And that kind of scared me that I was so exposed, and it took about 10 years to recover from it. But I used to work every day and write music — I just didn’t like what I was writing. So the time wasn’t wasted — I did learn a lot.”
As soon as his spring solo tour ends, Fagen plans on regrouping with Becker for an autumn Steely Dan shed jaunt, and possibly a new Dan album. As the “What I Do” track testifies, he’s flying under a confident new flag, either way.
The turning point, he says, “wasn’t when I got a Grammy or anything like that — it’s something that’s happened gradually over the years, and it has to do with when you feel the cumulative work that you’ve done has this kind of rightness about it. Finally you say, ‘Well, yeah — that sounds like the way I intended it to sound’ — I have the skill now to do that.”