Rockers With Soul

Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen looks back to shared roots and finds jazz, R&B, and something even deeper

By Bernard Perusse
The Montreal Gazette

MONTREAL — It’s been said that although Steely Dan are in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the duo — singer and keyboard player Donald Fagen and guitarist Walter Becker — never truly enjoyed rock. Certainly you won’t find much backbeat boogie on Dan discs, which are often filled with tricky arrangements, urban noir tales and jazz-quality chops.

But uncomfortable with rock? Fagen is not so sure. “It has to do with how old you are and where you start the story,” he said during a telephone interview this week. “I started listening to Chuck Berry when I was a kid, and Fats Domino and Ray Charles and so on, which preceded what they now call rock ‘n’ roll — which is, essentially, when white people started trying to sing rhythm ‘n’ blues and combining it with country music.

“I’m very comfortable with rhythm ‘n’ blues, which has a lot in common with jazz. A lot of early rhythm ‘n’ blues has a lot of bebop elements — like Ray Charles or the Buddy Johnson band, which were like jazz with a backbeat,” he said.

When Fagen and Becker met at New York’s Bard College in 1967, those proto-rock elements were only part of what brought them together and into bands like the Bad Rock Group, which featured Chevy Chase on drums.

“For one thing, Walter and I were both jazz fans, which was a little unusual at the time. We had both been jazz fans as kids, so we had a lot to talk about on that score,” Fagen said. “And like a lot of other guys in our generation, we were also interested in blues and soul music. We had both been in blues bands as teenagers.

“We also had similar interests in reading; we both liked certain authors. And there was a similar way of looking at the world, a similar sense of humour, which was maybe the most important thing,” he said, leaving a beat go by. “By now, of course, we’ve lost our sense of humour — but at the time, it was a big thing.”

One of the most surreal chapters in the Steely Dan saga was written a couple of years later, as Fagen and Becker took a stab at selling their songs in New York City’s Brill Building. In that famous structure, some songwriters created hits, while others struggled to interest publishers and others in the business in their latest compositions — often with a piano as sole accompaniment. Neil Sedaka and Howie Greenfield, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich are among the gold-record gods of the hook who passed through the Brill school.

But Fagen and Becker?

“I think it may have been just before the invention of cassettes,” Fagen recalled. “We got our stuff together in a notebook. I’d play piano and we’d both sing. Unfortunately, we picked a day where almost the entire music business was at some big music business convention. Almost no one was in the Brill except a couple of losers in a few loser offices. But we did our presentation. Most people were not interested.”

The intrepid Dan devotee can easily track those Brill Building songs down, Fagen said. “Unfortunately, we made demos of a lot of those songs, and they’re available on the Internet, to our great humiliation,” he said, before softening his stand on the early efforts. “They were not unlike what we ended up doing later — maybe more juvenile,” he said.

Not long after the Brill debacle, Fagen and Becker formed Steely Dan. The group, originally featuring six charter members, recorded Can’t Buy a Thrill. That album, with its hit singles Do It Again and Reelin’ In the Years, was a radio staple in 1972. Countdown to Ecstasy and Pretzel Logic followed, cementing the group’s reputation as a literate band that stood out with offbeat song structures and musical smarts.

In 1975, Fagen and Becker put the tours on hold, disbanded the group, kept the name and began to use only session musicians. “Although we had a very enthusiastic group of guys in the original band, we had been thrown together pretty quickly,” Fagen said. “It wasn’t exactly our dream band. There were all kinds of problems when we were touring, so we retreated to the studio. We were very interested in making records.”

The studio years produced a series of Steely Dan classics, including The Royal Scam (1976) and their most successful album, Aja (1977). Famously, seven guitarists tried a solo on the Aja song Peg before Jay Graydon’s wonderful break became the keeper.

In a documentary on Aja, filmed for the Classic Albums series, guitarist Dean Parks, who played on the record, said there were two stages to creating Aja’s music: perfection and beyond perfection. During the second stage, Parks explained, the musicians loosened up the perfectly polished performance so it almost sounded improvised.

Fagen’s memory of the process differs. “Some things came quite easily. You’d book the musicians. Other things, you’d be trying for something specific and it didn’t seem to be happening,” he said. “So you’d keep working on it and a kind of atmosphere of desperation would descend — and somehow, you’d break through this kind of depression and come out with a track. I’m not exactly sure how it happened.”

After releasing Gaucho in 1980, Fagen and Becker went their separate ways. Solo projects were released along the way and there were occasional collaborations: Becker produced Fagen’s 1993 album Kamakiriad, for example, while Fagen returned the favour for Becker’s 11 Tracks of Whack, released the following year.

But it was a return to Fagen’s love of soul music that eventually brought the two back together. Libby Titus, now Fagen’s wife, produced some small local shows by an ensemble called the New York Rock and Soul Revue, which featured some legendary rhythm ‘n’ blues players. Fagen joined and the group decided to take its show on the road.

During the Kamakiriad sessions, Fagen asked Becker if he’d like to join the revue’s tour. The guitarist accepted. “During (that tour), we added a couple of Steely Dan songs to the show, and got a great response,” Fagen said.

By 1993, Steely Dan were back on the road. By 1997, they were back in the studio. Two Against Nature was released in 2000 and won a Grammy for Best Album the next year. While Fagen remembered being surprised at beating Eminem, who was then at the peak of his popularity, it was another contender’s loss that sticks in his mind.

“I happened to be looking at Madonna’s face. She was also up for an award,” he said. “The look of disappointment — she took it really seriously. I don’t think we did.”

For 15 years now, the band so closely associated with studio perfection has been back on the road pretty regularly. “By trial and error, we now have a bunch of guys who all feel the groove together in the same way,” Fagen said. “We all basically have our eye on the same target.”

But as demonstrated by their most recent studio disc, Everything Must Go, the duo still has plenty of studio life left. “You want it to sound professional and tight and well-rehearsed — but you don’t want it to sound tight in the sense of nervous or anxious,” Fagen said. “You want it to sound like the guys just sat down and played it. You want that first-take feel.”

Fagen subsequently paraphrased dialogue from The Hustler, in which Paul Newman’s character, pool shark ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson, describes his state. The words could double as a pretty decent Steely Dan mantra. In the film, Felson responds to his manager’s inquiry by saying he feels “fast and loose, man.” “In the gut, I mean,” his manager says. Felson’s reply: “I feel tight, but good.”

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