By Bruce Pollack
At the keyboards, Donald Fagen was the smoky voice and songwriting co-conspirator (with Walter Becker) on all of Steely Dan’s classic hits, from “Reelin’ In The Years” to “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” to “Peg” and “Deacon Blues” and “Hey Nineteen.” Carving perverse lyrics into cryptic and sardonic story lines, wound around a sampling from the literature of pop-rock-jazz-blues melodic constructions, the Dan’s output also included some of rock’s most memorably ragged character portraits, among them Charlie Freak, Rose Darling, Kid Charlemagne, Pearl of the Quarter, and Dr. Wu. Charting the inevitable comedown from a decade of street theater, Fagen and Becker swung from the chandeliers while the roof was caving in.
Now removed from such turbulence, and approaching his songwriting midlife alone, Fagen contemplates the glittering, standard-strewn byways that led him to this juncture in a much more measured fashion. In the last 30 years, he had produced but four albums, including the 2012 release Sunken Condos. As befitting his reclusive reputation, Mr. Fagen agreed to this interview only if he could answer all questions in writing.
Songwriting Style and the Early Years
“I don’t think Walter and I were songwriters in the traditional sense, neither the Tin Pan Alley Broadway variety nor the “staffer” type of the fifties and sixties. An attentive listening to our early attempts at normal genre-writing will certainly bear me out. It soon became more interesting to exploit and subvert traditional elements of popular songwriting and to combine this material with the jazz-based music we had grown up with.
“In college we were both intrigued by certain humorists of the late fifties and early sixties, such as John Barth, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, Terry Southern and Bruce Jay Friedman (I’ve since cooled on a lot of these writers). Walter read a couple of novels by Thomas Pynchon.
“We both thought the predicament in which popular music found itself in the middle sixties rather amusing too, and we tried to wring some humor out of the whole mess. We mixed TV style commercial arranging cliches with Mersey beats, assigned nasty sounding, heavily amplified guitars to play Ravel-like chords, etc. The fairly standardized rock instrumentation of the original group added to the schizy effect. We never tried to compete with the fine songwriters of the era (Goffin & King, Lennon & McCartney). We were after a theatrical effect, the friction produced by the mix of music and lyrics – the irony.”
“At this point I can’t really remember who wrote this verse or that chorus, but the way it often worked out was like this: I would come up with a basic musical structure, perhaps a hook line and occasionally a story idea. Walter would listen to what I had and come up with some kind of narrative structure. We’d work on music and lyrics together, inventing characters, adding musical and verbal jokes, polishing the arrangements and smoking Turkish cigarettes. Of course, the musicians would kick in with arranging ideas, bass lines, etc. when we got into the studio. Working without Walter was shocking to begin with, but I got used to having somebody to bounce ideas off. It wasn’t that difficult coming up with the music, because I basically used to come up with the musical material anyway. But the lyrics were quite difficult. I think I was lucky to be able to draw on my own background for some semi-autobiographical songs.
“Lately I work mostly in the daytime, in a small sunny room. I own a few pieces of electronic gear, but I work at the piano, for the most part. I compose almost every day, usually five or six hours on the average. I also make time to play some standards and jazz tunes and maybe run some scales. I used to be a workaholic (what a terrible word that is) – up all night, running to the piano before breakfast, that sort of thing. Nowadays I sometimes stop to smell those proverbial roses. These days I listen to very little music. When I do, I play old jazz records, Ray Charles, Chicago blues, some French composers, and once in a while, with shutters drawn, I sneak a listen to my crackly copy of Highway 61 Revisited. A goal I have now is to one day write a really terrific song and hear it in a movie theater.”
“When Walter and I decided we weren’t cut out to be leaders of a touring band, we started looking for a more mature (some might say slicker) sound. Our original players went their separate ways and studio players were just the ticket. Because the cost of rehearsal time with studio players was (and is) high, we began to prepare fairly detailed charts before going into the studio, sometimes with the help of one of the musicians on the date. The players would run down the tune a few times and then we’d start recording. With luck we’d get an early take. More often we’d do quite a few. Solos were usually overdubbed and judged on flow and originality; however, a player with a nice touch could get by easily on blues alone.
“Larry Carlton played on quite a few of our records. He’s a real virtuoso. In my opinion he can get around his instrument better than any studio guitarist. He’s also quite a good blues player. He did the solos on “Kid Charlemagne.” The middle solo he did in two takes and we used parts of both. The last solo was straight improvisation. Sometimes a player would come in and rip off a solo like that, other times, if they were playing something which we didn’t think was stylistically consistent with the song, or if they were just having trouble getting any idea, we might suggest a stylistic or melodic idea to get them started.”
“Because most of our tunes’ were written to be performed only by Steely Dan, they don’t lend themselves very well to cover renditions. The lyrics are not the sort that would inspire singers to cover them. And most of the melodies are instrumental type lines, and not songs in the usual sense of the term. By that I mean that a real song, it seems to me, has a kind of melody which is, first of all, very easy to sing. It has a natural flow, usually in a stepwise motion, with consecutive notes, simple arpeggios, and so on. That’s a quality a lot of the great songwriters had. You can sing the melody without any chordal background and it’ll still sound good. The melody is not dependent on the harmony; it’s just a really good melody. I think our songs were derived more instrumentally, more in the way – not to make a comparison in quality – Duke Ellington would write. I think his songs in fact don’t work that well as songs. He wrote for the people in his band, the specific players. He wrote lines he thought they could play well. And although we weren’t writing for instrumental performers – we were writing for my voice – I think our background, because it mostly comes out of arranging and jazz, made us lean toward melodies that had that kind of structure – they’re more chordally situated.
“When I hear the occasional cover I almost always experience what I’ve come to think of as the Bill Murray Effect – i.e., Buddy Greco doing “Born To Be Wild.” ”
Songfacts contributor Bruce Pollock (“The Next to Last of the Rock Journalists”) is the Deems Taylor Award winning author of ten books on music, including Working Musicians: Defining Moments from the Road, the Studio, and the Stage; By the Time We Got to Woodstock: The Great Rock Revolution of 1969; and The Rock Song Index: The 7500 Most Important Songs of Rock and Roll History.