Steely Dan Sells Out Red Butte, But Try Getting a Straight Answer

By David Burger
The Salt Lake Tribune

SALT LAKE CITY — Steely Dan is bringing its “Mood Swings: 8 Miles to Pancake Day” tour to Red Butte Garden Saturday, and the name of the tour sounds apt for a band that takes it name from a dildo.

While the jazz-rock tandem of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen was not known for funny novelty songs, the two Angealans-by-way-of-New York specialized in biting, sarcastic lyrics that often criticized the decadent culture of California and rest of the country — which helps to explain the eccentric, nonsensical name of this tour.

The duo created some of the most complex, interesting songs ever to become staples on classic-rock radio, such as “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Reelin’ In the Years,” and “Do It Again,” but broke up in 1981, only to regroup in 1993.

Today, for many fans, Steely Dan is known as the band which controversially won the 2001 Grammy for Album of the Year, for its first album since 1980, “Two Against Nature,” with landmark records such as Eminem’s “The Marshall Mathers LP” and Radiohead’s “Kid A” being snubbed.

But since regrouping two decades ago, the band has risen from cult status to superstars on the touring circuit, with this show sold out. It is ironic, since in the 1970s, Becker and Fagen quit touring to focus their energies on becoming obsessive studio perfectionists on many now-classic albums (such as 1975’s “Katy Lied” and 1977’s “Aja”). Fast forward to now, and Fagen and Becker have only released one new album since “Two Against Nature.”

In June, Fagen and Becker, who have become well-known in journalism circles for being unwilling and difficult participants in interviews, sat down for a conference call with many media outlets to talk about their music and the “Mood Swings: 8 Miles to Pancake Day” tour. As you will see, they didn’t reveal too much, turning the interview into an exercise of futility that was alternately amusing and exasperating.

But, after all, they take their name from a dildo. So what did we really expect?

Here is Fagen and Becker:

On the name of the tour:

Fagen: In truth, we put up “Mood Swings.” That was the easy part and then we were reminiscing about the old television show which was called “Route 66” and we remembered how in those days they used to name TV episodes using very eccentric titles like “Who’s Afraid of the Muffin Man,” things like that. So, we decided were going to have a subtitle for our Mood Swings tour. In fact, we’re thinking we might change the subtitle every [few weeks].

Becker: We may [do] exactly as Donald says there, but the other thing is, “8 Miles to Pancake Day,” is — this is a reconciliation of the classic space-time dilemma. In other words, time versus distance. In other words, like the Russian army’s sergeant says, “You will dig a ditch from here to dinner time.”

Fagen: That says it all, really, I think.

On new material:

Becker: It’s in the air. It really is. We’re just picking it up here and starting the tour, but I can almost — well, I can smell it. It’s just a smell now. Next thing is then you taste it, then you start to feel it. You know how that goes.

Fagen: We think it’s good stuff. It’s like every time we get together, we end up just going fishing. Maybe it has to do with our age.

Becker: Remember tha time that you chased … by those mullet?

Fagen: Or by those blue fish. Jesus, that was bad, The worst thing is I’ve only been fishing a few times, especially when I was a kid. The first time I went fishing I caught a Box turtle instead of a fish, and the second time I caught a real ugly fish called a lamprey.

Walter: You caught a lamprey?

Fagen: Yes. They have these big suckers on the front.

Becker: You caught a lamprey in New Jersey?

Fagen: Yes, and after that I didn’t go fishing for years because I though like every time I went fishing I would catch these really ugly exotic [fish].

Becker: That’s bad, man. Really bad. Luck of the Irish.

On touring in the 1970s, and why they stopped:

Becker: We had this stupid bet. Remember the bet?

Fagen: What was that?

Becker: The bet about the — you don’t even remember. This is how bad it was. We had a bet that was based on picking a winner of a sporting contest, and the loser of the bet had to wear this really powerful little office clamp that they would use to hold a big stack of papers together throughout the show for the next 10 years for every show we did.

Fagen: That was a turn-off.

Becker: I’m not going to tell you who won the contest, but that was a mistake. I think that contributed to a lot.

Fagen: That is such a ‘70’s story, isn’t it?

On the future:

Fagen: I think a lot of musicians, jazz people, we kind of just don’t project that much into the future. It’s more about what you’re doing right now. For instance, when my father used to parallel park, he used to say, while he was doing it, he’s say, alright, I’m pulling in, now I’m getting closer to the curb, OK, I think that’s it. I think that’s one good thing that my father handed down to me: he lived in the moment.

Becker: And parallel parking, which I’m assuming you knew how to do at one time.

Fagen: Actually, I never got the hang of the parallel parking.

Becker: It’s tough …

Fagen: One thing he did teach me that to get a really good shave you had to shave first in the normal way, and then against the grain.

Becker: That’s why you had that rash when I met you.

On an interviewer mentioning he was from Oregon:

Fagen: Does Oregon have a state song? I think that we could write a good state song for Oregon.

Becker: That’s something like, “Don’t Eat the Pomegranates.”

Interviewer: We don’t really have a lot of pomegranates, though. “Oregon My Oregon” is the state song.

Fagen (suggesting titles): “I Was Playing With My Oregon Yesterday.”

Becker: “Look at the Size of my Oregon” … “Here Today, Oregon Tomorrow.”

On modern music they’re enjoying after being asked what (living) musicians they like:

Becker: I like guys like Charlie Parker. He was only 35 years old when he died [in 1995], so most of his work was, almost, like, “Wow.”

Interviewer: Is there anyone in 2013 you guys like?

Becker: I still like Charlie Parker. You’re not going to talk me out of that.

On whether people should come to their show:

Becker: Unfortunately, the principle of “If it’s good for you, it good for [me]” has fallen into neglect or disrepair of disrepute … A lot of people are missing out, but come down to the show, folks. Come to our show.

Fagen: Forget about your mortgage and your insurance and all that, all that stuff that people tell you are important.

Becker: Come to our show and we’re going to —

Fagen: _[not] make it.

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