By Dylan Jones
GQ Magazine – UK
As one half of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen was responsible for what many consider to be one of the greatest albums ever made, 1977’s jazz-infused masterpiece, Aja. With a career that has seen him veer from rock stardom to pathological secrecy, via long periods of inactivity, Fagen remains one of the most enigmatic men in the music industry, and adored by the likes of Kanye West, Daft Punk and Mark Ronson.
“Like most bands from before my time, I discovered Steely Dan through rap music, specifically because “Peg” had been sampled by De La Soul on 3 Feet High And Rising,” says Mark Ronson. “That was about 20 years ago, and I discover new things every time I put a Steely Dan record on. I’m still discovering songs for the first time. No other band managed to let groove and intellect coexist as seamlessly. The most incredible rhythm sections with the most captivating narratives and these crazy chord changes.”
You can tell almost all you need to know about a person by asking them what sort of music they like. And although that’s the sort of question usually only asked (and answered) by boys between the ages of 12 and 18, I was asked it a while ago by someone I’d never met before. It felt like a childish thing to be asked, but even though I could have easily beaten it back by saying something flippant — the last One Direction single, the next Jake Bugg album — I was stumped.
The American writer Chuck Klosterman said that, having for many years experimented with a litany of abstract responses when asked this question, he started to say, with some honesty as well as accuracy, “Music that sounds like the opening 14 seconds of Humble Pie’s ‘I Don’t Need No Doctor’, as performed live on their 1971 album, Performance: Rockin’ The Fillmore.”
Now, never having heard the record in question, I couldn’t comment — although it certainly sounds like the sort of thing I wouldn’t like at all — but apparently it has the desired effect, the reply having the added bonus of changing the conversation, or (preferable, this) ending it entirely.
Usually, the answers to questions like these are either endearingly banal: “Oh, the usual, you know, Jay-Z, the Beatles, a bit of Coldplay”; unbearably pretentious: “the first five Fall singles and pretty much nothing else before or since”; or, in the case of most politicians, simply lies.
Having thought about it myself, I’ve decided to adopt Chuck’s policy. Initially I thought of just saying “Steely Dan,” because it not only shows confidence (by any modern definition of the term, they’re not really what anyone would call cool), but like Marmite, they are an acquired taste, and unless you’re an aficionado, you’ll probably hate them.
However, like Chuck, I’ve decided to be annoyingly specific, and while I thought about singing the praises, yet again, of their sixth album, Aja, the next time someone asks me what kind of music I like I’m going to say, having first locked them in with my most sincere stare, “Music that sounds like the guitar solo in “Green Earrings” (from Steely Dan’s fifth album, 1976’s The Royal Scam), the one that arrives after two minutes and seven seconds, the one that makes you feel as though you’re cruising over the Florida Keys’ Seven Mile Bridge in a rented Mustang.”
And if I were asked what the best album of all time is? Well, it isn’t Nevermind, isn’t Revolver, and isn’t Pet Sounds. Strangely it isn’t even Rumours, London Calling or the Ramones’ Leave Home. No, the best album of all time was released at the end of August 1977, just as the sweltering Summer of Hate was beginning to wilt, a record that has nothing to do with the Sex Pistols, the Clash or the Jam (who all released classic LPs that year), and which has no affinity with the estuarial guttersnipe squall of punk. In fact this record is as far away from the insurgency of punk as southern California is from the Westway.
Steely Dan weren’t just up my street; they were, to paraphrase Nick Hornby, knocking on my door, pressing the intercom and peering through the letter box to see if I was in. Which I was, crouched over the B&O, devouring the pop-art dystopia that was the DNA of the Steely Dan brand (available in different forms on Can’t Buy A Thrill, Countdown To Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied and more).
Aja was their high-water mark. You can keep your Zuma, your Neon Bible, your Back To Black, your Parachutes, and your OK Computer. You can even keep The Chronic. They might all be straight from the heart, but Steely Dan’s Aja offers the delights of a world uncharted by pop groups, past or present. Those who hate the band call them sterile, surgical, cold. Which is sort of the point. Fagen and his band mate Walter Becker — fundamentally sociopaths masquerading as benign dictators — like to give the impression they’re being as insincere as possible, the very antithesis, frankly, of almost everyone else in the music business.
Aja is as gentrified and as anal a record as you’ll ever hope to hear. Fagen and Becker’s masterpiece is a homage to passive-aggressive studio cool, even though they were as disdainful of the palm tree and flared-denim world of Los Angeles as the whey-faced urchins from west London. The band’s nihilism is plain for all to hear, disguised as FM-friendly soft rock. Fagen’s lyrics are dispassionate, the architecture of their songs often labyrinthine, the guitar solos ridiculously sarcastic. Yet on Aja they made some of the most sophisticated, most polished, most burnished music ever heard: “Black Cow,” “Deacon Blues,” “Home At Last” and the rest. Aja is also the record that many musicians rate as the personification of musical excellence. Technically and sonically it is beyond compare. (The late New York Times critic Robert Palmer — no relation to the singer — said that Steely Dan’s music sounded like it had been “recorded in a hospital ward”.)
You rarely meet a musician who doesn’t love some aspect of Aja, and whenever I’ve interviewed a rock star at their home, I’ve often seen a CD copy around the place somewhere. It used to be played constantly in those places where you went to buy expensive hi-fi equipment, and can still be heard in the type of luxury retailers who understand the notion of immersive wealth. Having listened to the album’s “Deacon Blues,” Ricky Ross named his band after it, while “Peg” would become widely known because De La Soul sampled it on “Eye Know.” Three years ago it was deemed by the Library of Congress to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” and added to the United States National Recording Registry. Get them!
At the time Becker and Fagen were hard task-masters in the studio, and would hire dozens of session musicians to record the same guitar solo or drum fill until they felt they had something approaching what they had imagined. They were obsessive perfectionists who spent millions of dollars relentlessly torturing the dozens of Grade-A guitarists who apparently weren’t “yacht-smooth” enough. Musicians would spend hours, sometimes days, in one of the many Los Angeles studios that Steely Dan used to record Aja, only to find that their work had been jettisoned in favour of someone else’s.
“We just kept adjusting our standards higher and higher,” says Becker, “so many days we’d make guys do 30 or 40 takes and never listen to any of them again, because we knew none of them were any good; but we just kept hoping that somehow it was just going to miraculously get good.”
He later said: “The studio is all about the idea of the setup, particularly for men. A room where you have all this technology to help you, and where you have some toys. It’s about that space-age bachelor-pad vibe. The studio satisfies a lot of those urges. And you need air-conditioning, and a book with menus in it. It’s kind of a minimum livable standard, really.”
At the time of Aja, Fagen and Becker were New Yorkers on location in LA, and although they reveled in the recording facilities and the abundance of great musicians, seemingly on tap — they spent their days getting studio tans as opposed to any other kind — they found the city faintly ridiculous.
“LA was certainly a lot of laughs,” says Fagen. “Neither of us really liked it, because we just weren’t LA-type people. We called it Planet Stupid. Nobody seemed to understand us there.”
“Becker and Fagen are interesting characters, sort of isolationists by nature,” said one of their session musicians at the time. “They live in these houses in Malibu, not near anybody, and I have a feeling LA helps them keep their music going on a certain level — they’re almost laughing at the people in their songs.”
Almost? Still, they weren’t above sentimentality. There was always a kind of skeuomorphic feel about Steely Dan records, in that they are imbued with a certain nostalgia, even though the songs themselves were incredibly modern.
Aja was a case in point. Released at a time when both punk and disco were experiencing their own apotheoses, it seemed completely at odds with anything else. As a testament to that, the record was remixed 13 times in the five months before its release. Becker and Fagen were scathing about the hard-rock world — finding groups like Led Zeppelin and Bad Company preposterous — and were far more interested in the construction of old jazz records. For them, the only correct response to the entire culture of “rock” was to be dismissive about it. They were occasionally, and unfairly, compared to the soporific jazz-rock that seeped across US radio in the Seventies, as their obsession with technical proficiency was mistaken for musical indolence.
Fagen and Becker were far more radical than that, and although they expressed the same disdain for punk and disco as they felt for the hegemony of mainstream rock, they enjoyed the fact that both were rebelling against the orthodoxy of FM radio. Not only that, but Fagen always seemed to be singing with one eyebrow raised.
Nevertheless, Aja oozed a detached sophistication that was all its own, the highly polished surface disguising awkward time signatures and extra-credit guitar fills.
“We’re actually accused of starting smooth jazz, which I don’t think is exactly true,” says Fagen. “A lot of the effects we got were intended to be comic, like “Hey Nineteen” (from 1980’s Gaucho). We were in our thirties, still saddled with these enormous sex drives and faced with the problem that you can no longer talk to a 19-year-old girl because the culture has changed. That’s set against an extremely polite little groove. And then the chorus is set to jazz chords, and when you play them on electronic instruments there’s a flattening effect, a dead kind of sound. And it’s scored for falsetto voices, which adds to the effect. To me, it’s very funny. Other people think it’s nauseating.”
Some people rejected the idea that a rock group could sound so slick. For them, rock should be “guts and fire and feeling” in the words of Steely Dan fan Nick Hornby, “not difficult chords and ironic detachment.”
What has never been revealed is how much Becker and Fagen were enthralled by disco. “They had all these records that were just whack-whack, so perfect, the beat never fluctuated, and we didn’t see why we couldn’t have that too,” says Becker, “except playing this incredibly complicated music, and the drummer would go and play a great fill or something and come exactly back at the perfect beat at the same tempo, you know? It seemed like a good idea.”
Like a lot of those obsessed by recondite impulses, both Fagen and Becker were as intimidated as they were dismissive about the popular and the cool.
At the time, Fagen said, “We write the same way a writer of fiction would write. We’re basically assuming the role of a character, and for that reason it may not sound personal.” Becker added, “This is not the Lovin’ Spoonful. It’s not real good-time music.”
White-hot chops and black humour, more like. Yet Steely Dan were actually cooler than anyone. Maybe not on a haberdashery level, but cool all the same.
As the band didn’t project their personalities, determined instead to anonymously tell their tales of dissipated, sun-bleached Seventies California angst, they became faceless. “This is what happens when you don’t construct an archetypal persona,” says Chuck Klosterman. “If you’re popular and melodic and faceless, you seem meaningless. (Look at) Steely Dan, a group who served as the house band for every 1978 West Coast singles band despite being more lyrically subversive than the Sex Pistols and the Clash combined. If a musician can’t convince people that he’s cool, nobody cool is going to care.”
As a personality, Fagen is an acquired taste — but then he always was. He never warmed to the weave of the sleeve and, like his music, was always perhaps a little too cool, dry and fastidious. In this sense an important sign of legitimacy has been missing, but then this is what makes Fagen who he is: someone who doesn’t need validation.
Yet he and his band are revered.
Fagen’s lyrics are dispassionate, the songs labyrinthine and the guitar solos sarcastic
“Years ago, I flew out to LA to visit a girlfriend who dumped me as soon as I arrived,” says Mark Ronson. “I couldn’t change my ticket so I had to stay in LA, miserable, for five days. I bought the Steely Dan songbook and a cheap electric piano and stayed in my room for the duration of the time, teaching myself those songs. I don’t often think of the girl but I use those amazing chord voicings nearly every day.”
Cyberpunk eminence William Gibson is a huge fan, and liberally sprinkles his novels with band references: “A lot of people think of Steely Dan as the epitome of boring Seventies stuff, never realising this is probably the most subversive material pop has ever thrown up.”
“It lifts your heart up,” said the late Ian Dury. “It’s the most consistently upful.”
Film-makers the Farrelly brothers based an entire soundtrack on them, with eight Steely Dan songs covered by the likes of Wilco, Ben Folds Five and the Brian Setzer Orchestra featured in their 2000 movie Me, Myself & Irene. “Only one person turned down our request to do a cover, and that was Jonathan Richman,” says Peter Farrelly. “I called him up and said, ‘Look, will you do a cover of a Steely Dan song?’ He called back and said, ‘Uh, Peter, I’d like to do this, but the lyrics — I don’t know what they mean. I never understood what they were saying.’ When Jonathan sings, he puts his whole heart into it, so he passed.”
They have another film fan in Judd Apatow: “I don’t think I have listened to any band more than Steely Dan,” he says. “They are a bottomless pit of joy. The songs are gorgeous, the lyrics are mysterious and witty. When I was young I used those records as a gateway drug to learn about a lot of great jazz performers. I would read the credits and buy the albums of all the people who played on their records. That led to thousands of hours listening to the Brecker Brothers, Larry Carlton, Phil Woods, Wayne Shorter and countless others.”
The Blackpool singer Rae Morris, who has toured with Noah And The Whale and Tom Odell, is a fan, albeit begrudgingly. “I was exposed to a lot of Steely Dan when I was little,” she says. “I hated it [then] but now I’m starting to think it was a good musical influence.”
Other fans include Phoenix and Daft Punk. The latter have made no secret of their fondness for the band, whose influence can be heard all over last year’s Random Access Memories. “If people still went into stereo shops and bought stereos regularly, like they did during the era Daft Punk draw from, this record, with its meticulously recorded analog sound, would be an album to test out a potential system, right up there with Steely Dan’s Aja and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon,” wrote Pitchfork‘s Mark Richardson. “Daft Punk make clear that one way to ‘give life back to music’ is through the power of high fidelity.”
The band are a sampling smorgasbord, and have been grazed by Beyoncé (“Black Cow” on the J’Ty remix of 2004’s “Me, Myself And I”), Ice Cube (“Green Earrings” on 1992’s “Don’t Trust ‘Em”), Hit-Boy featuring John Legend (“The Boston Rag” on 2012’s “WyW”), Naughty By Nature (“Third World Man” on 1999’s “Live Or Die”) and dozens more. Kanye West famously sampled their 1976 hit “Kid Charlemagne” on his 2007 single “Champion,” although not without a lot of heavy lifting. “From time to time, we get requests for licences for hip-hoppers to use part of an old song or something,” says Fagen. “We usually say yes, but we didn’t like the general curve of the way that one sounded…
“Kanye actually sent us a sample of his tunes and, frankly, Walter and I listened to it, and although we’d love some of the income, neither of us particularly liked what he had done with it. We said no at first, and then he wrote us a handwritten letter that was kind of touching, about how the song was about his father, and he said, ‘I love your stuff, and I really want to use it because it’s a very personal thing for me.'”
Surprisingly, the plea worked.
Somewhat perversely, Fagen and Becker were the winners of the 1999 award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for the most-played rap song, “Deja Vu (Uptown Baby)” by Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz, who had used the intro from “Black Cow.” “Ascap sent us these handsome plaques, but they told us we shouldn’t come to the ceremony,” said Becker. “They said there was some violence the year before and we should stay at home. So I did.” The rappers, who had originally used the song without a licence, managed to irritate P Diddy, too. According to Fagen, “They were angry because the sample had already been licensed for Puff Daddy and Mase. We actually heard that Puff Daddy was riding around in a limo with Lenny Kravitz and went crazy when he heard it. He said, ‘They stole my sample!'”
Donald Fagen met his future songwriting partner Walter Becker while studying at Bard College, a private liberal arts college in Annandale-On-Hudson in New York State, in the mid-Sixties. He was 19, Becker two years his junior. “I was walking past this small building that they used for entertainment of the student body, who were very idle and bored most of the term,” says Fagen. “And I heard what I assumed was Howlin’ Wolf playing… I walked in and there was Walter with this red Epiphone guitar.” They clicked immediately, both being shy, snarky smartasses obsessed with bookish cool.
As a boy, Fagen was deeply into sci-fi, and was even a member of the Science Fiction Book Club. “That was the golden age of science fiction; all the great writers were active then. I loved CM Kornbluth, AE van Vogt. I liked the guys who were really social satirists. A lot of these guys came out of the socialist movement of the Thirties, and they had a very funny way of criticising society. I really learned a lot from them. Certainly (from) Alfred Bester. He was a New Yorker. His first novel, The Demolished Man, got the rapid flow of life in the city, which I think is still present. There’s something about the flow of Alfred Bester’s prose that I think affected the way Walter and I write lyrics.”
When Fagen was a teenager, cool was rare, cool was underground. Nowadays the very idea of being hip is so commodified — and so available — that it is simply a part of a lifestyle experience. Back then, in the days when you had to seek out culturally subversive writers and like-minded souls, being cool meant being part of a very small club.
“When Walter and I met, we had a constellation of enthusiasms, really: science fiction, jazz, black humour, novels by Thomas Berger, Terry Southern, Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut especially. That certainly influenced the lyric writing. We also liked comic songwriting, like Tom Lehrer. He was a piano player and songwriter who wrote these grim, funny songs (Exhibit A: ‘Poisoning Pigeons In The Park’). And then we were both fans of Frank Zappa and the Fugs.”
Back then, in the days when you had to seek out culturally subversive writers and like-minded souls, being cool meant being part of a very small club.
He was also a huge fan of WC Fields, a man who understood that “most of life is just, you have to have the appearance that you know what you’re doing.”
Fagen and Becker started writing together, and eventually — after deciding to pursue songwriting as career when they left college — spent months pestering the publishing teams in New York’s Brill Building before being hired almost on a whim as staff songwriters by ABC Records producer Gary Katz and shipped out to California. Having initially tried to form various groups — with traditionally clever-clogs names such as Leather Canary and The Bad Rock Group (at one point employing fellow student Chevy Chase as drummer) — they realised their forte was writing, not performing. Then, finding their songs were unsuitable for ABC’s artists — why would the likes of Dusty Springfield want to sing spiteful, gloomy songs about goofballs, druggy hipsters and lovesick aliens with macrocephalic heads? — they decided to form a band, building a musical edifice around them with the finest studio musicians they could find.
When they first started looking for talent, they answered an ad seeking musicians: “No assholes need apply.” And as Becker and Fagen didn’t think they were assholes, they got in touch. They started recruiting like-minded musicians, and eventually came up with a band who were hired for their musical ability rather than any notions of cool (which Fagen and Becker were convinced they both had in spades). And so two droll East Coast jazz buffs were responsible for creating one of the seminal West Coast rock bands of the early Seventies, an ever-expanding group who would produce some of the decade’s most important albums. From 1972’s Can’t Buy A Thrill and 1973’s Countdown To Ecstasy, to 1980’s Gaucho, Steely Dan perfectly fused West Coast cool with East Coast cynicism (as someone said recently: the Eagles by Woody Allen). And got away with it: their records sold in their millions.
Musically, they favoured weird key changes, roller-coaster twists and jazz-driven hooks, while their songs were sardonic, sour and full of wit. They were the smartass eggheads of rock, treating Chandleresque or sci-fi scenarios with sophomore black humour. As the New Yorker put it: “The lyrics were generally jaded assessments of young women, the older men who coveted them, and other humans caught at their least flattering moments.” Even their moniker was sarcastic, being the name of a dildo in William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch.
Highly metropolitan, they excelled at manipulated isolation, while Fagen and Becker were labelled the most cynical and ferociously intelligent songwriters in the business. “Our music is somehow a little too cheesy at times and turns off the rock intelligentsia for the most part,” said Fagen in the mid-Seventies. “At other times it’s too bizarre to be appreciated by anybody.” Experts said they welded jazz and rock into an alloy so smooth and shiny it was difficult to tell where the one ended and the other began, sneering at the world from a position of bohemian superiority so rarefied it was hard to tell exactly where it was situated.
“We were interested in a kind of hybrid music that included all the music we’d ever listened to,” says Fagen. “So there was always a lot of TV music and things in there. It was very eclectic, and it used to make us laugh: we knew something was good if we would really laugh at it when we played it back. We liked the sort of faux-luxe sound of the Fifties, there was just something very funny about it. I grew up in a faux-luxe household, and it was a very alienating world, so for me it has the opposite effect: muzak is supposed to relax you, but it makes me very anxious. So in a way, I think I get it out of me by putting some of it in my songs. Then I start to laugh at it when I hear it.”
They were never very good at interviews, or at least couldn’t be bothered to hide their disdain for music journalists. During one such encounter, Becker said to the unsuspecting hack: “This is beginning to remind me of the joke where the guy from Oklahoma goes up to a New York cabbie and says, ‘Excuse me, could you tell me how I can get to Times Square, or should I just go f*** myself?'”
Even their moniker was sarcastic, being the name of a dildo in William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch.
In a business that largely revolves around communication, both men have taken great delight in being as unengaged as possible.
Fagen and Becker’s forte was the intricate nature of their records, and they hated taking their band out on the road, which they saw as an endless litany of musical compromises. So eventually they did what the Beatles did, stopped touring and moved into the recording studio. At the time someone asked Fagen how they had managed it, and he said: “Easy. We fired all the roadies so we couldn’t go.”
When they returned to the studios in 1979 to record Gaucho, knowing Aja would be a hard act to follow, their obsessions got worse, exacerbated by Becker’s substance abuse. Then, in January 1980, Becker’s girlfriend died of a drug overdose, causing him to withdraw from recording even further. Three months later, he was knocked down by a New York cab and hospitalised with fractures to his right leg.
On Gaucho, they were using up to six different rhythm sections for the same song. One of the small army of guitarists called in was Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. He described the experience as “like getting into a swimming pool with lead weights tied to your boots.” Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro, who played on the title track, says that, “From noon till six we’d play the tune over and over and over again, nailing each part. We’d go to dinner and come back and start recording. They made everybody play like their life depended on it. But they weren’t gonna keep anything anyone else played that night, no matter how tight it was. All they were going for was the drum track.” Fagen was so neurotically perfectionist in the studio that people called him “Mother.” (While recording his vocal for “Home At Last,” he allegedly spent four whole days punching in the words “Well, the” at the start of the chorus.)
In 1981, shortly after the release of Gaucho — predictably, by far their weakest record — the band fell apart, with Becker skulking off to Hawaii to get rid of his drug habit, and Fagen sloping off to write a solo album. The record that materialised just a year later, The Nightfly, was another masterpiece. A concept album about the golden age of the Fifties, the record was blatantly autobiographical, with many of the songs touching on the tropes and moods of the decade. The “Nightfly” himself was largely based on the DJ Jean Shepherd, along with other broadcasters such as Symphony Sid, Mort Fega and Ed Beach.
“I used to live 50 miles outside New York City in one of those rows of prefab houses,” says Fagen. “It was a bland environment. One of my only escapes was late-night radio shows that were broadcast from Manhattan — jazz and rhythm and blues. To me the DJs were romantic and colourful figures and the whole hipster culture of black lifestyles seemed much more vital to a kid living in the suburbs as I was. A lot of kids went through the same thing, although I guess as I listened to jazz I was in a minority. That’s why there was an explosion of hipsterism in the Sixties, although it turned into something else.”
The album’s cover artwork featured Fagen as the Nightfly himself, wearing a suitable collared shirt and tie, speaking into an old-fashioned RCA 77-DX microphone. Ever the stickler, in front of him is a turntable, an ashtray and a pack of Chesterfield Kings cigarettes. On the table you can also see a copy of the 1958 jazz album Sonny Rollins And The Contemporary Leaders. Behind him, the clock says 4:09.
Then, for the next ten years, Fagen appeared to go into therapy, no doubt discussing the writer’s block that plagued him for nearly a decade. He dabbled in soundtracks and production, and even started writing a column for a film magazine, but he wouldn’t re-emerge properly until another concept album, 1993’s sci-fi-tinged Kamakiriad. Here, a Fagen-like protagonist sets out, in his steam-powered Kamakiri car, across an American landscape that’s both futuristic and debilitated. The record evoked a De Chirico painting or a Michael Mann film, an aching juxtaposition of hot sun and cool metallic shadows.
Since then, there have been two more Fagen records, and two from a reformed Steely Dan, containing songs which, when jumbled about on an iPod, sound like they were recorded by the same people at the same time.
If The Nightfly was about adolescence, and Kamakiriad about Fagen’s mid-life crisis (albeit filtered through the conceit of science fiction), 2006’s Morph The Cat was about mortality. Written in the fallout from 9/11, it was a record full of apprehension.
“I didn’t see the actual thing happen, but I was stuck in town for a few days afterwards, because you couldn’t leave,” says Fagen. “The bridges and tunnels were all secured and there was no traffic. I saw the people walking uptown, trying to get home, and a lot of people covered in soot. There were fighter planes going overhead… Then this huge cloud of smoke downtown started climbing towards the moon. It was very strange. Everyone was in shock. So not only did everything about the town change, you were also seeing it from a shocked perspective… While all the police were downtown, they had these cadets from the police academy, these grey uniforms I’d not seen before, controlling traffic at the big intersections. It was their first chance to exercise power, and I noticed they were kind of bullying people around, which had a real wartime vibe about it.”
The album was written in a shroud of paranoia, smack in the middle of the Bush era. “The Clinton era, if it didn’t have hope, at least had the illusion of hope,” said Fagen at the time. “But I was born into paranoia, I’m a hydrogen-bomb baby, with the air-raid drills and all of that stuff. I grew up with the almost certain expectation of worldwide nuclear war. So I’ve always felt I was living on borrowed time, I was taught to think that way. Then after the nuclear threat died down, you had the Vietnam war on TV every night. There were a few decades after that when there wasn’t that much overtly threatening, but what’s happening now is like it’s back to living in terror all the time.”
The album contains the extraordinary “What I Do,” a conversation between a younger Fagen and the ghost of Ray Charles, in which the great pianist advises the lesser on how to emulate his success with the ladies. “I think Ray Charles was one of the most mysterious people ever,” says Fagen. “Just watching him, the way his body moves — for a kid from New Jersey to see that kind of passion, that was really revelatory for me. At that point I was living in the suburbs, and even though I was a jazz fan when I was very young, and used to hearing passionate performances on records, the general tendency of jazz in the Fifties was cool, so seeing Ray Charles, who had that much gospel in his style, you could tell he was utterly authentic.”
In 1993, having hated the experience the first time around, the band started playing concerts, although I know to my cost that this can be an enervating experience; live the band can come across as self-indulgent and noodly, while the crowd is usually made up of 50- and 60-something men dressed in ill-fitting T-shirts and inappropriate jeans. As for the new records, while they’ve been good, often as good as the earlier ones, none of them surpass them.
Fagen is a professional grouch, and while he is one of the least high-profile grumpy old rock stars still treading the boards, his Eeyore-ish tendencies are famous in the industry. He is not what you would call loosey-goosey, and in recent years has been described as behaving like a college professor trying to get fired.
“I basically listen to the same 40 albums that I listened to in high school,” he says. “I had much better taste then. I was a kid jazz fan. I only like seven or eight of the greatest artists: Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk… And I like big-band arrangers, like Gil Evans. There’s a band called the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra that I used to like for the arrangements.”
Last year, Fagen became a bona fide author, albeit tentatively, with his memoir, Eminent Hipsters. As an eminent hipster himself, Fagen is more than adequately qualified to write about cool, although the book was a lot less expansive than it could have been.
He is not what you would call loosey-goosey, and in recent years has been described as behaving like a college professor trying to get fired.
The first half of the book is a collection of portraits of the cultural figures who influenced Fagen growing up in New Jersey in the early Sixties, including Jean Shepherd, composers Henry Mancini and Ennio Morricone, and Ray Charles. The second half of the book is a kind of geriatric Diary Of A Rock’n’Roll Star, and catalogues in exhaustive detail the trials and tribulations of touring in your 60s.
As you would expect from someone who has been one of the most consistently mordant voices in rock, Fagen can write. Here he is describing Blake Edwards’ TV detective series, Peter Gunn: “Edwards’ camera eye seemed to take a carnal interest in the luxe and leisure objects of the period, focusing on the Scandinavian furniture, potted palms, light wood paneling and sleek shark-finned convertibles. It was, in fact, all the same stuff my parents adored, but darkened with a tablespoon of alienation and danger. Sort of like seeing a smiling Pan Am pilot climb out of his 707 with a copy of La Nausée sticking out of his back pocket.”
Eminent Hipsters is full of such gems, although for those who have silently worshiped Fagen from afar for too, too many years, perhaps he could have dug a little deeper into his psyche, and described some of the personal and professional motivations that have contributed to one of the most important and influential bodies of work in all pop.
But then perhaps that wouldn’t have been cool.