By Paddy Kehoe
Since their formation in the early Seventies, their days of hit single success and the seigneurial, yet still frantic years of the present, Donald Fagen has led Steely Dan through thick and thin.
That jazz-inflected, but essentially rock combo has always been a long-tailed ensemble of commissioned musicians gathered around the snarly vocals and lush keyboards of Fagen and the acerbic, edgy guitar of Walter Becker.
These two wise guys have always been the definitive anti-heroes of rock ‘n roll, painstakingly searching out the greatest players — be it horn section, drums or lead guitar — in a kind of manically- driven, Wagnerian quest for perfection.
Looking at those many YouTube performances from tours across the USA, it would seem that such highly-skilled players — and, of course the statuary line-up of three female backing singers — are hired as much for glamour as for exceptional musical accomplishment. Becker and Fagen have never pretended to the least shred of showbiz glamour and always considered themselves to be under-privileged when it came to such tinselly allure.
Curiously they remain equally modest and self-deprecating about their astonishing musical and imaginative prowess, their deathless songs that mix the wistful and the sardonic as no other duo have done in the history of rock ‘n roll.
In sum, Steely Dan are arguably the greatest band ever to come out of East Coast USA (okay, okay, there will be many contenders for this.) Let me re-phrase — there are many who did their Leaving Cert in 1973, 1974 and 1975, say, who will stoutly affirm the above contention, no contest.
In his sort-of autobiography, Eminent Hipsters, Fagen, born 1948, investigates the great variety of musical sources, including Ike Turner and Henry Mancini, which he drew on while growing up as a gawky musical apprentice in a nondescript New Jersey suburb.
Philip Larkin also grew up in the bedroom of boredom, he too was nerdy and loved jazz, but he couldn’t have written the following companionable, Huck Finn-like disclosure. “At this point, I should probably disclose that, in truth, both my parents, though not without their eccentricities, were basically a couple of sweethearts.”
He recalls his years at Bard College in New York where he met Becker in 1967. He heard his guitar-playing before he actually saw the young musician. “But this wasn’t the trebly, surfadelic, white-guy sound I was used to hearing from other student guitarists, “ Fagen enthuses. “This fellow had an authentic blues touch and feel, and an authentic vibrato.”
There is a frequently hilarious diary of a recent tour with the so-called Dukes of September, featuring Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs. Age and a certain sense of infirmity make touring seem mildly ridiculous to a man of his years. “Also, I feel like I was beaten by bullies while I was asleep,” goes one entry. “Maybe that massage. Singing too hard, I think I blew a gasket. I can feel it in my throat.”
Inter alia, he reprises the text of a 1989 interview he did for Premiere magazine with Ennio Morricone. Fagen mentions seeing Fellini’s La Dolce Vita as a student. “La Dolce Vita foused on a small group of people who got up at eleven pm and lived at night,” the great composer observes. “While I, then as now, got up at five in the morning to compose and was asleep by nine in the evening.”
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