Donald Fagen Talks Full-Album Shows

By Alex Biese
Asbury Park Press

Steely Dan is getting ready to do it again.

For the sixth year, the Grammy-winning jazz/rock combo led by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker will be in residency at the Beacon Theatre in New York City staring Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members will highlight their Beacon residency with full-album performances of some of their classic LPs: 1976’s The Royal Scam on Oct. 12, 1977’s Aja on Oct. 18, 1980’s Gaucho on Oct. 22 and the live debut of 1973’s Countdown to Ecstasy on Oct. 28.

Singer/songwriter Rickie Lee Jones appears Oct. 14, 15, 25 and 26, while the band will play “by popular demand” selections on Oct. 19 and its greatest hits on Oct. 29.

Fagen, who was born in Passaic and grew up in South Brunswick, recently fielded some questions via email ahead of the band’s Beacon return.

Q: Steely Dan albums are known for the exacting nature of their construction and creation. How do you believe the work is enhanced, or deepened, by presenting full albums in sequence, as you will be doing at the Beacon?

A: Even though it’s been decades since the albums were made, it feels different to play the songs in sequence, like a little suite. The challenge makes the stuff feel new.

Q: This year’s Beacon Theatre shows include the first full album performance of Countdown to Ecstasy on Oct. 28. What made now the right time to revisit that particular album, and is there anything about those songs, played in that order, that’s surprised you after all these years?

A: I’ll let you know after we actually do it. We’ve only played the songs separately, so the first time will probably be at the show.

Q: This will be Steely Dan’s sixth time presenting full album shows at the Beacon Theatre. What are your thoughts on the push in recent years for acts to deliver full album shows?

A: Fans seem to like it. The band likes it too. I think it’s the suspense, wondering if we’ll get through it without messing it up. Because we don’t like to over-rehearse.

Q: As a fellow New Jersey native, I feel there’s always been a distinctly New Jerseyan sensibility to Steely Dan’s lyrics in that they are at once cynical, darkly humorous and quite intelligent, as seen in songs like “Deacon Blues.” How do you think your New Jersey roots informed your perspective as a writer and storyteller?

A: Walter and I are both from the sprawl that surrounds New York City. Because we were jazz fans at a young age, we each grew up gazing at the Manhattan skyline, the place where we figured the jazz guys lived. Though I still feel very comfortable in Jersey, all the neighborhoods I lived in have been altered beyond recognition.

By the way, Asbury Park was our family’s summer vacation favorite. There was the boardwalk, plus that huge casino building where you could score a cheap toy if you could grab it with that metal claw.

Q: You’ve worked with a fellow New Jersey native, Jon Herington, for the last several years in both Steely Dan and in other projects. What is it about Jon’s playing that complements your and Walter’s songs so well, especially live?

A: Jon told me that he grew up listening to us which, to me, is still an eerie concept. At any rate, we never have to tell him what to do. He had it all sussed out from the gitgo.

Q: Are you writing any new material these days? If so, what’s inspiring you as writer and musician?

A: I’ve been working on new songs for an album. Inspiration? I look for new things, but I always end up listening to hard bop and Stravinsky.

Q: You’re a known science-fiction fan. What was the last great work of sci-fi you read or saw, and what was it about that work that connected with you?

A: I still like the old, satirical stuff: Alfred Bester, Pohl and Kornbluth, William Tenn, and so on. Plus Kurt Vonnegut, though he wasn’t strictly a sci-fi guy.

Q: I’ve heard for years that you and Walter Becker jammed with Chevy Chase in college. If there’s any truth to that rumor, what are your recollections of playing with Chevy?

A: We went to school with Chevy and played in pick-up bands together. He was a solid drummer and also played keyboards.

Q: Rickie Lee Jones will also be appearing at a number of the Beacon Theatre shows. Given the fact that you’ve played on her work in the past and that she’s covered your work, are there any collaborations between Rickie and Steely Dan planned for the gigs?

A: I haven’t spoken to her yet, but it’s possible. She’s a great singer. Walter produced one of her best albums, Flying Cowboys.

Q: Thirteen years after the last Steely Dan album, Everything Must Go, is there any word on a new record on the horizon?

A: It’s hard to say. Those albums were so hard to produce. Maybe we should start a new group. How do you like the name Swifty and the Grifters? Or The Incus Brothers?

 

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