FOREWORD: It’s rare when you get the chance to interview a band you grew up with once they receive fame and fortune -especially one with such a mystical aura. But I got to speak candidly to Steely Dan co-leader Walter Becker when the band reassembled following a few solo LPs.
Luckily, by the time these unequivocal ‘70s-based jazz-rock ‘meshers’ got back together to do 2000′s Two Against Nature, they were looking for further exposure.
Three years later, I tried to get Donald Fagen on the phone for follow-up, Everything Must Go, but was turned down. But this Walter Becker piece suffices.
At the Beacon Theatre in ’06, my friend Todd and I met every subsidiary Steely Dan member at a post-gig reception, but not its two main principals. Oh, well. Great show. Fagen’s fine Morph The Cat dropped in ’06. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Indelibly labeled “the ultimate subversive ‘70s band” by lo-fi boho-rock freak Dean Ween, Passaic born Donald Fagen and Forest Hills native Walter Becker are the exalted masterminds behind Steely Dan. Inspired by Jazz legends, Beat Poets, Bob Dylan, and Russian novelist Nobokov, these sinister misanthropes began the Me Decade as precocious sessionmen/ composers at Dunhill Records and wound up the most idiosyncratic FM radio regulars.
When Becker’s masterful studio skills and technical guitar prowess were wed to Fagen’s peculiar, mewly-mouthed nasal whine and keyboard eccentricities, the instant result was ‘72s promising leftfield debut, Can’t Buy A Thrill. A diverse collection of songs highlighted by the harrowing Eastern mysticism of “Do It Again” and the resonating scree guitar fury of “Reeling In The Years,” it seemed like a fluke stroke of genius at the time.
After its ambitious follow-up, Countdown To Ecstacy, gained critical acclaim and expanded their audience (a lip-synched version of its horn-pelted Bard College remembrance “My Old School” made American Bandstand), the twisted Pretzel Logic caught postgrad freaks and studio geeks off-guard with its expansive variety of musical ideas and state-of-the-art production. While the equally fascinating Katy Lied featured the ominous “Black Friday” and the longing New York City contemplation “Bad Sneakers,” The Royal Scam collided shady South of the Border decadence with sarcasm and wry wit.
Their most popular album, Aja, was bolstered by a host of contemporary Jazz fusionists: guitarists Larry Carlton, Steve Khan, and Lee Ritenour; pianists Joe Sample and Michael Omartian; and horn arranger Tom Scott. By late ‘79, Steely Dan reflected on a decade of excess, greed, and turmoil with the somewhat restraint Gaucho. The cocaine-mired basketball ode “Glamour Profession,” the ‘Cuervo Gold and fine Colombian’ of the generational faux-pas “Hey 19,” and the chemically-indulged recapitulation “Time Out of Mind” were significant signposts.
Since then, Becker has recorded the under-appreciated 11 Tracks Of Whack and produced Rickie Lee Jones and China Crisis. Fagen headlined the guest-packed Live at the Beacon – The New York Rock And Roll Ensemble and released two uniform studio sets, The Nightfly and Kamikiriad (produced by Becker).
Still cynical after all these years, Steely Dan’s invigorating Two Against Nature continues their rendezvous with escapist romance (the pyro-cryptic love triangle “Gaslighting Abbey,” the menage trois escapade “Janie Runaway,” and the taboo rural narrative “Cousin Dupree”) and shattered expectations (the self-deprecating “What A Shame About Me” and the checkered indictment “West Of Hollywood”). A splendid return to form, Two Against Nature mines the past to insure their future.
Fans will be interested to know Steely Dan was recently featured on a fine VH1 Storytellers segment.
On Two Against Nature, there are ‘60s references to Little Eva, “Cara Mia,” and the Amen Corner. Plus, Gaucho’s “Hey 19″ mentions Aretha Franklin and the Soul Survivors. Were you a big record collector in the ‘60s?
WALTER BECKER: I had very few records until I was eleven years old. Then I got a radio of my own and listened to rock and roll stations. I heard Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson and stuff that was most prominent in that environment. I listened to New York area radio and started buying singles. Not long after that, I became more interested in Jazz. That’s when the earth moved for me. My father had a Dave Brubeck live record with Paul Desmond solos. It was incredibly great. It was musical, lyrical, and swinging. It was a whole new world of music for me. Shortly thereafter, I dropped my allegiance for rock and roll and started buying Jazz records. I wasn’t a big collector in the sense of trying to accumulate a large amount of records. I was buying records by people I liked. When I went to college, I had about 100 albums.
It’s ironic that you phoned me while CBS-FM was playing Jay & the Americans “This Magic Moment.” I’ve heard you and Donald played on one of their records.
WALTER: By the time we were working with those guys, they made one record that wasn’t a big success. There was a song I remember called “Trisha Tell Your Daddy.” It was a cheesy pop song about Trisha Nixon – “he’s everybody’s daddy for awhile” sort of thing. (laughter) So we didn’t catch them on the uphill side of their meteoric rise.
Former creative legends Paul Mc Cartney, Pete Townshend, the Rolling Stones, and Elton John now mark time with tired, rehashed ideas. How has Steely Dan retained its vitality, virility, and creative passion over the years?
WALTER: I’m not familiar with what Paul Mc Cartney and Pete Townshend do anymore. But without referring to anyone specific, I think there’s a tendency for writers and rock and roll people to get nostalgic and mellow out in an unattractive way. Their perspective becomes more ordinary when they reach some certain point in their lives. Donald and I are aware of that and we wouldn’t want to produce that sort of stuff.
Did you go from being a respected sessionman to co-leader of a band out of necessity more than desire?
WALTER: We always had the idea when we started writing that we’d write some songs we’d perform with our own band. It took us awhile to get to the situation where we could do that. We knew early on that our songs were too personal and idiosyncratic in a funny way for other people to do them.
In retrospect, was Can’t Buy A Thrill a crude, formative, rough draft for future endeavors?
WALTER: That’s a fair characterization. There was a natural progress from there.
Did the beatnik poets affect your songwriting?
WALTER: Donald and I are big admirers of Nobokov, a Russian novelist. The beatnik period of writing was a formative period for us. We weren’t an active part of it. Most of it happened before we were at the age to participate in it. But it’s something we identify with and a source of a certain sensibility in modern American life we tapped into. Nobokov was a premiere novelist of the day. He had great characters, great situations, incredible use of language, and had a very creative and imaginative way of exploiting formal devices. He was a seminal post-modernist.
Steely Dan’s songs have many augmented chord structures, difficult dissonant patterns, and disarming cadences. Was that done intentionally so each song would have an iconic permanence typical bar bands would have difficulty duplicating?
WALTER: No. That may be true that they’re harder to play. We do it because we want them to stand out in a certain way. The harmonic stuff in our songs are sometimes derived from Jazz, swing bands, or Classical records. That’s not usually part of the vocabulary of pop, rock, folk or blues-based musicians because those people aren’t always particularly great music readers.
On the title cut, “Two Against Nature,” Donald’s singing about “skanky things” and “slinging dread.” Is Steely Dan influenced by Jamaican music? In the past, it seemed The Royal Scam also had a Caribbean feel to it.
WALTER: Most of the imagery in “Two Against Nature” is Haitian voodoo stuff and the rhythm bed of the song is vaguely African sounding. I don’t think it’s particularly Jamaican. It’s maybe an amalgam of things that came from Africa to the New World and landed in various places.
Who were some of the guitarists that inspired you?
WALTER: Until ‘65 or ‘66, I was mostly listening to Jazz. I wasn’t particularly interested in guitar and bass. But I started listening to Dylan and electric blues records and that got me interested in playing guitar. People like Hubert Sumlin, B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, and Clapton interested me.
Did Steely Dan stop touring in the ‘70s because the studio experimentation of your LP’s outstripped what could have been done live in concert at that time?
WALTER: No. We just stopped because we didn’t enjoy it and thought it was counterproductive to the other things that were more important to us, like writing and recording.