“Becker and Fagen later said that if, when they were listening back to one of their songs, it didn‘t make them howl with laughter, they regarded it as a failure.” (from Steely Dan by Brian Sweet)
From a 2006 interview with Donald Fagen:
“Chris: And I’m curious do you — well it sounds like maybe you’ve answered this — but do you consciously sort of shut out anything that’s going on with contemporary music trends or…?
Donald: It’s not really necessary, because I don’t think anything has happened for 30 years or so.”
And again an interview with Fagen from Herald.co.UK, Feb. 23, 2006 with Neil Drysdale:
“Donald: I like it when songs develop in some way and four minutes usually isn’t sufficient time for something to develop musically. I’m still plugged into the Duke Ellington model, something akin to classical music, where you start with a theme, then expand on it, bit by bit, and veer off at tangents, and strive your utmost to book the listener on a mystery journey where he or she can’t quite guess the final destination and then, hopefully, they get caught up in the puzzle and stay on for the ride, because, when you get a decent groove going, time flies …”
And stealing from a completely unrelated source, here are a few words from a great Canadian songwriter that apply particularly to Steely Dan:
“A man needs a cage in which to be free” -Graham Shaw, 1978
No songwriting duo ever constructed a more perfect cage for their session musicians than Fagen and Becker. They hired the best and spent outrageous amounts of studio time and money in the 1970s urging those musicians to come up with unique fills, tasty solos, memorable musical turns of phrase, unfamiliar timings, and in doing so they generally drove those musicians crazy. Particularly when the guys played their asses off and came up with 30 or 40 versions of their own little tracks, only to be dismissed without a word by Steely Dan‘s longtime producer Gary Katz and told their stuff wouldn‘t be making it on to the album. Fagen, you see, was too shy to tell them himself.
The lyrics to their songs were widely regarded as impenetrable, fueled as they were by in-jokes based on the duo‘s early days together at Bard College. They were heavily influenced by Dylan, Jack Kerouac and Charlie Parker. They were avid readers of science fiction, contemporary literature, and the classics. They spent most of their time indoors with books, music and recreational drugs. They were very fond of the Beat poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso. Ferlinghetti‘s book A Coney Island of the Mind had been required reading for almost every young writer for almost ten years by the time our boys made it to college in the mid-Sixties:
“I am an American.
I have a passport.
I did not suffer in public.
And I‘m too young to die.
I am a selfmade man.
And I have plans for the future.
I am in line for a top job.
I may be moving on to Detroit.
I am only temporarily
A tie salesman.”
(From “Autobiography” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti)
These could be lyrics from the next Steely Dan album, even now. Might be a great project for Fagen and Becker – to write some music for the lyrics of Ferlinghetti, Corso (his poem on Marriage is a classic of wry humor), and other Beat Poets. If Clapton can go back to his roots and issue Me and Mr. Johnson then Don and Walter should look into honoring their mentors in a similar vein.
When Donald Fagen and Walter Becker first went looking for a job as songwriters they showed up in the Brill Building in New York on 49th Street and Broadway. Kenny Vance, who played with Jay and The Americans, tells of meeting them that day in 1969.
“They looked like insects, with no vibe coming from them. Like librarians on acid.”
Becker and Fagen were so desperate to break into show business they begged for a chance to play Vance some of the songs they‘d written. Their songs had crazy titles: ‘The Bus Driver is A Fruitcake’, ‘Brain Tap Shuffle’ , ‘Android Warehouse’ and ‘Finah Mynah From China’, and were constructed with weird chord changes, complex and dense lyrics, supported by non-commercial and frightened singing from Fagen.
In short, they were either geniuses or they were completely naïve about what constituted a saleable song, or they were all of both and more. Surprisingly, Vance was impressed with the tunes and arranged for them to be hired to work at a two-track studio upstairs. One thing led to another and they ended up in California where they came to success. However, both of them admitted years later they could never get used to the sunshine and paradisical weather of California. They moved back to New York, and lived on different floors in the same apartment building overlooking Central Park.
All of this can be heard in their songs. And their greatest achievement is the Aja album. They strove for perfection in this work, and it shows; the songs are anything but spontaneous; every note is the equivalent of a Durer etching. In fact with Aja they moved way beyond rock music, and into jazz. These are art songs, the modern equivalent of lieder, and they will one day be recognized as such and they will be performed in creative settings that reveal and illuminate their sources and their musical complexity.
Fagen hated to sing in public and didn‘t particularly enjoy the fact that some of their tunes had become hit records. Particularly he was often heard to revile ‘Rikki Don‘t Lose That Number’ and their earliest breakthrough single ‘Do It Again’. Becker on the other hand struggled with a major drug habit and for years was undependable. The strain showed when they went to record Gaucho, their successor album to Aja. The album cost close to a million dollars to produce and took two years to come together. What‘s more, the duo was undergoing personal conflicts, mostly due to Becker‘s unreliability. They weren‘t in any shape to tour in support of Gaucho even though the album had gone platinum and had won a Grammy as Best Engineered Album. They weren‘t keen on playing their hits and their new stuff was not easy to reproduce on stage. They were writers who could also play, but they did not revel in performing. Their union dissolved in June of 1981 after fourteen years of working together. They moved on to solo albums, most notably Fagen‘s Nightfly in 1982. Missing from that album was Becker‘s lyrical input; the source of Steely Dan‘s droll ironies was suddenly obvious to all.
In 2000 they stunned their faithful fans with a new album: Two Against Nature that showed they still had their groove and their wry lyrics. Like Lennon and McCartney, their best work has almost always been done in collaboration. The album sold well, better than any of their solo releases, and they were encouraged to begin touring again. They gained a new and appreciative audience as well as substantial back-catalog sales. However, as good as their later work is, individually and collectively, none of their work has met the standards of Aja . From perfection, there is only one direction, and it is not more perfection.
‘Home At Last’ is an updating of Homer‘s Odyssey, a jazz-rock retelling of what Odysseus might have reflected on his endless journey homeward. Or maybe it‘s the story of a guy who wakes up one day to realize he is riding a mystery train and there is no way home. Like Donald Fagen said, when you get a groove going, time flies.
Watch Donald Fagen talk about the making of “Josie”