Steely Dan

 Steely Dan

 Donald Fagen – circa 1980

 “Yes I’m dying to be a star and make them laugh / Sound just like a record on the phonograph” – ‘Pretzel Logic’ (Walter Becker, Donald Fagen)

Rock stars are publicity hounds.  They go on tour, standing on stage before huge crowds.  Their faces adorn the covers of their albums.  They ham it up for the cameras in music videos.  Steely Dan is a different proposition.  Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the brains trust of Steely Dan, are publicity shy.  They don’t like touring much.  Their faces are not on the covers of any of their albums.  They don’t make music videos.  A rock band is a fraternal gang of wild boys.  Steely Dan struggles to even meet the description of a band.  They are more like a project, or a concept, which Becker and Fagen direct.  “We don’t mix well,” says Walter Becker.  Yet Steely Dan is a highly regarded rock act – and this is just part of their fascinating contradictory nature.

Donald Jay Fagen is born 10 January 1948 in Passaic, New Jersey, U.S.A.  His father, Joseph ‘Jerry’ Fagen, is an accountant and former entertainer.  His mother, Eleanor, used to sing professionally in hotels in the Catskills region of New York State.  Donald Fagen has a younger sister named Susan.  It is a Jewish family.  Joseph Fagen helps found the local synagogue.  Around 1958 the Fagen family moves from Passaic to suburban Fairlawn.  They are not there long before relocating to the Kendall Park section of South Brunswick, New Jersey.  Donald Fagen says of the New Jersey housing projects, “I’d been framed and sentenced to a long stretch at hard labour in Squaresville.”

Donald Fagen finds some solace listening to late night radio programs.  He starts learning guitar when he is 7 but switches to piano at 11 years of age.  “I took some lessons as a kid, but trained myself by ear,” Fagen reports.  “My style is a little quirky.  I can’t play as fast as most jazz players.”  The reference to jazz is indicative of Donald Fagen’s changing tastes.  “When the radio stopped playing Chuck Berry and Little Richard, I knew something was wrong,” he says, mourning the fall from popularity of his 1950s rock ‘n’ roll heroes.  When he is 11 (i.e. 1959), Fagen is a ‘jazz snob.’  “I lost interest in rock ‘n’ roll and started developing an anti-social personality.”  Donald Fagen has his Bar Mitzvah in 1961 at Kendall Park’s congregation Beth Shalom, the synagogue his father helped start.  The teenager’s growing interest in jazz sees him travelling into New York to catch shows by jazz artists such as Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Thelonius Monk, and Miles Davis.  In 1965 Donald Fagen graduates from South Brunswick High School.

From 1965 to 1969 Donald Fagen attends Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, a small hamlet in Dutchess County in upstate New York.  The young man is described as ‘shy and bookish.’  In 1968, while passing a café called The Red Balloon, “I hear this guy practicing [bass], and it sounded very professional and contemporary,” says Fagen.  He goes in, introduces himself to Walter Becker and asks, “Do you want to be in a band?”

Walter Carl Becker is born 20 February 1950 in Queens, New York.  He is the ‘product of a broken home.’  Walter’s German father is in the business of importing heavy machinery.  Walter Becker is raised mostly by his father and grandmother, alternating his place of residence between two areas of New York State, Forest Hills in Queens and Scarsdale in Westchester County.

When he is 14 Walter Becker begins learning blues guitar.  “I’m a self-taught musician, aside from what I’ve picked up from other players,” says Becker.  “My primary influences were the best jazz players from the 1950s and 1960s and, later, some of the pop people from the same period along with the better of the well-known blues musicians.”

Walter Becker’s father dies when the lad is 16.

Walter Becker graduates from Stuyvesant High School, New York City, in 1967.  He goes on to Bard College, where he meets Donald Fagen, during his first year (though it’s Fagen’s third year at Bard).

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen bond over their ‘similar tastes in classical jazz.’  During their time at Bard College, the duo works with a number of short-lived bands.  These include The Bad Rock Group, Leather Canary and The Don Fagen Trio.  One of the musicians with whom they work is a drummer who goes on to become the famous comedian Chevy Chase.

Donald Fagen makes the acquaintance of some notable women during his student days.  Libby Titus is someone he knows but, at this stage, they do not even become friends.  She will re-enter his life in later years.  Rikki Ducornet is the young wife of a professor at Bard.  She ‘is pregnant and married at the time, but recalls Fagen giving her his phone number at a college party at Bard.’  However, arguably the most important of these women is Dorothy White.  She is Donald Fagen’s girlfriend and their relationship continues, it seems, until at least 1975.  Dorothy White is not a student at Bard, but she is visiting Fagen on a fateful day in May 1969 when police raid the campus in search of marijuana.  There is a strong suspicion that the school’s administration may have played a role in calling in the cops to ferret out pot-smokers.  Fagen, Dorothy White and Walter Becker are amongst those taken into custody.  “I’d never been arrested or put in jail before,” fumes Fagen.  The case is eventually dismissed but, says Fagen, “At the time both of us [i.e. he and Walter Becker] were very p***ed off at the school.”

After leaving college, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen try pitching their songs in New York, hoping to become professional songwriters.  They labour for a time in New York’s famous Brill Building, the locale for celebrated 1960s songwriters like Carole King.  They are eventually signed to a small company owned by the vocal group Jay And The Americans.  Becker and Fagen’s biggest achievement as songwriters-for-hire may be ‘I Mean To Shine’, a song performed by Barbra Streisand, the actress/singer, on her album ‘Barbra Joan Streisand’ (1971).  “We tried to be [pop songwriters] but we weren’t,” shrugs Walter Becker.  Potential clients find their ‘show-off rhythm changes and off-the-wall lyrics’ just too confounding.

The connection to Jay And The Americans at least provides Walter Becker and Donald Fagen with some work.  They spend a ‘couple of years in the group’s backing band.’  Jay And The Americans are ‘a pop group whose most successful years are behind them.’

Around 1971 an advertisement is placed in the New York publication ‘The Village Voice’.  It is an ad for a ‘bass guitarist and keyboard player with jazz chops…and no hang-ups.’  The ad is placed by a guitarist named Denny Dias who has a bar band on Long Island.  Becker and Fagen answer the notice.  Dias describes them this way: “It’s like one person with two brains…They joined my band.  We started playing their songs right away.”  Fagen admits, “We kinda took over his band.”

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen write the music for an ‘obscure’ film starring Zalman King, ‘You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It (Or You’ll Lose That Beat)’ (1971).  Denny Dias also plays on the soundtrack album.  The disc’s producer is Kenny Vance, a member of Jay And The Americans.

Kenny Vance introduces Walter Becker and Donald Fagen to Gary Katz, another record producer.  Katz is impressed by the work of the duo.  When Katz is appointed house producer at the Los Angeles, California, branch of ABC/Dunhill Records, he talks the label into hiring Becker and Fagen as staff songwriters.  Moving to Los Angeles, Becker and Fagen find history repeating.  Just as happened in New York, ‘their songs are too odd and out of context to fit most artists’ needs.’  The duo begins trying to set up a band for themselves.  ABC/Dunhill ‘agrees this is a better option than keeping the pair on as unproductive songwriters and they sign the group to a recording contract.’

“The original Steely Dan band was formed in 1971.  Donald [Fagen] and I wrote the songs,” explains Walter Becker.  “Originally we had a regular sort of rock ‘n’ roll band that we had put together very quickly in the early 1970s,” says Donald Fagen.  The founding line-up consists of Dave Palmer (vocals), Donald Fagen (vocals, keyboards), Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter (guitar) (born 13 December 1948), Denny Dias (guitar), Walter Becker (bass) and Jim Hodder (drums).  Dias, of course, worked with Becker and Fagen in New York.  Vocalist Dave Palmer also comes from New York.  Baxter and Hodder are both from Boston.  Baxter, ‘a fine musician’, had already worked on recording sessions with singer-songwriter Carly Simon.  Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter recounts the origin of the group’s name: “Steely Dan is a huge steam-powered hydraulic dildo in the William Burroughs book, ‘The Naked Lunch’ (1959).  We figured it would be a nice name for a rock ‘n’ roll band.”

Steely Dan is usually described as a ‘jazz-pop’ act.  Given Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s mutual love for jazz, it’s easy to see where that element comes from.  “We work in the popular song form that is most prevalent on AM radio,” says Fagen.  “We can manipulate that form and a lot of people think they are just run-of-the-mill pop songs unless they give it a closer listen.”  Being such a hybrid places Steely Dan in an odd position.  Jazz purists may sometimes dismiss them as ‘just’ a pop act; while pop music fans, like the potential clients of the duo when they were songwriters-for-hire, are sometimes put off by the odd rhythms and complexity of Steely Dan.  Additionally, there is another in-built contradiction in Steely Dan.  Jazz music has a strong tradition of improvisation, musicians using their skills to extrapolate from a simple tune to wide-ranging, freeform sounds.  Despite their love of jazz, Becker and Fagen are perfectionist control freaks in the recording studio, an approach that seems at odds with experimentation.  “Everything is flawed,” sighs Donald Fagen.  “The best you can hope for is the most precise playing that humans are capable of…plus getting a good feel.”  Although they profess to be able to manipulate the popular song form, Steely Dan expresses little interest in commercial demands.  On another occasion, Fagen sniffs, “Popularity has everything to do with business and nothing to do with music.”  Warming to his topic, Fagen says, “I’ll tell you what I like about our group.  What I like about us, outside of our technical accomplishments, is that our music scares me more than anybody else’s.”  So Steely Dan is divided between jazz and pop, improvisation and exactitude, commerciality and personal challenge.  Yet, somehow, from such a messy, contradictory, set of values, a coherent sound emerges.  That consistency is attributable to the combined vision of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.

“It is really a collaboration.  It’s not one of us writing the music, the other lyrics,” says Donald Fagen.  “I can start songs and Walter [Becker] finish them.”  Becker claims that, “Since we started writing songs our concept has always been to write what is aesthetically challenging to ourselves and hopefully for other people.”  When it comes to lyrical influences, Becker says, “If you ask songwriters from my generation…who were the important lyricists, [1960s folk rock icon] Bob Dylan is always going to be mentioned.”  Becker and Fagen write what has been described as ‘cryptic lyrics.’  “We never try to be obscure,” says Fagen.  “Maybe people should take the lyrics more literally,” according to Becker, since “quite a clear story is being spun.  If people come up with their own interpretation that’s fine, but we’re not going to tell them what’s going on.”  More pointedly, Fagen adds, “It’s no fun for an artist to make an exegesis [i.e. critical interpretation] of their own work.”  So here some attempts will be made to explain the meaning of some Steely Dan songs and some popular theories will be repeated, but confirmations from the authors are scarce, so approach these explanations with caution.  A further complication is the duo’s ‘ironic humour.’  “A lot of what you’d call bitter or cynical, we’d call funny,” says Becker.  “We may have a slightly blacker sense of humour than your average person.”

Although Steely Dan starts out with two vocalists, Dave Palmer and Donald Fagen, it soon turns out to be Fagen who is the voice of the act.  “I’ve never been comfortable as a lead performer, and I never wanted to be a singer, particularly,” says Fagen with more sincerity than modesty.  Nonetheless, his ‘sardonic dry white whine’ becomes the act’s hallmark.

Steely Dan’s debut album, ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’ (1972) (US no. 17, UK no. 38, AUS no. 46), is released in November.  Like all their albums for the next decade, it is produced by Gary Katz.  “We play rock ‘n’ roll, but we swing,” claims Walter Becker.  “When we started we were writing pop songs with jazz infusion,” says Donald Fagen.  The Latin rhythm and odd, tingling melody of ‘Do It Again’ (US no. 6, UK no. 39, AUS no. 60) shimmers like a desert mirage.  In this song, Fagen chews through these lyrics: “But the hangman isn’t hangin’, so they put you on the streets / You go back, Jack, do it again / Wheels turning round and round.”  From the repetition of recidivism, Steely Dan moves on to the repetition of nostalgia in ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ (US no. 11, AUS no. 62).  The exasperated narrator of this song tells their companion, “You’ve been telling me you’re a genius since you were 17 / And all the time I’ve known you, I still don’t know what you mean.”  The real selling point of ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ is the stinging guitar runs played by guest session musician Elliot Randall.  Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter gets to show off his guitar prowess on ‘Change Of The Guard’.  Dave Palmer provides lead vocals on tracks such as ‘Midnite Cruiser’ and ‘Dirty Work’.  Both are more straight-forward tunes, well-suited to Palmer’s more straight-forward vocals.  ‘Midnite Cruiser’ is addressed to “Thelonious, my old friend,” apparently a nod to jazz pianist Thelonius Monk, one of Becker and Fagen’s influences.  ‘Dirty Work’ is the tale of an affair with a well-to-do married socialite but it is given vibrant life by its goosed rhythm with a drum beat taking an extra half-step in a diverting pattern.  ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’ is ‘an astonishingly accomplished debut’, wining over critics, and is one of Steely Dan’s most accessible works.

Between Steely Dan’s first and second albums, vocalist Dave Palmer is dropped from the line-up.  Donald Fagen assumes all lead vocal duties.  Dave Palmer surfaces in 1977 as vocalist for Wha Koo.

The watercolour cover painting (of androgynous nudes looking to the sky) that adorns Steely Dan’s second album, ‘Countdown To Ecstasy’ (1973) (US no. 35) is the work of ‘Dorothy of Hollywood’ (a.k.a. Dorothy White, Donald Fagen’s girlfriend).  Compared to Steely Dan’s debut, this is a more guarded, less commercial work.  ‘My Old School’ (US no. 63) makes reference to Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s days at Bard College.  “Oleanders growing outside her door / Soon they’re gonna be in bloom up in Annandale,” runs part of the lyric.  For those not botanically inclined, oleanders are small, flowering, evergreen shrubs.  Bard College is located in Annandale-on-Hudson.  “I was smokin’ with the boys upstairs,” is an allusion to the 1969 marijuana bust endured by Becker and Fagen as students and “I ain’t never going back to my old school” is how they feel about their alma mater after that debacle.  ‘Bodhisattva’ is a fast-paced, jazz-flecked excursion.  Although it seems to be about a girl, the word ‘bodhisattva’ comes from Buddhism and means an enlightened person moving closer to Buddha.  ‘Show Biz Kids’ (US no. 61) is a chanting, hypnotic piece.  “Show business kids making movies of themselves / You known they don’t give a f*** about anybody else,” sings Fagen in this excoriation of the transplanted New Yorker’s Los Angeles home.  Mind you, he’s not above noting, “They got the shapely bods / They got the Steely Dan t-shirts.”  In an ominous portent of the future, twenty-one musicians are used in the making of this album.

February brings ‘Pretzel Logic’ (1974) (US no. 8, UK no. 37, AUS no. 18).  This ‘tour de force’ includes ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ (US no. 4, UK no. 58, AUS no. 30), a graceful bossa nova.  Although Donald Fagen declines to either confirm or deny it, this song seems to be about Rikki Ducornet, the young pregnant wife of one of Fagen’s professors at Bard College.  Recalling how when, as a student, Fagen gave her his phone number, Rikki Ducornet has said that she believes she is the subject of the song.  Fagen’s vocals in the song fairly bleed desperation as he petitions Rikki, “You tell yourself you’re not my kind / But you don’t even know your mind / And you could have a change of heart.”  The keyboard riff for the track is borrowed from 1964’s ‘Song For My Father’ by jazz composer and pianist Horace Silver.  ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ is Steely Dan’s best song.  It brings together a commercially attractive pop melody, jazz chords and an unusually affecting personal slant to represent the strengths of the act.  Donald Fagen is a bit more blasé about the merits of the song: “Walter [Becker] and I aren’t so fond of ‘Rikki’…It’s not a bad song.  I think it’s ‘well–written’, but it’s so simple.  I just have listening fatigue.  It’s been played so much.”  The quirky, lumbering title track, ‘Pretzel Logic’ (US no. 57) finds Fagen insisting, “I have never met Napoleon / But I plan to find the time.”  Whether the long deceased French Emperor is looking forward to this remains open to speculation, but it does fit the song’s theme of “These things are gone forever / Over a long time ago.”  ‘Any Major Dude Will Tell You’ has Becker and Fagen in an unusually compassionate mood.  There is also an oddball instrumental cover version of ‘East St. Louis Toodle-oo’, a 1927 Duke Ellington composition, again demonstrating Steely Dan’s fealty to the greats of jazz.

Steely Dan gives up touring in the middle of 1974.  “Our last show was July 4, 1974 [at] Santa Monica Civic Auditorium,” advises Donald Fagen.  “We’re not really performers,” is Walter Becker’s justification for the decision.  Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, guesting with U.S. band The Doobie Brothers on a tour of England, gets the news that his services are no longer required by Steely Dan via a transatlantic phone call in July 1974.  Baxter joins The Doobie Brothers as a full-time member.  On 3 August 1974 drummer Jim Hodder resigns from Steely Dan.  Although guitarist Denny Dias will contribute to at least the next album, this is the end of Steely Dan as a group in the conventional sense.

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen begin advising the media that Steely Dan is “more a concept than a rock band.”  Fagen explains, “After touring for a couple of years, we realised there were some stylistic problems with the other players.  That’s part of the reason we stopped touring and went into the studios and started using session musicians…We figured out what we wanted to do…We needed session musicians who had a wider palette.”  In the process, Becker and Fagen become just two of the many musicians on a Steely Dan album – though this really only exacerbates a trend that goes back to the first album and Elliot Randall’s guest appearance as guitarist on ‘Reelin’ In The Years’.  Speaking of guitarists, after playing bass on the first few Steely Dan albums, Walter Becker switches to guitar.

March’s ‘Katy Lied’ (1975) (US no. 13, UK no. 13, AUS no. 28) is the first album created in the new manner by Donald Fagen, Walter Becker and a host of session musicians.  The cover photograph is a close-up of an insect called a Katydid (tying in with the ‘Katy Lied’ title).  The photo is taken by Fagen’s girlfriend, Dorothy White, and is the last known moment for her in the Steely Dan story.  The album’s title is (almost) derived from lines in ‘Doctor Wu’: “Katy lies / You can see it in her eyes.”  This saxophone-heavy song is the musical equivalent of a dreamy sunset.  ‘Doctor Wu’ is Dr Jing Nuan Wu, ‘the doctor who eases Becker and Fagen from years of drug addiction.’  ‘Black Friday’ (US no. 57) is a hot and spicy number in which Fagen advises, “When Black Friday comes I’m gonna dig myself a hole / And lay down in it till I satisfy my soul.”  The furtive ‘Bad Sneakers’ (US no. 103) is notable for the very recognisable husky tones of the backing vocals of Michael McDonald.  From April 1975 McDonald joins Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter in The Doobie Brothers.

The ‘stylish’ ‘The Royal Scam’ (1976) (US no. 15, UK no. 11, AUS no. 30) is the fifth Steely Dan album.  The twisted reggae of ‘Haitian Divorce’ (UK no. 17) is the account of the estrangement between the characters of Babs and Clean Willie.  It appears that Babs has an extra-marital affair (“Semi-mojo, who’s this kinky so-and-so?”).  “You used to be able to go to [the Caribbean island of] Haiti and get a divorce real fast,” explains Walter Becker, illuminating the origins of the song.  The distinctive ‘talk box’ guitar on ‘Haitian Divorce’ is played by Dean Parks.  ‘Kid Charlemagne’ (US no. 82) is a funk-jazz hybrid that sounds like the theme music for a 1970s television cop show.  However, the subject of the song is reported to be Owsley Stanley, the L.S.D. chemist of San Francisco’s Bay Area in the 1960s.  This is why the references to his hippie van (“technicolour mobile home”) and drug-cooking paraphernalia (“test tubes and the scales”).  Most tellingly, Owsley was arrested following a raid on his lab in 1967 when the car in which he fled ran out of fuel (“Is there gas in the car? Yes, there’s gas in the car”).  ‘The Fez’ (US no. 54) is more of a groove than a song, with an appropriately Moroccan feel.  A fez is a brimless hat worn in that part of the world – but it’s also a slang term for a condom (“You’re never gonna do it without your fez on”).

‘Aja’ (1977) (US no. 3, UK no. 5, AUS no. 9) is Steely Dan’s finest album.  It represents the peak of their cool perfectionism and self-assured arrogance.  The seven tracks on the album are all immaculately presented and carefully thought out.  “Aja is the name of a woman,” explains Donald Fagen.  “I had a friend in high school.  He had an older brother who went to Korea and married a Korean girl and brought her back and her name was Aja [pronounced ‘Asia’ like the continent] and we thought that was a good name.”  The sprawling title track, ‘Aja’, “starts out in a very peaceful way,” says Fagen, but is really, “a combination of a number of different tunes sewn together.”  The tenor saxophone on the song ‘Aja’ is played by Wayne Shorter of the jazz-rock band Weather Report.  ‘Peg’ (US no. 11) appears to be an ode to a former acquaintance who is now the star of a movie with copious nude scenes: “Done up in blueprint blue / It sure looks good on you…It’s your favourite foreign movie.”  Walter Becker says ‘Peg’ has “a swing band rhythmic approach,” its salty horns punctuating its propulsive momentum.  ‘Josie’ (US no. 26) is built on a sinister guitar riff.  ‘Josie’ is described as “the best friend you never had” and “the pride of the neighbourhood”.  The lyrics also contain lewd intimations like “dance on the bones till the girls say when” and “throw down the jam”.  “I kinda like ‘Josie’…It sounds like a good rhythm and blues record,” offers Fagen.  “It’s the one [from this album] I like playing most,” agrees Becker.  “’Deacon Blues’ (US no. 19) is as close to autobiography as our tunes get…We were looking for some kind of escape,” says Fagen.  However, Becker muddies the water by adding, “The protagonist is not a musician…It’s just a form of loserdom.”  The chorus to this thoughtful, lowing, rambling composition runs, “They got a name for the winners in the world / I want a name when I lose / They call Alabama the crimson tide / Call me Deacon Blues.”  And, yes, they really do call Alabama ‘the crimson tide’; it’s a reference to the dark red jerseys worn by the sporting teams (particularly the football side) from the University of Alabama.  The title of this song is also adopted by a Scottish pop band, Deacon Blue (1985-1994, 1999 onwards).  ‘Black Cow’ is a song of despair about a drunk woman so the suspicion is that a ‘black cow’ is the name of a cocktail (“Drink your big black cow / And get outta here”).  But Donald Fagen sets the record straight by telling us that a ‘black cow’ is “an ice cream soda – root beer and ice cream…very big in the soda fountains when we were kids.”  The hard-edged funk of ‘Home At Last’ has this central image: “Well the danger on the rocks has surely passed / Still I remain tied to the mast / Could it be that I have found my home at last?”  This is derived from Greek mythology.  Odysseus (or Ulysses as the Romans renamed him) has himself lashed to the mast of his ship in order to resist the hypnotic song of the sirens, supernatural women who lure sailors to their doom.  “The central metaphor was taken from Ulysses,” concedes Fagen, “but we didn’t take it that seriously.”  Rounding out the album is the fleet and freaky ‘I Got The News’.  Some of the other musicians on the album are Denny Dias (guitar), Larry Carlton (guitar), Chuck Rainey (bass) and Bernard Purdey (drums).  Walter Becker says of this album, “That was just a spectacular success and we all knew it.”

In April 1978 Steely Dan provides the title song for the movie ‘F.M.’ (1978).  The film is a comedy about a dispute between disc jockeys and management over a radio station’s playlist.  The soundtrack album includes previously released songs by the likes of The Eagles, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, Queen, Linda Ronstadt and Bob Seger.  The creeping funk of Steely Dan’s new song, ‘F.M.’, describes a station that plays, “Nothin’ but blues and Elvis and somebody else’s favourite song.”  ‘Elvis’ is, of course, 1950s rock star Elvis Presley.

‘Steely Dan’s Greatest Hits’ (1978) (US no. 30, UK no. 41, AUS no. 11), released in November, is a double album that includes the new track ‘Here At The Western World’.  This careful and considered piece seems to be a welcoming greeting from a bordello.  Or perhaps it’s an analogy suggesting the capitalism and consumerism of modern civilisation makes us all pimps, john or whores?  When the lyric instructs, “Lay down your Jackson”, it means put down a twenty-dollar note since that item of U.S. currency carries the image of Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States.

ABC/Dunhill Records, the home of Steely Dan, is bought out by MCA ‘resulting in a contractual dispute with the label’ that partially accounts for the delay in Steely Dan issuing a follow-up to ‘Aja’.

In January 1980 Karen Stanley, described as Walter Becker’s ‘girlfriend of many years’, dies of a drug overdose.  She was 31.  Becker, while trying to deal with his grief, has a serious car accident.  He recovers, but develops a ‘substance dependency.’

‘Gaucho’ (1980) (US no. 9, UK no. 27, AUS no. 9) is released by MCA in November.  Like ‘Aja’, it contains just seven tracks.  There is an air of decadence to the proceedings; the largesse of Los Angeles and its surfeit of pretty young things offer scant comfort to the central characters of the songs.  In ‘Hey Nineteen’ (US no. 10, AUS no. 48), one such young filly is told, “That’s ‘Retha Franklin / She don’t remember the Queen of Soul / It’s hard times befallen the soul survivors / She thinks I’m crazy but I’m just growing old.”  Aretha Franklin is indeed the leading lady of soul music from the late 1960s.  Lyrics aside, ‘Hey Nineteen’ is a joy just for its fat bass and moody funk.  The title track, ‘Gaucho’, has its narrator experiencing a similar problem with a younger female companion.  A gaucho (pronounced GOW-cho) is the South American equivalent of a cowboy in the eighteenth to nineteenth century.  So when the narrator asks, “Who is the gaucho, amigo?” he is questioning his young lady friend (amigo) about the Latin American cowboy-type with whom she is keeping company.  “Bodacious cowboys such as your friend / Will never be welcome here / High in the Custerdome,” is the warning.  ‘Bodacious’ is a U.S. term meaning attractive or admirable.  As for ‘the Custerdome’, it’s a fictional skyscraper.  “It exists only in our collective imagination,” advise Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.  ‘Babylon Sisters’ is an off-kilter Caribbean pop hymn to the young ladies of L.A.  In the Rastafarian beliefs that underpin Jamaica’s reggae music, ‘Babylon’ means ‘the western world’, so ‘Babylon Sisters’ are western girls.  ‘Glamour Profession’ casts a jaundiced eye over the ‘glories’ of fame and fortune in Los Angeles.  ‘Time Out Of Mind’ (US no. 22) features guest guitar-work by Mark Knopfler of British band Dire Straits.  When the lyric says, “Tonight when I chase the dragon”, it is using a slang term for smoking heroin or opium, pursuing the ultimate high.  The humorous ‘My Rival’ and the glum semi-reggae of ‘Third World Man’ complete the set.

On 21 June 1981 Walter Becker and Donald Fagen part ways and announce that Steely Dan is defunct.

Walter Becker relocates to Hawaii to recover from his ‘substance dependency’ problems.  He acts as producer on three hit singles for British pop group China Crisis in 1985.  He is ‘married for a time’ to a woman named Elinor.  They have a son, Kawai (born 1985).  Becker also has an adopted daughter, Sa (or Sayan).  In 1987 Walter Becker and Donald Fagen both play on an album by singer Rosie Vela.  The disc is produced by Steely Dan’s long-time producer Gary Katz.  Walter Becker releases his first solo album, ’11 Tracks Of Whack’ (1994).  It is produced by Donald Fagen.  Walter and Elinor Becker divorce in 1997.

Donald Fagen’s first solo album is ‘The Nightfly’ (1982) (US no. 11, UK no. 44).  It spawns the singles ‘I.G.Y. (What A Beautiful World)’ (US no. 26) and ‘New Frontier’ (US no. 70).  In 1987 Donald Fagen becomes romantically involved with Libby Titus, a fellow student from his days at Bard College.  Fagen’s second solo album is ‘Kamakiriad’ (1993) (US no. 10, UK no. 3).  It is produced by his old Steely Dan partner, Walter Becker.  It includes a track called ‘Florida Room’ co-written with Libby Titus.  Donald Fagen and Libby Titus marry in 1993.

In 1994 Walter Becker, Donald Fagen and a group of musicians tour as Steely Dan.  The concert recording ‘Live In America’ (1995) (US no. 40, UK no. 62) comes from this tour.

Steely Dan reconvenes in 2000.  Noting their work as producers of each other’s recordings, Walter Becker points out, “The truth is we’d been working in the studio since the early 1990s…and of course we did a live album from the 1994 tour…We’re just picking up again on something that’s been going on.”  ‘Two Against Nature’ (2000) (US no. 6, UK no. 11, AUS no. 51) appears on Giant Records and is co-produced by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.  This album features ‘Janie Runaway’ and ‘Cousin Dupree’.  Fagen describes the latter as “a traditional kind of fun country tune.”

Shifting to Reprise Records, Steely Dan’s next disc is ‘Everything Must Go’ (2003) (US no. 9, UK no. 21, AUS no. 68).  It is again co-produced by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.  The album ‘receives mixed reviews’, but Fagen believes it is ‘underrated’.

After this, the duo returns to working as solo acts.  Donald Fagen releases ‘Morph The Cat’ (2006) (US no. 26, UK no. 35); Walter Becker issues ‘Circus Money’ (2008); and Fagen puts out ‘Sunken Condos’ (2012) (US no. 12, UK no. 35).

Steely Dan was never a standard rock band.  Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were always wilfully enigmatic and elusive.  Perhaps part of their appeal is the mystery that surrounds them and seeps into their complex lyrics and erudite jazz pop music.  Their best work was in their 1972-1980 period.  The idea of a ‘group’ being a concept masterminded by two people was unusual in 1974 but became common with dance music acts of later times such as The Pet Shop Boys, K.L.F., and Basement Jaxx.  Steely Dan was always a puzzle, but it was a puzzle that was involving and intriguing.  Steely Dan produced ‘a sophisticated distinctive sound with accessible melodic hooks, complex harmonies and time signatures.’  They were one of rock’s ‘most musically adventurous and fascinating acts.’

Sources:

  1. ‘Newsweek’ magazine – Article by Janet Maslin, Dewey Gram (23 August 1976) (reproduced on steelydanreader.com)
  2. Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 31 March 2014
  3. wikipedia.org as at 31 March 2014
  4. answers.com – ‘Steely Dan’ – as at 19 May 2014
  5. ‘Steely Dan – “Aja” – Classic Albums, Series 2’ (DVD) (Eagle Video / Isis Productions, 1999)
  6. ‘The Guardian’ (U.K. newspaper) – Anthony Quinn’s review of Donald Fagen’s book ‘Eminent Hipsters’ (14 November 2013) (reproduced on theguardian.com)
  7. brainyquote.com as at 19 May 2014
  8. ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 220, 221
  9. ‘Entertainment Weekly’ – ‘Back to Annandale’ – Donald Fagen interview conducted by Rob Brunner (13 April 2006?)(reproduced on prince.org)
  10. Internet movie database imdb.com as at 19 May 2014
  11. ‘Remastered – The Best Of Steely Dan Then And Now’ –Sleeve notes by John Tobler (MCA Records, Inc., 1993) p. 5, 6, 7, 11
  12. ‘New Times’ magazine – ‘Fancy Dan’ by Arthur Lubow (18 February 1977) (reproduced on granatino.com)
  13. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 97
  14. allmusic.com, ‘Steely Dan’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 19 May 2001
  15. ‘Sounds’ magazine – Article by Sylvie Simmons (22 October 1977) (reproduced on steelydanreader.com)
  16. ‘World Beat’ (U.S. television program – CNN Network) – Steely Dan interview conducted by Brooke Alexander (2000)
  17. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 231, 327, 362
  18. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 60
  19. ‘Earth News’ (U.S. radio program) – Steely Dan interview (10 October 1977)
  20. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 66, 203
  21. lyricsfreak.com as at 14 May 2014
  22. songfacts.com as at 19 May 2014
  23. ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (2013) (via (22) above)
  24. U.S. radio interview with Steely Dan conducted by Robert Klein (15 December 1980)
  25. smellslikepop.com – ‘Five Unusually Disconcerting Things About Steely Dan’ by ‘Joel’ (5 September 2011)
  26. steelydandictionary.com as at 19 May 2014
  27. ‘Steely Dan – Reelin’ in the Years’ (2007) by Brian Sweet (via books.google.com.au as at 19 May 2014)

Song lyrics copyright (Becker/Fagen) MCA Music Ltd with the exceptions of ‘F.M.’, ‘Hey Nineteen’, ‘Gaucho’ and ‘Time Out Of Mind’ (all Warner Chappell Music Ltd.)

Last revised 11 June 2014

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