Full Circle

Aloha Walter and Donald: Piercing the Veil Through the Zen of Steely Dan

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, circa 1978. Photo by Anton Corbijn.

The road-weary Steely Dan, circa 1973: Denny Dias, Walter Becker, Donald Fagen,
Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Jim Hodder.

Two Against Nature: Fagen and Becker in 2000.

Crassness is contagious. Fortunately, so is intelligence—which is why listening to Steely Dan is good for you…if you don’t find 80 percent of Gaucho to be hilarious, don’t vex yourself with The Larry Sanders Show.Ian MacDonald, The People’s Music

Crack the code, solve the crime.Special Agent Dale Cooper, Twin Peaks

 

As comedian Martin Mull so famously proclaimed back in the 1970s, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” which rightfully calls into question the absurd exercise of attempting to verbalize the emotional impact of organized sounds and silence upon the psyche. The power of music is perhaps humanity’s grandest illusion—you can’t see it or taste it or touch it, as it percolates through the air, decorating space/time in a mystical fashion. And yet, we continuously make glorious and clumsy stabs at articulating why a particular artist or a piece of music affects our hearts and minds just so. You see it every day on social media, in print, at the cinema, and on the boob tube. We’re hyper-stimulated animals, resulting in a stressed-out collective consciousness that seeks to project meaning upon constructs that are likely to be devoid of any: sitcoms and CNN spring to mind.

But as we sharpen our wits and wrestle with our destinies, the soundtrack that we foist upon this peculiar existence continues to have significance. Why? Because you are the master that makes the grass green, that’s why. Life can be full of wonder and awe-inspiring, if you’re capable of imagining a world beyond self-imposed, straightjacket limitations. And that, my friends, in spite of all the over-whelming oddities, is exactly what the music of Steely Dan has inspired over the last four-plus decades: a worldview shimmering with promise and deliverance, for myself, as well as a multitude of fellow deviants who are unable (or unwilling) to accept mediocrity as a cause célèbre.

If every story has a beginning, middle, and ending (not necessarily in that order), the Steely Dan saga reached a tragic dénouement of sorts on September 3, 2017, when one of the most acute and original voices in the pantheon of popular music passed over to the ethereal realm. And, of course, I’m talking about Walter Becker, who together with his partner and creative foil Donald Fagen, constitute the incomparable Steely Dan—the musical vehicle that the songwriting duo utilized to bring their singularly sardonic and supremely melodic creations to the world at large. Becker was 67 years old; his cause of death remains undisclosed.

The compositions and recordings of Becker and Fagen remain the creative benchmark of what can be achieved in the frequently shallow backwaters of popular music. You could also say they are one of the more polarizing musical phenoms of the twentieth century—passionate music fans either embrace their every move due to their bold, intelligent originality, or diss them with accusations of sounding “sterile,” “lyrically obscure,” or employing too much jazz structure and harmony in a meat-and-potatoes, I-IV-V Neanderthal world. As Fagen writes in his 2013 book Eminent Hipsters: “Like most of the finer things in life, jazz is an acquired taste.” And so it is with the sublime perfection of Steely Dan.

When Becker and Fagen exploded upon the music scene in the fall of 1972 with their debut LP Can’t Buy a Thrill, boasting two hit singles (“Do It Again” at #6 and “Reelin’ In the Years” at #11), it was the culmination of five years of hard graft, paying dues while refining their craft. When independent record producer Gary Katz (née Kannon) landed a job in Los Angeles as staff producer at ABC/Dunhill Records, he convinced president Jay Lasker into putting the twosome on the payroll as songwriters, ostensibly to provide material for artists on the label’s roster, such as Three Dog Night, the Grass Roots, Tommy Roe, and Denny Doherty of the Mamas and the Papas. And though they did place a few numbers with the likes of Thomas Jefferson Kaye (“Jones,” “American Lovers”), Navasoto (“Canyon Ladies”), and John Kay of Steppenwolf (“Giles of the River”)—not to mention Barbra Streisand (“I Mean to Shine”)—Becker and Fagen’s songs were really too personal and idiosyncratic to be recorded by anyone other than themselves, and it was inevitable that they would form their own group. “We realized even before we were doing it that we would have to do these songs ourselves,” Becker told Mojo in 1995. “We could see that nobody was going to come along and pick up on them because they were too odd, too out of context for the day. On the one hand, they expressed an odd sensibility lyrically, and in their overall musical thing—and they were so musically unusual that even people who later wanted to record some of our songs had a hard time, because the jazz elements or other harmonic elements were hard to pull off.”

“They have to be performed with a certain attitude,” adds Fagen, “and we couldn’t find the right singer when we started. I became the singer by default because I was the only one with the right attitude, essentially, even though I didn’t consider myself a singer at the time.”

Becker (b. 02.20.50 in Queens, NY) and Fagen (b. 01.10.48 in Passaic, NJ) met at Bard College, a “progressive” school in upstate New York. As Fagen recounts in “Class of ’69” from Eminent Hipsters: “One afternoon in 1967, I walked over to the Red Balloon, a crummy little shack in the woods that served as an on-campus music club. As I approached, I could hear someone playing some electric blues guitar inside, just messing around. But this wasn’t the trebly, surfadelic, white-guy sound I was used to hearing from other student guitarists. This fellow had an authentic blues touch and feel, and a convincing vibrato. His amp was tweaked to produce a fat, mellow sound, and turned up loud enough to generate a healthy Albert King-like sustain. Inside, playing a cranberry red Epiphone guitar was a severe-looking bespeckled kid who would turn out to be my partner and bandmate for the next forty years.

“We started writing music and lyrics together, mostly on an upright piano in a small sitting room in the lobby of Ward Manor. One of us would come up with some clowny idea and we’d bounce it around until we were so convulsed with laughter that we’d have to quit. For whatever reason, the combination of the funky grooves, the jazz chords and the sensibility of the lyrics, which seemed to fall somewhere between Tom Lehrer and [Nabokov’s] Pale Fire, really cracked us up. Of course, at that point, what we were doing was pretty crude compared to some of our later efforts, but it was never less than fun.”

By 1968, Becker had dropped out of Bard and the two of them shared a second-floor apartment in Brooklyn, as Fagen finished off his senior thesis in English Literature (a downstairs tenant would provide the inspiration for the song “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)”). The fledgling songwriters began their “two-pronged attack on the music business,” soliciting various publishers in the Brill Building to buy their material. For better or worse, they caught the ear of Kenny Vance from the cabaret-act-from-hell, Jay and the Americans, who signed them to a publishing deal and hired them as backup musicians—with Becker employing the pseudonym of Gustav Mahler and Fagen becoming Tristan Fabriani (Fabriani would resurface a couple of years later to pen the liner notes to Can’t Buy a Thrill). In a 1977 radio interview on KPFK in Los Angeles, the wise-cracking duo described their tenure as young Americans.

Richard Cromelin: How long did you play with Jay?
Becker: As long as we had to.
Cromelin: Did you ever do any records with him, or was it just touring?
Becker: Yes, we did one record with them. We recorded a record of theirs called “Capture the Moment.” That was banned in Washington, D.C., which ended its meteoric rise to hitdom. It had a line in it that went: “Capture the moment, the joyful explosion that we’ve just shared.” Anyway, it was a dirty song in three-quarter time—it should have been banned.
Cromelin: What was life on the road with Jay and the Americans like?
Fagen: We were well protected.
Cromelin: By? From?
Becker: From other human beings primarily.
Fagen: There were these large Sicilians that used to follow us around and make sure everything was going smoothly.
Becker: Jay had a more-than-adequate following in the organized crime society.
Fagen: You looking for a beating fella, huh?
Cromelin: You played bass and piano respectively?
Becker: Well, you’re looking at us the wrong way for respectively, but yes.
Fagen: Respectfully.
Becker: I played disrespectfully, I don’t know how you were playing.
Cromelin: Jay Black is the guy who dubbed you the Manson and Starkweather of rock ‘n’ roll, right?
Becker: He did used to call us that, yeah.
Harvey Kubernik: What kind of wages were you earning during that stint?
Fagen: The wages of fear, my friend.
Becker: At one point we were earning $100 a show. And then what happened was a person who I fear to defame publicly took over the managership of Jay and the Americans. He was also Sly Stone’s manager, I believe, at that time.
Fagen: Gimme a receipt.
Becker: He was known as “Gimme a receipt” and he cut our wages in half—the whole rhythm section—and so then we earned 50 dollars a show or 200 dollars a weekend, whichever was more.
Cromelin: So how long did you go through this?
Becker: About a year and a half.
Fagen: It didn’t take long to go through the 50 dollars.
Becker: The 50 dollars I went through in a perfunctory manner.

It was through Vance that the songwriters began “cross-collateralizing their compositions to a fare-thee-well,” recording demos, and signing away the rights to their earliest songs. Approximately 35 titles were recorded between 1968 and ‘71, with most of them finding their way onto the marketplace during the ‘80s on compilations such as The Early Years, Berry Town, Sun Mountain, and Becker & Fagen/The Collection, released through fly-by-night European labels eager to cash in on the continuous demand for Steely Dan product. Whatever embarrassment these tracks may have caused Becker and Fagen, they are a fascinating glimpse into their evolution, and they remain invaluable artifacts. Tunes such as “Android Warehouse” (inspired by Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), “Roaring of the Lamb,” “Yellow Peril,” and “Old Regime” display a science-fiction sensibility laced with a socio-political slant that is “doggedly surreal.” There’s also the first lyrical reference to “Steely Dan,” the fictionalized dildo of William Burrough’s Naked Lunch, which crops up in the sexually dubious narrative of “Soul Ram.” As weirdly captivating as these nascent efforts are, they were clearly tap-dancing way beyond the confines of AM radio programming.

The last project that Becker and Fagen worked on with Vance before decamping to Los Angeles was providing the soundtrack to the low-budget, underground debacle You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It or You’ll Lose That Beat. Although Becker and Fagen did the project strictly for the filthy lucre (allegedly at $250 per song), the LP has some fine moments, including “Roll Back the Meaning,” “Dog Eat Dog,” and the goofy title track. The project sank without a trace in 1971, but the music found a new audience when it was re-released after the quintuple-platinum success of 1977’s ubiquitous Aja.

What is most significant about You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It, however, was the arrival of guitarist Denny Dias, who came to the attention of Becker and Fagen after he placed an ad in the Village Voice soliciting a keyboardist and bass player with the twin caveats of: “No assholes need apply,” and that they “must have jazz chops.” Jazz chops they had in abundance; the asshole aspect was thoroughly debatable.

***
In 1998, when MCA Records re-released the first seven Steely Dan LPs on remastered compact disc, the most valuable characteristic of the project, in terms of insight, was the hilarious liner notes that Becker and Fagen composed for the occasion, giving them a fresh opportunity to display their urbane wit, as well as set the record (somewhat) straight regarding their muddled history of hiring studio musicians according to their creative whims.

The original members of the band were Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Realizing that this ensemble was a bit thin, it was decided to import to Los Angeles a few musicians of our acquaintance. Our producer Gary Katz suggested Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, whom we had actually met and played with back in New York, and Jim Hodder, whom we had not met but only seen at a recording session, through the glass, darkly. Jeff’s credentials included a brief stint with a Boston band called ‘Ultimate Spinach,’ although, to his credit, he was not an original member of that outfit. Hodder hailed from Long Island and he was a surviving member of a Katz-produced band called ‘The Bead Game,’ named for the illustrious but unreadable Hesse novel. Once these two potent talents had been added to the mix, the ensemble was still found to be wanting in several areas. So the call went out to Hicksville, Long Island, and jazz guitarist Denny Dias was brought into the picture. Hicksville’s loss was Steely Dan’s gain, and for the next several months we thought we had everything we needed.”

When it was discovered that ABC/Dunhill expected Steely Dan to tour in promotion of Can’t Buy a Thrill, a sixth member, vocalist David Palmer, was installed to alleviate Fagen’s anxiety of singing before a live audience. The arrangement worked for a season, until it was decided that Palmer’s performance style was at odds with the group’s ethos, and Fagen finally relented that he was the vocalist with the proper ‘tude to pull off their material. When Becker was asked why he didn’t sing more during the ‘70s, he replied that he could either be a singer or a smoker, and that smoking was the priority.

Sans Palmer, the road-hardened quintet recorded their sophomore LP Countdown to Ecstasy in 1973, and in commercial Top 40 terms was deemed a flop, regardless of the fact that the previous year of live performances had turned them into a telepathic outfit of extreme empathy. Fagen: “That was the only album where the songs were developed on the road, in rehearsal, and onstage. We were playing them before the album was recorded, so it had a more live, blowing feel about it.” To unearth one of the many bootlegs from this era, such as their performance from the long-defunct JJ’s nightclub in San Diego, California (03.23.74), is to understand how dynamic they sounded in person.

But by 1974’s Pretzel Logic, containing the #4 smash “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” the group was already mutating into a studio-only concept—a workshop situation where it was considered optimal by Becker and Fagen to utilize whichever musician’s style was most appropriate for a particular tune, regardless if they were an official member of the band or not. Which is why you had Elliot Randall playing lead guitar on “Reelin’ In the Years” and Rick Derringer playing slide guitar on “Show Biz Kids” and Michael Omartian playing piano on “Rikki” and drummer Jim Gordon laying down the impeccable groove on the entire Pretzel Logic LP. And while we’re on the subject, that instrument you hear at the beginning of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” is jazz-ace Victor Feldman playing a flapamba.

Fagen: “Of course, the Beatles had not long before set the example of concentrating on records and not touring, and we were arrogant enough to follow their example.”

By 1975’s Katy Lied, Steely Dan had become a four-way collaboration between Becker, Fagen, producer Gary Katz, and engineer Roger (The Immortal) Nichols (that is Nichols’ disembodied hand that you see upon the console on the back of the Countdown to Ecstasy album)—along with the countless contributions of the finest studio musicians money could buy in Los Angeles and Manhattan. It was, indeed, an era of “monstrously swollen recording budgets.” Becker and Fagen’s unique synthesis of pathos and existential beauty is never more potent than on Katy Lied (my personal fave), and it served to introduce the gargantuan talents of 21-year-old drummer Jeff Porcaro and singer/keyboardist Michael McDonald. If Neil Young is a photographer who primarily records snapshots of a moment in time, Steely Dan is the ultimate audio equivalent of the Old Masters, with a perverse bent toward the Paris Surrealists. In their obsessive pursuit of perfection, Steely Dan uses the studio as a canvas the way Picasso created Guernica—epic and larger than life, with the promise of redemption at its decadent heart, despite the fact that the narrative may be couched in poetic parables that aren’t easy to decipher. Becker: “The lyrics are not cryptic to us. We know what we had in mind when we wrote them—in other words, they may be open to various interpretations. I don’t like lyrics that are overly simplistic, because they really don’t make you think twice. And I would like to take this opportunity to dispel any rumor that Don and I ever use ‘code.’ We use the English language as we understand it.”

Take the lyrics to “Pretzel Logic,” for example. Fagen: “When it says ‘I stepped up on the platform / The man gave me the news’ we conceived the platform as a teleportation platform. And there are other key lines like: ‘I have never met Napoleon, but I plan to find the time.’ What we’re actually saying is I plan to find the time in which he lived.”

Stanley Kubrick asked Playboy magazine in 1968: “How much would we appreciate La Gioconda today if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: ‘This lady is smiling slightly because she has rotten teeth’—or ‘because she’s hiding a secret from her lover’? It would shut off the viewer’s appreciation and shackle him to a reality other than his own.” In Steely Dan Confessions, the 2003 promotional video that accompanies their final album Everything Must Go, Walter and Donald are asked, “What is the album about?” As Becker attempts to respond, Fagen cuts him off: “We can’t answer these questions! Here’s the problem: the whole point of making records, and especially records that have no visual information to go along with them—no video or anything like that—is that people can use their imaginations when they listen to it, and they can interpret it however they want. If we start dishing out the interpretation or meanings for people, then the whole reason for it existing is…” And Becker completes his thought by exclaiming, “That’s fascism!”

***
If there is one LP that rocks harder than any other in the Steely Dan catalog, it is 1976’s The Royal Scam, thanks to the searing, soaring fretwork of Larry Carlton and the time-bomb precision of drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie. There is an unequaled flair for high-drama among these desperate characters, with marital breakdowns (“Everything You Did,” “Haitian Divorce”) rubbing shoulders with an Owsley-like character (“Kid Charlemagne”), and a Dog Day Afternoon scenario (“Don’t Take Me Alive”) sharing space with the menacing Mizar Five in “Sign In Stranger.” Despite the further inability to crack the Top 40, it’s another creative bullseye that splits the quiver of the four previous arrows.

But in terms of commercial and artistic success, all of that would change with the release of their sixth LP. Aja sported three Top 30 singles (“Peg” at #11, “Deacon Blues” at #19, and “Josie” at #26), concurrent with the title track to the charming-if-slight 1978 film FM (#22). Nothing in the annals of popular music can match the unparalleled majesty of Aja. At the height of punk rock, this is one of the most subversive LPs to ever be recorded, due to its jaundiced POV and its ability to juxtapose such amazingly world-weary lyrical concerns with a lush, sonic sheen of complex, multi-layered chordal voicings that makes Steely Dan the ultimate conciliation of opposites, and Becker and Fagen the ultimate compliments to one another. One need only listen to their subsequent solo projects in comparison to understand the unique X-factor that occurs when the two of them work together—synthesis as alchemy.

Becker: We’re thinking about writing a movie.
Sylvie Simmons: How near to reality is that?
Becker: Very far. It’s just…
Fagen: Just a gleam in Irving Azoff’s eyes.
Becker: It’s the potential ringing of cash registers in our manager’s mind. Irving’s been encouraging us. He keeps telling us, “Hey, if you guys can write these songs, you can write movies, it’s the same thing. You just fill out a couple of hundred pages with the same story on it.” We’re pretty bookish guys.
Fagen: In our profession, we’re as bookish as I’ve met. But I think that’s more a reflection on what everyone else is doing. I think people should be asking themselves why they’re so goddamn illiterate.

By the end of the ’70s, it was clear that the duo’s “stay-at-home, studio mole” orientation that had served them so well was beginning to show signs of battle fatigue. When Gaucho was released in November of 1980, Becker had fully embraced the lifestyle of the drug-addled protagonist in “Time Out of Mind.” After getting run down by a taxi with compound fractures to his tibia, he was subsequently forced to deal with the emotional and legal fallout of a wrongful death suit for $17.5 million from the mother of Karen Stanley—Becker’s long-term girlfriend who perished from a drug overdose in their NYC apartment. (Stanley is credited as “Nurse” on The Royal Scam, “Security” on Pretzel Logic, “Covert Operations” on Aja, and “Production Coordination & Lifesaver” on Greatest Hits. The suit was later settled out of court in Becker’s favor.) On the other side of the teeter-totter, Fagen was in danger of losing his sanity in his quest to remove every blemish and anomaly from their musical statements—“Babylon Sisters” being remixed over 250 times. Living hard had indeed taken its toll, and it was time to step back, reflect, and reassess, which is essentially what the two of them did for the duration of the next decade until they reunited at the beginning of the ‘90s and resumed their partnership through a series of recording projects and concert tours.

***
The accolades and tributes keep pouring in regarding Becker’s contributions to popular culture, and as Fagen wrote on the day of his passing “Walter had a very rough childhood—I’ll spare you the details. Luckily, he was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist, and a great songwriter. He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny. Like a lot of kids from fractured families, he had the knack of creative mimicry, reading people’s hidden psychology and transforming what he saw into bubbly, incisive art.”

Becker grew up in Queens, New York, and part of the “rough childhood” that Fagen refers to was the abandonment by his mother at an early age when she divorced his father and returned to her native Britain—with Becker left to be raised by his grandmother and father, who sold paper-cutting machinery. He graduated in the class of ’67 from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, and after starting out on saxophone, switched to guitar after receiving lessons rooted in blues theory from his neighbor Randy California ( née Wolfe), who would later go on to form the group Spirit (California, coincidentally, shares the same birthday as Becker).

After Fagen delivered his first solo LP The Nightfly to Warner Bros. in 1982, he spent the remainder of the ‘80s sorting out his own psychological issues, while writing a column for Premiere magazine on film music, and contributing the odd song to the occasional soundtrack (Heavy Metal, The King of Comedy, Bright Lights, Big City.). Becker relocated to Hawaii and reinvented himself with a healthier lifestyle, married a yoga instructor, had a son, adopted a daughter, and produced albums out of his Maui home studio for the likes of China Crisis and the Windham Hill label. When Fagen put together the New York Rock and Soul Revue at the beginning of the ‘90s, Becker got involved, and soon they were producing each other’s solo projects: Fagen’s Kamakiriad and Becker’s 11 Tracks of Whack (which, despite the title, actually contains 12 songs). A full-fledged Steely Dan reunion resulted in a 1995 live LP Alive in America, 2000’s Two Against Nature (which nabbed four Grammy awards, including Album of the Year), and their final collaboration Everything Must Go. Fagen has recorded two other solo LPs: 2006’s Morph the Cat and 2012’s Sunken Condos. Becker recorded a second solo LP in 2008, Circus Money, in tandem with Larry Klein (ex-Joni Mitchell) that independently demonstrates how important Becker is to the overall architecture of Steely Dan.

***
Allow me to conclude this meditation on Walter Becker and Donald Fagen with a few personal anecdotes.

My love affair with Steely Dan began in the spring of 1974, when my nine-year-old ears were glued every waking hour to WPGC-FM (“Where People Get Cash”/”We’re Prince George’s County”), the Top 40 station that served the D.C. metropolitan area. At the time, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” was in constant rotation as it peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the first week of August, and I became enraptured by its sound and the ambiguous insistence of the lyrics. Why does Rikki need to feel better? Is Rikki a guy or a gal? What exactly is that number that he or she might use later? A pawnshop ticket? A telephone exchange? A jazz cigarette? And then there’s that irresistible piano lick on the turnaround right before the chorus: And you could have a change of heart… It’s ingenious and seductive—a musical slight-of-hand trick (with a positively killer guitar solo in the break by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter). It wasn’t long before I owned a copy of Pretzel Logic, soon to be enthralled by all eleven of its tracks. I duly snatched up Can’t Buy a Thrill and Countdown to Ecstasy with my paper route earnings before Katy Lied came out in the spring of ’75. Boasting an out-of-focus candid of a katydid, Katy Lied’s questionable cover art is a groan-worthy visual pun reflecting the duo’s sense of the absurd. And yet, it really makes no difference: the music inside the jacket is indescribably beautiful, and remains an inexhaustible fount of wonder. By 1976, I was totally obsessed, and picked up The Royal Scam, Aja, the FM soundtrack, Greatest Hits 1972-1978, You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It, and Gaucho as soon as they became available in the racks.

Joni Mitchell: “I never understood why Gaucho didn’t receive the critical acclaim of Aja. I’m convinced that if Gaucho had come first and then Aja, the same thing would have happened but in reverse. To maintain this high standard of musicality and storytelling through two projects is most praiseworthy—but there is something ignorant and arbitrary in rock journalism—editorial policy maybe—like, ‘We were kind last time, let’s kill ‘em this time!’ Or maybe it was like second-date syndrome, where unrealistic expectations eclipse a plenty good reality.”

Aja’s compositional genius and unequalled production provided a rapturous escape from the adolescent turmoil of my parent’s divorce—not to mention, it sounded amazing on the radio. I was gleeful to attend a DC101 preview screening of FM at the Springfield Mall in April of 1978, and loved it for the title track, not to mention Martin Mull’s performance. And Gaucho, being released a few short weeks before John Lennon’s murder, is inescapably tied-in with that season of sorrow.

As Fagen writes in Eminent Hipsters: “In December 1980, I was living three blocks away from the Dakota, watching Monday Night Football, when Howard Cosell announced that John Lennon had been shot in the back. I walked over and watched as a huge crowd of sobbing New Yorkers gathered at Seventy-second Street and Central Park West. This pretty much set the tone for the decade to come.” The tone is one of melancholia, and it is artfully captured in Fagen’s composition “True Companion,” recorded the following year for the animation feature Heavy Metal. The lyrics are meant to represent the film’s character Den, but they could just as easily be projected upon Becker, or Fagen himself: “Crew men of the True Companion, I can see you’re tired of action. In this everlasting twilight, home is just a sad abstraction…I’ve been dreaming of my own Brave [New] World, far across the reach of space/time.”

The 1980s were an era of odious silence from Becker and Fagen—it was a lost decade of sorts as their partnership took an indefinite hiatus. And with the release of the somewhat autobiographical The Nightfly LP from Fagen, the comparatively lightweight lyrical tone suggests that the lingering chiaroscuro shadows of the Steely Dan worldview were largely a product of Walter Becker’s fertile, yet decadent, imagination. By the middle of the ‘80s, lacking any inside sources, it was safe to assume that the two of them had retired from the music business.

So imagine my surprise when I spied a blurb in the December 1990 issue of Q magazine regarding a Steely Dan fanzine out of NYC called Metal Leg, mentioning that Donald Fagen had started spontaneously popping up unannounced to perform with a couple of local cover bands. What? The guy who couldn’t stand singing in front of an live audience, and who had not trod the boards since 1974, was singing “Sign in Stranger” to a crowded bar room? How was that possible? I dialed directory assistance in Manhattan and managed to have a lengthy and impassioned conversation with Metal Leg publisher and mega-fan Pete Fogel, and the next thing I knew I was flying 3,000 miles to crash on his couch and attend both shows on March 1st and 2nd, 1991, for the New York Rock and Soul Revue. Those two performances at the Beacon Theatre were an absolute revelation, not just because they fulfilled the 17-year-old fantasy of witnessing Donald Fagen on stage, but also for the spectacular performances by blues legend Charles Brown, Phoebe Snow, Boz Scaggs, and Michael McDonald. I was standing next to Fogel as he snapped the shot of the Beacon’s marquee that graces the back cover of the compact disc. Even though there are a handful of songs omitted from this legendary performance on the official release, the CD manages to tell the story pretty damn well. The NYRASR was an unbelievable two nights of music, and within the year Walter Becker would join the troupe for a brief tour of the U.S., which set the stage for a full-blown Steely Dan reunion in 1993—which I managed to catch at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on 09.10.93, and again on 09.16.94. Needless to say, as anyone who has seen Steely Dan live knows, those shows were mind-blowing—the dream of a lifetime wonderfully fulfilled.

***
You can’t copyright the title to a song, movie, or book, but you can take a song title and trademark it, turn it into a DBA, and register it as a LLC. And that’s exactly what San Diego video collector extraordinaire David Peck did with the Steely Dan song “Reelin’ In the Years” for his production company that represents and licenses music performance footage for documentaries, home video, and other media endeavors. Between 1999 and 2005, I was the vice president and co-creative force behind Reelin’ In the Years Productions (RITY). During that time period we manifested a lot of successful projects together, including the Grammy-nominated, award-winning American Folk Blues Festival DVD/CD series, and the Soul to Soul DVD/CD. If you want to know how whacked out and fragile the human ego can be (not to mention delusional), try working in the entertainment industry. That said, the world travel and accolades were the by-products of a lot of focus and hard work, and the results were always rewarding.

During my stint at RITY I loved the continuous Steely Dan association, no matter how superficial. And the branding could be said to be somewhat opportunistic and ironic: Peck isn’t really a Steely Dan fan—he just liked the verbal pun of nostalgia and history tied together with the take-up reels of a film projector. There are, however, a couple of Steely Dan stories from that particular era worth relating.

In early 2000, we received a call from Cameron Crowe’s production staff asking if we had any Steely Dan footage. The database had four listings, all from 1973: In Concert, two performances on The Midnight Special, and American Bandstand—none of which RITY represented. I was told that Crowe was working on a new film titled Almost Famous and he needed that footage for a scene he was shooting. A second phone call revealed that Crowe was now adament that it had to be Steely Dan’s first performance on The Midnight Special, so as a matter of professional courtesy I directed Crowe’s assistant to producer Bert Sugarman’s office, the rights holder to The Midnight Special. Crowe ended up using two seconds of “Reelin’ in the Years” on screen as Miss Penny Lane watches William Miller be “deflowered” by three of her fellow Band-Aids. We didn’t make that particular sale, but when Crowe wanted to turn black and white footage of John Coltrane into a 3D hologram for a scene in his next project Vanilla Sky, we enjoyed a handsome payday.

In 2004, RITY began representing the Super 8mm home movies of photographer and musician Henry Diltz. Since the 1960s, Diltz has captured some of the most iconic images in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, being responsible for the album covers of Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Doors’ Morrison Hotel, James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, Jackson Browne’s debut, and the first two Eagles’ albums. He was an official photographer at Woodstock and the Concert for Bangladesh for chrissakes—Henry himself is iconic, which is why I produced a two-part, four-hour radio interview with him in 2008 for State Controlled Radio. Time spent with Henry is inevitably laced with the ceremonial peace pipe, enchanting road stories, and endless gales of laughter. I stayed over at his house in North Hollywood on several occasions while we logged all of his personal footage, which included the likes of Linda Ronstadt, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, David Cassidy, Steppenwolf, the Rolling Stones with Stephen Stills, the Byrds, Richard Harris, Sean Connery, the Wild West shoot-out for the Eagles Desperado, David Cassidy with the UCLA cheerleaders, the Doors at Venice Beach, the Turtles Battle of the Bands, and the Monkees performing in Salt Lake City for the movie Head. Talk about a life’s journey (and that was just the late ’60s and early ’70s!).

As we would retire for the evening, Henry would always encourage me to make myself at home, and to peruse his archives. One particular morning I thumbed through a journal from the ‘70s that had backstage passes pasted onto its pages with entries like “shot the Eagles at Dodger Stadium.” “Photographed the Jackson Five for Rolling Stone.” “Talked to Paul about shooting Wings.” Due to his extensive photographic resources, a company was established called Morrison Hotel Gallery in order to sell museum-quality reproductions of his work. Some of the friends that Henry photographed just happened to be world famous: Neil Young, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, John Sebastian, Frank Zappa, Buffalo Springfield, etc. etc.

But as I sifted through one particular box of contact sheets a handful of images caught my eye that had not been made available through the gallery: it was several photographs circa 1976 of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. I had seen a few of these pics back in January of 1993 when Goldmine magazine did a cover story on Steely Dan, but I had forgotten that Henry had taken them. What was really interesting about the shots was that Henry had managed to capture the hipper-than-thou countenance of our intrepid duo actually smiling. I became incredulous: how was it possible that these shots weren’t being reproduced through the gallery? When Henry got up to brew his morning tea I asked him “Did you know you are sitting on a number of pictures of Steely Dan?” “Yeah, sure, why?” “Well, don’t you think they should be made available through the gallery” “Oh, do you think anybody would be interested in those?” “Are you kidding? Don’t you know how many fans Becker and Fagen have?” “Oh, I didn’t really think about it. A friend of mine told me that all of their songs are about drugs.” “Hardly. Maybe a few of them make references to drugs and alcohol, but I wouldn’t say their songs are ‘about drugs’.” “Well, that’s what he told me.”

As for all of the chemical indulgences and “illegal fun” that can be found in their lyrics, it’s true that the protagonists in Becker and Fagen’s songs like to drink, snort, and smoke from time to time, when they’re not gambling, visiting a brothel, or challenging the police to a showdown. Okay, so a double shot of booze is ordered up after a botched liquor store heist. Lonnie overindulges and passes out for 48 hours. The show biz denizens of L.A. are able to procure all the booze they need. The homeless Charlie Freak perishes from a drug overdose (“Newfound cash soon begs to smash a state of mind”)—not to be confused with another Charlie (Parker) who spends a dizzy weekend ‘smacked’ into a trance. That’s five references out of 29 songs on the first three albums—unless “Through With Buzz” is about the renunciation of getting high. And there is, of course, that massive drug bust at Bard in 1969, spearheaded by that “toxic weasel” G. Gordan Liddy (“Daddy Gee”), that supplied the motivation for why Becker and Fagen were determined never to return to their alma mater in “My Old School.”

But by Katy Lied the tables start to turn—write about what you know and it will always ring true: i.e. “libations and sensations that stagger the mind.” Piña Coladas, Coke and rum, drinking dinner from a paper sack / passed out on the barroom floor, strung out waiting for a taste, an Owsley-like character synthesizing lysergic acid diethylamide, being high at Rudy’s, drinking Zombies from a cocoa shell, scotch whiskey, retsina, grapefruit wine, kirschwasser, the Cuervo Gold, the fine Columbian, shining the silver bowl, high in the Custerdome, chasing the dragon. Living hard will take its toll. There certainly is no denying that there is a well-stocked bar in this particular corner of the universe.

When Becker and Fagen were bestowed in 2001 with honorary doctorate degrees from the Berklee College of Music, Fagen had this to say: “To the graduating class I just want to [remind you] of what Mose Allison once said: ‘When you move up to the city, there’s just one thing I hope…that you don’t take money from a woman, and you don’t start messing ‘round with dope.’”

Anyhow, soon after that conversation with Mr. Diltz, his photographs of Becker and Fagen showed up on the Morrison Hotel Gallery website.

***
One of the many benefits of what we created together at RITY was acting as consultants to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, providing research and archival footage for the VH1 telecasts and the permanent video exhibits at the Hall in Cleveland, Ohio. From 2000 to 2004, our work took us to NYC for the induction ceremonies at the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom, and part of the compensation for the services we provided was having full access to the rehearsals, cocktail parties, and of course, the evening’s performances for the honorees. Ostensibly, this was great for business—but it was also a rare opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the greatest musicians of all-time. In 2000, I was able to chat at length with Zal Yanovsky of the Lovin’ Spoonful, mingle with Bonnie Raitt, and watch in awe from five feet away as Ray Charles sang “Nature Boy,” in honor of Nat “King” Cole. The second year Peck and I attended together (03.19.01) included a stellar cast of inductees: Aerosmith, Solomon Burke, James Burton, the Flamingos, Michael Jackson, Queen, and Paul Simon. But at the top of the heap (for me at least) was Steely Dan, and it was truly a thrill to witness Becker and Fagen running down “Black Friday” and “Chain Lightning” (twice for each song) with Paul Shaffer’s house band during the afternoon rehearsals. Jerry and Elinor Fagen were both milling about, and Donald was sweetly attentive to both of his parents. Still, we managed to catch a quick word with him before he split rehearsal. When Peck introduced himself and told him the name of his company, Donald deadpanned “that his lawyer would be in touch.” In an attempt to ingratiate and impress, Peck told him that we possessed a rare copy of Steely Dan’s first appearance on national television, on ABC’s In Concert. Unfazed, Donald shot back: “Yeah? Well, do me a favor, huh, and please burn it.” Not burn me a copy, mind you, but destroy it.

It was quite a heady day, getting to meet and speak with Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Brian May, and Roger Taylor. During the cocktail hour before the ceremony we ran into Dave Grohl, who couldn’t have been nicer. He said that he was really nervous about performing “Tie Your Mother Down” with Queen that night. I said “Man, you’ve played all over the world to some of the biggest audiences ever with Nirvana and Foo Fighters. How can you be nervous?” He shot back, excitedly: “Man, I’m playing with QUEEN!” He ended up sounding great with May and Taylor.

At the after-party celebration I ran into Walter Becker with his date on his arm and a drink in his hand looking mighty pleased by how the evening turned out. I approached him and re-introduced myself after saying hello earlier at rehearsals and we had a couple of minutes of chit-chat. I must say that he looked great and was in a chipper mood, now that the performance and glare of the TV cameras was in the rear view mirror. I asked him about living in Hawaii and he said he loved it there and that it saved his life. The next thing that popped into my head was asking why “Dallas” and “Sail the Waterway,” Steely Dan’s debut single that predated Can’t Buy a Thrill, wasn’t on the Citizen Steely Dan boxed set. “Because he [meaning Donald] didn’t want it on there. Besides, don’t you already have that?” “Yes, of course.” “Well, okay then.” I congratulated him once again, shook hands, and wished him well. He was truly a sweetheart. Fagen, on the other hand, had seemingly blown off the party, no doubt to spend time with his parents and his wife, Libby Titus.

As a Steely Dan supporter, it was a fantastic night of validation. Particularly as they had been snubbed by the voting committee for several years since their initial eligibility in 1997. And in their inimitable fashion, they dealt with their rejection by making a complete mockery of the process by posting a series of irreverent letters on the Steely Dan website addressed to Jann Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone and el supreme-o board member at the Hall.

And God bless ‘em, because the sarcasm didn’t end after their induction, with Becker posting an eBay-styled advertisement offering up his RARHOF statuette for sale with the following description: “Ultra-rare commemorative trophy from self-styled ‘official’ music honorary organization, issued to quasi-prominent and appropriately sheepish musician. Statuette approx. 4” x 4” x 16”, made of unidentified metal alloy mounted on a marble base. Inscribed. Representing as it does a craven lapse of taste, judgment, and self-respect on his part, the owner is eager to be rid of this appalling artifact ASAP. Cheaply made and intrinsically worthless in all-important ways, this little baby will nevertheless be obscenely expensive to its next owner—making it the ultraperfect collectible icon of its age. Hefty reserve price. Note: A companion piece (identical, but inscribed to owner’s colleague) may possibly become available in conjunction with this statue to the discriminating and well-heeled collector whose bid demonstrates that ‘price is truly no object.’ May consider partial trade of valuable goods and services.” According to the website, it appears that the reserve price was never met.

***
When Becker and Fagen began performing a series of their classic LPs in their entirety, I managed to catch two more Steely Dan performances in 2009 in Los Angeles. Those shows included Aja, Gaucho, and The Royal Scam, with Larry Carlton on hand to recreate his guitar parts. When they brought their Reelin’ in the Chips Las Vegas residency to Humphrey’s in San Diego in April of 2017, they sounded as tight and great as ever. These would be the last performances that Becker would perform with the Steely Dan band, before health issues kept him confined to his home in Maui, Hawaii.

Walter Becker is a special artist, and the work that he produced with and without Donald Fagen is truly for the ages. And as absurd as it remains to attempt a linguistic interpretation of his work, those who are familiar with the music of Steely Dan will nod their heads in understanding that a creative force like this only comes along once in a generation. I might have missed out on bearing witness to Charlie Parker, and I might have missed out on the Beatles, but I am blessed to be able to say that I came of age in the era of Steely Dan—and for that fact alone I consider myself a lucky so-and-so. See you on the other side Mr. Becker—and thanks a million.

Much appreciation to the official Steely Dan website, Walter and Donald’s individual websites, The Steely Dan Reader, Henry Diltz and the Morrison Hotel Gallery, and Brian Sweet and Pete Fogel—publishers of the invaluable, but long-defunct, Steely Dan fanzine Metal Leg.

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