The reluctant front man for Steely Dan, Donald Fagen has become one of rock’s most famous voices
"We always had an art-for-art’s-sake attitude toward the whole thing."
For four decades, the New Jersey–born pianist, vocalist, and composer Donald Fagen and collaborator and fellow Bard College alumnus, guitarist/songwriter Walter Becker—together known as Steely Dan—have been one of the most unlikely icons of modern music. Their sound was idiosyncratic. Fagen’s grainy vocals had a thick Sopranos-style accent. They didn’t tour. Their lyrics were laced with nerdy insider references (the duo’s name comes from a steam-powered marital aid from William Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch) like Homer’s Odyssey (“Home at Last”), suicide (“Deacon Blues”), and reverse-cougarism (“Hey Nineteen”). And much of their compositional structures were jazz based, especially on their 1977 masterpiece, Aja. But they disbanded after they released Gaucho in 1980.
From 1982 to 2006, Fagen released three autobiographically themed albums that dealt with his Cold War–era, suburban childhood: The Nightfly, Kamakiriad, and Morph the Cat, which yield some hit singles, “I.G.Y.,” “New Frontier,” and “Tomorrow’s Girls.” Fagen and Becker reunited and released Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go in 2000 and 2003.
Fagen’s latest release, Sunken Condos—composed by Fagen, save for his Ashkenazic recasting of Isaac Hayes’s “Out of the Ghetto”—has all of the essential musical traits of the Steely Dan canon: intricate yet succinct jazz-shaped solos; snappy Motown-meets-Muscle-Shoals horn lines; sassy background vocals; snarky, self-effacing vocals; and an in-the-pocket rhythm section.
Wax Poetics’ Eugene Holley Jr. talked with Fagen by phone from Fagen’s New York City home about the metaphysics of his jazz thing, his work with Walter Becker, his off-and-on-again duel with the road and the stage, and his latest release.
You and Walter were not what we would normally think of as pop-rock stars. How did you guys survive in the business for so long?
We always had an art-for-art’s-sake attitude toward the whole thing. Luckily, there was a time when our vision of what music we liked seemed to mesh with a lot of what people in the population also liked. But that’s no longer true.
Your music is a very organic and democratic blend of rock, pop, and country, but jazz has always been a prominent and indispensable part of your sound. How did a suburban New Jersey boy like you get hooked into jazz?
Well, my mother was a professional singer when she was young, from the age of five to fifteen. She used to sing from a club in the Catskills. She was a swing singer, although she didn’t stick with it. She sang around the house. So I heard a lot of standards as a kid, which is essentially the life force, the lingua franca of jazz—aside from original jazz tunes. So I was familiar with most of those tunes. And when I started playing the piano, I picked out those tunes on the piano.
And then I had a cousin named Barbara, who was older than I—she was a good-lookin’ chick! She used to go into the Village and go to clubs. She actually became friendly with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, and so on. And she had a great record collection. When we’d go over her house, she’d bring us down to her basement and play those great records: Thelonious Monk and Johnny Griffin live, and so on. I was nine or ten. I loved it, and I listened to a lot of radio broadcasts out of New York. That’s how I got into jazz. I became a jazz snob. Then, when the English/R&B blues people like the early Rolling Stones started playing that music, I started getting back into R&B again. By then, Motown was big… It’s actually kind of complicated: I liked jazz, blues, R&B, some Motown, and twentieth-century classical composers like Stravinsky, and stuff like that.
Jazz musicians figure prominently in the Fagen/Steely Dan canon: there’s alto saxophonist Phil Wood’s serpentine solo on “Doctor Wu,” from Katy Lied, guitarist Larry Carlton’s silken improvisations on “Kid Charlemagne.” And then there’s tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s incredible solo on the title track of the 1977 masterpiece Aja. How did you get him on the track?
We had this piece, which had this long modal section. And we thought, “Who would be the ideal person for the track?” And we said, “Wayne Shorter.” On the first try, he said no. But we knew someone who knew him, and he asked him, because he didn’t know who we were. So we sent him the track, and he liked it and decided to come in. And he nailed it on the first take. That was one of the best moments for us.
Today, you’ve come full circle: you’re hiring jazz musicians like multi-instrumentalist Michael Leonhart, who grew up on your music and coproduced your new recording. What are your criteria for selecting the right sideman?
I still go out to see jazz. I try to keep up. And if I hear somebody, I’ll remember it. For instance, on Sunken Condos, there’s harmonica player, William Galison, that guitarist Michael Leonhart introduced me to. When I heard him play, I said, “That guy has got a great sense of melody and swing; we should try him.” He came in and he was great. But it doesn’t always work out. I’m not going to tell you about the guitar player [we worked with] who has a tremendous reputation, but who didn’t really work out at all. He came in from another state, but when faced with what we gave to him—I don’t know if he was nervous or what—he just couldn’t come through. And I hate that, but it happens.
You can hear mixtures of those influences on Sunken Condos, particularly on the track “Weather in My Head,” which could easily segue with the Ray Charles–like selection “What I Do,” from the your previous work, Morph the Cat.
I love Ray Charles, yeah! He was really popular when I was fourteen. I loved the jazz thing in his [music]. When rock started, it tended to be simple and country-like. And there were very few R&B cats that had lot bebop and jazz stuff in their music like Ray Charles played, but it really didn’t catch on. Bobby “Blue” Bland had an arranger who wrote a lot of boppy chords for him. Walter and I both liked that sound.
Coincidently, you and Walter got your start in the music business working at ABC-Dunhill Records as staff arrangers and composers; the same label Ray Charles was with in the ’60s.
But Ray was long gone before we worked there.
The third Steely Dan LP, Pretzel Logic, contained your version of the Duke Ellington classic “East St. Toodle-oo.” Ellington’s most famous saying is, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.” And you’re a master of injecting the feeling of jazz into the pop idiom—particularly in the bass line, as evidenced by the lead-off track on Sunken Condos, “Slinky Thing,” which is like a sister song to “Black Cow” from Aja.
It may have been inspired by reggae bass lines—which don’t always come down on the downbeat, or have odd, triplet figures in them. But I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to get an acoustic player to play the bass line?” Because it had a kind of reggae/James Brown bass line with the kind of groove that I wanted, with that kind of swing.
In contrast to “Slinky Thing,” another track from Sunken Condos, “I’m Not the Same Without You,” reminds me of Gloria Gaynor, a kind of “I Will Survive” for men.
Well, I was actually doing a parody of those of songs from the disco era. And I thought of Gloria Gaynor, specifically. [laughs] Those were the days of Women’s Lib, and the disco scene had these songs where women, instead of being a doormat in a relationship, would get wings, soldier on, and have independence from men. I thought it’d be funny to write that song from a male’s point of view. And second, what if the guy goes beyond the point where he’s just [got] it together and is evolving into a new species? I kept thinking, “Maybe he’s really falling apart, and he’s trying to bully his way through his own psychic fragmentation?”
Steely Dan developed an infamous reputation for not touring. Why?
There were multiple factors that forced us off the road. Because we never found a singer that we felt was adequate, I was elected [as lead singer]. Neither Walter nor I considered ourselves to be good singers. But when I started doing it—although I got better at it after some years—I took some coaching. At that time, I didn’t know how to sing in a proper way. And my voice would give out after two weeks on the road. And that in turn would give me anxiety and stage fright.
That’s ironic, because you have one of the most recognizable voices in pop music.
I love Marvin Gaye, Mose Allison. I like the way that Dizzy Gillespie sings. He’s got a way of singing that’s unpretentious—and Hoagy Carmichael also.
With the exception of “Tomorrow’s Girls” and “New Frontier,” you hardly ever produced videos.
I’ve had some videos done, but I’m prejudiced against videos. Because I grew up with the radio, when you hear music, you have to use your own imagination: you make a kind of picture in your head. And I like that better than being shown pictures.
What was it like writing film music to the motion picture FM in 1978?
Our manager Irving Azoff was involved with that movie, and he asked to write a song for the movie, and that was it. But the only time I ever scored a movie was for Bright Lights, Big City [starring Michael J. Fox, 1988]. My cousin was a producer. He said, “Do you want to score a film?” I did it because I was having trouble writing at that time, so I gave it a try—I hated it! I love films and film scores. But it wasn’t for me. The idea of the music supporting somebody, I’ll never do that again.
You mentioned that you stopped writing after the release of the 1980 LP Gaucho because of depression. Is that why you and Walter broke up Steely Dan?
Walter and I ran out of ideas. We did what we set out to do. I had an idea for this autobiographical album called The Nightfly. But after recording the album, I became more and more depressed and uninterested in music. I actually was in therapy for a couple of years, because, like a lot of musicians, I was kind of immature. I wasn’t paying attention to things other than music, and I had to get myself together. But by the end of the decade, I was back to writing music.
You and Walter reunited and released Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go. You released your solo projects, Kamakiriad and Morph the Cat in 1993 and 2006. Steely Dan is heading back in the studio in 2013. And you were recently featured on David Letterman. You’re performing again, and you’re going on tour. What brought you back to the stage?
I met my wife, Libby Titus, in the late ’80s. She was producing shows around New York. And I started doing stuff for her, playing at the Lone Star Roadhouse…and I slowly worked my way back into it. I never played that many gigs before Steely Dan; we were working for a group, Jay and the Americans in the late ’60s, mostly as a piano player; I didn’t sing. But doing this thing with my wife’s little projects, I got used to being a front man and all that stuff. So now, it feels pretty comfortable.
Eugene Holley Jr. lives in Delaware and contributes to Ebony.com and Philadelphia Weekly. He interviewed Ahmad Jamal for Wax Poetics in 2008.
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