to the title of "Band of the '90s," are we? Here's one hyperbolic vote for Steely Dan, so fluently does their ouevre fit the temper of the times. Never mind that Walter Becker, Donald Fagen and assorted sidekicks were busy being the band of the '90s way back in the '70s. You can call it prescience or providence, but such incongruities are best dismissed as the odd fluke or evolutionary mistiming.
"I'm into my post-ironic phase...which of course would include irony as well." warns the newly earnest Fagen of 1993. "And I'm not talking about the New Sincerity, of course, but rather Post-Irony. Or maybe it's the Pseudo-New-Sincerity, or New Pseudo-Sincerity, or maybe it's Pseudo-Post-Irony. I don't even know anymore. It's hard to say. You know what? As soon as David Letterman hit the airwaves, it was really all over for irony."
Maybe so. But before there was Dave -- before there was Devo or Bono or Camille Paglia, even -- there was Steely Dan, two overachiever jazz punks who named themselves after a William Burroughs dildo and who mellifluously ravaged the post-counterculture landscape with brilliantly veiled sarcasm and revolutionary lack of sentimentality. In terms of prefiguring today's testy post-modernists, and anticipating the contemporary irony craze as a replacement for old-school rock idealism, it rather seems the world caught up with the voice that Fagen and Becker were able to claim from the get-go.
And the music just hasn't dated. You could pick out songs from "Rikki Don't Loose That Number" to "Black Friday" that spookily seem more apropos to our era than their actual carbon date. But go back and listen to just one album, say, "The Royal Scam", and marvel at its seeming topicality: An ominous narrative about a regular guy who snaps a synapse, shoots a relative or two and holds off a SWAT team ("Don't Take Me Alive"), a cheerful ode to the importance of always wearing a condom ("The Fez"), a hauntingly lyrical paean to dream-laden American immigrants who wind up slouching toward skid row (the title track). All tunes virtually ripped from today's headlines, as they say, despite the 1976 copyright.
So any major dude will tell you, then, that Steely Dan was ahead -- no pun intended -- of its time. Which is not to say that the group was ever as popularly understood as it was popular.
'70's, exact date undetermined. You turn on "The Donny and Marie Show", as is your self-flagellating Friday night habit, and are rewarded with one of the most weirdly funny things ever on national television: The teen sibling hosts in spangles and bell-bottoms are doing a tribute to nostalgia, in the form of a bouncy show-opening duet of Steely Dan's "Reelin' In The Years."
"The weekends at the college didn't turn out like you planned," sings Donny to Marie, by all appearances clueless to the absurdity of Fagen's and Becker's unwieldy verses in his beaming mouth. "The things that pass for knowledge I can't understand."
What kind of weekend -- at which branch of Brigham Young University -- did this brother and sister share? What sort of knowledge passed between them there? Did Donny have the slightest idea of what he was singing?
Did Steely Dan Fans, for that matter?
Donny and Marie weren't alone in being oblivious to Donald and Walter's unorthodox intentions, the often blind acceptance of which made a great cosmic joke for certain bored intelligentsia throughout the '70s. That Steely Dan's strange-by-any-standard singles came to be covered by lounge singers and variety-show stalwarts was a measure of how intractably far these pop guerrillas had infiltrated a welcoming culture.
Then again, the hits were brain-enbeddingly hooky enough that folks could hardly be blamed for not fussing too much over meaning in the face of such sheer musicality. What American of a certain age can't sing a few random phrases of Fagen and Becker's obscurantist design" "Babylon Sisters, shake it." "Brooklyn owes the charmer under me." "Drink scotch whiskey all night long, and die behind the wheel." "Drink your big black cow and get outta here."
The dangerous, sad, hilarious, possibly misanthropic elusiveness of the lyrics was matched by Becker and Fagen's relative reclusion as pop personalities. Various M.O.R.-mons might perform Steely Dan's hits live, but the guys in question wouldn't. The duo disbanded its ever-changing backup lineup and quit touring in 1974, ceasing all live performances well before most of their major hits were even released. This allowed them a sort of infamous anonymity on a scale more in line with their bebop heroes than with Rock and Roll's cult of personality.
It was incredibly frustrating to fans that jazz-influenced music which benefitted from some of the best studio playing in the business couldn't be heard in the live setting where you'd figure it'd thrive. But to the true aficionado, Steely Dab's unwillingness to waste time touring in order to focus on the bigger rewards of record-making was just the ultimate measure of their ornery integrity.
autumnal 1993, at which point Fagen and Becker have done the unthinkable and -- 13 years after their last album together and an astonishing 19 after their previous gig -- come out of the closet and booked a brief, sold-out U.S. tour under the long-retired moniker of Steely Dan.
And while the faithful understandably salivate at the idea of The Dan made flesh, a few can't help but be nagged by the fear that, after all this time, a "reunion" tour might represent another kind of sell-out, in which the Steely Ones finally cave in to the demand of the masses after all.
Will their revivified "Reelin' In The Years, " the skeptics wonder, end up seeming like Donny and Marie's, taking what was written as a backhanded look at memory-mongering and resurrecting it as another unironic anthem to baby-boom nostalgia?
Far be it from these fellows to dissuade anyone else's hard-fought cynicism.
You talk to Walter Becker after the opening gigs of the 1993 tour and ask him how the band's first shows in nearly two decades have gone. He answers: "Well, not too good. It turns out that show business wasn't in my blood anyway, and I'm looking forward to getting back to working on my car..."
WHEW: Incorrigible after all.
think of Becker and Fagen as bad boys. But talk up the band to any self-respectingly "alternative," teen or twentysomething Lollapalooza-goer, and the image these unwashed youth have in their minds of Steely Dan might produce about the same look of distaste as if you'd suggested they attend a Kenny G show. The Doc Martens crowd sometimes takes a little educating to learn that, for all the inherent musical "slickness," Steely Dan was the Alternative band of its time.
The generation gap is obvious enough that you could update the lyrics of the group's 1980 Top 10 hit, a famously funny tune about the psychic perils of dating a girl too young to be familiar with Aretha Franklin, to apply to Steely Dan itself: "Hey Nineteen, That's Donald Fagen/ She don't remember the Kings of Scorn..."
Hey Nineteen: The instrumental warmth and smoothness of the sounds, like the wicked humor, were almost a necessary tonic for the bitterness or sorrow sometimes infecting the sentiments (or lack of them). Theirs could be a chilly, emotionally barren songscape, filled with fictional characters and pace names that had less to do with Dylan's or Springsteen's use of the same novelistic devices than their own unique post-Burroughsian, pre-cyberpunk uncharted universe, so full of dens and barely elucidated iniquities.
Steely Dan's key oldies get played on most of the available radio formats. But in trying to figure out exactly who it was that snapped up all those tour tickets so instantly, it springs to mind that today there are probably two core audiences for Steely Dan: First and foremost, there are those lingering, literarily minded, misanthropic anarchists who always dug the Dan's bad attitude. And then, of course, probably outnumbering those at this point, there's the pacifist army of modern "Wave" listeners.
"I'm sorry?" asks Fagen, apparently not familiar with the latter radio format.
Becker jumps in to help his partner: "People who listen to the Light Jazz radio station, like 'The Wave'."
Given the cultural divide between these two camps, we continue, does the duo worry that any brawls might break out between the surly old hipsters and the gentler sax-lovers at these shows?
"They're probably just exactly the same people," muses Becker.
"They'll all have an inner conflict," Fagen offers.
"Right," says Becker, "They're probably different shadow personalities of the same people."
"Dupe-Elgangers," puns Fagen.
"If you will. And I think you will," adds Becker, with a hint of menace.
It is a funny split, in any case, this leap between the archly rendered anger in many of Steely Dan's songs over the years and the easier listening strains the group eventually became synonymous with in the popular mindset.
A handful of other rock-era acts, from Randy Newman to Was (Not Was), have successfully shared this dualism. But in recent history, at least, musicians informed by the intoxicating headiness of jazz have generally drifted toward unchallenging lyrical currents, whereas conversely, bands with subversive intentions to speak of have deliberately tended toward some of the least sophisticated strains of music. As a group with credentials toward serious chopsmanship and in intellectually insurgent attitude, Steely Dan remains widely adored, and all too scarcely imitated.
"Why is that?" says Becker, leaping ahead to the question. "Well, in that respect the situation hasn't changed in 20 years. It's the dichotomy that you mentioned a moment ago: The 'anarchists,' or people who are interested in more interesting lyrics, are generally speaking not interested in jazz harmonies. They want something more raw and what they perceive to be subversive-sounding, which usually means clanging guitars.
"And it was just a quirk of Donald's and my natures that we thought superimposing jazz harmonies on pop songs was subversive in a much subtler way. But I guess most people who are writing songs don't really look at it that way...luckily for us!"
Adds Fagen, "I think people who are sophisticated in the sense that they want to hear some kind of substance in the lyrics are musically going to tend to be primitivists..."
"Or some kind of socialists," points out Becker.
Fagen: "Yeah. They have that kind of nostalgia de la Boue, they're into this purity thing of Rock and Roll; they see it as once being the sort of revolutionary teenage thing and they want to maintain that. I don't know why groups who have some good writers as far as the lyrics go don't get bored playing the same old rock and roll stuff...
"It has to do with when we were born and how we grew up," Fagen adds. "Even though we were really too young to experience a lot of the golden age of jazz in the '50s, nevertheless that's what we were into when we were young, though recordings, although we saw live jazz as well at the tail end of that era. And we also had literary aspirations, I suppose, so I guess it was really a combination of all those circumstances."
A developmental quirk of fate?
"Quirk of Fate. Of course. There are no accidents...as they say in Vienna."
goes: Becker and Fagen met at New York's Bard College in the late '60s, where they shared an equal love for black humor and Charlie Parker and mutual disdain for many things hippie-ish. They participated together in a series of bands before joining up with, of all groups, Jay and the Americans, the first of several souring touring experiences.
After selling a few of their songs at the famous Brill Building in New York, they moved to L.A., having been set up with a publishing deal as hired hands of ABC Records. Their early songwriting demos show that the duo had their unique "voice" from the start and were comically ill-suited to writing generic hits for mainstream stars (although a few compositions did get cut, Barbra Streisand's "I Mean To Shine" among them).
Eventually the ABC label was convinced that these boys were better off writing for themselves. The year 1972 brought the name Steely Dan (borrowed from Burrough's novel "Naked Lunch") and the debut album "Can't Buy A Thrill", with an auspicious first single, "Do It Again," that went to No. 4.
"When we went out in support of the first album, the record company in a way forced us out," Fagen recalls, resorting to out-of-the-womb trauma imagery. "That was just a thing that you were supposed to do. You know, the original band was put together very quickly -- almost instantly, really. And we were dealing with musicians we didn't know very well. Toward the end of our touring days, after two years of touring around and with some additional personnel, we were starting to get pretty good.
"But although the players were good players, we wanted to do a variety of types of music and work with other musicians. And they basically -- and very justifiably -- wanted to go out and play and make money. And so we decided to disband and concentrate on recording and writing music, which takes a lot of time and thought, and to eventually put another band together, perhaps, and then go out. But the inertia kept us in the studio till we never got around to it."
With albums from "Katy Lied" to "Gaucho" resulting from said inertia, fan complaints were tempered. In fact, the retirement from the stage was almost interrupted when Becker and Fagen actually put together and briefly rehearsed a band to tour behind their biggest album, 1977's "Aja," but got fed up with the logistics and the musicians' financial demands and sacked the idea before any dates were booked.
Like another quintessential best-selling group of the '70s, The Eagles, Steely Dan followed up their most successful album ("Aja" equals "Hotel California") by becoming legendary perfectionists in the studio and spending years on a crowning effort whose painstakingness effectively helped kill the band ("Gaucho": "The Long Run"). In 1981, while still considered commercial superstars, they announced the dissolution of their partnership.
Fagen released a very successful solo debut in '82, "The Nightfly", and Becker produced a few jazz and pop albums. Otherwise, the two men who produced one of the most enduring pop catalogs of the '70s were maddeningly invisible throughout the '80s.
The collaboration officially resumed with Becker's production of Fagen's 1993 release, "Kamakiriad", on which he also played bass and guitar. Fagen, in turn, has co-written songs for the solo album Becker hopes to have out in 1994; on this, Becker will be singing lead vocals for the first time since a few errant verses on Steely Dan's debut more than two decades back.
The tentative step back toward the dreaded touring process was a result of the New York Rock & Soul Revue, a combo Fagen put together in 1991 to play R&B oldies. A few Steely Dan chestnuts found their way into the set, and eventually Becker even sat in on a few dates. Both found that being on stage again wasn't so uncomfortable as they'd remembered, at least not under their own terms.
"The fact was, we always liked performing," claims Fagen. "Now we have an opportunity to go out with musicians of our own choosing, and we're touring under conditions which can't even be compared with the sort of things we were doing then, which was mostly opening for a lot of heavy-metal groups in often very inappropriate pairings. And the technology of touring has become refined and much more comfortable, much more human."
As for the ever-present danger of unseemly nostalgia, Becker readily admits, "I don't know if it's really possible to transcend that danger and do old songs at the same time." But the danger surrounding the N-word is allayed -- if not transcended -- by the fact that, by Becker's rough reckoning, these new Steely Dan shows are comprised of "Half Steely Dan stuff, half stuff from Donald's record, and half stuff from my record."
And as for "Reelin' In The Years," the oldie inherently most in danger of transformation into a witless singalong for nostalgia hounds, the band has thoroughly Osmond-proofed it for the '90s with a rearrangement full of tricky jazz modulations. Even the tunes that are rendered more faithfully to the original recordings sound as fresh as the day they were illegitimately born. Fagen had just a few years earlier publicly expressed the concern that a Steely Dan reunion might not be such a good idea, that perhaps the unit had been too youthful, too tied to its time; these nights, happily, the prodigal is proved to have been dead wrong.
culture seems to have caught up and become as cynical as Steely Dan at its peak, can Fagen and Becker do anything but turn tail?
Only future Steely Dan studio albums -- cross your fingers -- will tell. But the hostility that some perceived in the group's early records had given way to a bit more warmth in the band's recording output, culminating most recently in Fagen's emotionally richer "Kamakiriad". True to contrary form, our heroes do seem to be adapting to the archness-uber-alles '90s by getting less sardonic and kinder and gentler. (Ironically).
"Actually, Walter and I are very sweet-natured lads," Fagen insists, his tone not entirely inviting credulity.
Not that they're ever likely to be rechristened Softie Dan. "We were angry kids, there's no doubt about it. I think in that way we weren't that much different from a lot of other kids from our generation. To a lot of people, the '60s is now some sort of incredible layer cake invented by the media. But the fact was that we did have the attitude that we were brought up with inauthentic values, etc., and were trying to find some other kind of alternative values. We were looking for that in a very aggressive way. And as you get older, you're not that angry anymore; you accept a lot of things.
"On the other hand," continues Fagen, "we're both very idealistic in that we're at least trying to do something that's not all bullshit, trying to do something good, in a way that the guys who used to make rye bread wanted it to taste good and the shoemaker who made a pair of shoes wanted the shoes to be good instead of just doing a quick rip-off deal. We still have that attitude, which is real American, in a way. Now we're just not as arrogant about it, maybe."
So the work ethic prevails and Steely Dan, true to its name, flags not. Roll over Dave Letterman, tell William Burroughs the news.