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Steely Dan's Second Wind:
'70s Pair is Back, Jack, To Do It Again

August 16, 1993

By James T. Jones IV

NEW YORK - Dawn Traverse, 22, whips around in her airplane seat. "You're interviewing Steely Dan?"

She repeats the name like a long-lost secret code. "I love their music."

A recent college grad, she was only 10 when Steely Dan broke up. She's part of a generation that's rediscovered their mellow, meticulously arranged pop-jazz and rock. "Every college party I went to played them. I'm going to their concert in (Washington) D.C. and I can't wait."

Apparently, neither can the rest of the Steely-starved legions. The songwriting duo of such catchily cryptic pop songs as Rikki Don't Loose That Number and Deacon Blues , touring for the first time in 19 years, opened to a sold-out crowd Friday in Detroit. Sunday night's Chicago show sold out in 30 minutes.

Can an act that spent its peak years in the '70s barricaded in the studio pull off a decent live concert?

"We're counting on people still responding to a good rhythm section, a live band and lyrics that are about a number of different things," says vocalist/pianist Donald Fagen.

He and partner guitarist/bassist Walter Becker are rehearsing in Manhattan, and they're being as meticulous about it as they've always been about their recordings -- they'd examine every piano note and horn line like scientists analyzing DNA.

They realize they're hitting the road during a summer in which stage-experienced rock dinosaurs roam, in an era of MTV-style high-tech glitz.

"But if you're expecting razzle-dazzle from Steely Dan, you're going to be very disappointed," cracks Fagen, 45. "We both started as jazz fans, and our idea of a show is a bunch of guys in cheap suits, with their backs turned to the audience."

Says Becker, 43: "the show we'll be doing will be more of what our fans expect from us. No one will come to our show thinking it's going to be, uh...

"...Madonna," Fagen says.

"We're doing most of these songs for the first time live," he says, "so it's really very fresh.

Becker even sings. Until now, Fagen handled lead vocals. "I used to try to get Walter to sing," he says. "I like his voice, but I couldn't get him to do a duo thing."

"The range of Donald's voice is much higher than mine," says Becker, but now that he's singing five of his own songs, "I've had to outgrow my coyness."

"We're presenting arranged music with a lot of room" for improvisation, Fagen says.

Topped, of course, by those irresistibly weird lyrics. Fans still puzzle over Black Cow: On the counter by your keys/ Was a book of numbers and your remedies/ One of these surely would screen out the sorrow/ But where are you tomorrow .

Says Becker, "When we first started, we didn't know how to tell a story in a song without leaving out a lot of the story...We used to condense things in a way..."

"...that left quite a bit to the individual," says Fagen.

The partners, who met at New York's Bard College in 1967, often finish each other's sentences. Their short, professorial haircuts are a far cry from the long mops they sported in the early '70s.

"We were terrible, Fagen laughs. "We couldn't write a straight-ahead pop tune without adding a self-destructive line."

Nevertheless, after playing together in a college band and working as staff songwriters for ABC Records, they decided to record in 1972 as Steely Dan, naming their act after a dildo in William S. Burrough's novel Naked Lunch.

We though it would be a great laugh, and we didn't think the group would last that long," says Fagen. "Now, that's what we're stuck with."

When they began, musicians like Miles Davis and Return to Forever were merging jazz and rock into a volcanic brew called fusion. Steely Dan took their own version of the hybrid to the pop world, making it radio-friendly.

"The radio stations still play our stuff," Becker boasts. "That's kind of given us...

"...a cachet," Fagen finishes.

DJ Jim Ladd at Los Angeles' KLSX-FM says, "This is a band that...has sustained its popularity.

"They are really phenomenal musicians. They've elevated rock by their sheer technical expertise. Any real musician recognizes how good these guys are."

Jazz great Wayne Shorter, former saxophonist for Miles Davis, soloed on the title cut of Steely Dan's 1977 album Aja .

"I knew they were doing something that was part of an evolutionary process," he says, "the kind of harmonic things that Thelonious Monk, Dizzy (Gillespie) and Miles were doing. It was creative music."

On the current tour, they're performing Aja , along with a dozen other Steely Dan hits. They're also doing songs from Fagen's second solo album, Kamakiriad, and from Becker's first solo album, produced by Fagen and due next year.

They whetted their stage appetites last year when Becker sat in with Fagen during a series of shows called the New York Rock and Soul Revue. The crowds' reaction convinced them they had a hot ticket.

"There were moments when the level of pandemonium during the intro to Deacon Blues became frightening," says Becker.

Already, this promises to be a better show than their last outing in '74, which they admit was lackluster.

"We were told if we didn't tour, they wouldn't really promote our record wholeheartedly," says Becker.

So they threw together a band. "Although they were good players, they weren't stylistically right for what we were trying to do," says Fagen.

It was under-rehearsed and under-whelming. Afterwards, they decided they'd had enough of the road.

"At the time, we were influenced by the fact that the Beatles had retired from touring to concentrate on recording," says Fagen. "We were interested in paying that much attention to recording." Their studio-intense albums sold well -- Katy Lied, The Royal Scam and the million-selling Aja . When they split in 1981 after 1980's Gaucho , another million-seller, they'd gotten "to the point where we basically needed to go our separate ways," says Becker.

"We got bored with it," says Fagen. "We had to let some time go by to find new subject matter, because we don't write about love and sex all the time, we write from stuff that happens in our lives. We needed life experiences to continue it."

Becker had developed some personal problems. "I had been smoking cigarettes, and various other social ills," he says. "I ended up moving to Hawaii and went through physical and spiritual regeneration."

During that period, he produced pop/jazz artists, married his yoga instructor, Eleanor, and began a family. Fagen, meanwhile, pursued a solo career and had a hit with his first solo album, The Nightfly , in 1982. He recently married Rock and Soul Revue producer Libby Titus.

In 1987, Fagen and Becker began collaborating again "off and on," says Becker, which gradually led to joint projects and the current tour.

"We had many years of doing exactly what we always wanted to do, hiring all these great musicians," Becker explains.

"We'd thought after a few years, we would go out again with a new band. For various reasons, it just never happened."

"It did," says Fagen. "Twenty years later. Consider this our second leg."

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