Shanah Tova From Donald Fagen
The genius of Steely Dan talks blacks, Jews, and Lenny Bruce—and his new record, Sunken Condos
Donald Fagen reclines awkwardly on a hotel sofa. We are in a one-bedroom suite at the Hotel Wales on the Upper East Side. He is surprisingly without shades, but he seems to have found something on the ceiling to stare at. He’s in his usual attire—that is, a going-to-the-bodega look: tucked-out shirt, a few days’ worth of stubble, and attitude to spare. He finally settles on a position he can tolerate, leaning sideways, looking very much like he does at the keyboard. Without fellow Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker to trade quips with, today he instead has Michael Leonhart, who co-produced Fagen’s new album, Sunken Condos, which sounds more like a Steely Dan album than anything since Gaucho (1980), the band’s 42-musician, 8-song farewell. (Steely Dan reunited on the road in ’93 and recorded two albums in the 21st century—the Grammy-winning Two Against Nature  and Everything Must Go . Both albums have their greatness—the latter including the superb jazz pianist Bill Charlap—but they don’t sound quite like Steely Dan albums.)
Sunken Condos explores the rich bass and warmth of the last days of vinyl. It turns out that making an album that sounds like Aja (1977) isn’t as impossible as putting another man on the moon. The album opens with “Slinky Thing,” sort of a pre-post-script to the later “Hey, Nineteen,” except that the guy not only gets the chick who is way too young for him, but he broods about it with a funky beat. (“I think rock ’n’ roll is, you know, cars and girls are good subjects,” is all Fagen would say about it.) Fagen name checks Al Gore in the funkadelic “The Weather in My Head,” and adds some campy nasality to Isaac Hayes’ “Out of the Ghetto,” which has got to be the comedy track of the decade so far. He keeps the funk going, with a rich (sometimes upright) bass and a mixture of blues and kvetching. Along with Leonhart—son of bassist-humorist Jay Leonart and a serious trumpet player—we are having this meeting on Rosh Hashanah, and one of us had to mention that we were a troika of bad Jews sullying this holy day.
But then again, that’s what Steely Dan, who, on the spur of the moment, named themselves after a dildo from William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, have been about for the past four decades; these guys must have laughed themselves silly when, at the beginning of their songwriting career, they sold a song, “I Mean to Shine,” to Barbra Streisand, recorded for her Barbra Joan Streisand album, released in 1971, shortly after Fagen graduated from Bard College (and Becker didn’t). They revere Mort Sahl and Charles Mingus and other icons, but they also gleefully trampled over taboos across the board. Fagen and Becker have always been bad Jews and badasses who have written, gleefully, about incest (“Cousin Dupree”) and a child molester (“Everyone’s Gone to the Movies”), and recycled, in a repeated motif on “Show Biz Kids,” Lenny Bruce’s gag of referring to Las Vegas as “Lost Wages.” On Sunken Condos, Fagen is still irreverent. Singing of a May-December romance with a mixture of desire and insecurity:
Today we were strolling
By the reptile cage
I thinkin’ that she needs somebody
Who’s closer to her own age
Try not to worry
What tomorrow may bring
I’m just gonna do my best to
Hold onto that slinky thing
Fagen’s wisps of hair are mostly gray now, but he’s not through being nasty. When he sings, he opens his mouth wide enough for root canal (and it’s not a pretty sight: You see the dental work and those adenoids that get that funky sound out). When he speaks, he seems so contemptuous at his need to communicate to the outside world, he swallows his vowels and grunts in an almost encrypted argot that only Becker, or a devoted fan like yours truly, would take the trouble to decipher. He shares a homophone with Dickens’ Fagin, who is perhaps the most extravagant act of literary anti-Semitism since Shylock.
Steely Dan’s debut Can’t Buy a Thrill came out in 1972. The Dan is now 40. No one—with the exception of Joni Mitchell, whom they love—in post-rock-’n’-roll pop music has staked out the same harmonic territory. Fagen and Becker had attention spans too short for Miles’ Bitches Brew or John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, which was maybe for meditating. These guys had jazz chops in a rock-’n’-roll era, which Fagen credits to years of going to jazz clubs, listening to DJs like Mort Fega and Symphony Sid, and spending a summer at the Berklee School of Music. The Dan found modal jazz—hanging out too long on one chord—rather dull, at least outside of Miles’ Kind of Blue (1959), which they loved. Yet when they heard that Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (1964)—with its long solos and few chord changes—had become the Bible, they were depressed. They thought it spelled the end of chromatic harmony.
“We thought jazz was on its way out,” recalled Fagen, finding anywhere to look other than at the guy in front of him. “For one thing, it was that the aggressive political stance that the black community was taking was affecting the music in a way that was not particularly positive. I thought that it was becoming a political music and, as much I as I could sympathize with the political positions, I just didn’t like what was happening to the music. On the other hand, that was the most creative time for black music in the pop field. There was Motown, there was Memphis, there was Muscle Shoals. Getting into the ’70s, you had Sly and the Family Stone, you had Isaac Hayes, and we were very taken with Laura Nyro, and we used to listen to Eli and the Thirteenth Confession over and over again in Walter’s dorm room.”
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