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Shanah Tova From Donald Fagen

The genius of Steely Dan talks blacks, Jews, and Lenny Bruce—and his new record, Sunken Condos

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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 [2000] and Everything Must Go [2003]. 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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xcubbies says:

Brought back memories of Steely Dan playing at a dance in the old gym at Bard. Not really good music to dance to.

I remember reading an interview with Fagen and Becker in 1980 and Walter saying that he is, in fact, not Jewish. Not that it matters, actually, but it’s an interesting sidebar. I have also seen Donald Fagen touring with Mike McDonald and Boz Scaggs as The Dukes of Rhythm…a great show. I saw Steely Dan in ’93 at the Gorge at George in Eastern Washington State…one of the greatest shows I’ve seen in 45 years of attending concerts.

jewels says:

pretty pretentious article, slick and surface. What made the music so great were all the
incredible musicians on the recording sessions, freelance players studio musicians,
and who actually did the arrangements, the full arrangements? Does anyone know?
Probably not Becker and Fagen. Now that woud be interesting journalism.

Why would you state something this disregardng of another wonderful musician?
“It would be difficult to imagine having this conversation with, say, Doobie
Brother Michael McDonald.”

holdmewhileimnaked says:

he’s a jew. people said stuff like that in 1980 just to fuck with other peoples heads.

scurvybro says:

Elliot Randall played the guitar solo on “Reelin’ in the Years,” not Denny Dias.

Très probablement le meilleur article jamais écrit sur Steely Dan. Bravo et merci.

If half this article had been edited out it would have been good. Can’t stand the “aren’t these guys so bad and cool” pose. You’re not 14 anymore Yaffe.

nice piece, but, hey, guys, the “lost wages” line ain’t Lenny Bruce’s.

I was about to look that up, & said to myself “ok, this guy just doesn’t know” Trivia: did you know that Jimmy Page, when asked what was his all-time fave guitar solo, said “Elliot Randall-Reelin’ in the Years”? Cool huh?

SenatorChas says:

Interesting read, but way too pretentious and elitist in attitude and tone. My first wince followed the statement that “Reelin’ in the Years” made “no concessions to popular taste.” For starters, how ’bout the the CSN-like harmonies and the very ’70s guitar hooks and riffs? Sure it was subversive, but it was thoroughly commercial. With very few exceptions, all big hit singles concede to popular taste, and “Reelin’” was no exception.

darlaj says:

Only an English professor could have written this.

Bill Robbins says:

So much fun, and informative, to read the other comments. Steely Dan made (makes) great music; music that is part of my high school and college years. As for the pretentious “rock-journalism,” I always found it amusing, how rock journalists and art critics write in their own little, annoying language, as if they have a special appreciation for what drug-and-alcohol-ridden musicians and artists–many of them, brilliant in their talent and/or their trade, do for a living. Not that all musicians and artists are drug-addicts and alcoholics; just the really good ones!

S.A. Robinson says:

Thanks Yaffe..

You were the right guy to write this piece, at the right time.
I plan to steal a couple of you ripest lines, like ‘ a whiny Jew who wanted soul and got irony’ and I think I’ll have a t-shirt made up with Donald’s face on the back and ‘ Jewface’ on the front.

For me, the tune ‘Everything Must Go ‘ sums up the last couple of decades and seems to play in my head when ever it wants, and about the mashing of notes to achieve a sort of patent ( the Mu major), i should probably send the boys a few coins for my abuse of them too. Also, in regard to Mr. F’s dental,work…after the last three live shows I’ve attended, I’m fairly certain the Donald is a member of some terribly obscure sect of Sephardic Vampires, those incisors honed on the necks of countless nubiles.

Tiluriso says:

Very fine article. Donald Fagen is one of my all time musical heroes, a true genius. Just some corrections: 1) The solos on ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ were played by Elliot Randall, not Deny Dias – Denny plays the electric sitar solo on ‘Do It Again’. 2) Carole King and David Palmer’s ‘Jazzman’ is a great tune IMHO, maybe not her best, but certainly far from being ‘execrable’, as stated in this article. Toodle-oo.

HazyJMac says:

Love some Donald Fagan.. Didn’t get much smoother… Though the dildo that inspired it all came from a clockwork orange, not naked lunch. Author should check them out… Good times!

Silk says:

Just for your information and to let you know but Walter Becker is NOT Jewish. Sorry. :)

I am a huge jazz fan, and listen to many other forms of music. I- remember Steely Dan’s first album in 72, I was then blown away. As today I still do not get tired of listening to all of their recordings, including solo albums. And, do not forget the the New York Rock and Soul Revue, 1991. Phoebe Snow and others on that recording were exquisite. Thank you Donald Fagen and Walter Becker and all the rest of the Dan musicians, for your contribution to the music world!


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Shanah Tova From Donald Fagen

The genius of Steely Dan talks blacks, Jews, and Lenny Bruce—and his new record, Sunken Condos