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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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Producer Gary Katz believed that these two weirdos straight out of Annandale—so pale it seemed they had never seen daylight—possessed the potential for a rock band in them. It was perhaps as eclectic and extravagant a year as rock ’n’ roll would ever see. 1972 was the year of Randy Newman’s Sail Away, Joni Mitchell’s For the Roses, Paul Simon’s eponymous debut solo album, Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, and Lou Reed’s Transformer. Fagen’s voice was an amalgam of familiar sources with an unfamiliar delivery. His Dylanesque nasality combined with the timing of Lenny Bruce, all while wishing he could be Marvin Gaye. He was a whiny Jew who wished for soul and got irony instead. This could describe the condition of 1965-66 Dylan as well, but in 1972, one could be more up front about cultural contradictions.

Steely Dan reluctantly toured, made an appearance with Bill Cosby on Midnight Special, and had two hits: “Do It Again,” which had perhaps the suavest electric sitar solo committed to vinyl, and “Reeling in the Years,” which, like “Do It Again” had a long afterlife on Classic Rock radio. “Do It Again” could really mean only one thing for a couple of smart-asses in their early 20s; “Reeling in the Years” was a classic Dylanesque put down to a girl who broke up with the songwriter with a smoking guitar solo by Denny Dias, but it made no concessions to popular taste.

Fagen and Becker were committed to jazz harmonies, pop hooks, and rock intensity. Their initial 8-year run was an adventure with vocabulary foreign to rock ears, yet they still had big, fat guitar solos and, between 1972 and 1980, big hits from each album. Their success could only have happened with an industry filled with eclecticism and loads of cash. Although they mixed jazz and rock ’n’ roll, they were not a fusion band. Their songs were as driven by their often obscure narratives as they were by their chord progressions, which looked like charts for Art Blakey. They didn’t fuse, they morphed, and they also transfigured rock’s harmonic soundscape forever.

That harmonic soundscape certainly altered me at 14, when I was just the right age to be impressionable. I could play through all the rock ’n’ roll fake books, which contained chords that were usually some variation of 1-4-5 or 1-6-2-5. I thought I could play anything with little effort. Then came Steely Dan. G over A? C Minor over F? E Sus? (“Sus,” I would learn, is for suspended.) And so I entered a new harmonic universe to which the band gave me clues, like paying homage to Bird on “Parker’s Band,” paying homage to Duke (the year he died) on their version of “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” and having their dream saxophonist Wayne Shorter—whose 1960s compositions laid out much of the chromatic territory they followed—solo on “Aja” against the mind-blowing triplets of drummer Steve Gadd (author of the “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” beat). Steely Dan were my gateway drug to jazz, so much so that when I finally did learn jazz piano and jazz repertoire, I was instructed to stop listening to rock ’n’ roll and instead only take in the best jazz pianists so I could swing, because you really don’t want to solo on a Monk tune and sound like Elton John. And so, Steely Dan receded into the distance.

But they eventually came back into my musical rotation. I got more of the jokes and more of their satirical vision, way beyond my initial discovery of at age 14. I could hear more clearly that there was something distinct about their America, viewed through the lens of racial appropriation and aspiration, and through satire and irony. When I was 14 in 1987, Steely Dan had been defunct since Gaucho (1980), they hadn’t played a concert since 1974, and there was nothing new from either Becker or Fagen but Fagen’s The Nightfly (1982), a poignant nostalgia trip that nevertheless showed that Becker was perhaps the irony behind the band. I admired their sloth: Silence, exile, and cunning, I later learned from Stephen Dedalus, are potent weapons.

***

The band named after a sex toy can still give pleasure.

Becker and Fagen loved rock ’n’ roll along with the harmonic language of jazz, and they didn’t think it was out of place to throw in a few very, very dark jokes, which Fagen says was definitely a Jewish thing for him. Macabre shtick was certainly connected to the world of his fathers—and his mother, too. “Major themes in my life,” Fagen said reconciling the Holocaust, Jewish identity, and a humor as dark as Kafka’s. “We were, through the jazz connection, also into Lenny Bruce. My older cousins used to have subscriptions to Paul Krassner’s The Realist. My mother used to stomp around the neighborhood for Adlai Stevenson. She knew all the standards and showtunes, but when I was a kid, I bought the single to ‘Jailhouse Rock.’ But then again Elvis seemed like the kind of guy who used to beat the shit out of me in high school, so I never had much of a connection.”

George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin—these were not the kind of guys who would beat the shit out of Fagen. This was the liturgy played by his mother, and I bet she camped it up for whoever was listening, out in Passaic, N.J., about 20 minutes—and half a world—from the New York City he and Becker would honor and defile throughout their career. When they set up shop in Manhattan’s Brill Building, there was almost no one left to listen, but they did get discovered as songwriters anyway. A short stint with Jay & The Americans, and, based on some demos in which they both sang, they were signed to ABC records, which had been putting out The Mamas and the Papas and John Sebastian. Fagen did not look ready to play the frontman—he still doesn’t—but he underestimated his own game.

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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.

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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