Shanah Tova From Donald Fagen
The genius of Steely Dan talks blacks, Jews, and Lenny Bruce—and his new record, Sunken Condos
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.
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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