Shanah Tova From Donald Fagen
The genius of Steely Dan talks blacks, Jews, and Lenny Bruce—and his new record, Sunken Condos
“I didn’t think I was gonna be the lead singer,” he recalled. “Walter and I wanted a real singer for the band. We already had a band and a record contract, but neither of us wanted to sing. Jeff Baxter, who was in the band, said he knew this guy David Palmer from Boston and he said, ‘Hey, he looks like Roger Daltrey.’ So, he came out to California and rehearsed with him. But after a few songs, we realized that he didn’t have the attitude. We didn’t like him that much anyway. We didn’t like the sound of his voice that much. Walter and I really just wanted to play.” They should have fired him on the spot but the prospect of facing an audience was too terrifying. (Palmer would later write the lyrics for Carole King’s execrable “Jazzman.”)
“I knew I had the right attitude, but I didn’t think I was technically equipped or psychologically equipped,” Fagen continued. “I just never felt confidence in it. I admired people like Steve Winwood. I like Marvin Gaye, you know. Coming from the jazz world, I wanted to hear a real singer, someone who dealt some shit out. But I improved over the years. I took vocal coaching. I used to start out real soft. Walter had a stronger voice, but it always came out a hair flat. Can’t Buy a Thrill was the first professional singing I ever did. I thought of Dylan as a fabulous singer. I could never hope to sing as good as he could.” And Randy Newman? “Randy Newman seemed like an even worse singer than me. I liked Ray Charles, Levi Stubbs, Jack Jones, Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett.”
Fagen sounds like he has listened to these people, but he doesn’t sound anything like them. Put him in front of a piano and he sounds more like a straight-ahead jazz guy. But Fagen never actually tries to sound black. His vocals are a comedy about a neurotic member of the Tribe dishing out one-liners and bleak prophecy. “I would love to tour the southland on a traveling minstrel show,” sang Fagen on “Pretzel Logic”; Fagen and Becker were not actually yearning to restage blackface. They were staging Jewface, willing to acknowledge, in their ironic way, that many white singers imitate black singers, and that in their case it was going to be parody, it was going to be history, and it would not sound like anyone else.
“Haitian Divorce,” from The Royal Scam (1976) is a number the Dan still churns out in concerts today, sometimes with Becker singing lead. It’s about a Scarsdale-type Jewish woman—even named Babs—who has a tourist’s fling with a local dude on a West Indian vacation. Of the product of their union, Fagen, hamming it up, sings, “Semi-Mojo. Who’s this kinky so-and-so?” The guitar, through a phaser, is adenoidal. The reggae beat is taunting. Fagen settles for “semi-Mojo” in his journey through blackness. He sounds like a comedian making the most out of cultural incongruity. We never liked Steely Dan because they were good imitators or smooth performers. We dug the raunchy irony, chord changes intense enough, in their rock ’n’ roll context, to be a moment in jazz that never quite happened. We dug the nasty characters and we dug the artifice.
The band still tours every year (an odd sight for a band that famously gave up touring for most of their original run), and while they are worth seeing, the studio perfectionism cannot possibly be reproduced on a rock ’n’ roll stage. (Becker has a droll monologue in the middle of “Hey, Nineteen” that is worth the price of admission.) But what could one possibly expect for a collective that’s survived so much? The band named after a sex toy can still give pleasure. The back-up singers are there to look decorative and to add depth to Fagen’s increasingly attenuated voice (richer and stronger on Sunken Condos). Becker has switched from bass to guitar after being a mostly silent partner in the studio years, and you can hear the soul in his playing that Fagen identified in their funky college days, when he first overheard his future partner playing the blues and Fagen thought he was black.
But Fagen never pretended to be anything other than he was. Even now, as he turns Isaac Hayes’ already clever “Out of the Ghetto” into some funky-ass stand up, he can only be that guy on his way to the bodega. But the guy knows stuff you’d never expect from a pop musician. When he saw that I was carrying a copy of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, he said, “Oh, man, I really dug the novel James wrote about politics and conspiracy. What was it called?” “The Princess Casamassima?” I ventured. “Yeah, man, that’s it. I never understood why it wasn’t more appreciated.” Shanha tova, indeed. It would be difficult to imagine having this conversation with, say, Doobie Brother Michael McDonald. “You know some obscure shit, man,” he said. After all that Steely Dan had given to me, I couldn’t have imagined a grander compliment.
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