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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

David Yaffe
October 16, 2012
Margarita Korol
Margarita Korol
Margarita Korol
Margarita Korol

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.”

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

“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.

David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. Follow his Substack: