Steely Dan Madness: Walking the Tightrope in Star City

In 1974, I spent several days in L.A. with the members of Steely Dan, hanging out where they were living and working and attending a rehearsal gig. The result was the following feature, which originally appeared in Zoo World.

steely dan madness Zoo World article

“Everything gets pretty much the same reaction at our concerts,” complains Steely Dan bassist Walter Becker. “The highlight is when they hear that little guitar lick at the beginning of ‘Reelin’ in the Years.’ They go, ‘Ahhh!!’”

“They just wanna hear a Rare Earth beat,” adds Donald Fagen, Walter’s songwriting partner. “You know, some kinda jungle sound.”

Steel guitarist Jeff Baxter agrees. “They wanna hear the boom-boom and they wanna see you looking really weird. What they want is platform shoes and glitter.”

“We play better if the audience likes the show,” says Donald. “But you know, what can you do if they just don’t get into it? I’m not gonna stand there and do that Kenny Loggins shit. If they don’t like it, they can go and see a Loggins and Messina concert.”

“If we were English,” declares Jeff, “it would be OK. ‘Another scotch in me glass, Mike, I need a bloody scotch’—yeah, if we were English, we’d be—”

“Status is what we need,” Donald interrupts. “If we had some status, we wouldn’t get screwed around all the time. See, now if we were one of the big important groups like Dr. Hook or Stories or Led Zeppelin or Humble Pie or Mom’s Apple Pie—”

Suddenly, the Show Biz Kids

While its members walk the tightrope between false modesty and self-congratulation, Steely Dan is fast becoming one of “the big important groups.” A year ago, some disc jockeys were announcing “Reelin’ in the Years” as a tune by Steeleye Span and fans were writing in to ask whether Steely Dan was one man or a group. Today, the band is well known as the five-man aggregation responsible for a pair of gold albums, Can’t Buy a Thrill and Countdown to Ecstasy, and for two bestselling singles, “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years.” The critics’ applause has been thunderous, with their reactions to the group and its music ranging from “rock superbe” (in the French magazine Best) to “Best Performance of the Year—New Band” (in this publication).

Suddenly, the members of Steely Dan are the showbiz kids, living high on the hog in L.A., hopping around the country on tours, and playing to houses packed with screaming admirers.

“It’s a nightmare,” says Donald, but he’s not about to quit, and neither are his companions. Having finally reached a point in their careers at which they can dictate the conditions under which they will perform, the members of the group are more into their music than ever before. To keep the quality of the shows and themselves high, they will refuse to hit 30 cities in 31 days, to be booked into large halls, or to play a requested tune if they’re not in the mood. They can now perform exactly what they want to because they’ve sold everyone with sheer talent.

For Walter and Donald, who write all of Steely Dan’s material, this success had been a long time coming. The pair remember a time when they couldn’t even get together a competent band, much less attract an enthusiastic audience. At Bard College, in upstate New York, where they met when both were students, “there were never enough people,” says Walter, “to put together a band where everybody was a strong player.”

Attending that college had other drawbacks as well, Walter adds. “Like every spring, they used to have a bust on campus. You know, just to raise a little hell in the town and a little revenue for the local lawyers.

“Gordon Liddy was the assistant district attorney the year Donald and I got arrested. I was sleeping in some guy’s living room, and they had warrants for everybody but me, so they took me in and typed one up for fourth-degree possession of marijuana. And down at the arraignment, they were having a little party there, you know. They had like a lot of coffee and Danish and a miserable judge who has now gone to his great reward read us the charges . . . which were later dropped.”

At the time of Walter’s arrest, he was a visitor on campus, having already quit school. Shortly after the bust, Donald graduated and joined his partner, who was by then living in New York City. There, they began to polish their performing skills, while trying to sell some of their songs to tide them over financially.

Steely Dan, circa 1973
Steely Dan, circa 1973

“See, now most people know that you don’t actually sell songs,” remarks Walter. “But we didn’t know that then. Someone typed up the songs and we just went from door to door in the music business district. We ended up at Jay and the Americans’ office. They were the only guys who were in town because there was a convention going on to which they hadn’t been invited.”

Working with Jay & the Americans

First to hear the material were some front-office workers, Walter recalls. “We’d play the songs and one guy would listen and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’ He’d call in another guy. We’d play the same songs; he’d call in the next guy. Finally, we got to an actual American.

“So the way it worked out, we sort of farted around with them for a couple of years. At one point, they had a publishing company and we were their catalog. We got $50 for every song. We’d make up titles and get the checks. And that was what we lived on.

“Then we started playing gigs with them, on their triumphant return to the concert circuit. That was one of the high points of my life. You know, we used to open our show with ‘Only in America.’ And Jay would do the rap he’d been doing for about seven or eight years.”

Since Jay’s popularity was not what it had once been, Walter and Donald had a lot of free time in which to try out their own projects. “Our big thing,” Walter explains, “was going into the studio ‘on spec,’ you know, which means that not only are you not getting paid, but you have no hope of ever getting paid, and not only that, no record company has shown the least interest in the project you’re about to embark on. That’s what ‘on spec’ meant to me.”

During this otherwise dismal period, the duo met Gary Katz, then an independent New York producer, who became both a friend and an aid to their careers. After Katz took a job with ABC/Dunhill Records in L.A., they accepted his invitation to join him and become staff writers for the company. Having had enough of “Only in America,” they were, by this time, beginning to consider forming their own band; a writing stint with ABC, it seemed, would afford them strong record company connections and a source of income while a group was being assembled and rehearsed.

As it turned out, they were right, but the job did bear a certain resemblance to their hitch with Jay and the Americans. “We really had to go out of our way, you know, to write a song for the Grassroots,” says Walter with a smile. “We did it. I mean, we wrote some of the cheesiest songs that you ever heard. But, uh, they were so cheesy that they were laughable.

“But we were just stalling for time while we were putting the band together. We had another office at ABC/Dunhill and every day, after five o’clock, we rehearsed there.”

Steel guitarist Jeff Baxter, whose membership in Boston’s mildly infamous Ultimate Spinach had been so unsatisfying that he refuses to even talk about it, was in L.A. when Walter and Donald arrived. He already knew them through Katz and decided to join the fledgling band because their music “was the only stuff I’d heard in the past 10 years that made any sense to me and didn’t make me nauseous.”

Gary Katz, who agreed to handle production, found the other musicians—Denny Dias, a New York guitarist and med-school dropout, and Jimmy Hodder, a drummer who had been with the Boston group Bead Game. With Walter contributing bass and Donald the piano work, the lineup was complete. Garnering a contract with ABC and a name from William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (where it referred to an oversized dildo), Steely Dan was in business.

A New National Tour

Today, a new national tour is a few weeks away, a concert is to begin in five hours, and Walter and Jeff are an hour late for a soundcheck. At the wheel of the 1965 Cadillac, ABC Records’ Charley Coplen watches his windshield wipers fight a losing battle with a torrent of H2O. As he sings a verse of “It Never Rains in Southern California,” Walter, in the back seat of the car, reaches up to close the crack in its broken convertible top. “I don’t want to go to the soundcheck,” he protests, as the rain hits his face. “I want to go home and listen to far-out jazz.”

Jeff Baxter, sitting next to him, is oblivious to the rain. Smiling benevolently through the long hair that hangs down over much of his face, he explains that he has spent the day working at a music shop where he repairs guitars in return for an hourly wage and a whole lot of beer. Today’s work earned him mostly liquid assets and he is now ready for just about anything. Far-out jazz? Sure. A soundcheck? Why not?

Arriving at the Sopwith Camel club in the Los Angeles tentacle of Glendale, Walter and Donald get out of the car and unload their guitars from the trunk. The “Steely Dan Tonight” banner over the club’s entranceway attracts a quick glance before they go inside and jump onstage.

“The lead singer is not coming,” Walter announces. “That’s Mr. Fagen, that elusive Mr. Fagen. He’s taking the day off, that’s what he’s doing.”

Denny and Jimmy are positioning their mikes. Jeff Porcaro, a second drummer added for the upcoming tour, jabs at his snare a few times, testing it out. Mike McDonald (electric keyboards, vocals) and Royce Jones (vocals, percussion), both also along for the tour, look eager to get started.

A few musicians begin to riff at random and the dial-turning “quippies” listen intently. “We’re not getting any acoustic guitar out of this monitor at all,” someone says, running up to check it. “Kill channel two entirely.”

“Right now,” comes the next directive, “put either of the bass drums on channel one.”

“Can you please turn it down a bit?”

“What? I can’t hear you.”

Suddenly, a band member calls: “A-one, a-two.” The group breaks into “Boston Rag,” a tune from their second album, then runs through Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar,” interpreting it as a fast boogie. A chorus of “Reelin’ in the Years” tests the voice mikes to everyone’s satisfaction and, after a few more Steely Dan numbers and a slice of “Tequila,” the musicians begin to file out for dinner. Royce Jones’s a cappella version of the Chi-Lites’s “Have You Seen Her,” the last sound heard from the stage before the concert, pours into an almost empty club.

An L.A.-area Club Gig

Some four hours later, just prior to showtime, the Sopwith Camel is crammed with close to a thousand militant Steely Dan fans. A warmup band has been trying to keep them occupied, but as it leaves the stage and the audience’s restiveness continues to increase, it is clear that the pacification program has flopped.

A blond-haired woman leaps up on a chair, screams “Steely Dan now!” and crumples next to her empty bottle of Jose Cuervo tequila. Nearby, a man who is already too drunk to stand pounds meekly on his table to echo the woman’s sentiments. “Yeah,” he groans deliriously. “Now!”

Fulfilling his wish a few minutes later, Steely Dan takes the stage and, before all of the audience is fully aware of its presence, belts out the first verse of “Bodhisattva.” Donald Fagen, a dark madman in his black leather jacket, attacks the piano like an acid-age Jerry Lee Lewis. “Bodhisattva!” he screams, “I’m gonna sell my house in town! / And I’ll be there! / to shine in your Japan! / to sparkle in your China! / Yes, I’ll be there! / Bodhisattva! Bodhisattva!”

Into the sound vacuum created by the end of that number, the band immediately hurls the Latin-flavored “Do It Again.” Having put aside his steel guitar for the song, Jeff Baxter delivers hammer strokes to a set of congas, his hair flying as he stomps the floor. Behind him Jimmy Hodder and Jeff Porcaro rain fierce blows on their drums. Completing the giant rhythm section, Royce Jones shakes his maracas and, now and again, steps to his mike to back Donald Fagen’s stentorian vocals. Meanwhile, Mike McDonald, who’s been sprinting up and down the electric keyboards, lends a third voice on choruses. Walter Becker, the happy bassist, chews gum to the beat of the music and, as he smiles from behind the shades he wears day and night, plays seemingly without effort. The band’s most visually reserved player, Denny Dias, maintains a practically motionless pose, but he’s not fooling anyone as vibrant, high-pitched sounds ululate from his nearby speaker.

In front of the stage, drunken dancers romp frantically, while, at some tables, feet, glasses, hands, and chairs become percussion instruments.

Steely Dan, charging into a follow-up upon each song’s conclusion, creates an almost continuous barrage of explosive energy rushes. Only a moment ago, it seems, Donald was throwing his hand wildly in the air, demanding to know, “Are ya reelin’ in the years? / Are ya stowin’ ‘way the ti-ime?” And now, Royce Jones is holding a microphone with one hand and keeping his hat in place with the other as he howls the last chorus of the group’s closing number, “Boston Rag”: “Tell all yer buddies that it ain’t no drag / Bring back the Boston Rag…”

Then the band is gone, but the feverish dementia it has produced in the fans keeps growing. Many of the ardent partiers are clapping to a remembered beat or prancing around in the aisles. Others, apparently too stoned to move, slouch halfway under their tables. One disheveled youth, smiling dazedly and pumping his fist up and down like a piston, calls repeatedly for an encore.

A relentless drinker orders his umpteenth pair of double tequila sunrises and with a desperate gleam in his eye, offers a payoff for a place in this article. Holding a dollar bill in his outstretched hand, he manages “Danny Carney’s the name. C-A-R-N-E-Y, I’m countin’ on ya, man.”

He stands up uncertainly, leans against the back of a sofa, and after spelling his name one more time, collapses behind the leatherette couch.

A Dressing Room Chat

In Steely Dan’s dressing room the frantic mood parallels that of the concert just ended. As soon as the band arrived here, the door was closed to prevent intrusion, but within minutes, some 25 people have bluffed, sneaked, or VIP’d their way into the room. And literally every few seconds, someone new bangs on the door to explain why he or she ought to be admitted instantly.

Walter and Donald, reclining on a couch near the door, are surrounded by cocaine snorters, guitar strummers, and heavy drinkers. Barely audible over the crowd’s screeching, the pair begin trying to answer a question about the group’s music.

Though their material is rock-based, says Walter, its harmonic chord structures and the frequent dissonance of its angular melodies are the results of his and Donald’s taste for jazz and 20th-century classical music. Similarly, the writers’ approach to lyrics may often be more in tune with jazz and modern classics than it is with rock.

“The bottom line for us is effective sound. And whatever associations the words may spring in the listener’s mind, well, uh, Godspeed, you know?”—Donald Fagen

“The bottom line for us is effective sound,” remarks Donald in a low monotone. “And whatever associations the words may spring in the listener’s mind, well, uh, Godspeed, you know? Like Stravinsky wrote several cantatas where the words were really meaningless; they were mainly for the sound, which is what we basically are after.”

Adds Walter: “It’s probably somewhere in the bio, something about our junk sculpture approach.” Elaborating, he notes that while he and Donald seek primarily to achieve certain euphonic qualities in the words to their songs, they do write of real events and feelings and their lyrics usually do mean something specific—at least to them.

“Like ‘Brooklyn,’ for example, the song that goes, ‘Brooklyn owes the charmer under me.’ Well, the charmer is a guy who lived under Donald’s apartment when we were in Brooklyn. And the song is just a bunch of things that that guy and his wife had coming to them, you know, for the indignities that they had suffered living in Brooklyn, sitting on the stoop and just shooting the shit about the Mets and that kind of thing for 30 years. So, as you see, the song does yield to a valid interpretation.”

After admitting that this meaning would not be apparent to a listener unless perhaps he’d heard the explanation, Walter adds: “But then, I feel that usually, only a small proportion of our audience has any idea of what we’re doing, anyway.”

What about the audience here at the Sopwith Camel? “Oh, they’re good,” says Donald. “As a rule, we just don’t play nightclubs, but we always play here. It’s a good place to break in new material, get comfortable with it before we take it on the road.”

Adds Walter, looking a bit tired: “See, we’ve got a lot to get ready. It’s not like a jazz band, where you just give the guys a set of charts. I mean, last time out, we had two women singing with us. This time, we’ve got a new vocalist, a keyboard player, and a second drummer. They had a lot of things to assimilate, phrasing to learn, things like that.”

Though the band often takes on additional musicians and vocalists for tours, Donald feels that Steely Dan needs a new full-time lead singer who could deliver a song better than he does. “I’m just not a natural singer,” he claims. “I mean, there’s born singers and I had no training and the combination of things leads me to think that, uh, I’m not that good.”

Walter laughs. “He still firmly believes that if the good Lord had meant him to sing, he wouldn’t have taught him how to play the piano.”

“True,” Donald deadpans, “but I do the best I can under the circumstances.”

Someone sitting near Donald holds him up for a cigarette. Before he has a chance to respond, a third party shoves “some really fine homegrown, man” in front of the dying nicotine freak. Meanwhile, producer Gary Katz winds up a long rap about a hockey game with “Who cares who won?” Jeff Baxter, asked what he’d like to be doing in a few years, says “sleeping” and opines that Donald “would like to be raising chinchillas.”

“No,” Donald mumbles. “I want to be front line in Vietnam when it resumes. By then, I figure, no one will be shooting back and . . .”

As he rambles, someone over in a corner is drinking beer and proclaiming, “I’m not responsible for anything!”

“Excuse me,” says a well-dressed man, tottering up to the person who has just spoken. “Are you lucid at the moment?”

The craziness in the room increases geometrically. The members of Steely Dan, now scattered amongst their fans and cohorts, seem at times to be looking for a way to escape; other times, they contribute stoned tidbits to the various conversations or open the door to let additional people inside; and, most often, they appear to be merely a part of the maze.

Then, from the midst of it all, Donald emerges to make a flippant yet trenchant remark. “Just tell everyone,” says this showbiz kid, “that we play the best music you’ve ever heard and everyone should go out and buy our albums.”

Trying to perform a balancing act between his belief in Steely Dan’s music and the hype that the music world inevitably foists upon those who have real talent, he seems to be both himself and the image he needs to survive in the sphere to which the group’s ability has carried them. And he adds: “If people buy our albums, like, we can use the bread and, the more money we get, we’ll put on a better show, hire more guys, and it’ll be great. But now, whenever we go on tour, we lose money. ‘Cause, you know, we ain’t that popular…”

One comment

  1. This isn’t nostalgia – this is a window into a crazed, hopeful world that I miss terribly. I expected to age and die – I didn’t expect white nationalist hate to be rearing its banal, ugly head as I did so. So much for the myth of human progress.

    And I certainly didn’t expect to be facing these years without Walter.

    There’s an outtake somewhere that expresses how I feel. Maybe:

    “Well, I saw his face, oh God
    As I crossed the promenade”

    Thanks for some beautiful words.


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