“When William Burroughs decided to name a succession of dildos Steely Dan I, II and III in his controversial 1959 novel The Naked Lunch, he could never have imagined how such an apparently insignificant name would still be reverberating around the music business well over thirty years later.”
—-Steely Dan, Reelin’ in the Years, Brian Sweet, Omnibus Press
Much the same would be stated by the two guys – Walter Becker and Donald Fagen – that comprise Steely Dan. They said that if they had realized how big the band would get, they would have come up with another name.
But really, is there any band on the face of the earth that should have a name from a bizarre book about a junkie? Two guys who never really wrote a straightforward love song? Who wrote about fascist rallies, drug dealers, cave drawings, perverts, Your Gold Teeth (parts I and II) and all manner of dissolute degenerates? (Maybe Frank Zappa. But he had his own headful of bizarre ideas to deal with.)
Donald Fagen grew up in New Jersey, largely in the suburbs, which he detested. For this burgeoning hipster, “it was a prison. I’d been framed and sentenced to a long stretch at hard labor in Squaresville.” He attributes his interest in music to his mother, who had been a “swing singer who worked with a trio in the Catskills.” According to him, she was always either singing around the house while doing chores or playing records.
He initially tried to copy her vocal phrasing (with zero confidence in his own voice) while at the same time, listening to and trying to sound like jazz pianist Red Garland. (Fagen, like everyone else his age, was a rock n’ roll fan but fairly quickly shifted over to being a self-professed jazz snob. He didn’t really get back into rock n’ roll until well into the so-called British Invasion.)
In the mid-60’s, Fagen made his way up to Bard College which the Dan later wrote about in “My Old School.” (“When you put me on the Wolverine up to Annandale,” refers to the train that took them to Bard from NYC.) In part the song is about the guys getting busted for pot while in college. The consensus is that the “Daddy G.” in the song is Watergate bad guy, G. Gordon Liddy, who was lobbying to be the assistant District Attorney. And so, a pot bust would thrill the law and order crowd.
“My Old School” is a great fan favorite at shows, with blazing outro guitar solo by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. And for the record, California, by all accounts, has not tumbled into the sea.)
Fagen’s goal was to major in English literature, perhaps become a teacher. But on the side he put together pick-up bands for parties and sundry other occasions. One of these bands included Bard classmate and future Saturday Night Live star Chevy Chase on drums. Fagen said Chevy was professional and a good timekeeper. Since Bard at that time had – by one half-joking recollection – maybe eight musicians, it was inevitable that Fagen would cross paths with Walter Becker.
Walter Becker, from Queens NY, had already been a student for a while but essentially an indifferent one. One day Fagen was passing by a music room and heard some stinging guitar. It was Becker, riffing on blues tunes by Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King. “This fellow,” said Fagen, “had an authentic blues touch and feel… His amp was … turned up loud enough to generate a healthy Albert King-like sustain.” Becker’s playing didn’t have the “trebly, surfadelic, white-guy sound” he was used to hearing from the other students.
(Amazingly, Becker had learned guitar from one Randy California. If you read my Jimi Hendrix series, you’ll recall that California was briefly a member of Jimi’s pre-Experience band and Randy’s estate is now embroiled in a lawsuit with Led Zep over “Stairway to Heaven.” How the hell is this guy not famous?)
Becker and Fagen pretty quickly bonded over their shared interests in jazz, sci-fi, “Beat” writers, the fact that they thought they were smarter than everybody else and pretty much everything that was not middle-class white-bread America. They started writing songs together and found that while their tunes were jazzy, they couldn’t keep their cryptic, cynical, deviant ideas out of the lyrics. (“Literate pessimism,” one critic later called it).
In what would be the beginning of a seemingly endless series of twisted observations on the guys, one friend said, “They never came out of their room, they stayed up all night. They looked like ghosts — black turtlenecks and skin so white that it looked like yogurt. Absolutely no activity, chain-smoking Lucky Strikes and dope.” Fagen himself would later remember it as “probably the only time in my life that I actually had friends.”
They found a band in Long Island led by be-bop guitarist Denny Dias whose advertisement said “No assholes need apply.” Once they hooked up with him, Dias realized they were vastly superior songwriters and stuck to playing guitar. (Unlike just about all of their contemporaries, Becker and Fagen were writing jazz-influenced rock from the start).
Since their only goal was to be recording artists, Becker and Fagen did not care for playing in clubs, thinking it was a waste of time. So at the same time as they were writing songs and jamming with Dias, they were peddling their tunes to the music industry in New York.
After literally knocking on door after door, they by some miracle hooked up with a band called Jay and the Americans (“This Magic Moment,” “Cara Mia”) whose career had peaked and who were now playing small clubs. Now there couldn’t be a more polar opposite sound to the Dan’s than Jay and the Americans who would not have been out of place playing “The Bride Cuts the Cake” at a wedding. But the perennially broke duo needed money and so, worked with them.
Becker and Fagen did join them on live gigs and by their own admission, it didn’t entirely suck. Sometimes they would modulate the key up a half-stop without telling anyone so they could fuck with the guitarist whose (apparently) lousy playing had them refer to him as a “guitar owner.” (Becker and Fagen are ruthless about anyone whose playing skills don’t measure up. And that includes turning their withering gaze on their own playing and singing.)
In yet another of the continuing tributes to the guys’ personalities, the American’s lead singer, Jay Black, dubbed Becker and Fagen “the Manson and Starkweather of rock ‘n’ roll,” referring to cult leader Charles Manson and psycho killer Charles Starkweather. (People were fond of making negative comparisons about Becker and Fagen. Someone in Dias’ band said that Fagen looked like Jean-Paul Belmondo on acid; Becker like a “Nazi youth camp.” Someone else referred to them as “insects with no vibe.” So, no teen magazine idol pictures for these guys.)
Becker and Fagen joined and toured with The Americans just to make some money, gain a little experience. Asked to arrange strings and horns, they went to the library and borrowed books on it, which helped later on when their arrangements got more sophisticated. Right around this time (1971), a friend of the Americans, Gary Katz, moved to LA to produce records for ABC/Dunhill.
ABC at that time was a top 40 label but wanted to get into more ‘underground’ music, sensing, one supposes, a market there. Katz insisted on ABC bringing Becker and Fagen out as house songwriters, saying he would resign if they didn’t. The guys thought the idea sucked but it was a job (they were always broke) and they figured it was a foot in the door to put their own band together.
And so, yes, having them teach Barbara Streisand (who was again attempting to seem relevant to the indifferent rock crowd) one of their songs may not have been an idea born in heaven. But even though the Dan said the producer fucked the song up, it’s actually not bad for what it is. Thusly, “I Mean to Shine” is notable for being the first (non-demo) recording of a Becker/Fagen song. Fagen plays organ on it along with Billy Preston.
The guys kept pressing to record their own songs and ABC – to their credit – finally said fuck it, go ahead. And so they started bringing in their favorite players (Jeff “Skunk” Baxter who was living in Boston and Denny Dias whom they had promised), putting songs together for what would be their first album, 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill. (From a line in a Dylan song. Becker liked to advise would-be songwriters to listen closely to Dylan.)
I debated what to use from this album and almost went with the incredibly catchy “Dirty Work.” (Which the guys now apparently hate but still sometimes play for, I guess, the fans.) But “Do it Again,” is classic Dan – obscure lyrics, jazzy but at the same time, catchy. And it has Dias on sitar (which he never touched before or since), Baxter on guitar. The choice is clear:
According to Wikipedia: “The lyrics are sung to a man who is addicted to nightlife. His addictions include sex and gambling. The narrator describes the realities of the man’s addictions and the consequences of his actions, but emphasizes that he goes “back, Jack, do it again.”
The song made it to #6 on the Billboard 100 and has been covered by everybody from Waylon Jennings to disco-funk bands to Tori Amos. And so, Steely Dan were off!
And now that this duo of murderous-looking, turtleneck-wearing, pasty-faced insects were unleashed, the world of music would never again be the same.
Nezt – The Dan continues to expand their sound. And slowly the music world starts to catch on..
Sources: Steely Dan, Reelin’ in the Years. Brian Sweet. Omnibus Press.
Eminent Hipsters, Donald Fagen. Viking