Back In The Mix

Bright, incredibly well-versed musicians Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, fresh from a two-decade hiatus, are finally ready to share some of the souvenirs

February 28, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK -- We've all heard about the perks of rock stardom -- the parties, the groupies, the readily available intoxicants. And getting on that gravy train is simple. Send a record to the top of the charts, and everybody wants to do you a favor; make a career of having hits, and the world is your oyster.

So it shouldn't be surprising on this brisk December afternoon to find Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, a duo better known to music fans as Steely Dan, gloating about their latest bit of celebrity graft: Two hefty CD boxed sets.

"The entire RCA Duke Ellington recordings," says Becker, 50, pointing to a pair of boxes parked on the coffee table.

"The person who designed our album cover also designed this package, so she sent us a couple," adds Fagen, 52. "It's great."

"It's great music from a very long period of time, really," says Becker, scanning the track listing. "Seven, eight, nine Wow! There's 24 CDs here!"

"We'll finally be able to listen to all those `Sacred Concerts,' " snickers Fagen.

And in an instant, the two launch into a cross-talk routine full of dry humor and inside jokes that make sense only to longtime jazz fans. It's wickedly funny, dizzyingly brisk and entirely off-topic.

After all, Becker and Fagen aren't sitting in a conference room in midtown Manhattan to crack wise about Russell Procope's clarinet tone. They're there to discuss "Two Against Nature," the first new Steely Dan album in two decades. (It arrives in stores tomorrow.)

It's a fairly momentous occasion. Steely Dan made some of the smartest and most enduring albums of the '70s, polishing rock riffs, jazz harmonies and dry, boho wit into the high-gloss finish of "The Royal Scam" (1976), "Aja" (1977) and "Gaucho" (1980). Even though the band was inactive through the '80s and much of the '90s, its music never quite went away, being both a staple of classic rock radio and a frequent source for rap samples.

Naturally, this gives the duo plenty to talk about. Yet discussing anything with these two inevitably leads someplace other than where the original question pointed. It could be because they have unusually broad musical tastes, being steeped in almost a century's worth of jazz and pop. Or perhaps it's because the two are brighter and more verbally agile than most pop musicians.

Or maybe they just like messing with interviewers.

This excerpt from an interview is typical:

Question: Do you consider yourselves part of a pop music continuum?

Becker: Well, yeah, I think we do. But we're the only ones who are continuum-ing in that continuum.

Fagen: What it is, I think there's not many people in popular music who are as old as us, for one thing. [Laughter]

Being old -- or, at least, not being young anymore -- is a recurring theme on "Two Against Nature," particularly when it comes to songs about the opposite sex. "Cousin Dupree," for instance, is about a down-at-the-heels musician who ends up hankering after the shapely young cousin he used to play with when they were kids, while "Janie Runaway" celebrates "the wonder waif of Gramercy Park," whose older boyfriend teasingly promises her, "Who gets to spend her birthday in Spain?/Possibly you, Janie Runaway."

Although the duo dismisses the notion that such songs focus heavily on inappropriate lust -- "As if there could be such a thing," sniffs Becker -- they do admit that theirs is not the typical pop song perspective.

"Generally speaking, everything on the pop charts falls within a very narrow range of the human experience," says Becker.

Biological pull

"Besides, inappropriate lust may in another way just indicate the stupendous power of biological need," suggests Fagen. "It's just hard to control. You try to be civilized, and see what happens?

"It also has to do with capturing beauty, which is something that I think maybe we're a little more realistic about than other aging rock and roll types," he adds. Mick Jagger is suggested as an example. When his songs lust after lovely young things, Fagen says, "it's an `as if' type of thing. As if he were 19, or whatever."

Steely Dan, by contrast, are proud to act their age. They come across as dirty old men.

Becker and Fagen started their professional career in 1970, playing bass and piano, respectively, for Jay & the Americans. "We were part of the backup band," says Becker. "We were not actually Americans proper."

"We were the wetbacks," quips Fagen.

This wasn't during Jay & the Americans' original rise to fame, in the days of "Come a Little Bit Closer" (1964) and "Cara Mia" (1965). "This was in their declining years," says Fagen. "There was a slight resurgence ... because they had a sort of miracle hit in '68."

A way in

"A remake of a Drifters song called `This Magic Moment,' " adds Becker. "We had wisely thrown in our lots with them, thinking that they would be the ones to help us get a recording contract and so on. And we signed publishing deals and management deals and everything."

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