When Steely Dan was last a major part of the pop music marketplace, it was the summer of 1980, and their final hit — “Hey, Nineteen,” about an older guy dating a young girl who shares none of his cultural references, like Aretha Franklin — was wedged into the Billboard charts between such sappy ballads as “Endless Love” and the “Theme From Arthur.” With a Duke Ellington horn section and snarling vocals from Donald Fagen, Steely Dan was going out just as it had come in-as an anomaly.
The duo returns, with Two Against Nature, just as they left: with trumpets, saxophones and trombones blazing away, Mr. Fagen’s voice laced with self-pity and doubt, and Walter Becker’s keen musicianship underneath it all. The album was made, painstakingly and at great cost, over the last three years in Mr. Fagen’s home-away-from-home, River Sound Studios, a four-story walk-up in the East 90’s.
Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen were ensconced in the studio where they made the album, watching videotape from their upcoming PBS and VH1 specials. (When they split up 19 years ago, there was no VH1 or even MTV, and PBS was living on reruns of Upstairs, Downstairs.) Mr. Becker, who once sported Rick Wakeman-like tresses, keeps his hair short now. He’s the kind of hip 50 you get to be if you’ve spent the better part of two decades in Hawaii. Mr. Fagen, who has remained in Manhattan, is a different story. Gray-haired, thin-lipped, round-shouldered, he resembles someone’s cool Jewish doctor dad who plays weekends in a neighborhood jazz combo. Unlike his partner, he’s certainly not the kind of guy who would feel at home in Maui. “Did you ever see Burden of Dreams? I feel like Werner Herzog when I’m there.” Mr. Fagen put on his best Mel Brooks German accent. “And the trees are miserable, the birds are screeching in misery!”
They’ve each been through some stuff. Mr. Fagen got married in 1991, to songwriter Libby Titus. He gained two stepchildren. Mr. Becker, who is divorced, has a son in high school and a daughter in college.
In the 20 years spent away from the studio as Steely Dan, Mr. Fagen put out two respected solo albums, The Nightfly and Kamakiriad. Mr. Becker, even in his seclusion, issued a solo self-titled album, produced some jazz things for other artists and for Rickie Lee Jones. He also conquered what he refers to as “health problems,” i.e., substance abuse. In ’93 and ’94 the band toured as Steely Dan, issued a live album, Alive in America, and toured again in ’96.
Through the magic of sampling, Mr. Fagen and Mr. Becker never really went away, playing a major role in songs by such rap artists as De La Soul, Coolio and others. In fact, Mr. Fagen and Mr. Becker were the winners of the 1999 award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for most-played rap song, “Uptown Baby,” by Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz, who relied on a riff from the 1977 Steely Dan song “Black Cow.”
“Ascap sent us these handsome plaques, but they told us we shouldn’t come to the ceremony,” said Mr. Becker. “They said there was some violence the year before and we should stay at home. So I did.”
Mr. Fagen had been planning an acceptance speech. “I would have thanked Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz,” he said. “But they were angry because the sample had already been licensed for Puff Daddy and Mase. But then my stepdaughter heard it on the radio and said it was a different record. And they — Lord Tariq — had never asked for a license. So there was a copyright violation and we made them pay a little extra, and they were mad … We actually heard,” added Mr. Fagen, laughing, “that Puff Daddy was riding around in a limo with Lenny Kravitz and went crazy when he heard it. He said, ‘They stole my sample!'”
They were asked if sampling was really all that different from, say, wind player Wayne Shorter adding some Miles Davis-flavored riffs to Steely Dan’s Aja album.
“It’s not exactly the same thing,” said Mr. Becker with an edge of sarcasm to his voice. “We wrote new music, hired new musicians. In those days nobody [sampled]. We could do it now, and we didn’t consider it. I have nothing against people who do it. Our whole thing is to try and write some songs.”
But doesn’t that take a lot of time?
“It does!” said Mr. Becker. “But at the end of the day you’ve actually written some songs, which is the fun part.”
“And that’s the intellectual property that you eventually own, which you can sell for samples,” said Mr. Fagen. “There’s no other reason to do it anymore, apparently.”
Steely Dan may seem out of step with a pop music world dominated by sampling, lip-synching, and beautiful faces and bodies, but they were unique even in their time. Their early days as Steely Dan, circa 1971-72, were not marked with the hedonism that infected other rock outfits of the day. Groupies were never a big factor.
Mr. Fagen: “Even when we did tour we were too-”
Mr. Becker: “-anxious and weird.”
Mr. Fagen: “We were quite introverted. But we had extroverted members of the band. We were writing the songs.” He paused. “There were groupies no matter who was playing every Saturday night. By 1972 the groupie action in, say, Portland was not that appetizing. And the better-looking class of those was already gone by the time we got to them. Walter and myself and [band member] Denny Dias were more into the cannabis crew than the alcoholic crew, and we were just too slow on the uptake. We just didn’t have enough enthusiasm.”
By the time Mr. Fagen and Mr. Becker split up in ’81, Steely Dan had turned out seven platinum albums and a dozen or so hit singles, including the sarcastic “Reeling in the Years” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” What is that latter song about, anyway?
Mr. Fagen: “We always thought of Rikki being a girl and the number being a phone number. He [the narrator] was a desperate guy.”
Mr. Becker: “The idea that this girl has stumbled into some kind of debauched situation and has momentarily recoiled from it.”
Mr. Fagen: “In the 70’s, linear lucidity wasn’t that big a priority.”
Mr. Becker: “The depravity of the day contained drugs and sex.”
There is some of that in the new songs.
Mr. Becker: “Well, I hope so. We have our reputations.”
Growing Up Dan
Mr. Fagen, who describes his family as “poor,” was raised on jazz near Princeton, N.J. His mother, a singer, fronted a dance band at the Ideal Hotel in the Catskills and “used to sing constantly.” (His dad, who seems to turn up in the new Steely Dan song, “Don’t Take Me Alive,” was a bookkeeper.)
“That’s why I’m familiar with those standards from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s,” Mr. Fagen said. “My grandmother gave us a piano when I was 11, and I started fooling around on it. I took a few lessons but learned off jazz records.” Mr. Fagen, who “despised” his music teachers, started a trio at South Brunswick High School. “I was really an amateur jazz player by the time I was 14 or 15.” And a self-described jazz snob. “I despised rock-and-roll,” he said. “To a jazz fan or jazz musician it seemed dumb. They only used simple chords, a couple of chords. It seemed to be very repetitive.”
He met Mr. Becker at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., around 1966. Mr. Becker, who came from Forest Hills and was a year younger, had picked up blues guitar from Spirit founder Randy California. Before Mr. Fagen graduated from Bard (Mr. Becker never got the diploma), they were joined on drums for a time by fellow student Chevy Chase.
In short order Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen arrived in Los Angeles, writing songs for ABC Dunhill Records and playing behind Jay and the Americans. “We were supposed to be writing for groups like Three Dog Night and Grass Roots,” Mr. Fagen said. “But we were terrible at it.”
The pair turned to their literary influences for their own lyrics, everyone from Nabokov and Bruce Jay Friedman to Philip Roth and Terry Southern. Students of the band’s lore know that the band’s name is an allusion to a dildo mentioned in William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.
Very few bands have had the combination of platinum sales and critical respect the Dan achieved over their 10 most fruitful years. But the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has yet to recognize the band, even three years after they became eligible. For the guys, it’s a tongue-in-cheek puzzlement. They’ve written the hall several times and posted the letters on their Web site. Among the inducements they’ve offered: dozens of old 3-M digital recorders, Mr. Fagen’s childhood piano, which at the time was already in Cleveland, and a case of honey mustard.
“That was for Jann Wenner personally, though,” Mr. Fagen added, referring to the Rolling Stone founder who is behind the museum. He recalled his attendance-along with Warner Brothers music boss Mo Ostin-at the early Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, at the Waldorf-Astoria: “Mo Ostin would come from L.A., and he needed someone to talk to. So he’d get me and Paul Simon and Lorne Michaels. It was fun. Mike Love made an insane speech. There was all this insane stuff, and it was kind of interesting. Then they decided it was going to be a Grammy-type video thing, and it lost all its character. All the main people are already in there, and now they’re going to have to induct people from the 80’s.”
“We’ve qualified several times,” said Mr. Becker. “Ozzy Osbourne described us as the perennial losers.”
“We tell them we want to be in it and that we’re devastated when we lose,” said Mr. Fagen.
“The first year we became eligible we wrote a letter on a lark,” Mr. Becker said. “We though it would be funny to be inducted by ourselves and not with our old band mates, just for crassness. Subsequently, we found out there was a real debate about that with some other band. So we stumbled into this minefield. So then we reversed our position. We demanded that all of our band members be inducted, plus other bands that had been neglected, like the Fugs, Jimmy Carl Black, the drummer from the Mothers of Invention. Different incarnations of the Jefferson Airplane. We might be the very last band inducted.”
Maybe the Rhythm and Blues Foundation is more in their line?
Mr. Fagen: “What do they like over there? Honey mustard? Belgian chocolate? Swedish ginger cookies?”
With or without the hall, they will continue to go their own way. Indeed, Two Against Nature reveals only slight changes in their thinking. In the single, “Cousin Dupree,” the main character is an older guy sleeping on his aunt’s couch and fantasizing about his young teenage cousin. “It’s just a little rural love song,” Mr. Fagen likes to say. “What a Shame About Me” concerns a Strand book clerk who’s gone nowhere in his life while his girlfriend has become a major movie star.
“He’s gotten a certain integrity,” Mr. Becker said. “He’s having a moment of bleak epiphany and is in a state of grace.”
But some of Two Against Nature reflects a stark change from the past. Set against a rich melody, “Almost Gothic” is an exuberant love song in which the narrator announces he spells love “L-U-V.”
“It’s a little quote, you know,” Mr. Fagen said. “From the Shangri-Las, I think, some throw away thing from ‘Leader of the Pack.’ I guess maybe because I connected the Shangri-Las with unwholesome sex. There’s no way to explain how powerful his feeling is for this woman is so he has to spell it out.”
What accounts for the un-Steely Dan-like feeling of glee that infects the song?
Mr. Becker: “Well, we have to enlarge the franchise a little bit, expand the territory. We don’t want to be stuck in a rut.”
Mr. Fagen: “You have to perk yourself up every morning when you get older. So you start thinking of these perky subjects.”