DE­SPI­CA­BLE ME

Acute tour dis­or­der prompts stage rage, Don­ald Fa­gen tells Su­san Chen­ery

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music -

THE last time he toured, he fan­ta­sised that his age­ing au­di­ence would be caught in a flash fire that would send them scream­ing up the aisles, tram­pling each other, end­ing in a ‘‘ hor­ri­ble’’ scene on the foot­path with peo­ple on stretch­ers, ‘‘ charred and wrin­kled’’. Lost in hazy mem­o­ries of col­lege par­ties and dar­ing youth­ful es­capades, the peo­ple in the au­di­ence lis­ten­ing to the noodling jazz chords, com­plex har­monies and smooth spa­ces in be­tween were bliss­fully obliv­i­ous to the fact the lead singer was imag­in­ing them com­ing to a grue­some in­cen­di­ary end.

Just as we teenagers with our flow­ing hair and flares, our an­tipodean in­no­cence, failed to fully grasp that Steely Dan’s lyrics were cyn­i­cal, sar­donic and some­times slightly nasty. We just thought they sounded ex­cel­lent when we were stoned.

‘‘ If th­ese peo­ple could only see into the mind of the viper­ous Robe­spierre they had in­vited into their midst,’’ writes Don­ald Fa­gen, now 65, in his mem­oir Em­i­nent Hip­sters of a con­cert in Beaver Creek, Colorado, on that ex­cru­ci­at­ing 2012 tour. He throws the ‘‘ stewed, sway­ing, ski chicks in the sec­ond row’’ with­er­ing glances from the stage as he imag­ines send­ing them off to the guil­lo­tine the next morn­ing in ‘‘ rick­ety open carts’’.

Back in the 1970s we wouldn’t have un­der­stood the joke even if we were in on it. Within what are now con­sid­ered Steely Dan’s clas­sic songs was a level of eru­di­tion and cere­bral irony that was pri­vate ban­ter be­tween two ‘‘ first-tier nerds’’, Fa­gen and his mu­si­cal part­ner Wal­ter Becker.

‘‘ I think Wal­ter and I were re­ally writ­ing for our­selves, to en­ter­tain our­selves,’’ he says from New York. ‘‘ We used to make each other laugh quite a bit. We still do, which is amaz­ing.’’ Filled with ob­scure literary and cul­tural ref­er­ences, the Dan was the an­tithe­sis of the sim­ple sen­ti­men­tal­ity of many of its mu­si­cal peers. Worldly New York in­tel­lec­tu­als, Fa­gen and Becker were Steely Dan, just the two of them, us­ing the best ses­sion mu­si­cians for layer af­ter layer of per­fec­tion­ism in the record­ing stu­dio.

Close lis­ten­ing re­veals that bristling among the horns and sleek har­monies were songs about prostitution ( Pearl of the Quar­ter, 1973), in­cest ( Cousin Dupree, 2000), un­der­age sex ( Ev­ery­one’s Gone to the Movies, 1975), drugs ( Kid Charle­magne, 1976), and age­ing ( Reelin’ in the Years, 1972) that re­main a sta­ple for ev­ery self-re­spect­ing pub band.

Black hu­mour was and re­mains their de­fault ex­pres­sion. ‘‘ Wal­ter and I were both fans of satire,’’ Fa­gen says. ‘‘ The thing that made it in­ter­est­ing was that we used the pop for­mat as a kind of foil for the lyrics, so what peo­ple would be hear­ing was this pop mu­sic with a lot of jazz chords. They didn’t re­ally get the fact that we were adding some pretty wild lyrics.’’

In his darkly im­pres­sion­is­tic mem­oir, Fa­gen writes about be­ing ‘‘ piti­fully lonely’’ as a small Jewish child who felt im­pris­oned in a ranch­style house among iden­ti­cal houses in Ken­dall Park, New Jersey — an ‘‘ ac­cursed waste­land’’. He was, he writes, ‘‘ a sub­ter­ranean in ges­ta­tion with a real nasty case of oth­er­ness’’. His es­cape was read­ing — any­thing, but es­pe­cially sci­ence fic­tion — and lis­ten­ing to jazz on all-night ra­dio sta­tions. ‘‘ I nearly didn’t grad­u­ate high school.’’ He was go­ing to jazz clubs in the East Vil­lage from the age of 12.

‘‘ Some nights, the au­di­ence would be just me, eyes dart­ing around ner­vously, and maybe two heav­ily med­i­cated pa­trons nod­ding at their ta­bles,’’ he writes.

It was at the pro­gres­sive Bard Col­lege on the banks of the Hud­son River — a ma­jor in English ‘‘ and a mi­nor in heart­break’’ — that he would fall in love with ‘‘ un­hinged’’ girls, whom he would wor­ship from afar, and ‘‘ die a thou­sand deaths’’. And it was here that the ‘‘ in­tro­verted jazz snob’’ Fa­gen would meet Becker in the Red Bal­loon mu­sic club, where the lat­ter was play­ing blues gui­tar. ‘‘ All Wal­ter and I did from the age of 18 was work. We were just ob­sessed with mu­sic. We were very lucky to be able to do that. On the other hand, we missed out on ac­tual life,’’ he says. Just be­fore they left Bard they were ar­rested and im­pris­oned on trumped-up drug charges by an un­der­cover agent pos­ing as a jan­i­tor on cam­pus, an ex­pe­ri­ence that be­came the em­bit­tered an­them My Old School (1973).

As se­ri­ous mu­si­cians whose so­phis­ti­cated ar­range­ments for al­bums Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972), Count­down to Ec­stasy (1973), Katy Lied (1975), The Royal Scam (1976) and the ex­traor­di­nar­ily ac­com­plished Aja (1977) be­came the sound­track of their time, nei­ther Becker nor Fa­gen was com­fort­able with tour­ing or fame.

‘‘ I think be­cause we came from the jazz world orig­i­nally we didn’t re­ally know much about the rock world and fans,’’ Fa­gen says.

In his book he elab­o­rates on ‘‘ the mis­er­able, friend­less child­hoods we en­dured that left us with life­long feel­ings of shame and sel­f­re­proach we were forced to coun­ter­vail with a frag­ile grandios­ity and a need to con­stantly prove our self-worth — in short, with the sort of per­son­al­ity dis­or­ders that ul­ti­mately turned us into per­form­ing mon­keys’’.

Now he says, ‘‘ most peo­ple in show busi­ness are freaks of some sort or another’’.

Af­ter com­plet­ing Gau­cho in 1979, Steely Dan sim­ply van­ished. It would be 10 years be­fore Fa­gen and Becker wrote mu­sic to­gether again. Gau­cho had used 42 ses­sion mu­si­cians, taken two years to make and been plagued by bat­tles with record com­pa­nies, Becker’s escalating drug de­pen­dence and his girl­friend Karen Stan­ley’s fatal over­dose, af­ter which her fam­ily sued him for $US17 mil­lion. A judge even­tu­ally found in Becker’s favour but he set­tled with the fam­ily, moved to Hawaii and got him­self clean.

‘‘ I think we felt that a lot of the en­ergy was miss­ing so we kind of sat out the 80s,’’ Fa­gen ex­plains mildly of those tu­mul­tuous times. ‘‘ We never had any big fights or any­thing like that.’’ In his book, how­ever, he talks about fall­ing apart ‘‘ like a cheap suit’’: panic at­tacks, an­tide­pres­sants, shrinks. Still, hav­ing sold 40 mil­lion al­bums, they could af­ford to take off a decade or two. ‘‘ What re­ally sup­ported me was that when CDs came out at the be­gin­ning of the 80s, peo­ple had to buy the al­bums again.’’

Fast for­ward 30 years and it is a dys­pep­tic Fa­gen tour­ing with the Dukes of Septem­ber Rhythm Re­vue, with Michael McDon­ald from the Doo­bie Brothers and Boz Scaggs, on a tour bus that is a ter­ri­ble come­down from the pri­vate jet days of Steely Dan. In the jour­nal he writes be­cause he is too ‘‘ bro­ken and anx­ious to read or write mu­sic’’ and that com­pletes half the mem­oir, he is Woody Al­lenesque in his neu­ro­sis and comic com­plaint. Ho­tel sheets smell of soy sauce, air­con­di­tion­ing on­stage in Houston is an ‘‘ ir­ri­tat­ing po­lar draft in hell’’. Aspen, where he gets al­ti­tude sick­ness, ‘‘ has all the mod­ern con­ve­niences ex­cept for oxy­gen’’; ho­tel pools are ‘‘ a tepid so­lu­tion of se­men and swamp wa­ter’’, their beds the source of his sleep­less­ness. ‘‘ A mis­er­able night in the Grand Hy­att,’’ he writes. ‘‘ How can I be the adorable host, the sen­si­tive ac­com­pa­nist, the more-or­less com­pe­tent vo­cal­ist I’m ex­pected to be un­der th­ese con­di­tions?’’

Down the phone from New York, Fa­gen sug­gests he was ‘‘ tem­po­rar­ily in­sane be­cause of the acute tour dis­or­der’’. He de­votes an en­tire chap­ter to the many dis­so­cia­tive symp­toms of this con­di­tion. One of them is stage rage. The au­di­ence is de­spised, mainly for be­ing as un­for­giv­ably old as he is. At Santa Rosa, ‘‘ the crowd looked so geri­atric I was tempted to start call­ing out bingo num­bers’’.

Sit­ting at his pi­ano, Fa­gen is as awk­ward and un­com­fort­able as ever, rasp­ing out the tunes like an old-time jazz singer, only just mak­ing the big­ger notes. He writes of per­form­ing as ‘‘ a bit of a rit­ual slay­ing. With­out nec­es­sar­ily let­ting it show, you use ev­ery last bit of your mar­row, ev­ery last atom of your en­ergy in an at­tempt to sat­isfy the hun­gry crowd.’’

But then there are the nights that are the rea­son he still does it, when it all comes to­gether. ‘‘ When ev­ery­thing’s work­ing right, you be­come trans­fixed by the notes and chords. In the cen­tre of it, with the drums, bass and gui­tar all around you, the earth falls away and it’s just you and your crew cre­at­ing this for­ward mo­tion, this un­de­ni­able, mag­i­cal stuff that can move 10,000 peo­ple to snap free of life’s mis­eries and get up and dance and scream.’’

And de­spite all the suf­fer­ing for his art, he ‘‘ can’t imag­ine re­tir­ing from play­ing mu­sic. Why would any­one do that?’’

Don­ald Fa­gen per­form­ing in Cleve­land,

Ohio, last July and, be­low, with band­mate Wal­ter Becker in Steely

Dan’s hey­day

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