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