It's the bin end of the week and Steely Dan are acting oddly. They're dying for a chinwag
Friday 06 October 1995
Lately, though, there has been a thaw. In 1993, Fagen openly talked to the press about his solo album, Kamakiriad, on which he had been assisted by Becker. In 1994, Becker gave interviews to promote his excellent solo album, Eleven Tracks of Whack, on which Fagen appeared. And in between came a rapturously received Steely Dan reunion tour in America - an event which Steely Dan admirers hadn't even dared hope for, the band having given up touring long before they gave up giving interviews.
Now, from those American dates in 1993 and 1994, comes a live recording, Alive in America, featuring a selection from the Steely Dan back catalogue ("Sign in Stranger", "Babylon Sisters", "Aja", "Peg" among others) and one song ("Book of Liars") from the Becker solo album. And to promote this item and the reunification it heralds, Becker and Fagen have agreed to sit before the world's press for an entire week at the swish Mark Hotel in New York.
Steely Dan doing interviews for a week? This is implausible, no matter how circumstances might have changed. And indeed, reassuringly, the band's old habits are dying hard. The pair will confess that boredom set in almost instantaneously on the Monday; that on the Tuesday they began lying blatantly to keep themselves awake; that by mid-Wednesday they were reduced to sweeping and entirely unnecessary rudeness; that come Thursday, they were numb with horror. I get to go in there on Friday. Last thing on Friday. This is about as short as straws come, rock interview-wise.
The scene in the hotel suite at 4pm on Friday is reminiscent of the latter stages of a jumble sale. There is a table piled high with variously demolished plates of room-service sandwiches and bowls of room-service fruit and pots of room-service coffee - offered to the pair by the record company in the way, presumably, that one might try to quieten a child with colourful objects. Fagen, who in honour of the sweltering sunshine outside is wearing thick black cotton trousers and a black shirt, lies on his back on a sofa, his feet - in brand new trainers - hanging over one end, his head pillowed in his arms. Becker, in a brave Hawaiian shirt and jeans, is almost horizontal in an armchair.
They are staring at the television which is showing an old Victor Mature movie, The Egyptian. They continue to watch this for some five minutes, providing a running commentary on the images on the screen. A woman enters in a large hat: Fagen says: "Nice hat." A courtier enters carrying a plumed shade: Becker says: "Nice feather." Victor Mature enters in Egyptian dress: Fagen says: "Nice legs." And so on.
Then, finally, Becker clicks off the television and Fagen slowly levers his legs round onto the floor and they finally greet me with expressions which are whatever the opposite of "expectant" is. But abruptly, a change takes place. It seems to become apparent to them that, once they have finished talking to me, they will not have to speak to another journalist for a very long time, perhaps for as much as 10 years. They are suddenly de-mob happy, animated - or, in Fagen's case, as animated as one can be when one's cheek is cupped heavily in one's palm, forcing the folds of one's face up towards one's forehead. They josh and squabble and do a sort of double-act routine and there are no blatant lies (that I can discern), though Fagen does once resort to slagging off an unreasonably large portion of America ("In the mid-west, the food is terrible and the audience is all these stupid fuckers"). But even then, Becker apologises for him.
In rock terms, the live album is not inherently a noble form. It is the stuff of contractual obligation, of blatant time-marking, of shoddy production values and predictable cover-images. In jazz, on the other hand, the live album is sanctioned in an altogether different way. Any jazz album is pretty much a live album. And Steely Dan would consider themselves substantially a jazz act. For all that their later albums - Aja and Gaucho - are patiently constructed, high-sheen studio affairs, it's still above all a band you hear there, playing in real time, or at least a fantastic, months-in-the- making illusion of it. I asked what Becker's and Fagen's favourite live recordings were and they were nearly all jazz records.
Fagen: "There was a Village Vanguard recording from the mid-Sixties - Coleman Hawkins doing a version of 'Perdido'. And there's a Ray Charles album with 'Makin' Whoopee' - at the Shriner Auditorium in LA from about 1962."
Becker: "What about that Dave Brubeck live album, with a version of 'Like Someone in Love' on it, and long sax solos by Paul Desmond? That's what got me hooked on jazz."
With their own live album in mind, they were taping most of the shows, but not listening back immediately - "for fear of being spooked," according to Fagen. "In the Seventies, we would make a cassette of our performances and it was always depressing."
The scrutiny came later. In search of "sustained performances", Fagen says he wasn't spoiled for choice. "I listened to all the tapes. I'm sure they were good shows at the time, but there were amazingly few of them that I felt, for the purposes of listening and re-listening to them, held up that well. I didn't have that much to choose from."
There were further technical restraints. Most of the songs on the album were lifted from recordings at outdoor venues. Becker says: "If you're playing in a room that holds 15,000 people, it's just a question of how bad the room acoustics are and in what way they're bad." Also, some American indoor venues charge high fees for permission to make recordings, so Steely Dan saved money by not bothering. ("Union rules," Becker says. "Some places you play in America, it's like On the Waterfront.")
But what was salvaged works well. The album bears out its cover image, as explained by Fagen: "It's a still from an old Universal movie of a mummy coming back to life in a triumphant posture, symbolising our triumphant resurrection." They had picked a band talented enough to bring this music to life: its oddly angled harmonies and steep key-shifts, its impeccable rhythms. And right at the centre sits Fagen's nasal, New York mewl, continuously precise in its pitching. (For someone who didn't want to be a vocalist and who basically only got the job by default when everyone else in the band refused it, Fagen can certainly hold a tune.) Best of all is an entirely re-jigged "Reelin' in the Years", unrecognisable at the point of entry and in which the horn section gets to pull out a blissfully tight new tune from somewhere deep inside the song.
Becker and Fagen claim to have enjoyed these dates more than previous experiences. Becker says: "There was a pretty elevated vibe right through to about Albany." But he adds: "The last week of shows, the summer was over and the guitar player had an infection in his hand and there were doctors backstage and it reminded me suddenly of our old tours - a half- sold house and medical emergencies."
One disappointment: the live shows opened with an instrumental Steely Dan medley, played by the band as an overture before Becker and Fagen appeared on the stage. It functioned at once as a teaser and as a send- up of the band's less than theatrical presence. But the live album omits it. Becker: "Reviewers took exception to the overture. In many cases, they didn't know what the hell it was. It was clearly the first overture they had heard in their lives. So they would write: 'The show started out with some kind of weird instrumental medley that was supposed to be dramatic or something, I guess.' But that was the only part of the show that Don and I got to watch every night, so we liked it."
Next, there will be an entirely new Steely Dan studio album, though this is probably years away. Fagen: "We have a list of very amusing titles, but that's about it. We also have tapes of discarded songs going back to the Seventies." Becker: "Maybe when we get round to trying to write new songs, those old songs will suddenly look very attractive."
Will they tour again? Fagen: "I think so. We're really into it." Becker: "We were sitting round my house in Hawaii, Don and I, discussing whether we would tour next summer and my young son was there and he said 'What do you mean? Of course there's going to be a tour. You mean I'm not going to be in a limo and a private jet next summer? What's going on? What about the police escorts?' "
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