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Donald Fagen
Interview by Bruce Pollock
At the keyboards, Donald Fagen was the smoky voice and songwriting co-conspirator (with Walter Becker) on all of Steely Dan's classic hits, from "Reelin' In The Years" to "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" to "Peg" and "Deacon Blues" and "Hey Nineteen." Carving perverse lyrics into cryptic and sardonic story lines, wound around a sampling from the literature of pop-rock-jazz-blues melodic constructions, the Dan's output also included some of rock's most memorably ragged character portraits, among them Charlie Freak, Rose Darling, Kid Charlemagne, Pearl of the Quarter, and Dr. Wu. Charting the inevitable comedown from a decade of street theater, Fagen and Becker swung from the chandeliers while the roof was caving in.

Now removed from such turbulence, and approaching his songwriting midlife alone, Fagen contemplates the glittering, standard-strewn byways that led him to this juncture in a much more measured fashion. In the last 30 years, he had produced but four albums, including the 2012 release Sunken Condos. As befitting his reclusive reputation, Mr. Fagen agreed to this interview only if he could answer all questions in writing.

Donald FagenSongwriting Style and the Early Years

I don't think Walter and I were songwriters in the traditional sense, neither the Tin Pan Alley Broadway variety nor the "staffer" type of the fifties and sixties. An attentive listening to our early attempts at normal genre-writing will certainly bear me out. It soon became more interesting to exploit and subvert traditional elements of popular songwriting and to combine this material with the jazz-based music we had grown up with.

In college we were both intrigued by certain humorists of the late fifties and early sixties, such as John Barth, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, Terry Southern and Bruce Jay Friedman (I've since cooled on a lot of these writers). Walter read a couple of novels by Thomas Pynchon.

In 1969, Fagen and Becker were part of the pop group Jay and the Americans. Kenny Vance, who was in the group, produced early demos for the duo and shopped them around without success. He told us: "Everybody thought it was too far out, or it was, 'Where's the hook?" And I would say, 'The whole thing is the hook.'"
We both thought the predicament in which popular music found itself in the middle sixties rather amusing too, and we tried to wring some humor out of the whole mess. We mixed TV style commercial arranging cliches with Mersey beats, assigned nasty sounding, heavily amplified guitars to play Ravel-like chords, etc. The fairly standardized rock instrumentation of the original group added to the schizy effect. We never tried to compete with the fine songwriters of the era (Goffin & King, Lennon & McCartney). We were after a theatrical effect, the friction produced by the mix of music and lyrics - the irony.


Work Habits

At this point I can't really remember who wrote this verse or that chorus, but the way it often worked out was like this: I would come up with a basic musical structure, perhaps a hook line and occasionally a story idea. Walter would listen to what I had and come up with some kind of narrative structure. We'd work on music and lyrics together, inventing characters, adding musical and verbal jokes, polishing the arrangements and smoking Turkish cigarettes. Of course, the musicians would kick in with arranging ideas, bass lines, etc. when we got into the studio. Working without Walter was shocking to begin with, but I got used to having somebody to bounce ideas off. It wasn't that difficult coming up with the music, because I basically used to come up with the musical material anyway. But the lyrics were quite difficult. I think I was lucky to be able to draw on my own background for some semi-autobiographical songs.

Lately I work mostly in the daytime, in a small sunny room. I own a few pieces of electronic gear, but I work at the piano, for the most part. I compose almost every day, usually five or six hours on the average. I also make time to play some standards and jazz tunes and maybe run some scales. I used to be a workaholic (what a terrible word that is) - up all night, running to the piano before breakfast, that sort of thing. Nowadays I sometimes stop to smell those proverbial roses. These days I listen to very little music. When I do, I play old jazz records, Ray Charles, Chicago blues, some French composers, and once in a while, with shutters drawn, I sneak a listen to my crackly copy of Highway 61 Revisited. A goal I have now is to one day write a really terrific song and hear it in a movie theater.


Studio Musicians

When Walter and I decided we weren't cut out to be leaders of a touring band, we started looking for a more mature (some might say slicker) sound. Our original players went their separate ways and studio players were just the ticket. Because the cost of rehearsal time with studio players was (and is) high, we began to prepare fairly detailed charts before going into the studio, sometimes with the help of one of the musicians on the date. The players would run down the tune a few times and then we'd start recording. With luck we'd get an early take. More often we'd do quite a few. Solos were usually overdubbed and judged on flow and originality; however, a player with a nice touch could get by easily on blues alone.

What's it like playing a Steely Dan session? Check out our interview with Jay Graydon, where he talks about playing the guitar solo on "Peg."
Larry Carlton played on quite a few of our records. He's a real virtuoso. In my opinion he can get around his instrument better than any studio guitarist. He's also quite a good blues player. He did the solos on "Kid Charlemagne." The middle solo he did in two takes and we used parts of both. The last solo was straight improvisation. Sometimes a player would come in and rip off a solo like that, other times, if they were playing something which we didn't think was stylistically consistent with the song, or if they were just having trouble getting any idea, we might suggest a stylistic or melodic idea to get them started.


Donald FagenCovers

Because most of our tunes' were written to be performed only by Steely Dan, they don't lend themselves very well to cover renditions. The lyrics are not the sort that would inspire singers to cover them. And most of the melodies are instrumental type lines, and not songs in the usual sense of the term. By that I mean that a real song, it seems to me, has a kind of melody which is, first of all, very easy to sing. It has a natural flow, usually in a stepwise motion, with consecutive notes, simple arpeggios, and so on. That's a quality a lot of the great songwriters had. You can sing the melody without any chordal background and it'll still sound good. The melody is not dependent on the harmony; it's just a really good melody. I think our songs were derived more instrumentally, more in the way - not to make a comparison in quality - Duke Ellington would write. I think his songs in fact don't work that well as songs. He wrote for the people in his band, the specific players. He wrote lines he thought they could play well. And although we weren't writing for instrumental performers - we were writing for my voice - I think our background, because it mostly comes out of arranging and jazz, made us lean toward melodies that had that kind of structure - they're more chordally situated.

When I hear the occasional cover I almost always experience what I've come to think of as the Bill Murray Effect - i.e., Buddy Greco doing "Born To Be Wild."


Donald FagenBruce Pollock has written ten books on music, including Working Musicians: Defining Moments from the Road, the Studio, and the Stage. In his column "They're Playing My Song," Jackie DeShannon, Neal Smith, Dean Friedman and many other songwriters tell the stories behind the one song that most impacted their careers. Visit Bruce at brucepollockthewriter.com.
November 7, 2012.

Comments: 18

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I like both Tom Robinson's version of Rikki Don't Lose That Number and Howard Jones' cover of IGY. I like hearing different interpretations of songs. But that's just my personal opinion.
-droughtquake from Bay Area, CA

The Dan is awesome, as are all of The Don's solo albums. One cover that doesn't have the Bill Murray effect... "Only a Fool Would Say That" by Ivy.
-Charlie Freak from East St. Louis

to cover a song only makes sense, if you support it to some new meaning, better atmosphere, different feeling....df songs are that perfect, who wants to try that impossible mission? I still remember a IGY *copy* from howard jones. that cover was one time played at our local radio station - followed by a dozen originals in the next weeks. who thinks to modifie beethoven or michelangelo works would be a good idea?
-stefan from from brunswick, germany

With all due respect to Steely Dan's music, the Donald Fagen tune I will always be fond of is his 1982 solo smash "I.G.Y (What A Beautiful World)" from the album "Nightfly". Having first discovered the song on my local smooth jazz radio station, I first became hooked on the musical styling itself, especially the horns. Later on, I did some research on the real I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year) which ran for one and a half years from the middle of 1957 to the end of 1958 at the dawn of the space age. Though the real purpose of the IGY was to study the earth in general, many of the findings coupled with fascinating discoveries of the planet and beyond led to great optimism regarding the future. While things may have gotten much more complicated than many would have liked in real life evolution, the song is a prime example of the timeless optimism that continues to prevail over the course of history and is necessary for the human race to sustain itself. The song may sadly be overlooked by many, but I am one who may never let it go.
-David from Orlando

Can't thank you enough for the interview. I really enjoyed the glimpse into DF's head and the behind the scenes look as well. SD/DF have always been my favorite band, never tire of anything they have done. Smart, funny, funky, jazzy; it's just the best. Love SC, can't get it out of my head. Was able to see them on their last tour, one of the highlights of my musical life. Can't thank you enough DF for all the memories and the happiness you have given me.
-Erin from Jacksonville, Fl

AJA. That album alone would make mny careers .. I listened to it for days on end, and never got tired of it. And bringing in Wayne Shorter to solo on it .. the cat showed what a solo is supposed to be in a song!
-Mike Reese from Chicago, IL

I met Don and Walter on the occasion of Everything Must go release. It was one of the most affirmative experiences of my working life to meet the guys whose music was and remains the most listenable I know and find they were pretty much the people I had hoped they would be. At a point in the interview I asked them about Jeff Skunk Baxter's move into weapons intelligence right on cue - the audio evidence is on rocksbackpages website - a fleet of black hawk helicopters came hellishly close to the football pitch size window of the beach front Santa Monica apartment where we were sat , a ferocious aparition, rattling the glass in the frame . "Don't fuck with the Skunk," said Walter, also right on cue. Legends. Great interview too.
-Gavin from Mummy's Tummy

A couple of years ago I was walking up Madison Avenue in Manhattan listening to my Steely Dan mix and I came upon Donald Fagen and Walter Becker standing by a car and talking. Aja was playing on my mix. I debated whether to go over to them and tell them I was listening to Aja and how much I loved them but didn't. Not doing that or buying more Apple stock in 1997 remain my two greatest regrets.
-John Wagman

I find it curious that Fagen thinks Steely Dan songs "don't lend themselves very well to cover renditions." Maybe he's referring to covers that include vocals, because there are a ton of instrumental covers of Dan songs, some of them terrifically done.

Also, how did Sandy attend a Steely Dan concert "in Tampa in the 1980s?" As far as I know, Fagen and Becker originally stopped touring in the mid-70s, and did not resume until reuniting in the 1990s.
-David from Sacramento

I am so hooked on SC that I wake up with it in my head, go to bed the same. Donald is a true treasure of a composer and musician. I can listen to SD or DF morning to night and never tire of it. This interview was just so revealing about his process. Thanks so much for this interview.
-DesertDivine from CA

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