NEW YORK -- We've all heard about the perks of rock stardom -- the parties, the groupies, the readily available intoxicants. And getting on that gravy train is simple. Send a record to the top of the charts, and everybody wants to do you a favor; make a career of having hits, and the world is your oyster.
So it shouldn't be surprising on this brisk December afternoon to find Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, a duo better known to music fans as Steely Dan, gloating about their latest bit of celebrity graft: Two hefty CD boxed sets.
"The entire RCA Duke Ellington recordings," says Becker, 50, pointing to a pair of boxes parked on the coffee table.
"The person who designed our album cover also designed this package, so she sent us a couple," adds Fagen, 52. "It's great."
"It's great music from a very long period of time, really," says Becker, scanning the track listing. "Seven, eight, nine Wow! There's 24 CDs here!"
"We'll finally be able to listen to all those 'Sacred Concerts,' " snickers Fagen.
And in an instant, the two launch into a cross-talk routine full of dry humor and inside jokes that make sense only to longtime jazz fans. It's wickedly funny, dizzyingly brisk and entirely off-topic.
After all, Becker and Fagen aren't sitting in a conference room in midtown Manhattan to crack wise about Russell Procope's clarinet tone. They're there to discuss "Two Against Nature," the first new Steely Dan album in two decades. (It arrives in stores tomorrow.)
It's a fairly momentous occasion. Steely Dan made some of the smartest and most enduring albums of the '70s, polishing rock riffs, jazz harmonies and dry, boho wit into the high-gloss finish of "The Royal Scam" (1976), "Aja" (1977) and "Gaucho" (1980). Even though the band was inactive through the '80s and much of the '90s, its music never quite went away, being both a staple of classic rock radio and a frequent source for rap samples.
Naturally, this gives the duo plenty to talk about. Yet discussing anything with these two inevitably leads someplace other than where the original question pointed. It could be because they have unusually broad musical tastes, being steeped in almost a century's worth of jazz and pop. Or perhaps it's because the two are brighter and more verbally agile than most pop musicians.
Or maybe they just like messing with interviewers.
This excerpt from an interview is typical:
Question: Do you consider yourselves part of a pop music continuum?
Becker: Well, yeah, I think we do. But we're the only ones who are continuum-ing in that continuum.
Fagen: What it is, I think there's not many people in popular music who are as old as us, for one thing. [Laughter]
Being old -- or, at least, not being young anymore -- is a recurring theme on "Two Against Nature," particularly when it comes to songs about the opposite sex. "Cousin Dupree," for instance, is about a down-at-the-heels musician who ends up hankering after the shapely young cousin he used to play with when they were kids, while "Janie Runaway" celebrates "the wonder waif of Gramercy Park," whose older boyfriend teasingly promises her, "Who gets to spend her birthday in Spain?/Possibly you, Janie Runaway."
Although the duo dismisses the notion that such songs focus heavily on inappropriate lust -- "As if there could be such a thing," sniffs Becker -- they do admit that theirs is not the typical pop song perspective.
"Generally speaking, everything on the pop charts falls within a very narrow range of the human experience," says Becker.
"Besides, inappropriate lust may in another way just indicate the stupendous power of biological need," suggests Fagen. "It's just hard to control. You try to be civilized, and see what happens?
"It also has to do with capturing beauty, which is something that I think maybe we're a little more realistic about than other aging rock and roll types," he adds. Mick Jagger is suggested as an example. When his songs lust after lovely young things, Fagen says, "it's an 'as if' type of thing. As if he were 19, or whatever."
Steely Dan, by contrast, are proud to act their age. They come across as dirty old men.
Becker and Fagen started their professional career in 1970, playing bass and piano, respectively, for Jay & the Americans. "We were part of the backup band," says Becker. "We were not actually Americans proper."
"We were the wetbacks," quips Fagen.
This wasn't during Jay & the Americans' original rise to fame, in the days of "Come a Little Bit Closer" (1964) and "Cara Mia" (1965). "This was in their declining years," says Fagen. "There was a slight resurgence ... because they had a sort of miracle hit in '68."
A way in
"A remake of a Drifters song called 'This Magic Moment,' " adds Becker. "We had wisely thrown in our lots with them, thinking that they would be the ones to help us get a recording contract and so on. And we signed publishing deals and management deals and everything."
"They would give us 50 bucks a song if we'd sign the publishing [rights] over," says Fagen.
"So we made a pretty shrewd deal," says Becker, drily. "One of them is still collecting royalties from those old songs. Those relationships just keep on going through the miracle of copyright laws."
Kenny Vance, one of the Americans, produced an album for Becker and Fagen in 1971, called "You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It," but the release went nowhere. Eventually, the duo went west, relocating to Los Angeles where they wound up as staff songwriters at ABC/Dunhill Records and in late 1972 formed Steely Dan.
Initially, Steely Dan was a six-piece band with Fagen doing more keyboard playing than singing, but that arrangement didn't last. Some of it had to do with personality clashes -- original member David Palmer was reputed to have a nasty case of Lead Singer Disease -- but mostly, it was because Becker and Fagen had a hard time getting the others to play the songs exactly the way the two had imagined them.
"When [Walter and I] play, we have a certain feel together," says Fagen. "It was always very hard to get someone who wouldn't mess with the feel. Whether it be a drummer or a bass player or whatever. And, you know, in the old days we were also looking for a singer, because I wasn't really considering being a professional singer of any kind.
"But we never found a singer, we never found the other guys. So we've had to use other means to create that concept."
Just two -- plus
By "other means," Fagen is referring to the recording studio. By the time of its third album, 1974's "Pretzel Logic," Steely Dan had become famous for its use of session musicians, hired guns who would come into the recording studio and play on just a few numbers, sometimes just a single solo. Eventually, Becker and Fagen developed reputations as fierce perfectionists who would record countless parts with dozens of players before deciding on the one magic performance that made it onto vinyl.
"I wasn't uncomfortable with that [approach]," Becker says. "But I was sort of uncomfortable with the idea that some musicians had, where they would hear these very exaggerated stories about what we were doing -- like how many takes we would do. What we were doing wasn't that different than what other people were doing."
"We've heard stories, about people who sounded much worse than us, if the stories were true," adds Fagen. "Like the BeeGees."
"There's a story about the BeeGees having some kind of mechanical arm with a drumstick in it, that they would actually play as some kind of clock time," says Fagen.
Becker and Fagen continued to terrorize session musicians until 1981, when they announced they would be pursuing individual projects. (Their management hastened to add that Steely Dan had not "broken up" for good.) Fagen cut two solo albums, the second of which -- 1983's "Kamakiriad" -- Becker produced. Fagen returned the favor in '94, helping Becker record his first solo album, "11 Tracks of Whack." In the meantime, the two had begun performing together again, starting out as part of the New York Rock and Soul Review before hitting the road as Steely Dan in 1993.
Although the young Steely Dan ceased touring in 1973, Becker and Fagen now profess to love life on the road. "At this point touring seems like sort of the payoff for the recording process," says Becker. "It's so much fun.
"You know, it's hard work to make a record, we worked a long time on this thing. And there's something fantastic about the idea of getting on stage with a band, a great band, playing the song once and, you know.
"Forgetting about it," says Fagen, completing the sentence.
"Plus, when we travel around with the band, we're in this sort of bubble," continues Becker. "We're sort of led from place to place, handed our instruments at the appropriate time and then taken back to some nice hotel room ..."
"It's like being babies," says Fagen.
On TV, on the road
Steely Dan have already taped a couple of concerts to promote "Two Against Nature" -- the PBS special "In the Spotlight" airs Wednesday on MPT -- and will be touring the United States, Europe and Japan through much of the year.
The only thing they don't look forward to is dealing with hotel pay-per-view TV. "You know, if you pick the wrong channel by mistake, all of a sudden you're watching one of those Van Damme movies or something," complains Fagen. "That's happened to me."
"How'd you like it?" asks Becker.
"I couldn't watch much of it," says Fagen. "I was trying to probably get the Sundance Channel."
"Yeah. Right. Then you ended up with the Van Damme," laughs Becker. "Such are the vicissitudes of fame."