Friday, July 4, 2014

This Day in Rock History (Steely Dan Declare Freedom From Touring)

July 4, 1974—Crunched between recording sessions and city-to-city travel, often appalled by the vicissitudes of the road, Steely Dan decided on a breather from touring. It was only meant to be temporary, but the gig at the Santa Monica Civic Center in California turns out to be the last live appearance together for 19 years for Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the songwriting pair at the heart of the rock group.

The decision, contingent as it was, had tremendous consequences. Fagen and Becker, still with only three LPs under the belts, were now liberated from a routine they never felt comfortable with. "We used to throw up a lot before the show," Fagen told comedian Robert Klein in an exceptionally rare radio appearance, six years after quitting. "It was messy. It was odiferous." Now they could concentrate, with laser-like precision, on what really mattered to them: how their songs emerged in the studio.

A series of classic albums resulted, blending rock, jazz, blues, popular music and contemporary literature (the band’s name, after all, derived from a sex toy in William Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch): Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, Aja and Gaucho. Not for them the gritty sound that many songwriters strive for in the studio. Instead, the numerous musicians that might be hired for a single LP would find their parts very precisely spelled out.

The closest counterpart I can think of to Steely Dan’s decision to cease functioning as a live band was the Beatles' similar one in 1966. A similar mixture of motives was involved, from the personal (exhaustion) to the musical (it was becoming increasingly hard to achieve in concert the same level of aural sophistication summoned in the studio).

Steely Dan were in a more vulnerable position than the Beatles when they decided to take a breather. Can’t Buy a Thrill, Countdown to Ecstasy and Pretzel Logic (the one they were promoting in the summer of 1974) had spawned hits but not anything close to Beatlemania. Fagen and Becker were pushing back against the traditional record company model of hurried releases followed by frenetic tour schedules. But then again, this pair cared little for making nice in the music industry. (One of their bosses before they went on their own, Jay Black, after employing them as backup musicians on his 1970-71 tour, referred to them as "Starkweather and Manson.")

Fagen had only taken on lead vocals when it became apparent that David Palmer, originally brought in for this role, did not project the level of twisted ironies called for by the lyrics. Nor were he and his partner thrilled to open up for heavy-metal artists, or for musicians who might share bills with them but not their low-key approach to the perks of fame.

Fagen and Becker’s decision did not sit well with guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (who departed for the Doobie Brothers) or drummer Jim Hodder, who also moved on. On the other hand, the gallery of studio musicians they called on over the next half-dozen years were among the best in the business, including (though not limited to) Joe Sample, Wayne Shorter, Tom Scott, the Brecker brothers, Larry Carlton, Chuck Rainey, Victor Feldmen, and Rick Derringer. (They formed especially close collaboration with drummer Jeff Porcaro, later of Toto, and keyboardist Michael McDonald, eventually the lead singer of The Doobie Brothers.)

These master musicians would be put through their paces, with as many as 30 or 40 takes of a single song. The perfectionism of Becker and Fagen was relentless. It had to be, with all those complex chord changes, harmonies, and structures. A musician might think he had produced a stunning take, only to be told it was average. No deviation from their vision was allowed on vinyl, let alone a mistake. The only compensation for all of this was summed up by drummer Rick Marotta: "Every time I went in with them I knew it was going to be something really historic."

The point of no return for touring probably came in early 1978, when Fagen and Becker tentatively agreed to go on the road again to promote Aja. But that plan was ditched after their projected bandmates began to compare pay scales with each other and grumble loudly.

If that was a drag, so was the duo’s attempt to match Aja’s craftsmanship with the follow-up, Gaucho. By 1980, utterly burned out, Fagen and Becker disbanded. It would be another dozen years before they got back together again.

Fagen and Becker have played in public again, but it is decidedly on their terms. Fagen is mindful of the effects of virtually nonstop touring on the voice of hero Bob Dylan. He also remains one of the classic grumpy old men of rock ‘n’ roll. In his 2013 book, Eminent Hipsters, he groans about the audiences who came out to see him perform with Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs as part of the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue. In one typical journal entry, Fagen observed: “Tonight the crowd looked so geriatric I was tempted to start calling out bingo numbers. By the end of the set, they were all on their feet, albeit shakily, rocking.... So this, now, is what I do: assisted living.”

On the other hand…

For years, Steely Dan aficionados missed the chance to see the magic that Fagen and Becker could conjure up onstage. (One example is this YouTube clip of a 2013 appearance at the Beacon Theater featuring one of my favorite Steely Dan tunes: “My Old School.”) Sequences like this make you understand the feeling of musical transcendence that Fagen also evoked in his book:

"When everything's working right, you become transfixed by the notes and chords and the beautiful spaces in between. In the center 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 ten thousand people to snap free of life's miseries."

1 comment:

Anne Lindenfeld said...

Wonderful piece! Thanks so much for writing this and the more recent one. I am a big Steely Dan fan and I really enjoyed this bit of their history.