Q&A: Donald Fagen

Steely Dan's co-leader talks about Charlie Mingus, Mick Jagger and 'Morph the Cat,' his first solo album since 1993

Donald Fagen of Steely Dan at Roseland Ballroom on September 12, 2003. Credit: David Pomponio/FilmMagic/Getty

Donald Fagen's new release, Morph the Cat, is his first record in twenty-five years without his partner in Steely Dan, Walter Becker. "All of a sudden, in the studio, I'd say, 'Hey, Walter, what do you like better?"' says Fagen, 58, slouching on a leather sofa in a Manhattan office. "And no one would answer." But Fagen pressed on ("The little Walter in my head told me what was OK and what sucked") and created a slick concept album that weaves in characters including Morph the Cat, a phantom menace that invades New York: the sexy metal-detector-wielding "Security Joan"; and Mona, who pops pills and secludes herself in her Manhattan penthouse ("The Night Belongs to Mona"). "Everything turned out the way I wanted," says Fagen, who recently kicked off his first solo tour ever (which continues until March 31st) with a show in his home state, New Jersey. "The gig was five minutes away from my old high school," says Fagen, adopting a Jersey accent. "Go, black and gold!"

Your mother was an accomplished singer. Did you ever see her perform?
She stopped performing when she got married. From when she was five, she performed at a hotel in the Catskills — she was like the Jewish Shirley Temple. But she'd sing around the house all the time, like Harold Arlen's "Blues in the Night."

As a child you'd take a bus to New York, and sometimes miss the bus home, to see jazz gigs.
When I was thirteen, I'd come into the city, and Max Gordon, who owned the Village Vanguard, would put me in the banquette near the drums and give me Cokes. Sometimes I'd stay for two shows — I'd get to Port Authority and miss the last bus and have to sleep in the station.

Did one of those shows at the Vanguard change your life?
Charlie Mingus. Not only was he musical, he was cultural and political. And he was crazy — manic-depressive, really. One night in '62 or '63, Coleman Hawkins opened for him, so Charlie comes onstage in a terrible mood and went on a rant about record companies cheating musicians. Hawkins had retired to the bar in the back and proceeded to get drunk, and Mingus started letting into him: "Yeah! That's it, Coleman Hawkins. You Uncle Tom motherfucker! You been workin' for whitey your whole life, makin' that money, and you don't say a word...." I'd just come in from the suburbs, so that was quite an education in the real world [laughs]. In Mingus' reality, at least.

What's the worst advice you ever got from a record exec?
When we were first starting [as a five-piece in 1972], Jay Lasker used to run Dunhill Records. My girlfriend at the time, Dorothy White, did an illustration called "Countdown to Ecstasy" for our second album cover. It was four alien-sorta-looking people in these chairs. Lasker looked at it and said, "What's goin' on here! Put in a fifth guy — there's a fifth guy in the band!" He wouldn't approve it until Dorothy drew a fifth figure. It never looked as good. That was the only time we ever compromised with a record company.

Where did you get the line "They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/Call me Deacon Blues"?
Walter and I had been working on that song at a house in Malibu. I played him that line, and he said. "You mean it's like, 'They call these cracker assholes this grandiose name like the Crimson Tide, and I'm this loser, so they call me this other grandiose name, Deacon Blues?"' And I said, "Yeah!" He said, "Cool! Let's finish it!"

Would it be fair to say that you guys have an almost telepathic relationship?
Neither Walter nor myself have smoked a cigarette for a long time. When I started making this record, I bummed a Parliament from our drummer. It was the first time I'd been smoking since, like, '85, and I started smoking, like, half a pack a day. It was great — I like smoking. I've since quit, but it was a great year for me [laughs]. Anyway, I hadn't seen Walter in a while. We went out, and I said to him, "I started smoking again — I gotta get some cigarettes." Walter pulls out a pack of Parliaments. He'd started smoking again. The same brand. That's a pretty good example.

In your songwriting there are many references to the East -- "Charlie Tokyo," "Roppongi," "Aja," "Lou Chang." Why?
It's mainly from movies and books. It's traditional in Western literature and music to use the East as a symbol of sensuality. In the days of political correctness, there's been criticism in objectifying Asia and Asians — luckily, I don't give a shit about any of that stuff [laughs]. I did have a friend in high school whose brother was in the Army and came back with a Korean wife named Aja. I don't know how she spelled it — but that was the source for that name.

Have you ever dropped acid and listened to Steve Gadd's drum solo on "Aja"?
No. That's after my LSD moment was over. Have you?

Yeah!
How was it? 

It was incredible!
[Laughs] I did drop acid and listen to Blonde on Blonde. That was pretty good.

I saw you at a Dylan show last year. Have you seen a great show recently?
The Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden. I was just so amazed by the pure physical energy that this sixtysomething person — Mick Jagger — was able to expend during a show.

You sound inspired.
It was inspiring. All I have to do is sit there and sing. So if Mick can run around all night like a rooster on acid, maybe I could do this for a while.