In mid-December, Donald Fagen sat down in Sirius XM’s studios for an in-depth interview – his first since the September death of Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker – on the Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, hosted by Brian Hiatt. Here are some highlights from the conversation, which spanned the entire history of Steely Dan. To hear the entire discussion, see below or download and subscribe on iTunes or Spotify.
Fagen got to spend one last day with Becker in early September. “When I heard he was really ill,” he says, “I was on the road in, I think, Salina, Kansas, and I flew back. I had a day off and he was in his apartment in New York. And I was really glad that I went. I could see he was really struggling. When I put a chair next to the bed, he grabbed my hand. It was something he had never done ever before. And we had a great talk and, you know, he was listening to hard bop – his wife had put on Dexter Gordon records. He was very weak but he was still very funny. I’m really glad I had those hours.”
If it were up to Fagen, he would refer to the post-Becker touring incarnation of the band as “Donald Fagen and the Steely Dan Band.” “I would actually prefer to call it Donald Fagen and the Steely Dan Band or something like that,” he says, noting that promoters have so far insisted that he call it Steely Dan for commercial reasons. “That’s an ongoing debate. To me, Steely Dan was just me and Walter, really – it was like a concept we had together.”
Fagen had hoped to record another Steely Dan album – which would have been the first since 2003’s Everything Must Go – but Becker wasn’t interested. “Walter had some health problems,” says Fagen, “and especially after 2011-12, I think just being ill for so long, he had a little bit of a personality change and he was much more isolated, and he kinda wasn’t that interested in working on Steely Dan records anymore. It also might have to do with the specter of doing an album that would be on the same standard that we did previously. Maybe that scared him a little bit, or maybe he didn’t have the energy. I did ask him once in a while if he wanted to do something – and he’d usually say, ‘yeah, sure,’ but then he wouldn’t call me or whatever, so it was obvious that he lost some of the enthusiasm.”
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Fagen describes his lawsuit against Becker’s estate as an effort to “defend” his original contract with his partner – which the estate has attempted to invalidate. “Decades ago,” he says, “when we started the band, Walter and I had a contract, and it was really a simple thing that a lot of bands have – if someone resigns or is fired or dies, they sell their rock & roll stock back to the company. So we signed this thing and it ended up being that Walter and I were the remaining partners…50/50 partners, and the idea was that if somebody dies the other guy would essentially run the band and take control of the band, so we’re just trying to defend that contract.”