Their new album, held throughout the product-glutted summer for just the right moment, accidentally came out the same afternoon as the new Rolling Stones LP. Their first tour in three years was canceled. They haven’t had a hit single since 1974’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” And still, their sixth and most esoteric effort yet, Aja, is one of the season’s hottest albums and by far Steely Dan’s fastest-selling ever. Suddenly, against all the odds, it’s Steely Dan fever.
They are the unlikeliest supergroup — perhaps because there is no group. Two blurry characters named Walter Becker and Donald Fagen write and construct the struct the songs, then hire highly skilled studio musicians to execute the parts. They even play themselves, but less and less, it seems, each album. (“It wouldn’t bother me at all,” says Becker, “not to play on my own album.”) The infrequent product of their labors is labeled a Steely Dan album. Any further details are subject to Becker’s and Fagen’s notorious distaste for facts.
There are, though, plenty of stories making the rounds: about Becker and Fagen being “obsessively maniacal” Scrabble players whose marathon games have wasted weeks of valuable studio time. Or the one that suggests they wrote Aja about their fetish for shooting ducks locked in copulation. Or the former president of ABC Records who reportedly disowned them, calling them “worms.”
They are said to delight in making mincemeat of outsiders, these two. There were questions to be asked, though. It was an ugly job, but somebody had to do it.
I arrived at the tiny Malibu guest home of Walter Becker the day Aja was released. It was late afternoon, morning for the bass-and-guitar-playing half of Steely Dan’s composing team. I waited in a quaintly domesticated living room, amid harmless collections of beach shells and artifacts. I could hear Becker playing guitar, soloing lazily along with a jazz station in a back bedroom. He was just waking up.
A moment later, neighbor Donald Fagen pulled up in a black sports car. The lead vocalist/key boardist/composer breezed straight into the kitchen for a mug of coffee. Becker emerged with Fender in hand; wordlessly, the two took seats. There was something vaguely disconcerting about their Eddie Haskell smiles; they were quite aware of their heinous reputations.
“We do encourage that misconception,” allowed Becker. “But it’s not that accurate.” He lit a Marlboro with shaky hands. “We’re no longer belligerent to interviewers, for example….”
Fagen immediately dispensed with the diplomacy. “A lot of interviewers are just jerk-offs,” he snapped, taking a swipe at a fly.
The pair are like delinquents taking an oral exam in detention. Becker is long-haired and wispily bearded, in the spirit of Howard Hughes’ latter years. He exudes a newtlike translucence. Fagen, by comparison more tanned, is wearing dark shades he will not remove. And his mouth is caricature-sized; it’s as if he has an extra two inches of lip and no room for it. It’s true — they could be characters from their own sinister songs.
They obviously sleep all day. I asked how they spend their nights. “Writing songs,” Becker replied. “I go over to Donald’s. He comes over here. We spend a lot of time doing that.” He played a casual solo and thought. “Overdubbing, too.”
“Most of our time is spent on the Working Process,” Fagen began, slapping the arms of his leather chair. “We spent most of the year recording.” Fagen stopped slapping. “But I don’t know what we were actually doing.”
“Overdubbing,” answered Becker.
“We overdubbed a lot of the overdubs over.” Becker grinned luxuriously, cracking open a can of Coke.
“Yeah, we did,” Fagen added.
Becker turned to me. “That was why….” I waited for him to continue. He did not. So much for anecdotes.
They don’t own a Scrabble game, as it turns out. The duck story “must have come from our doing interviews during the Hotel Bel-Air phase. They had ponds with swans and shit.” However, that former ABC president did, they say, call them worms.
“We didn’t deal with ABC for a long time,” Becker said. “We were definitely on the shit list over there, can you believe it? And we didn’t give ’em a hard time or anything. We have a great relationship with them now. They were just pissed at us for being…I don’t know.” He shrugged. “Worms, I guess.”
Their contract with ABC runs out with the follow-up to Aja; rumor has it they will follow their producer, Gary Katz, to Warner Bros.