Intellectualized soul. That’s the kind of phrase that could describe or dismiss the career of Donald Fagen. When Fagen and cohort Walter Becker first appeared on the American rock scene as Steely Dan in 1972, they were an anomaly in pop music. After the Woodstock generation got a taste of blood at Altamont, the revolution splintered and the soundtrack changed accordingly. The era of “confessional” singer-songwriters like Neil Young, Harry Nilsson and Joni Mitchell grew in tandem with a kind of second wave of crucial R&B. Artists such as Curtis Mayfield, Roberta Flack and The O’Jays stripped down the Motown and Stax sounds, shaping them into streamlined soul and funk.
Steely Dan married both of these seemingly disparate genres, only with darker lyrics and complex jazz voicings, dropping in unique inversions and add2 and add9 chords—which Becker and Fagen called the “mu chord.” In ’72, Steely Dan released their debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill. Three songs from that record became FM rock staples: “Dirty Work,” “Do It Again” (a Top 10 hit), and “Reelin’ in the Years.” Not unlike Brian Wilson’s earlier forays into elevating production to the level of the actual song, Becker and Fagen turned the recording studio into a de facto instrument. Hiring top-flight session players to help deliver songs chronicling the defeated side of love, the blunt reality of addiction, hustlers and darker fare, Steely Dan penned songs that became increasingly unlike anything that rock radio had witnessed. “Doctor Wu” is allegedly a paean to a Chinese herbalist helping the narrator kick his heroin addiction. “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” is a first-person account of a Mr. LaPage; an apparent pedophile gleefully screening 8MM porn flicks to his underage audience. Even their rollicking tune “My Old School,” flips the hippie script, chronicling the 1968 drug bust of Fagen and Becker while students at Bard College.
Steely Dan songs were the black-and-white noir to saccharine, play-it-safe ’70s pop songs, music written for escapists trapped in fear and defeat. The opening lines of 1973’s “Razor Boy” give a glimpse into the band’s lyricism: “I hear you are singing a song of the past / I see no tears / I know that you know it may be the last / for many years”—heady stuff for a generation navigating bean-bag chairs, Quaaludes and macramé workshops.
Beginning in 1974, two years into the band’s formation, Fagen and Becker decided to forgo concert tours all together in favor of a monastic—if not obsessive—existence in the studio. Many consider the 1977 release Aja the band’s masterpiece, seven tracks of sublime jazz-rock, captured in audiophile recording. Before the band disbanded in 1980, they’d released a total of seven albums, all hitting platinum or gold status. Their final album, Gaucho, is indicative of the apex of their craft, taking more than a year to record and featuring 42 session musicians.
Over the course of Steely Dan’s career, some who worked with them had typified Becker and Fagen as “perfectionists.” Arguably, a perfectionist without vision is just an obsessive asshole. Steely Dan surely had a vision; if they were perfectionists, it stands to reason, as they more or less created perfectly cut albums, released in an era where hurriedly issued, cash-grab and tie-in albums and arena rock bloat were accepted, if not encouraged.
Steely Dan broke up in 1981. The following year, Fagen released his debut, The Nightflyer, a rumination on his 1950s/’60s youth. The album retained the soul and precision of Steely Dan, with singles “I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)” and “New Frontier,” both cracking the Billboard 100 chart.
In the decades since his first solo release, Fagen has released albums at a languid pace, with subsequent releases creating what Fagen calls The Nightfly Trilogy. In 1993, Walter Becker produced his longtime collaborator’s second record, Kamakiriad, a concept album ruminating on middle age by way of the narrator’s road trip in a futuristic car. The final installment of the trilogy, Morph the Cat (2006) tackles the familiar Fagen territory of aging and death. Fagen returned in 2012 with Sunken Condos, hitting No. 12 on the Billboard Top 200. Most recently, the 2017 release of a song co-written with fellow pop firebrand Todd Rundgren, “Tin Foil Hat,” is a gleeful takedown of Trump.
Beginning in 1993, Becker and Fagen apparently overcame their reluctance to tour, with Steely Dan still performing as a semi-regular live act. Now Fagen is hitting the road with The Nightflyers, a four-piece of young players who also live in Fagen’s current home of Woodstock, New York. Performing 20 dates in all, the band is sure to play Fagen’s songbook of tunes from Steely Dan and his formidable-albeit-compact solo catalog.
It would be reasonable to believe that in the nearly 50 years since Fagen first appeared on the music scene, his tunes have found an even wider audience. The influence is pervasive; besides an arsenal of jazz-rock players, even ’80s punk greats The Minutemen sang Steely Dan’s praises, covering “Doctor Wu.”
Egregiously lumped into the ’70s “yacht rock” category by some, Steely Dan and Fagen have garnered a zealous fanbase, countered by others who grumble that the music is too “slick.” Counter to many of their peers’ effects-rich studio approach, Steely Dan made great efforts to produce their records with a kind of dry, even mix. That was one of their greatest strengths: creating a kind of sonic evenness of precise yet soulful playing, preparing the audience for lyrics that were more akin to the black comedy of William Gass than the hoedown ’70s choogle anthems of Wet Willie.
There seems to be little in between with Fagen and his music; some crank it up when “Peg” pops up on the playlist, others press delete. Does Fagen obsessively check his Facebook music page for any new likes? Doubtful. The same artist known for an indifference to interviews is surely indifferent to detractors. No other American rock artist, with possible exception of Lou Reed, has been as successful as the-now-69-year-old Fagen in creating a hybrid of sophistication, soul and the sinister. For all his cerebral lyricism and harmonic savvy, Fagen is a populist artist. Forty million albums sold and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction play this out. American music is indelibly stamped by Fagen’s musical mark, even if he himself seems indifferent to the imprint.