Michael Watts

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2051

[The first part of this excerpt contains criticism by Michael Watts; the second part is from an interview by Michael Watts with Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.]

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Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are living proof that intelligence is still regarded with suspicion in rock and roll. I confess it annoys me that they are more persistently categorised as "oddballs" and "smartasses" rather than considerable songwriters, which is what they are, because rock music and literary qualities are still held to be incompatible even by those who write about rock. Or so it seems.

Yet I suppose that, ultimately, Fagen and Becker, progenitors of Steely Dan, have only themselves to blame for insisting upon erudition and references drawn from jazz, Latin and classical music, as well as pop, whilst concealing it all beneath shiny music that can demand very little beyond an acquiescent toe unless one wishes it; for the supreme irony of Steely Dan, with whom irony as a device is second-nature, is the apparent equanimity with which they go about being most things to all men and everything to a few….

[Their] concerns are the most wide-ranging within rock writing, and have become the subjects for more interpretations than songs by any other artist since the Dylan of the period leading up to "John Wesley Harding." Not usually very specific—the most recent album, "The Royal Scam," is the least difficult of the five—they range from the typically black little tale of a compulsive loser ("Do It Again," the hit single from the first album, "Can't Buy A Thrill") to the grandly worked title track of "Royal Scam," which in three verses encapsulates an epic story of Puerto Rican settlement in New York….

Nothing if not carefully constructed, their writing does not flow along with Dylan's stream-of-images; it relies upon nuance, upon literary style and the suggestion of atmosphere in a novelistic manner far removed from the traditional workings of the pop song.

In lyric terms, very few writers in rock—perhaps Randy Newman, Robbie Robertson, Joni Mitchell—are working as consciously towards the aesthetic experience; for a start, there is nothing in the whole of Becker-Fagen's output that is overtly autobiographical, which, because there's nothing except for the songs themselves to which the audience can relate, helps explain why Steely Dan seems so faceless.

Eng. Lit … looms large in the Steely Dan canon.

Of course, the name itself is an obscure term taken from William Burroughs' Naked Lunch.

But their literary influences range from the American black humorists (Vonnegut, Terry Southern, Nathanael West) through to their (possibly) English counterpart, Evelyn Waugh, and on to such diverse writers as Beckett, Aldous Huxley, Voltaire, Nabokov, Borges and even Joseph Conrad.

Only their big interest in science fiction short stories, evident on another song from "Scam," "Sign In Stranger," seems familiar from conversations with other rock performers….

[They] are saved from any pretentiousness by a very bloody sense of humour that's employed both in their songs and on a personal level. (p. 24)

..…

Do you see a specific mood for each album?

Becker: We do try to put together a programme of songs that somehow hangs together.

Fagen: But mostly that's things like tempo.

Becker: Yeah, not in terms of themes, really….

[Fagen:] You know, if there is a lyrical unity to each album it's simply because most of the songs on each album are written in a certain time period, and naturally a certain phase of our personalities would be prominent while the songs were written, and that would give it a lyrical unity, certainly….

Let me ask you about individual songs, beginning with those on "The Royal Scam."…

"Kid Charlemagne," for instance—could that be about a Leary or a Manson? Am I in the right direction?

Fagen: You're on the right track. I think it would probably be about a person who's less of a celebrity than those people….

"Sign In Stranger"—that's almost like a school for gangsters?

Fagen: That's true. Of course, it does take place on another planet. We sort of borrowed the Sin City/Pleasure Planet idea that's in a lotta science fiction novels, and made a song out of it. But, indeed, you're right….

Is "The Royal Scam" about Puerto Ricans trying to settle in New York?

Fagen: Because the interpretation is so accurate I wouldn't even want to comment any further.

Becker: In other words, you already know more than is good for you.

Fagen: To tell you the truth, we tend to refrain from discussing specifics as far as lyrics go, because it is a matter of subjective interpretation, and there are some things that are better that man does not know. You are on the right track, and whatever you make of it will suffice. Really.

You leave yourself open to the interpretation of playing guessing games with your audience.

Becker: Well, hopefully the idea is that there won't be any guessing games. You see, you have a fairly precise picture in your mind of what is in that song, I can see, but when we write the songs we hope that a listener hearing that song who does not translate St. John into San Juan would still be able to enjoy the song without being too worried about what it means.

In other words, it should work for somebody who doesn't get nearly that far.

Yes, but it would work for him if he understood it, wouldn't it?

Becker: Well, maybe so, but I would hope it will work for him even if he considers it a complete fairy tale.

On some songs you are quite specific. "Don't Take Me Alive" is a very specific song. I don't think people would have any problems understanding that.

Becker: I shouldn't think so.

So why do you intend some songs to be very mystifying?

Becker: Well, it's not that it came out to be mystifying. We did decide to write that song in a kind of …

Fagen: Allegorical.

Becker: We were trying to imitate the inflection of a King James bible just a bit, so that made it vague necessarily.

Fagen: It's kind of like The Trinity, you know. We think we'd probably destroy the spell if we laid it on the line, you know what I mean? There's a certain mystique that that song depends upon for it to be effective.

Becker: We're not topical songwriters. We're trying always not to write the same lyric, but to write lyrics that have to do with something interesting; and so, when we get an idea on the lines of that one, we don't want it to sound like a Phil Ochs song …—may he rest in peace.

We don't want its political or social overtones to be so specific that someone who hasn't lived in New York would have no use for the song.

But one of the great virtues of your writing is that it's not autobiographical—or, at least, overtly.

Becker: That's another thing.

And neither is it hog-tied to a particular mood of the times, as is the case with so many rock writers.

Fagen: That's true. I guess one of the great cornerstones of what rock and roll is supposed to be is that it's somehow supposed to reflect now, the time we're living in, and not reflect back; and, in fact, there is very little reflection in rock and roll.

Becker: It's generally the cry of an anguished teenage soul. And we're not doing that too much anymore….

Fagen: As far as specifics like that, our audience will have to trust our sincerity, just trust us in not just laying down some bulls—. When they think they don't understand something it's certainly not a random lyric.

It's been suggested that your writing is after the image of your own world, in the sense that you create a private world and your themes and lyrics relate more to that than the actual world outside it. Do you take the point?

Fagen: Well, I think it's more a way of viewing the actual world through our eyes. I think probably in our earlier works we were fantasising more than we do now. I think now we're synthesising what we see.

Becker: Nevertheless, it may be right in saying that the world crystallised through our eyes bears very little resemblance to anyone else's world, even though we think we're recording it as we see it.

We may be so bent that it's unrecognisable. I would like to think so. That would certainly make it more interesting. (p. 25)

What would you say were your main themes as writers?

Becker: Well, of course, we have all the usual ones. Unrequited love, destructive love, er …

Fagen: Self-destruction.

Becker: The erotic.

Fagen: Violence … Oh, we can write about anything. In fact, we were recently thinking of writing something about the Congress of Vienna, which is actually part of the reason I visited the Museum at Monaco, to get a little atmosphere.

We think the Congress of Vienna because it was a turning-point in European affairs, and we see certain parallels between that and what's going on now.

But that's yet to come. We haven't quite crystallised it yet, but we're thinking about it.

Becker: It will work out. If you can do that kind of thing without making it pretentious, that's the secret, because then you're dealing with really interesting and unusual subject matter, and still making it into a pop song that doesn't sound like a, er … Frank Zappa epic, or a Kinks musical comedy number.

Fagen: You see, we use that more as a starting-point to write a song which may, when it's finished, not suggest to anyone what we had in mind. The song that we wrote about the bierhalle putsch, for instance, no one ever had to think about the bierhalle putsch to think about that song. That's our method of writing a song: to have something in mind that may not actually be in the song….

There's a feeling that underneath all your themes there's a pervasive tone of cynicism.

Becker: That's an accusation to which we are not unfamiliar.

Fagen: Well, we like to keep a certain distance from the protagonist.

Might not your music, therefore, be generally symptomatic of the times?

Becker: In terms of cynicism? Oh, I dunno. I don't think these are particularly cynical times. You just wait to see what's coming up! I'm inclined to think that things are going to become far more pessimistic….

Would you say pessimism is a more accurate description for what you do?

Becker: No, I wouldn't say that. I suppose we are cynical by comparison to the people who are sincere, but musically I wouldn't have it any other way.

A song like "Charlie Freak" is unusually tender when set beside most of your writing.

Becker: Well, I think so, and hopefully those little glimmers of tenderness are all the more effective in the context they are in rather than a constant syrup being poured over our audience.

Fagen: In other words, without putting emotional limitations on what you're doing, tenderness is just sentiment rather than a true glimmer of affirmation, or whatever you wanna call it….

I should tell you, though—sometimes, when we play an album back to sequence the songs, sometimes I get the feeling that we are hitting a little hard, that it's too down.

But it's getting back to what I was saying before: there's so much distance from what is actually happening to the protagonist of each song, to use a literary word.

In other words, when I sing a song I just take the role of narrator; I'm sort of acting out a part. It's really quite impersonal, although the music in me, and the words themselves, can be very personal—like "Don't Take Me Alive", "Kid Charlemagne".

Becker: I think we probably are conspicuous in our thematic concerns in rock and roll. But if we were novelists dealing with the subject matters of our songs it would not stick out as much, because in the literary field what we are writing about are more the traditional concerns than in rock and roll. (p. 26)

Michael Watts, "Steely Dan: Art for Art's Sake …," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), June 19, 1976, pp. 24-6.

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