Reelin' in the Years (and Peelin' Back the Layers) of Steely Dan's Donald Fagen

Donald Fagen leading Steely Dan in 2017.
Donald Fagen leading Steely Dan in 2017. Photo by Raph_PH, CC BY 2.0/WikiMedia Commons
By picking Donald Fagen as the subject of a biography, Peter Jones certainly didn’t make things easy on himself.

The Steely Dan co-founder has long been wary of the press and gave relatively few interviews during the band’s prime. And when he did deem to do so, sometimes answered in riddles (albeit pretty humorous ones). Even his own memoir, Eminent Hipsters, is less revealing than even Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Vol. 1, with much of it is carping in his trademark curmudgeonly voice.

Book cover
But despite not having the participation of his subject, Jones' Nightfly: The Life of Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen (368 pp., $30, Chicago Review Press) is an insightful, detailed, heavily researched and wonderfully well-written tome.

He adds much for fans of the man, the Dan and the body of work created in various formations. More importantly, Jones gets as close as possible to the inner workings and thoughts of the inscrutable subject.

Fagen meets musical soul mate Walter Becker while both were students at Bard College (the subject of “My Old School”) in the late ‘60s. Social outcasts who shared a love for black humor, skepticism, science fiction and jazz, they bonded immediately.

And after scuffling around for years as songwriters-and-musicians-for-hire and low impact projects, they launched Steely Dan as a group. But it was a “group”—and always would be—only in the sense of an Orwellian “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” way. There was never any doubt which co-captains ran the very tight ship.

Their lyrics were alternately described as ironic, cynical, decadent, lustful, sarcastic, sardonic, perverted, bitter and satirical. And populated by characters with names like Charlie Freak, Dr. Wu, Hoops McCann, Mr. LaPage, Kid Charlemagne, Peg and Josie.

All of whom had adventures under the exacting and near-perfection musical accompaniment with changing tempos under a sometimes disarmingly placid surface. In the 1970s, no one sounded like Steely Dan. Especially in how the group would fuse jazz chords, melodics, and structure into traditional rock, even using the skills of some of that genre’s leading lights.

Any bio of Donald Fagen, of course, is also going to be a de facto bio on Steely Dan. And Jones does an insightful job of both amplifying the Dan stories which have appeared in previous books and interviews as well as uncover new tales.
Bandmate Walter Becker—amazingly, even more “mysterious” than Fagen, and having many of his own issues—especially with drugs and romantic relationships—is practically a supporting player as even the pair themselves have difficulty elaborating on their working partnership and who-does-what.

Jones charts Fagen’s early shyness onstage and hesitancy to take the burden on lead vocals (basically the reason David Palmer who sang lead on "Dirty Work" was hired for the 1972 debut and subsequent tour) and his hatred of life on the road. The latter led Steely Dan to get off the road permanently and break up “the band” which graced Can’t Buy a Thrill, Countdown to Ecstasy and Pretzel Logic.

No matter—this band was not a democracy. And Becker and Fagen’s relentless (some would say near-psychotic) quest for sonic perfection in the studio meant that Denny Dias, Jim Hodder, and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter were sometimes used sparingly on the final product that record buyers took home. After that, Becker and Fagen were more than happy to cycle through sessions players for the rest of their recorded output, including two latter “reunion” records. Lots of session players.
“Torturing guitarists (and drummers) were the duo’s default modus operandi,” Jones writes. And how. It was not uncommon for Becker and Fagen to have a guitarist come in and record a solo dozens of times, only to find out over the next weeks and months they’d brought in many others to do the same.

The final vinyl would invariably end up being a pastiche to the point that positively identifying players and sessions has become something of a Steely Dan Fan Parlor Game, spread out in the pages of the well-regarded fanzine Metal Leg and various websites. Though Elliot Randall’s famous solo for “Reelin’ in the Years” seems to be the complete second and final take—with the first one supposedly even better, but not recorded.

The wasn’t the only time that the Tale of the Tape haunted the band. Enter the legendary tune “The Second Arrangement.” Slated to be the first single released from 1980’s Gaucho, an engineer accidentally erased most of the master tape.
Floored, Becker and Fagen and their players attempted to re-record it over and over, but it never matched their opinion of the original, and they abandoned it altogether. The “lost” track has never been officially released and remains something of a White Whale for Dan enthusiasts and bootleg collectors who had to make do with a pastiche (though Jones mentions a version was played in a latter day concert).

And when human imperfections gnawed at them, there was “Wendel.” An early version of a computer sampler/synthesizer that cost $150,000 (about $612K today), it could take a single drum beat and repeat it all sorts of ways to absolute perfection in timing and volume to Becker and Fagen’s exacting desires. The contraption was so much a key part of Gaucho (which itself used 42 musicians and 11 engineers recording in six studios), that Wendel was awarded his own platinum record.

Perhaps Jones’ best service to Fagen fans is his detailing of the post-breakup years as Donald Fagen puts out a series of solo records, makes guest appearances with other artists, plays R&B shows, and generally tells anyone who will listen that a Steely Dan reunion will never, ever happen.
Well, Fagen has something in common with how Don Henley felt about his group the Eagles (the two band were frenemies and name checked each other in songs – i.e. “stab it with their steely knives” in “Hotel California”).

Because the duo reunited for a pair of new albums, many tours, and a live album, making Fagen something of a now-surprisingly enthusiastic road dog. He continues to tour under the Steely Dan moniker even after Becker’s 2017 death (and various lawsuits with Becker estate) and was in Houston recently where the Houston Press’ Tom Richards covered the show.

One thing Jones does mention is the duo’s shameful treatment of their loyal and long-serving engineer, Roger Nichols. He—along with producer Gary Katz—worked on most of Steely Dan’s records and likely had a more prominent-than-most-would-think hand in crafting the band’s sound (not to mention putting up with Becker and Fagen’s unceasing and exacting demands).

Promised a bumped-up royalty amount for several latter albums, Jones writes that Becker and Fagen reneged and found every possible way to avoid paying Nichols what his contract said he was owed. He was also fired without warning or reason after working with them for nearly three decades. When Nichols died of cancer in 2011, neither man attended the service or even sent flowers or condolences.

In The Nightfly, Peter Jones has done a great service to fans and admirers of Steely Dan and Donald Fagen. And it’s a thrill that they can buy.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero