Donald Fagen on Right-Wing Paranoia, Steely Dan's Future
Singer-keyboardist also talks sci-fi, mental health and growing up as "a real jazz snob"
Whether it's with Steely Dan or on his own, Donald Fagen has long been renowned for alluring melodies; crisp, sophisticated arrangements; and, of course, a dark, deadpan sense of humor. In other words, he's a natural for one of Rolling Stone's wide-ranging "Last Word" interviews. On June 6th, Fagen and longtime cohort Walter Becker launched their summer "The Dan Who Knew Too Much" tour, with opening act Steve Winwood, which runs through July 17th. Before hitting the road, Fagen took the time to chat about everything from his inspirations to the future of Steely Dan.
You're from Passaic, New Jersey. What is the most Jersey thing about you?
None of your fuggin' business, buddy. No, seriously, Jersey's great. Our family used to go to Rutt's Hut in Clifton on Sunday. They had these hot dogs called "rippers." They still do.
Your mother sang until she was 15 and took you to Broadway musicals. What lessons about music or performing did she impart on you?
It was more about the birds and bees. As a 10-year-old, it was a revelation to see Julie Newmar as "Stupefyin' Jones" in L'il Abner.
Where did you inherit your sense of humor?
My Uncle Dave was a real card. He used to do TV commercials for his restaurant in an oversized Stetson and pink woolly chaps.
You switched from rock to jazz when you were about 11. So who were your musical heroes growing up?
I was a real jazz snob. I shunned Blue Note records because Alfred Lion encouraged the players to load their tunes with funky blues clichés. My guys were Miles, Coltrane, Rollins, Mingus and Monk. I had great taste. Now I have shit taste like everybody else.
What music still moves you the most?
Bird, Rollins, Ellington, Stravinsky.
What's the last album you bought or downloaded, and why?
The Vintage Recordings of Cliff Edwards, because he's so awesome. Cliff Edwards, a.k.a. Ukulele Ike, was a terrific jazz singer. Though he was a big star in the Twenties and Thirties, he's probably more familiar as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Disney's Pinocchio from 1940. That's him singing "When You Wish Upon a Star." He also had this cool way of scatting that he called "eefing." He got rich early on, but spent all his money on cars, dope and chorus girls.
How did reading sci-fi books as a kid inform you and your world view? Was there one particular favorite book in that genre?
A lot of old-school sci-fi satirized the present by imagining the future. I loved Alfred Bester, Fredric Brown, Cyril Kornbluth, William Tenn, all funny guys. I address this subject in detail in my book Eminent Hipsters.
What books are you reading now?
Alien Souls by De Maupassant. It's pretty sexy. And The Violet Hour by Katie Roiphe. That's not so sexy.
Will you be playing classic albums straight through? If not, is that trend winding down in the concert world?
Search me. The main trends I've noticed are general downward trends in civility.
What is your favorite book of all time?
Nabokov's Lolita, or maybe Ada.
Can you elaborate on Lolita?
Not here. It's too complicated. About all I can say now is that I love the way Nabokov mixes lyricism with humor, offsets one with the other. He's the ultimate tragicomedian.
What was the most indulgent purchase you've ever made?
In the Nineties, I was prescribed a medication that had the side effect of producing mild mania with a touch of grandiosity. I bought a ton of useless equipment.
What's the best part of success?
Mild mania with a touch of grandiosity.
You've said "Mary Shut the Garden Door" from Morph the Cat was about what happens when "a thuggish cult gains control of the government." Did you predict Donald Trump?
Not specifically, but, as proved by a British study, all those right-wingers suffer from an enlargement of the amygdala in the lower brain. It makes them paranoid and aggressive. Hopefully, there will be a corrective surgery for this in the near-future (if we make it to a near-future).
What is your favorite thing to do in New York?
One place I like is the Fragonard Room at the Frick Museum, with those big paintings of rococo sweeties frolicking in gardens.
What do you wish someone had told you about the business you're in?
As a kid, I figured that maybe 20 percent of the population were lying, predatory snakes. It turns out it's upwards of 90 percent.
What was the first song you and Walter wrote together that made you think you'd be a good writing team?
I think it was a tune in that downtown decadent style (the first Velvet Underground album had just come out) called "Take It Out on Me."
How have you and Walter managed to be a team for so long (despite the break in the Eighties and very early Nineties)?
This question reminds me of an old Burns and Allen episode where Gracie threatens to leave George. He considers going back to what he was doing before he met Gracie and then realizes that "nobody buys hand-painted socks anymore."
How often do people still ask you what "Steely Dan" means?
Pretty often. That's what happens when the record company asked you to come up with a name by the end of the workday.
What are the most important rules you live by?
Never buy a hat through the mail.
It's been 13 years since the last Steely Dan studio album. Can we expect to hear another?
It's hard to say. Now that reality is indistinguishable from, say, a wacky Kurt Vonnegut novel, it'd be a challenge to overcome the paradigm shift. Maybe some sad chorales?
What's your biggest regret?
Je ne regrette rien.