IRONIC SCHLOCK

 

OKAY, okay, okay. Before you Dan fans rush to damn this man it should be stressed that this is Rolling Stone writer John Mendelsohn's view, not mine. I actually believe that Steely Dan are the greatest band on the planet, and maybe even on Mars, and were, indeed post modern masters of irony "before Bono", to quote the sleeve notes of their 1993 Citizen Steel" Dan box set.

They are also clearly the great, uncelebrated founding fathers of Irish rock, in the sense that songs such as Reeling In The Years surely influenced Thin Lizzy tracks like The Boys Are Back In Town. But then again, maybe they didn't. And maybe they aren't. Either way, what really matters is that irony rules, okay, when you speak about, or to, Steely Dan. Particularly Walter Becker.

"What can I say? I'm really proud to have had that influence on Irish rock," he gushes, as if accepting a back from the Olympics award of Waterford Glass.

But, now that you mention it, as far as The Boys Are Back In Town, I always liked that, and Thin Lizzy, whatever their influences. And I do see the points of similarity. As for post modern irony, yes, we are creatures of that particular tendency and it still holds a very cherished place in our hearts."

Forget your hearts, Walter. Mightn't it be nearer the mark to suggest that Steely Dan's base as irony mongers is situated mostly in Donald Fagen's larynx, if not psychology, and his apparent inability to sound sincere when he sings? And the fact that he, and you, basically started out as smart ass college kids with a decided leaning towards avant garde jazz and a snobbish, dismissive attitude when it came to linear, limiting and relatively simplistic pop apart from the "Stravinsky-esque angularities" of Burt Bacharach, as you once claimed.

"Caught again!" he responds. "But that's not entirely accurate. Both Donald and myself are inclined towards the ironic voice because of having lived with ironic parents. In fact our hope is, to get together a support group called `The Children Of Ironic Parents'. But, more seriously, as a defence against your ironic parent, you do tend to get good at it. And as for pop songs, there definitely was an attitude of superiority relating to some of the harmonic and, perhaps, lyrical simplicities of pop music. Part of that certainly was rooted in the fact that, after having listened to rock for years, Donald and I discovered jazz. Some of that never quite went away, when we got back into rock `n' roll the idea that it was kiddie music, basically."

Quite. But not quite yet, Walter. Before we get into our discussion of Steely Dan's idiosyncratic read on rock, man, let's look at one more aspect of this question of irony. What the hell were you talking about, last year, when you told Mojo magazine that irony originated with the English? Presumably you meant via Chaucer. But what about Plato's dialogues? And the relatively irrefutable fact that, a little more recently, in masterworks like Waiting For Godot, Beckett similarly turned irony into art? Beckett, as in Samuel, as in Ireland's own?

"Hey, I was talking to an English magazine then, so I gave the credit to them, but because you're Irish, I'll say sure, you guys should get the credit. I'm democratic!" Becker retorts, rather shamelessly conceding that, yes, the word "deceitful" could be substituted for the word "democratic" in this case.

"But Plato and Chaucer I wouldn't have thought of. And, as for Beckett, I don't particularly care for his plays - or anyone's plays, though I can't imagine that there is a bigger fan of some of his early prose, particularly Murphy and More Pricks Than Kicks."

Beckett's sense of nihilism, whether offset by irony or not, heavily influenced Beat generation writers from Kerouac through Ginsberg to William Burroughs. In fact, it was directly from the latter's novel Naked Lunch that Becker and Fagan took he name "Steely Dan" which apparently "denotes a steam powered dildo according to Rock On The Wild Side, by gay author Wayne Studer.

More Pricks Than Kicks, indeed. But what is Walter's response to Studer's suggestion that such appropriations from "queer" culture clearly prove that Rikki Don't Lose That Number is "the greatest gay love song ever written", as Tom Robinson, and countless gays claim to have realised, for years?

"Well, they may realise that, but Donald and I certainly didn't, when we wrote the song! Though can see how that interpretation could be supported, though we actually got the name from a lovely girl at the college we went to Walter Becker responds, equally happy to address the suggestion that Steely Dan are the metaphorical "children" of an obviously unholy alliance between bebop and Burroughs, or, rather, Beat culture, in a broader sense.

"I can see the bebop connection for sure but if it weren't for the fact that we swiped that name so unabashedly from Burroughs. I don't think people would make that link. But the Beats, in general, yes. And the Beat sensibility, definitely. That, rather than any particular writer, or writing style, in the Beat Movement."

If motion in this so called "movement was largely defined by jazz musicians, and amphetamines, then discovering their shared love of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, in particular, originally pulled Becker and Fagen together. Desmond had a wonderful ability to side step a cliche, in much the same way the "Steely Dan Chord" is now thus described, because it shifts the E in a C Major chord to the bass, retaining the chord's basic tonality but still pushing things to the edge, as is characteristic of their music. So was it this ability that was so appealing about Paul Desmond and his improvisatory skills?

"Absolutely that, the idea of improvising melodies over chord changes, and developing an exciting, fiery solo sound," he says. "In that sense Desmond was one of the most original voices to come out of the bebop era. So he definitely was an influence on Donald and me. And Donald always liked to explore those aspects of tonal organisation. Still does."

But let's go back to the question of drugs, which many jazz musicians claim deepen their exploration of music. Mojo reported that Walter himself made "full use of the recreational drug opportunities afforded by the Los Angeles lifestyle" though he later "cleaned himself up, drug wise" particularly after his long time girlfriend, Karen Stanley, died as a result of a drug overdose suicide.

"If you've ever known anyone that's clinically depressed like that, it's hard to appreciate what's going on, because you've never gone through that," he has since admitted. So is all this true and, if so, what is his position now in relation to drugs?

"It is, yeah. And, initially, the attraction to drugs was almost automatic, because of discovering people you admired were using them, as in those jazz heads," he says. "Yet the deeper you go into that, as I did, the more likely you are to find the ones that seem to solve your particular problems, real or imagined. Because a lot of the time, taking drugs is a question of self medication for underlying psychological problems. Yet that's something I didn't realise until later in life; that the use of drugs is often self evasion. But there was a long gap between the time of Karen's death and me acting upon the realisation that drugs were working against, rather than for, me.

Becker insists that "drugs are not an issue now" even though Steely Dan are back on the road. So why the tour? Is it fundamentally another Eagles Sex Pistols "filthy lucre" gig? And if he really wants people to splash out the cash, why on earth did Walter include on box sets quotes such as the one that opens this article and describes Steely Dan's music as "schlock"?

"I don't particularly need the money, though I agree with one of the Sex Pistols who said he'd just as soon have it, `as some other c-t'!" Becker responds, laughing. "And as for that quote, we think it's amusing, don't you? Yet if there are people who don't hear the passion in our music, what I suggest is that they buy all the CDs, then come to the gig and listen to the songs again while wearing one of the Steely Dan TShirts that they also can buy for a few bucks. That way, I promise, they'll get it. And so will we!"