Shadow Dancing With Steely Dan
Part One: Bard and the Fagen-Becker Connection
Forest Hills, Queens, NY, October 28, 2018. 72nd Drive becomes Walter Becker Way.
The first time I interviewed Steely Dan was in late 1973 or early 1974, in a studio in Hollywood on Yucca Street. I remember Yucca because it it looked to be on dark side of Hollywood. I had heard of it because Raymond Chandler had Philip Marlowe living on Yucca Avenue "The Long Goodbye." With both poetic and a private detective license, Marlowe lived in a Yucca Avenue house in Laurel Canyon, where it wasn't really. (There are Chandler tours of Los Angeles where one can see the house.)
It was either my first or second trip to Los Angeles. I know I soaked up the street signs like a tourist, and I'm pretty sure I stayed at the Continental Hyatt House, where a group of pre-teens, braces on teeth, on a "Teen Tour" claimed to be on acid and called my room at 1 am to see if I wanted to party. I already had a teenager in my room: she was 19.
ABC-Dunhill Records had flown me out to interview the band and paid for my hotel. At this time, I was also working for CBS Records, and as de facto New York editor of Creem. I did not cover, write about, or assign for Creem any artists on CBS Records (now Sony Music) or its Associated labels. There was an academic tome published in 1977 called Rock 'n' Roll is Here to Pay by Steve Chapple and Reebee Garofalo, which I think mentions my relationship with Creem, and CBS, declares it a conflict of interest, unethical. I can't lay my hands on the book right now, I'm sure it's here in the Augean Stables somewhere. But the index is on the book's Amazon page, and there I am: Wayne Robbins. Not guilty on a technicality.
The head of PR was Corb Donahue, already a rock and roll biz legend, a surfer dude more gorgeous than Troy Donahue. Corb was most helpful when after spending more than an hour hanging out and watching Steely Dan practice, or rehearse, or jam, I noticed that the tape had unraveled inside my cassette player. In those days labels had their own studio engineers, and Corb took my cassette to an ABC Dunhill guy, who rewound the tape onto a virgin cassette. Much of the interview remained intact, though there were gaps. It was a bit like the unexplained 18 1/2 minute gap in a recording made by President Nixon's secretary Rosemary Woods, from a 1972 White House meeting shortly after the Watergate break-in. Tape gaps were the zeitgeist.
The story also appeared in England's New Musical Express, with which Creem had a story exchange program. The NME version of the story is in the Rock Back Pages library; the Creem feature might have been longer. An even more streamlined and redacted version also appears in the Steely Dan essay collection Major Dudes, edited by RBP's Barney Hoskyns; I rewrote some of the story when I realized some of my assumptions were false, and at least one possibly libelous, as it contained an exaggerated portrayal of my senior suite-mate in the fall 1968 semester at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. I attended Bard 1968-1969. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were there as well.
When I met with Steely Dan in Hollywood, I had already seen them perform. In early 1973, a friend took me to see the band open for Cheech & Chong at Westbury Music Fair. As soon as I walked down the aisle to our seats, I noticed that the bass player, Becker, and vocalist/piano player, Fagen, as classmates from that year, 1968-1969, at Bard. It was then a small school even as small artsy colleges go: a little more than 600 students on 600 scenic Hudson Valley acres off Route 9-G (nearest town Red Hook) on the Dutchess County side of the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, which my poet pal Charlie Clayton and my girlfriend and I imagined we ate late one night feeling hungry with no place open coming off some psychedelics; Rhinebeck, Saugerties, and Woodstock were on the other side.
I was not any better a student as a sophomore transfer to Bard than I was in high school, and during a freshman year lost in severe depression my freshman year (1967-1968) at C.W. Post College. Now LIU Post in Old Brookville, L.I., it was a mostly commuter school, at which freshmen were required to wear beanies and undergo hazing at orientation.
But Bard allowed a social flowering of sorts: everybody got stoned, everybody had long hair and jeans and hippie dresses and tresses. There was a time when everyone knew the six people who did not get high. I was so relieved to be around people, almost all underachieving misfits like myself, the crazy teenage poets in their own high schools. I broke out of my depressive shell a bit. I learned to say "hello!" or "howzit goin'" to everyone I saw, including Fagen and/or Becker. They had already bonded so deeply that each seemed slightly bummed by any other social interaction. Cordial but cool.
The Bard experience gave me a leg up when it came to understanding some of the now well-known (and many more obscure, but possibly debatable) lyric references in their early songs, especially on the first three albums, Can't Buy a Thrill (1972), Countdown to Ecstasy (1973) and Pretzel Logic (1974). To me, these albums are the trinity, the most unmatched first three albums by any artist of the rock era.
The hit "My Old School" is of course, about Bard, though the name of the train from Grand Central Station may not have been "the Wolverine" (but it sings well), and there was no train depot at Annandale: the stop for Bard was Rhinecliff station. Fagen did go back to his old school, by the way, to receive an honorary Doctor of the Arts degree in 1985; he graduated with a B.A. in 1969; his senior project was on Hermann Hesse. That spring was my end-of-sophomore year “moderation” review, which I failed. Against the English department’s advice, I chose Samuel Johnson’s trifling The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, which I had the temerity to compare to Hesse’s Siddharta, because in my mind they were both about seeking bodhisattva.
But there was a strong townie versus student aspect to relations between Bard and the blue collar community: It was 1968, 1969, years of hate and rage that Bard's isolated campus provided some respite from. Even (Down the Road at) Adolphs, the only bar to which students could walk to, had a truce-like arrangement and two entrances: one off the side road nearest Bard, where the students would congregate, and the barroom area at the other (front door) where the locals drank.
I was doing shots of tequila and smoking with the boys downstairs when I saw what could have been a bad affair: a clumsy classmate on some sort of trip, not loved by many for his compulsive mooching of cigarettes, wandered across the DMZ into the front barroom. I intuited something could get out of hand, and like I said, I was starting to re-learn some social skills after depression, trauma, and nature placed me possibly at the high end of (self-diagnosed) Asperber's spectrum during high school and some years to follow. The tequila helped. I waltzed into the cowboy part of the bar, put my arm around my classmate, and walked him back into the Bard side of Adolph's. I told the friends I was with that I sensed there could be trouble. One of them said, with a smile, "You're a master of perceiving the obvious."
At first I thought this might be an insult: Defensiveness was one of my default positions. Then I realized it was a compliment. In fact, it might even be a great compliment for a young reporter and writer, and I teach my journalism students at St. John's University to "perceive the obvious."
When I arrived at the studio on Yucca Street, Fagen and Becker did their usual two against nature act, with ellisions, evasions, double negatives and general avoidance of direct communication. But I reminded them that I had spent a year in their general presence, they acknowledged that they recognized me from Stone Row, the coffee shop, the library. That limited the snarkyness through interviews I did for every project since, for Creem, Newsday, and the Los Angeles Times, through 2000. But not entirely, because snark was so much part of what they were. But at least we all recognized most of the time that I was in on the joke, and not the butt of it.
Occasionally, my projections about Bard allusions went too far. In "Show Biz Kids," on Countdown to Ecstasy, Fagen sings a line, "I detect the El Supremo, in the room at the top of the stairs." In that first Creem story, I said the El Supremo was a mural-like drawing of a Pancho Villa kind of character in one of the dorms. This had been told to me; I did not see it, I just accepted it as Bard folklore, one of those myths that thrive at any small artsy college. Fagen and Becker explored this idea with U.K. journalist Michael Watts in an 8,000 word article for Melody Maker in 1976.
Watts: That line, "I detect El Supremo from the room at the top of the stairs," that does relate to Bard, doesn't it?
Becker: I can't see why you would think that it did.
Watts: I understood it from Wayne Robins (an American rock writer), who went to the same college.
Fagen: Because Wayne Robins went to the same school as we did, I think he imagines some heavy association with the college, and tends to associate a lot of our lyrics with experiences that would be common to his.
I accept their denial that "El Supremo" had anything to do with Bard because I didn't see it myself. But Fagen and Becker continued to cite the other Bard myths of our time, such as the one about the "pump" from final line of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues": "The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles." Because we were so close to Dylan's Woodstock, Dylan stories, fact, fiction, or somewhere in between, abounded. As Fagen and Becker continue telling Watts:
Becker: At the time we went to Bard College, the going thing was, everyone would say, "see that dormitory over there? That's where Bob Dylan wrote blah blah blah" or, "see that pump handle there? That's the one that the vandals took."
I never saw the pump, either. Nevertheless, there are references, in other songs, some of which are Bard related, some which are not, that I absorbed through the years, by immersion in Steely Dan's words and music. The way many of my cohort find oracular pronouncements in Dylan's words, I sometimes felt that I was living a shadow life described in Steely Dan songs. A counterlife, at least through the first three albums, like a UFO true believer complete with tin-foil hat, convinced that they were choreographing, or reporting on, my life.
But I just wanted to share a few things. One is the song "Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)," a track from that first album, Can't Buy a Thrill. That title, in case you've forgotten, is from the opening lines of Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry": "Well, I ride on a mail train, baby/Can't buy a thrill."
"Brooklyn" may be the most gorgeous, melodic, the most musically perfect, pop song they ever wrote. David Palmer, the official lead singer for the first album, and in those brief early years when Steely Dan still toured, delivers the lyrics, which are utterly unfathomable, much less open to interpetation than later references to how "even Cathy Berberian knows there's one roulade she can't sing," from "Your Gold Teeth."
All of the songs (which included "Reelin' in the Years") on Can't Buy a Thrill could have been hits: "Midnight Cruiser," "Fire in the Hole," "Only a Fool Would Say That." It's one of those debut albums that might have been AKA "Steely Dan's Greatest Hits," volume one. When Steely Dan is called "subversive," it means they subvert the ear's expectation of confectionery, accessible pop, with lyrics that will not bend, kneel, nor adapt to what might be expected. Consider that they were first hired to write hits for others artists at ABC-Dunhill: The Grass Roots (which would have given "Midnight Cruiser" a good ride), Three Dog Night, Steppenwolf maybe. On John Kay of Steppenwolf's 1973 ABC-Dunhill solo album My Sportin' Life is one of those inscrutable Fagen-Becker songs, "Giles of the River."
"At one time we nurtured hopes it would become fashionable for others to record our songs," Becker told me in a one-on-one conversation in a Manhattan hotel dining room in 1976, coming back separately from Fagen after promoting The Royal Scam album in Europe. That is almost certainly that same promotional visit in which they gave that long interview to Michael Watts at Melody Maker. "Whatever we did, though, there was a touch of strangeness, even on our poppiest songs."
"Brooklyn" is certainly that. It came on while I was in the car the other day, and just the instrumental introduction had me turning up the dial, and saying to myself: This is the song, man! It had to have been one of the biggest hits of the 1970s! Only in my head. Woulda shoulda coulda.
I can only imagine the look on the face of Jay Lasker, then ABC-Dunhill president, when he heard this for the first time. The anticipation, the excitement, a million dollar instrumental hook, right from the get-go. And then he swallows his cigar, Fagen and Becker across the desk, as Palmer starts to sing on the tape:
A race of angels
Bound with one another
A dish of dollars
Laid out for all to see
A tower room at Eden Roc
His golf at noon for free
Brooklyn owes the charmer
You could make up a story: Maybe a gangster from Brooklyn, wondering if he's being dissed, booked at the Eden Roc, the No. 2 luxury hotel in Miami Beach in the 1950s and 1960s, rather than the Fountainebleu, almost next door. He's got the perks, but he's still anxious . . . Is he the hitman, or the target?
Not even the lunatic fringe of PhD Steely Dan obsessives can parse this song: If you try, you're wrong. Radio, rocking with "Reelin' in the Years," could not possibly get this song. As Becker told me, "we were invited to leave many an office." This must have been one of those times.
Flash forward to October 28, 2018, little more than a year after Walter Becker's death. The street at which Becker had grown up, 112th Street and 72nd Drive, in Forest Hills, Queens, was being renamed Walter Becker Way. His friend from the same block, the virtuoso intellect Howard A. Rodman, author of the wonderful novel The Great Eastern, said a few salient words about how Becker and Fagen eventually triumphed, because of their "celebration of the marginal." As Rodman put it, Steely Dan made their place in history, "Not in spite of, but because of, its celebration of the marginal." The Steely Dan ethos, in a few short words.
Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.