Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Wiseacre Duos: Steely Dan, Part VI


From the ashes of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker took two wildly divergent paths through the 1980s. After their fairly amicable split in 1981, Fagen would exploit one last bit of inspiration before a long period wracked by writer's block, and Becker would repair in a completely new locale.

Before the actual split, Fagen was asked to contribute a song to an upcoming big screen treatment of Heavy Metal magazine. The film was to be an animated anthology of loosely linked stories revolving around a mysterious green orb. Much like the mag, 1981's HEAVY METAL was laden with sword and sorcery, sci-fi, gore, deadpan humor, and women with breasts as large as basketballs. Its primary audience was pre-pubescent males who lapped up the aforementioned with a voracious appetite (I was 12 when the film was released but of course that is utterly irrelevant).

The soundtrack to HEAVY METAL was a mixed bag of tunes that...weren't really heavy metal at all. Included in the lineup were rather mellow tunes by Stevie Nicks and Journey, as well as an enjoyable collection of schlock rock by the likes of Nazareth, Sammy Hagar, Blue Oyster Cult, Cheap Trick, and former Eagles guitarist Don Felder. And Donald Fagen. His contribution, "True Companion", is a contemplative mostly-instrumental with highly effective keyboard and percusion and a great guitar solo by Steve Khan, who, like the other players, had worked with Fagen before. HEAVY METAL would be Fagen's first (not counting a forgettable early 70s picture called YOU GOTTA WALK IT LIKE YOU TALK IT OR YOU'LL LOSE THAT BEAT that Fagen worked on with Becker right before forming SD) venture into film soundtracks but not his last. Not long after, he wrote "The Finer Things" for Martin Scorsese's THE KING OF COMEDY. Late in the decade, he contributed to other movies as we'll discuss later.

Before he lost musical focus, Fagen conceived and recorded what many (including yours truly) consider to be his finest accomplishment, The Nightfly. This is a very special album for which I plan to post a separate entry and describe in great detail. I discovered it a few years after its original release and it has been a lock in my personal musical Hall of Fame ever since. What distinguishes it more than anything is the tone. Gone was the corrosive satire of Steely Dan. Instead we are served a dollop of nostalgia from a thirtyish man recollecting the Eisenhower and JFK years. Golden years, years of wonder and anticipation for a future that would surely bring railways under the ocean and "spandex jackets for everyone."

Even though the album was gentler in theme than the previous Fagen offerings, his work ethic did not change. The bar was continued to be raised to levels that seemed quite impossible for even the most gifted musicians. Michael Omartian by this time had played piano for Fagen and Becker for many years. His experiences on The Nightfly proved to be his most challenging yet.

While attempting a solo on "Ruby Baby", Omartian was told by Fagen that he wanted isolation between the right and left hand parts. It was not to Fagen's liking that the placement of the chords in the right hand were coming down simultaneously with that of the left. He was looking for a left-handed playing style that was more casual than that of the right. This meant that Omartian was to play his left hand as if he was playing his right as well, an incredibly difficult task. Anyone who's ever played piano can tell you that the right hand plays off the left and vice versa.

"I tell you there's no piano player on the face of the earth who can accomodate that," Omartian protested. Fagen eventually recruited Greg Phillinganes to sit with Omartian, each musician playing a different part to achieve the effect Fagen was looking for. The quest for "beyond perfection" had not yet dimmed.

The Nightfly was quickly embraced by fans and critics, and even did pretty well on the Billboard charts, too. Longtime producer Gary Katz was back, but Walter Becker was entirely absent on this record. He was enduring the last days of a debilitating addiction to drugs. After he came close to bottoming out, he made a clean break and decided to start from scratch as far away from NYC as possible: Hawaii.

It was a radical move, but it proved to be a fruitful one. He cut his waist length hair, freed himself of the monkey on his back, took up yoga, and became an avacado rancher! From late 1982 on, Walter Becker retired from the windowless, smoke filled recording studios of yesterday and found solace in his new bright paradise, a place which allowed him to appreciate different, healthier things. While he recuperated, he got married and had a son.

The itch to manipulate mixing board sliders and lay down righteous basslines soon returned, however. While he was not hot to write again, he found it an interesting notion to produce for other artists. The opportunity arose when Warner Brothers sought a producer for the Liverpool act China Crisis. Best known for their minor MTV hit "Wishful Thinking", China Crisis embodied a New Wave-ish timbre that had generous portions of punk and even soul elements. Becker also produced several artists for the New Agey Windham Hill label and even a Rickie Lee Jones album later on. In addition to his duties as producer, which included "ordering Chinese takeout and inventing obstacles to be overcome", Becker lent his highly proficient guitar licks to his projects. Clean and re-focused, Becker had moved to a far more positive place in his life.

Meanwhile, Donald Fagen, back in his preferred domain of New York, was slipping into an abyss of inactivity. His efforts to follow up The Nightfly failed after several attempts. He was out of ideas, of inspiration. His dry spell may be attributed to the inevitable crash after so many years of ceaseless production. Perhaps not having his partner around to confirm/refute his ideas caused his impasse. What haunted Fagen in those dark days was a realization that his pursuit of technical perfection on his albums was born of a dramatic need for control. This need was a response to the mess of Real Life, where one can't quite engineer every last detail.

The money, however, flowed like never before. As the 1970s Steely Dan records became available on compact disc, sales shot through the stratosphere, assuring financial security for the rest of Fagen's and Becker's days. Fans repeatedly replaced the worn down grooves of their old vinyl with the shiny new medium, in droves. Becker remarked that his royalties from back catalogue sales were so significant that it made his latter day job compensations seem like hobbies by comparison.

The two brains behind Steely Dan, by the mid-1980s, had not worked together for over 5 years. Their producer, Gary Katz, however remained busy working on albums for Diana Ross and a host of now-forgotten (but worthy) acts like Eye to Eye. In 1986, he began producing a record for an ex-model named Rosie Vela, who was trying her hand at a music career. Fagen was enlisted to provide some keyboard to certain songs. One day during recording a certain someone came by to say hello.......

to be continued.....

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