Steely Dan: reelin' in the accolades

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In the rollicking 1973 Steely Dan song, "My Old School," Donald Fagen defiantly sang, "I'm never going back to my old school." But last Friday, he did.

Thirty-five years after spending a summer studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Fagen returned, this time bringing his longtime musical sparring partner-in-crime, Walter Becker, the other half of Steely Dan, with him.

Berklee had invited the two musicians - best known for the impossibly catchy hybrid of jazz and rock on songs like "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," "Reelin' In the Years," and "Do It Again" - to receive honorary doctorates at Berklee's commencement ceremony.

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"We were a bit surprised," admits Donald Fagen in a rare interview as he sits in Berklee's library, wearing his customary shades, dark suit, and a tie.

"We had a pretty good record going into this year of minding our own business, working hard as clean-living kind of guys, you know," says guitarist Becker, "and all of a sudden we're swept up into this season of things."

The Berklee mortarboard 'n' gown parade caps a flurry of public accolades for Steely Dan. In March they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A month previously, the duo's "Two Against Nature" album won four major Grammys, including Album of the Year.

Backstage at the Grammys, the duo was dragged "from one little booth of bored press people to the next," Becker says.

Did they lug around their hefty awards? "No, they give them to you, and then they take them away," Fagen says. When the awards were later delivered to them, they arrived in boxes lined with styrofoam cut into a mould of a Grammy. "You could make your own Grammys if you poured some molten lead or something in there ... chocolate, maybe," Fagen muses. Characteristically, he doesn't crack a smile, even when offering a bon mot.

"I mean, I had never been to a Grammys [ceremony] before," continues the affable Becker. "You sort of had to do certain things in order for people to even be aware that you were still in existence."

It's clear that the Berklee invitation, which would later include an evening concert of Steely Dan songs performed by Berklee students, means more to both gentlemen than the other awards. To the suggestion that the duo could use the concert as an opportunity to audition members for a touring band, Becker mischievously responds: "Well, that's absolutely right! Our primary purpose coming here, of course, is scouting.

"There are all sorts of great musicians out there who are trained and into playing this kind of music," Becker says. "In the '70s ... there were rock players and there were jazz players ... "and never the twain shall meet...," says pianist Fagen, completing the thought.

"There was a comparatively small pool of people who really could perform comfortably in this sort of mixed idiom," continues Becker.

The guitarist says the duo will spend the rest of the year writing songs, but they "don't really have a bold, revolutionary concept" for the next record's direction.

A new generation may have caught up with the band's complex chord changes, but few would claim to be any closer to understanding the band's ironic lyrics which, to borrow a Winston Churchillism, are "a mystery wrapped inside an enigma." (Sample lyric: "Even Cathy Berberian knows, there's one roulade she can't sing...." from "Your Gold Teeth.")

Still, that didn't deter a number of pop artists from recording Steely Dan songs for the soundtrack to the 2000 Jim Carrey movie "Me, Myself & Irene."

"I think some were better than others," says Becker, singling out Ben Folds Five's "Barrytown" and Ivy's "Only A Fool Would Say That" as two of the better tunes.

And what do Becker and Fagen think of today's manufactured bands, given that they started off their careers writing hits for others at ABC records?

"Well, it's tempting to think that this moment in history is not too dissimilar to, say, right around 1960 when you had a lot ... of frothy pop manufactured soul kind of stuff," Becker says. "I will say that a lot of the singers ... in these manufactured pop groups are pretty good singers.

Not that he listens to Britney at home; rather, he prefers "old jazz from the '50s and '60s." Fagen concurs, mentioning some old 1920s Duke Ellington discs. "And Donna Summer records!" he adds enthusiastically. It's hard to tell if he's joking.

Later, sitting in the audience as a huge Berklee band performs Steely Dan classics such as "Black Friday," "Deacon Blues," and "Aja," even Fagen can't stop grinning and clapping for two hours. "They sounded better than us!" says Fagen backstage. This time he's deadly earnest.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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