The origins of Steely Dan
On Halloween 1967, a party is raging inside Ward Manor, an Elizabethan-style mansion-turned-dorm at Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. On a small stage set up in the corner of the common room, a band called the Leather Canary tears through the Rolling Stones’ ”Dandelion,” Moby Grape’s ”Hey Grandma,” and Willie Dixon’s ”Spoonful,” along with a few recently penned originals. It’s a typical late-’60s student shindig — most of the audience is tripping on acid — but it’s hardly an ordinary band. Behind the drums is Chevy Chase, familiar around campus as a gifted musician and good-natured goofball who’s been known to drop his pants after losing late-night games of ”dare” poker. Just in front of him is a long-haired muso named Walter Becker, one of the school’s most accomplished guitarists. And the shy singer behind the electric piano? That’s Don Fagen, decked out in a leather jacket with feathers attached to it (hence the band’s name). Just a few years later, Chase will find fame as one of the greatest comedians of his generation. Fagen and Becker, meanwhile, will evolve into Steely Dan, score huge hits with songs like ”Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and ”Reelin’ in the Years,” and create several of the most beloved and enduring albums of the 1970s. And in 1973, on their second LP, they will record ”My Old School,” an angry kiss-off that, for reasons that have never been entirely clear, takes a very public swipe at Bard. ”California tumbles into the sea/That’ll be the day I go back to Annandale,” Fagen famously sings. ”I’m never going back to my old school.” You can practically hear him sneer.
Almost four decades after that Halloween gig, Donald Fagen is back at Ward Manor, gazing around the very same common room. In many ways, this quiet lounge — its ornate wood-paneled walls and elaborately plastered ceiling unchanged after all these years — is where Steely Dan sputtered to life. Fagen and Becker both lived here, and they wrote their first, now-forgotten songs together on an old piano that disappeared from the corner years ago. But despite this room’s heavy history, Fagen, exploring the dorm’s dark halls for the first time since college, seems a bit underwhelmed. ”Looks pretty much the way I remembered it,” he says with a shrug.
If Fagen is reluctant to reminisce about beginnings, perhaps it’s because these days he’s more interested in how things end. His new album, Morph the Cat, is a typically wry and unflinching look at death. ”I was just 58 the other day,” he says, sitting down at a table only a few feet from where the Leather Canary performed. ”You start to realize that you don’t have that much time left. And also my mother died in 2003, which was a big shock to me. So it’s something I’ve been thinking of.”
Morph is the third in a semiautobiographical trilogy, following 1982’s The Nightfly, a look at his youth in New Jersey, and 1993’s Kamakiriad, a surreal take on his middle years. On this latest installment, Fagen taps into the undercurrent of fear that’s defined life in New York City after 9/11, weaving dirty bombs and burning buildings, airport security and authoritarian governments into deceptively upbeat-sounding tunes about a variety of tragic situations. Though most of the new CD’s songs aren’t overtly personal, some are based on fact, including the disc’s most direct take on mortality, ”Brite Nitegown.” ”I was mugged on the Upper East Side,” says Fagen. ”I was almost sure I was going to buy it there. Two huge dudes sat me down and said, ‘Give us all your money, we’ve got a gun.’ They took the cash and booked. I sat there for a few minutes. Then I started to shake.”