Donald Fagen said Steely Dan might have become more like the Grateful Dead if their own chosen approach to music didn’t work out.
He and late collaborator Walter Becker struggled to find a footing in their early days, and in a new interview with Rolling Stone he recalled that they had originally drawn inspiration from Frank Zappa after being able to watch him rehearse and perform in New York’s Village district. “We loved what he was doing onstage and the humor, like a combination of Lenny Bruce and the hippie, counterculture humor,” Fagen said.
“And then the Dead, we both enjoyed them for various reasons, also the counterculture thing. But … we were sort of on the cusp between counterculture and whatever came after. We never took it seriously. There was something good about it, but on the other hand we could see how it had to fail.”
He continued: “But we did like the Dead; we particularly liked some of their tunes and the way they played together.” He acknowledged that some of the Dead shows they attended were a “mess … but generally speaking they had a really nice groove, and the way the they interacted with each other musically was very attractive to us. At one point, I think if we didn’t go the way we went, we might have tried to do something more improvisational like the Dead.” He noted that they’d also been influenced by the Velvet Underground, “perhaps to a lesser degree” and that all their artists of interest led back to Bob Dylan, “because there wouldn’t be any of those things without Bob.”
One element that would probably have persisted in any direction Steely Dan took was the humor, said Fagen, who accepted that songwriting with Becker was about “trying to make each other laugh” to a great extent. “Yeah, pretty much, right until the last song we ever wrote. It was one of my favorite things – to get together with him and try to crack him up. And vice versa.”
That humor was also present in their music. “Right from the beginning, because of our jazz backgrounds, we thought it hilarious playing these 13th chords on a loud, distorted electric guitar,” he said. “There was just some kind of irony involved in the whole project, and it went along with the lyrics we were writing.”
Asked to select the songs he finds most amusing, he replied, “‘Gaucho’ is pretty funny. To me, they’re all funny. Some of the older-guy-younger-gal songs, like ‘Hey Nineteen’ and ‘Janie Runaway,’ those always make us laugh.”
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