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God's Gift of Music: Steely Dan's Donald Fagen- What is a Steely Dan?

Updated: Oct 10, 2022

Video from The Dan Vault

"In this episode of Paul Shaffer Plus One, Paul Shaffer is joined by Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. Paul and Donald discuss songwriting, Donald's relationship with Steely Dan's Co-Founder Walter Becker, and Paul gets a music lesson. Filmed October 13, 2019 Courtesy of AXS TV P.S. Our apologies for the subpar video quality. YouTube has heavy file compression." from video introduction.

"Once upon a time, there were two boomers, Donald and Walter, who both grew up in slightly different parts of the Greater New York Metropolitan Area. That being said, the neighborhoods they were from should not be confused with the Manhattan of Broadway shows, Wall Street, Greenwich Village and Harlem. The streets of their youth, though just a few miles from these wonders, were for the most part, placid and suburban.

Nevertheless, like many folks back then, they were afflicted with a needling agitation just below the surface of everyday reality. This was, at least in part, because of the Cold War and the constant, looming threat of a global, nuclear holocaust.

Unlike many schoolboys of their place and time - the late 1950s and early 1960s - Donald and Walter liked to read literary novels and listen to jazz records. Sports, not so much. On the other hand, like many American boys of their time, they had a healthy enthusiasm for baseball, baseball players and Topps bubble gum, the gum that came with baseball cards in each package: Flip ‘em, scale ‘em. trade ‘em, collect ‘em.

Music, though, was the thing. Before they were out of high school, Donald had taught himself jazz piano and Walter had become adept at both bass and guitar.." from the website: Steely Dan

How many of you have grown up with listening to the jazz influenced music of Steely Dan? They were a band loved my most "boomers" like me. There is no doubt that both Fagen and Becker were musical geniuses. God's common grace gives us all gifts even if we fail to acknowledge the source. So listen and enjoy and be edified! - Andy

"..They obsess over studio production, putting together a revolving cast of high-end session musicians and pushing them through take after take. They carefully edit songs together from hours and hours of tape. And somehow, they end up creating some of the funkiest music of the 70s—the smoothest of smooth jazz, the yacht-iest of yacht rock… then, a generation later, they become perhaps the most sampled band of all time, their grooves a sine qua non of hip hop’s evolution…." from the article: Deconstructing Steely Dan: The Band That was More Than a Band

What Was Jewish About Steely Dan?

For years, there has been speculation about whether or not Walter Becker was Jewish.

Some have said “yes.” Most likely not; at least, that is what Mark Oppenheimer wrote last year in Tablet.

"What about Donald Fagen?

Totally Jewish. In fact, his parents helped found a synagogue in New Jersey.

More than this. Are you ready?

Fagen has been known to use aliases — among them, Illinois Elohainu.

Get it?

Only a former Hebrew school cutup could invent something like that.

So, beyond the mysterious Illinois Elohainu, was there anything “Jewish” about Steely Dan’s music?

If there is, it would need to be in a different category of Jewish from Bob Dylan, or Matisyahu, or the late Leonard Cohen, or Peter Himmelman, or Simon and Garfunkel. In many of their songs, you can find Jewish elements — sometimes right out there, but often, much more subtle.

So, what was “Jewish” about Steely Dan’s music?

It is Jewish as metaphor. It is the kind of marginality that we encounter in their lyrics — of people who are totally on the outskirts, looking in.." from the article: A Kaddish for Walter Becker

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker
Steely Dan Founding Members

"What Is a Steely Dan?

Although Steely Dan's music was rooted in jazz and blues, the band's name came from a literary source--Edgar Burroughs' novel "Naked Lunch," which made mention of a "steely dan," a steam-powered adult toy. This playful reference fit perfectly within the framework of Steely Dan's angular arrangements and Fagen's often bitingly cynical and sarcastic lyrics..." from the article: The Origin of the Name Steely Dan

"Steely Dan was a band formed around a songwriting collaboration, that of Becker & Fagen – Walter Becker & Donald Fagen. It started as a regular band with permanent members, but morphed quickly into a shifting ensemble of amazing musicians which revolved around the nucleus: Becker & Fagen.

It was always about their brilliance, their friendship, and their singular mission of merging soul and rock with jazz in compelling, sardonic and remarkable songs.

Now Steely Dan goes on, though Walter Becker is gone. Since Fagen was the singer, for him to carry on without Walter next to him as Steely Dan makes sense; he is keeping this beloved music alive and as powerful in real-time shows as ever. And the idea that Walter is gone completely isn’t really true, as his soulful spirit lives in every song and immaculately tight and funky arrangement..." from the article: The Secret Soul of Steely Dan: Walter Becker

Walter Becker (Feb 20, 1950 - Sep 03, 2017 (age 67)

"Walter Becker, the co-founder and guitarist of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band Steely Dan, has died at the age of 67.

Becker’s official website announced his death, no details were given.

Becker met his longtime musical collaborator Donald Fagen when both were attending Bard College. Becker and Fagen formed a band in college that included Chevy Chase on drums. Becker and Fagen then became songwriters in New York City. The duo became known for their cerebral wry lyrics and sharp cultural observations..." from the obituary.

"In his excellent Uncut review of the Morrissey Autobiography, Michael alludes to the get-out clause afforded rock memoirists post-Chronicles: why bother obfuscating certain awkward details when you can, by being capricious with time and chronology, just skip the difficult stuff?

Since my reading of Morrissey’s book has thus far been limited to randomly plucked references to Diana Dors, Dirk Bogarde, Peter Wyngarde etc, I can’t speak with total authority here, but it seems like Morrissey more or less sticks to what we might call the logical plot.

Donald Fagen, in his memoir Eminent Hipsters, does not. He begins with a series of short essays, some of which appeared in Premiere in the 1980s, which map out the cultural landscape of Fagen’s childhood. The chapter titles are often great – “Henry Mancini’s Anomie Deluxe”, “The Cortico-Thalamic Pause: Growing Up Sci-Fi” – and Fagen, as you might expect, is an elegant and erudite writer, particularly when he’s trying his hand as a jazz critic.

What gradually starts to emerge, as he tenderly reflects on the musical and literary enthusiasms of his Cold War childhood, will be familiar to fans of, in particular, The Nightfly. The adolescent Fagen hides a radio under his bedcovers and spends most of the early hours listening to a jazz DJ called Mort Fega (who Fagen finally meets, touchingly, at a show as late as 2005). He reads Alfred Bester and speculates that “maybe, out there somewhere, across Route 27, just around the next curve of space-time, the second half of the 20th Century might be just as exciting.”

He talks about becoming adolescent at a time when corporate and legislative America were hymning a future of boundless possibilities, while simultaneously scaring the shit out of at least one generation with their rhetoric of “The Red Peril” and their exhortations to “Duck and cover!” Talking about Wes Anderson’s movies later in the book, Fagen laments, “Although it was no picnic, it’s too bad everyone’s coming of age can’t take place in the early ‘60s.”.. from the article: Donald Fagen’s ‘Eminent Hipsters’

Video from Craft Recordings

"THE DUKES OF SEPTEMBER a super group comprised of pop/rock/R&B icons Donald Fagen (Steely Dan), Michael McDonald (Doobie Brothers) and Boz Scaggs release Live on DVD and Blu Ray to coincide with its PBS debut airing on Great Performances. Filmed in November of 2012, It features the Dukes of Septembers dynamic rock and soul revue with not only showcasing their well-known hits such as Reelin in the Years, Lido Shuffle and Takin it to the Streets , but also forays into rock and R&B gems such as Sweet Soul Music and Love T.K.O. Says the Hollywood Reporter: If this be minstrelsy, it s a pretty classy and irresistible version of it. Listing of Musical Performances: People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul Whos That Lady? Sweet Soul Music I Keep Forgettin Kid Charlegmagne The Same Thing Miss Sun You Can Never Tell What A Fool Believes Hey Nineteen Love T.K.O. Peg Lowdown Takin It To The Streets Reelin In The Years Lido Shuffle Pretzel Logic Them Changes" from the video introduction.

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