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Behind the Curtain: Trying (and Failing) to Get Donald Fagen of Steely Dan to Smile

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As a young, exuberant and adventurous rock writer back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I would fly anywhere to pursue a story. On this particular day it was a trip to New York to interview Steely Dan singer-keyboardist Donald Fagen. It was the thrill of the chase and that whole idea of traveling to some distant vista — even if some of the locations weren’t so distant such as Las Vegas or San Francisco, which were only one-hour plane rides away — armed only with a cassette player and a typewritten page of questions in order to do battle [albeit verbally]with some rock and roll giant truly set my blood on fire.

The horrific reality of 9/11 was still nightmarish years in the future, which meant departing from LAX was a breeze. The airport was arranged in a circle, and all the terminals were laid out along the perimeter. Imagine a huge clock face where American Airlines would occupy the 1:00 o’clock space and Delta would reside at 2:00 o’clock, TWA at 3:00 o’clock and so on. My little guesthouse in the Hollywood Hills was about an hour’s ride away, so if I had a 10:00 a.m. departure time, I’d typically leave the house at 9:00 a.m.

I’d wind down out of Laurel Canyon, head south and travel down La Cienega Boulevard, eventually cut over to Sepulveda Boulevard and glide into the airport. There was never any traffic, or none to speak of. I would consistently show up 15 minutes before departure armed with some travel bag — I never checked baggage — and amble up to the departure desk. Rarely were there more than a few people in line. I’d check in and before I even had a chance to get a cup of coffee — Starbucks was yet to take over the caffeine-sucking world — the announcement came over the P.A. that my flight was now departing.

That whole experience of arranging and preparing for a road story was a feeling like no other in the world. It made me feel special and important inasmuch as someone was willing to pay for me to fly somewhere else in order that I might interview someone. I thought, “Fuck, I get to fly to New York and meet Donald Fagen and somebody else is paying for it.” How freaking great was that?

Typically the odyssey began in one of two ways:

  • I would contact a magazine and see if they wanted a story.
  • A magazine would contact me and say they wanted a story.

Once I had established the assignment, the process continued in one of several ways:

  • I would reach out to the record label publicist and tell them I had an assignment — in this case it was from Player magazine, a Japanese publication — and ask them if we could arrange an interview.
  • I would reach out to management, tell them about the assignment and ask them for an interview.

At that point, the publicist and/or management company would go about setting up the interview and I’d wait for the call. Every time I set up an interview, there was the potential for a road trip and that was a thrilling thought. Back in the day, I hardly ever did an interview over the phone. The relationship between the writer and artist back then was different than what it would become, where virtually every conversation from about the 1990s onwards was conducted via phone. Both the record label and management wanted the journalist sitting in the same room with their artist, breathing the same air and looking directly at each other. The managers and publicists knew there was a connection that happened — or hopefully happened — when two bodies occupied the same space. Phone interviews — phoners — were still non-starters.

Warner Bros. Records, Fagen’s label, was arranging the interview and they finally called back and said, “Donald Fagen won’t be in L.A. He will be in New York next week. Will that work?”

“Will that work,” I muttered to myself. “Yes, that would be fucking great!” [I didn’t use the f-word but I was thinking it]. Was there anything more incredible than getting on a plane, flying across the country, sitting in a room with a member of Steely Dan and having the whole operation paid for by someone else? At the time, I didn’t think so.

With preliminaries taken care of, I’d jump on the phone and book a flight and hotel through the label or some independent travel agency would sometimes handle those details. Even booking flights and hotels back in the day was a no-stress thing. There were live operators and no fucking mechanized, robotic call systems. You told them when you wanted to leave, where you wanted to leave from and when you wanted to return.

I was addicted to every step of the process:

  • Arranging the interview.
  • Booking the flight/hotel.
  • Listening to the music [typically the artist/band would have a new album out they wanted to hype].
  • Typewriting the interview [computers were still several dreams down the road].
  • Packing my bag [as I mentioned, I only brought a carry-on and never checked baggage, for fear it might go missing and don’t ask me why I thought that].
  • Driving to the airport.
  • Boarding the plane [this was before x-ray machines and having to take your shoes off and being forced to arrive two hours early for departure.
  • Arriving at my hotel [there was something thrilling about unlocking the door to my hotel room and walking in for the first time and seeing the bed freshly made and the soap in the wrappers and the towels perfectly folded].
  • Doing the interview.

I followed that routine a lot back in those heady days 30 and 40 years ago. Labels couldn’t do enough for you — open tabs at clubs, which sometimes included food; free records and concert tickets; cool t-shirts; insane parties; and flying you wherever you needed to go in order to get the story. On somebody else’s dime, I flew to Canada, Mexico, Japan and all over the U.S. I went on the road with Led Zeppelin, the Who, Van Halen, ZZ Top, Deep Purple, Loggins & Messina, Humble Pie, Black Sabbath, the Doobie Brothers and so many others I even forget some of them now [you may have read about some of the trips I did remember in other installments of Behind the Curtain].

I was fucking lucky and I am the first to admit it. Back in October 1982, which is when this Fagen interview happened, there was no Internet and no vapid, moronic bloggers and no online music sites. Print magazines were king and they meant something.

Writers meant something, and if you were doing a story for Guitar Player Magazine or Musician or Rolling Stone, you were badass. Today, writers are all but disposable. Now, any illiterate fool with a computer and a keyboard can clack out claptrap ad infinitum and truly believe he is saying something worthwhile. It’s sickening and demoralizing.

Anyway, where were we? Right, visiting New York. October there was supposed to be one of the best times to visit. Days were typically balmy to warm and nights were on the cool side. That’s what New York weather was supposed to have been like, but when I arrived, the Big Apple was cold, gloomy and dark. Drenching rain. When I finally met Donald Fagen, he too was cold, gloomy and dark, and honestly I wondered if the Steely Dan maestro had brought the bad weather himself.

Did I really believe Fagen was some kind of shadowy necromancer who could command the heavens to open and let forth with a devastating mini monsoon? Not really but the dude was dark.

In fact, Fagen had a tenebrous aura about him when we first met up about a decade earlier. This was sometime around the summer of 1973 when Countdown to Ecstasy, Steely Dan’s second album, had been released and Donald became the band’s permanent lead singer [replacing David Palmer]. Fagen, guitarist and co-founder Walter Becker and lead guitarist Jeff Baxter were in Los Angeles in advance of their first headlining shows and were doing interviews to get the word out. The meeting was set up at the offices of Gibson & Stromberg, the first rock and roll publicists. They had only opened their doors in 1971 and over the coming years I’d visit their offices many times to interview Dr. Hook, the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, Peter Kaukonen, John Cipollina and others.

Located at the corner of Fountain and Sunset Boulevard in the heart of the Sunset Strip, the building was situated right across the street from Tower Records. Tower was a famous landmark and attracted vinyl junkies from all over. Even the bands themselves would go shopping there when they were in town. The exterior was festooned with illustrations of the covers of albums that were currently being released. On more than one occasion, I can remember walking up the stairs of the Gibson & Stromberg building, looking across the street and seeing the album cover of the artist I was there to interview. That was a thrill that still sends a shiver down my spine to this day.

In following on my hypothesis that Donald Fagen was a master of the black arts and could rip the skies asunder, I’d like to tell you that on the day I first met Fagen all those years earlier that the weather was also as mean as a cornered wolverine. It wasn’t. On this Southern California afternoon in the middle of summer, the day was filled to bursting with sunshine, good vibrations and air so clean and sweet-tasting you wanted to lick it off a spoon.

I said hello to publicists Lydia Woltag and Patti Faralla, two women who did more to help me with my career than any two people I would ever meet.

Side note: I know I’ve mentioned Lydia’s name before on these pages. Without her help, I don’t know what I would have become. She was a mentor and she cared about me. She found my first rental for me in the Hollywood Hills and so much more. For some reason, I reached out to her about a year ago. I hadn’t spoken to her or seen her in over 40 years but I wanted to say hello. I think I found her on Facebook. I wrote to her several times and never heard back and just assumed she was busy or didn’t remember me or had moved or something. She finally wrote back and told me she had stage four cancer and I cried like a fucking baby for days. Life is so incredibly unfair sometimes.

So Lydia led me to the backroom where the interviews were held. Just a few minutes later, Fagen, Becker and Baxter entered. She made introductions and after shaking hands and saying hello to Walter and Jeff, Donald blurted out, “I don’t talk to anyone over 5’8”.” What the hell did that even mean? I noticed immediately that the keyboardist didn’t take off the dark sunglasses he was wearing. Anybody who wears sunglasses inside is either a junkie, somebody who is guilty of something or simply a dickhead. They hid his eyes, which didn’t matter because he never made eye contact me anyway. In fact, I’m not sure if he even knew I was in the room.

He held this pained expression that seemed to suggest there was a blister on his big toe. It was a look that simultaneously conveyed boredom, contempt and superiority. He never smiled even when cracking his own sarcastic jokes. The best way to illustrate what a mean-spirited curmudgeon he presented himself as is to provide you with brief excerpts from that interview.

Me: What common element brought you and Walter Becker together back in college?

Fagen: We were majoring in Sowing Wild Oats 101.

Me: In 1970, you both were part of Jay & the Americans, which seems like a rather odd coupling [they were a straight-up pop group].

Fagen: It paid the bills.

Me: At heart are you still just a rock and roller?

Fagen: We are quite dedicated to the ideals that rock and roll is dedicated to. For instance, ego defense –one of the major functions of the band is ego defense.

You get the picture. Not a very lovable fellow. I was scheduled to meet Fagen the next day at the Warner Bros. Records offices in the heart of Manhattan. It was a beautiful building, an architectural wet dream, composed of glass and sculpted angles. The rain was unrelenting as I entered the lobby doors. Announcing myself at the front desk, I took an elevator up to the publicity offices and was directed to one of the cubbyhole meeting rooms. I walked into the room and was surprised and a bit shaken to see Donald already sitting there. There would be no time to mentally prepare myself for the battle which would surely ensure.

I introduced myself and didn’t mention our previous meeting. Why bother? He would have only dismissed it as something distasteful.

As I turned the cassette player on, I was thinking — hoping — he had softened with time. In the intervening years since we first spoke, Fagen had experienced a lot of success with Steely Dan. They had released five subsequent albums — Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, Aja and Gauchowhich represented a stunning body of work.

Donald had emerged as a preeminent American songwriter and the Dan had taken on almost mythical status with its fans. By all rights, he should have been a very contented and proud musician sitting there, but you would never have known it. If anything, he was even more ill-tempered, fussy, and downright rude than he was the first time. The fucker still didn’t smile. He never let go.

I could have capitulated and thrown up my arms in surrender and admitted defeat. I could have walked away with a very bad interview or no interview at all and told Player that I had flown across the country and tried as hard as I could to extract something worthwhile and insightful from Donald Fagen but had failed. I could have done that, but I didn’t. I said at the outset of this narrative that I believed going on the road for a story was like going on a mission. A lot of people — management, publicists, editors — were putting their faith in me that I was going to return with the Holy Grail and damned if I wasn’t.

So I pushed through his rude comments and deflected his sarcastic retorts as if I were wearing a bulletproof vest capable of rendering harmless his uncivil barbs. In the end, the interview turned out amazingly well, though it certainly wasn’t the best one I’d ever done. Not by a long shot. Fagen opened up once or twice and provided insight into and gave definition to his creative process.

As the interview wound down and I was packing up my tape player and notes, I said, “C’mon, Donald. Smile. Just once.” I figured I had nothing to lose since the tapes were in my bag. I mean what could he do? Punch me? There was no smile so I asked him again. Same response. I threw my arm around his shoulders in a grand and jovial gesture and asked, “C’mon, dude. Just one smile!”

I watched his face for any sign of movement. He didn’t break into a wide grin but I thought I did detect the slightest of smirks, which for me was a major victory. I exited the Warner Bros. building and bundled myself up against the driving rain. I’d like to think that upstairs Donald Fagen was working on that smile and would flash it at the next journalist to enter his private space … but probably not.

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