This week I read Donald Fagen’s Eminent Hipsters, which Mel gave me as a present last weekend. I’d have liked to pace myself while reading it, but instead I tore through it in a couple of evening and morning train journeys to work. It’s not a straight memoir, but rather an ‘art-o-biography’ (Fagen’s term): a series of short essays on figures (musicians, authors and DJs) who influenced him when he was growing up, then a diary of his 2010 tour with the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue (him, Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald), where he reveals himself to be the grouchy old geezer I suspect he’s been since at least the mid-seventies. After all, Steely Dan stopped touring halfway through that decade in order to dedicate themselves fully to writing and recording. Donald Fagen was not built to be a road warrior.
As so often happens when I read a book about a musician, I dive into the records. I haven’t had a Steely Dan phase in a while, so it’s been a huge pleasure to listen to those albums again. The revelation for me has been The Royal Scam: with its opening run of Kid Charlemagne, The Caves of Altamira and Don’t Take Me Alive, as well as Sign in Stranger and Green Earrings, it’s probably higher up my personal list of Dan LPs than I’d realised. I’ve never been able to decide whether I like Aja or Gaucho the most (it depends which one’s playing at the time you ask me), but if you’re a fan of the Dan’s most cooking rhythm section, Chuck Rainey on bass and the peerless and utterly bonkers Bernard Purdie on drums, The Royal Scam is the Dan record for you. They appear on almost every track and are in the sort of form that can sometimes make lesser guys like me feel like giving up.
These two also appear on what may be my very favourite Steely Dan track of all – Home at Last from the 1977 album Aja, which is the first record of theirs I bought and is probably the group’s most widely loved album. It’s run close by Pretzel Logic, which tends to be the choice of fans of the band’s earlier incarnation, although I see it more as the start of their second phase. The original 5-piece line-up didn’t function as a recording unit on Pretzel Logic, with Jim Hodder – an excellent drummer but not excellent enough for Fagen and Walter Becker – credited only with backing vocals. All of which is to say, I guess, that people can hear the same music quite differently, and that there are folks – even Dan fans – who find Aja too clean, considered and fussy.
(I’m kind of puzzled by this. As someone who came to Steely Dan long after their first career, after their first reunion record even, I’d fully absorbed all the handed-down tales of the group’s perfectionism long before I heard a note of their music – the idea that anyone would pine for Steely Dan’s Garage Days seems patently ridiculous to me. Rick Marotta: “They were the most demanding of anybody I’ve ever worked with. Donald was like the Prince of Doom. I’d walk in the control room and it would sound unbelievably great, and he’d just sit there, looking at the floor, saying, ‘Yeah, I guess it’s OK’.”)
So Home at Last, then. This is a song I wanted to hear before I bought the album, thanks to Ian MacDonald in his ‘Decadent Diversions’ essay recounting the story of Fagen spending four whole days punching in the words ‘Well, the’, from the chorus (as in, ‘Well, the danger on the rocks is surely past’). I wish it were true, but it sounds apocryphal to me. There were harmonies to record, too, so I can just about imagine someone spending a day, or maybe two, on that job, which would still be an absolutely ludicrous amount of time. But four whole days? Sorry. I know the seventies were a different time, but I’m not buying that.
I don’t know what I’d imagined the song would sound like, but it became clear pretty quickly that it’s an odd confection. A Chicago blues shuffle, with a hint of reggae in the horns and bass, jazz voicings in the piano (played by Victor Feldman) and lyrics that borrowed their central metaphor from the Sirens episode in The Odyssey. The track is most famous among musicians for its employment of a Purdie Shuffle, Bernard’s idiosyncratic take on the standard half-time shuffle, featuring a complex, ever-shifting array of ghost notes on hi-hat and snare (8ths, 16ths, dotteds, triplets – crazy shit).
It’s an undeniable groove, a gorgeous song with fantastic performances, an amazing arrangement, and solos on synth and guitar from Fagen and Becker, respectively: the duo seldom played the solos on their own records, handing over duties to session players of the calibre of Paul Griffin, Larry Carlton, Jay Graydon and Elliott Randall, so it’s kinda sweet that my favourite Dan track has actual Fagen and Becker solos on it, something I didn’t realise until recently. Perhaps I thought the guitar was Denny Dias – it sounds quite like him tonally. The whole track, solos and all, swings outrageously. Everyone should hear Aja (or another Dan album if you prefer) at least once. You might love it, you might be left cold, but Home at Last in particular may surprise you.
Steely Dan: Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Can we get Jeff Goldblum to play Fagen in a biopic now please? © Chris Walter