Steely Dan talks about Bugsy, writing and Vegas' porn ads


Donald Fagen: “Is there a statue in Las Vegas of Bugsy Siegel?”

Walter Becker (in movie tough-guy voice): “Dere’s not a statue?”

Review-Journal: “They removed all references to him.”

Becker: “Not a statue? (making an “ack” sound in his throat) Or a plaque? Somebody put a bullet in his eye!”

Fagen: “Not even a statue of his feet?”

Becker (still as a wiseguy): “I said to myself, this is the business we chose!”

(Then, in his own, much calmer voice): I’d like to clarify for anyone … the people who normally would be buying the newspaper, except for the fact that they’re in Las Vegas and maybe taking a break from the news. (But) for any that do, I’d like to point out that Mr. Becker was doing his very best imitation, one of his best impersonations of a famous film actor.”

■ ■ ■

Most reporters hate teleconferences. But most teleconferences don’t come with a Lee Strasberg/“Godfather II” riff as they do with Steely Dan.

The teleconference is entertainment-journalism expediency, in which interview requests for a touring attraction are dial-star-one’d together for a single, shared opportunity to speak to said act, instead of giving each media outlet 10 or 15 minutes of precious exclusivity.

But this one ended up like one of your better Dan tunes.

Becker and singer-keyboardist Fagen turn the session into the same kind of downtown Theater of the Absurd — Harold Pinter as jazz hep-cat — that makes their songs great.

“We try to take it to a lot of different places, because otherwise it’s just this music business kind of stuff,” guitarist Becker said at one point.

Those who have previously interviewed together know that you step into the batter’s box and take your swings — but good luck with that curveball. If you do get a straight answer, it’s going to be tucked in later, almost as an afterthought. Sometimes, though, it works in reverse.

■ ■ ■

Friday’s stop at the Palms promises to be much like the last one there in October 2011, a hits package slickly delivered by a siz able road band of jazz men with killer chops.

Review-Journal: “When you take all these great players out, does any songwriting come out of the sound checks or all these gigs?”

Fagen: “You’d think it would, wouldn’t you? … I have a really hard time writing on the road. Usually writing is done, whether it’s with Walter or not, it’s when I’m at home and have very little to do. You need to like, be in stasis I think to do that.”

Becker: “Yeah, that’s right. There’s too much stimulus in any strange environment.”

Fagen: “Or else you’re just sleeping.”

Becker: “That’s the best part really, sleeping. Of life, I mean.”

Fagen: “I think actually the time you could be writing songs you’re probably sleeping.”

Becker: “Probably true. I think that’s probably why the only song I’ve ever written on the road is that one called ‘Dirt Nap.’ ”

■ ■ ■

The tour is called “8 Miles to Pancake Day.” The first reporter up asked them to explain how the name came about.

Becker: “How did it come about? We made it up.”

Fagen: “In truth, we put up ‘Mood Swings,’ that was the easy part, and then we were reminiscing about the old television show which was called ‘Route 66.’ And we remembered how in those days, they used to name TV episodes using very eccentric titles like, ‘Who’s Afraid of the Muffin Man,’ things like that.”

Becker: “But the other thing is ‘8 Miles to Pancake Day’ is a reconciliation of the classic space/time dilemma. In other words, time versus distance. In other words, like the Russian army sergeant says, ‘You will dig me a ditch from here to dinnertime!’ ”

Fagen: “That says it all really, I think.”

■ ■ ■

Steely Dan had six official band members on their 1972 debut, “Can’t Buy a Thrill.” By the “Aja” album in 1977, the Dan had become Becker and Fagen, drafting the guest musicians they needed.

Can the two still surprise each other after all these years?

Fagen: “When you can’t remember what happened this morning, you’re always surprised.”

Becker: “That’s right. I make new friends every day. I can hide my own Easter eggs.”

Fagen: “Also you find when you get older, not many people understand your references anymore. We’re the only audience we have for our cultural references and so on. … No one remembers the TV themes we remember anymore, because they’re just too old.”

Becker: “If you say ‘Fondly Farenheit’ to somebody, they don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Fagen: “If you hum the theme song for ‘Hawaiian Eye’ you’re not going to get a good house on that.”

■ ■ ■

Talk eventually turns, as all talk eventually does, to pornographic advertisements on the Strip.

Becker: “Plus you’ve got all those little postcards advertising prostitution and different forms of human degradation that are available for a small fee.”

Fagen: “In London, they have those in all the phone booths.”

Becker: “Oh, the phone booths. That’s what I thought of the last time I was in Las Vegas.”

Fagen: “Those little leaflets. They advertise like, urban dungeons, and things like that. … England has a lot in common with Japan in that respect, I think, because they’re both islands.

“In order for people to get along with each other on a small island, they have to be very courteous, very polite. And you know what Freud says about the more civilization, the more repression comes out in those weird kinky ways.”

Becker: “And that’s because of islands?”

Fagen: “Yeah, people are all squeezed together and have to be too courteous of each other.”

Becker: “That makes sense. Well, Las Vegas is an island, isn’t it?”

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

 

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