Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series, where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore music from the 60’s to today. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!
They’re named after a dildo from the William Burroughs novel Naked Lunch. Donald Fagen recalled to Mojo magazine: “We had to come up with a name in a hurry and Walter and I were both Burroughs fans, though he was not known at the time. It was an in-joke- who’s going to know what Steely Dan was? And we figured that, like most of our bands in the past, it would fall apart after three months, so we didn’t think much about it.”
“The name had less to do with sex than a rebel spirit, a beat consciousness that we grew up with.”
When they were all attending Bard College in the late ’60s, Chevy Chase was a drummer in one of Fagen and Becker’s early bands, Bad Rock Group.
Becker and Fagen met while they were students at Bard College in upstate New York. You can hear references to these times in their song “My Old School.”
They were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2001, 4 years after they were eligible.
In 1981, they stopped recording. They got back together in 2000 and released Two Against Nature, which won the Grammy for Album Of The Year.
In 2001, they received honorary degrees from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where their music is a large part of the curriculum.
The name of their first album came from their dismay with Los Angeles. Becker once said to Fagen, “You can’t buy a thrill in California.”
Donald Fagen grew up in South Brunswick, NJ – he hated it there. In his time it was all soy bean and potato fields and there was nothing to do. Now it’s very developed and there’s still nothing to do.
Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, who played guitar on many of their records, is a self-taught expert on mobile missile defense systems. He wrote a paper on the topic in the early 1990s which caught the eye of conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill. He has subsequently testified before Congress and is a consultant to the Pentagon.
Jeff Porcaro was a drummer for Steely Dan, and later left to form Toto. Michael McDonald was a keyboard player and did background vocals, and later he and Skunk Baxter joined the Doobie Brothers. Mark Knopfler, from Dire Straights, plays guitar on “Time Out Of Mind.” Legendary sax player Wayne Shorter even played with them.
Steely Dan released seven studio (non compilation) albums from 1972-1980. Over 100 session musicians contributed to their songs.
Other than Donald Fagan and Walter Becker, the duo that is Steely Dan, the only musician who played on all seven albums was the late Victor Feldman. Feldman was a British Jazz legend who actually played with the Glenn Miller Orchestra when he was 13 years old.
They entered the corporate music world in the Brill Building, where they briefly became members of Jay and The Americans and recorded some songs that group member Kenny Vance produced. Kenny told us: “They were just two guys that had a band that were steeped in jazz and Duke Ellington. Becker always had a book with him, and, you know, drugs were around. They were different. But then as time went by, at some point I discovered the depth that was contained there, and I always believed that they were going to be huge.”
Unlike most songwriting duos, Fagen and Becker worked together on the music and lyrics at the same time.
In 2017, Becker was diagnosed with esophageal cancer during a routine checkup. He fought it with intense chemotherapy, but the cancer proved very aggressive, and four months later it killed him. Only his closest friends and family knew of his condition.
Fagen got to spend one last day with Becker in September 2017 before he passed away. “When I heard he was really ill,” he says, “I was on the road in, I think, Salina, Kansas, and I flew back. I had a day off and he was in his apartment in New York. And I was really glad that I went. I could see he was really struggling. When I put a chair next to the bed, he grabbed my hand. It was something he had never done ever before. And we had a great talk and, you know, he was listening to hard bop – his wife had put on Dexter Gordon records. He was very weak but he was still very funny. I’m really glad I had those hours.”