Two Against Nature: The Bromance of Steely Dan

On November 17th 2016 » By Libby Cudmore


There is no perhaps no friendship in rock & roll more enduring than that of Steely Dan's Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Since first meeting at Bard College in 1966, the duo have spent the majority of the last 50 years side by side, first pounding the pavement outside the Brill Building selling songs, then later in the studio or out on tour.

But their partnership defies the modern adages of #SquadGoals or BFFs. "Walter and Donald are one person with two brains," former Steely Dan guitarist Denny Dias told Rolling Stone in 2000. "When you put them together, the result has an edge, but it's also got insight and compassion."

When their counterparts were writing about girls and drugs, Fagen and Becker were writing tunes celebrating the quiet dignity of male friendships (as well as girls, and drugs, and drug dealers and child molesters and pimps and time travel...). Nothing showy, nothing dramatic. No one is going to write gooey slash fanfiction about them. But you don't spend 50 years alongside someone you don't respect on a deeply artistic level, and one only has to listen to a handful of songs to realize that Becker and Fagen have an unmatched understanding of the unspoken emotional intimacy between men, and it shows up again and again in their music.

In the opening verse of "Midnite Cruiser" (Can't Buy a Thrill) former vocalist David Palmer sings, "So glad that you're here again/for one more time, let your madness run with mine," but Alex Wilkenson described a scene in the studio that brings the lyrics to life: "...Fagen would sit at the piano and play a slow blues, and Becker would pick up his guitar and play along with him, and because they were separated by twenty or thirty feet it would take a moment to realize that they were reenacting a scene from thirty years ago in the common room at Bard."

"King of The World" (Countdown to Ecstasy) is a classified ad seeking a friend for the apocalypse. Not a last lay, not someone to roll for their last supplies, just someone to chill with.

There isn't time for emotional drama or romance when the world is crumbling all around, but there's always time for a cigarette and a drive across the California wasteland. And while 1986 was hardly the end of the world, after a studio session for ex-model Rosie Vela's 1986 album Zazu, the two, who had reconnected by chance in producer Gary Katz's studio, walked home together over 60 blocks in the neon New York night.

"Any Major Dude Will Tell You." (Pretzel Logic) "I've never seen you lookin' so bad my funky one..." When Becker was recovering from drug addiction in Hawaii in the 80s, Fagen said he would go to New York City jazz clubs, get the performers to autograph a napkin "To Walter" and mail them to his partner. The two communicated regularly by phone, but Fagen's quiet gesture was a reminder that he still had his friend's back in a way that words couldn't fulfill. It's the real-life practice of what they wrote in 1974 -- "Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again." When recounting this story to Wilkenson in 2000, Becker acknowledged the gifts with three words: "I didn't die."

While not technically a Steely Dan song, "Snowbound" (Kamakiriad) finds Fagen sharing writing credit with Becker 13 years after the breakup of Steely Dan. Becker produced the album and Fagen credits him with helping break a nearly decade-long writer's block. "Nobody can make a transition from chord to chord like Walter," he said about the recording of Kamakiriad in 1993. The song, follows an unnamed narrator and pal partying on a frozen landscape, references, "Let's stop off at the Metroplex/That little dancer's got some style/Yes she's the one I'll be waiting for/At the stage door," probably not an activity you'd do with your wife in tow. But it ends with the ominous line (reportedly Fagen's favorite from the album) "We sail our icecats on the frozen river/Some loser fires off a flare, amen/For seven seconds it's like Christmas day/And then it's dark again." It would be another seven years before the world got to see Steely Dan back together, so the darkness didn't last long.

"Two Against Nature" (Two Against Nature) isn't about a couple growing old together. It's about Becker and Fagen, fighting side-by-side against the increasingly distorted fracture of time and radio hits. It's a voodoo love song of sorts, a polyrhythmic recognition that sometimes in this world, you're lucky to find one person who understands the language you speak and for the remainder of your time here, it's the two of you against the tide.  "It's more fun to work with someone you know," Fagen said. "We crack each other up...we almost talk in code at this point." The album won them four Grammys in 2000, beating out the considerably younger competition and was a frequent number on 2016's "The Dan Who Knew Too Much" tour. Squad Goals indeed.

By contrast, the majority of the women of Steely Dan songs fall into three distinct categories, none of them particularly affectionate. Distant objects of unattainable desire (Josie, Peg, Rikki, Pixaleen) disappointing goddesses (The girls of "Hey Nineteen," "Babylon Sisters," "Lunch With Gina" and, near the end, "Janie Runaway") or unfaithful spouses ("My Rival," "Haitian Divorce," "Everything You Did"). To the protagonist of a Steely Dan song, relationships with women, though beautiful and wanted, are unable to provide the stability such a man craves. At the end of the day--or the end of the world--it's your friend you want by your side.

In concert, they enter from separate sides of the stage, Becker from the left, Fagen from the right. They don't hug, they barely make eye contact. But there are moments, when Fagen gets out the melodica on "Godwhacker" or "Aja" or "Peg" and Becker is playing guitar, that they stand side-by-side in the well-worn space of two comfortable souls. And near the end of the night, Becker, always the more talkative of the two, introduces Fagen as any number of descriptors -- hitmaker, producer, man about town, the one, the only, the original -- but always "my friend."

 

Libby Cudmore

Libby Cudmore

Libby Cudmore is the author of The Big Rewind, and a freelance music writer.

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