The (botched) Steely Dan Interview

My original plan for today’s column was to interview Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan, one of my two all-time favorite musical groups. They’ll be playing at the Idaho Botanical Garden a week from tonight, so an interview with them would have been timely.

The plan hinged, of course, on actually getting the interview – which is hardly a cinch. They don’t give a lot of them and aren’t known for suffering media fools gladly. These are smart guys who make very smart music. I agonized over trying to come up with questions they hadn’t been asked before and would find at least moderately interesting. They were, after all, two of my most enduring musical heroes.

For readers unfamiliar with them, Becker and Fagen collectively are Steely Dan. They’ve used and continue to use some of the world’s best studio musicians on their recordings and tours, but they’re the constants – the ones who started the group, write the songs, call the shots. They’ve had a string of polished hits and albums and are known as two of the most exacting perfectionists in the business. It would be a long shot for someone from a relatively small paper in a sparsely populated state like Idaho to get to interview them, but it was worth a try.

Besides, I had a secret weapon. One of my daughters has a personalized “Steely Dan” license plate that she had made into a purse. (Nobody can say I didn’t raise my kids right.) I made sure to tell their media person about this when requesting the interview. It was just the sort of thing that might appeal to the offbeat, Steely Dan sense of humor.

This would be more than just an interview. It would be a chance to reverse a spectacularly dismal record at connecting with my musical heroes.

The Beatles, for example – the other of my two all-time favorite groups.

Granted, Steely Dan and the Beatles couldn’t be much different. But their music bewitched me in different ways at different times in my life, and I’ve remained a fan of both ever since. With any luck at all, my request to interview Fagen and Becker would be more successful than my attempts to interview Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney.

Starr and his All-Starr Band came to Boise in 1999. I was writing a weekly column then called “Lunch with Tim.” Each week I took a different person to lunch and wrote about wherever the conversation led. My quest to take Ringo to lunch began two months before he was due to arrive. I called his press agent every other week. As late as the week of the show, the lunch was a go.

The day before the show, the press agent called to say that Starr had changed his mind – no reason given. He didn’t need a reason. He was a Beatle. And in fairness to him, and others cursed with the incessant demands of fame, he has to get awfully tired of reporters in towns from Boise to Bangkok wanting a piece of him. Especially when some members of the media – unlike courteous, respectful me – are so obnoxious about it.

The McCartney Heartbreak, as I’ve come to think of it, was even more of a letdown. I started by calling Geoff Baker, then McCartney’s publicist, when the tour was in New Orleans to request an interview in Tacoma, the closest where McCartney would be performing. For the next month, I called weekly to jog Baker’s memory. The night before the concert, I called him from my hotel room in Tacoma.

“Still looks good,” he said. “We’re on for tomorrow afternoon before the show. Call again late tomorrow morning.”

I did.

“Sorry,” Baker said. “He’s canceled all interviews for the rest of the tour.”

Maybe it was for the best. If I’d actually come face to face with a legend like Paul McCartney, I’d have been so nervous the power of speech might have left me. The humiliation, however, would have lasted a lifetime.

This brings us, by means of a smooth and natural transition, back to Steely Dan. With them I started by contacting the botanical garden, where  Director Julia Rundberg put me in touch with publicist Erik Stein. Stein in turn e-mailed to say that “Walter and Donald do not do in-person interviews at tour dates. Generally, the only time they do an interview together is a media teleconference prior to the tour kickoff. We’ll keep you advised of that as it develops.”

Of course they would. They’d keep “Rolling Stone” advised. They’d keep “The New York Times” advised. But an obscure columnist from Dogwater, Idaho? Right.

That was in April. To my surprise, after months without a word, an e-mail arrived in July from another publicist, Eve Samuels. Eve was writing to say that the teleconference had been scheduled. Was I still interested?

Interested? Are the Cubs interested in winning a pennant? Is Boeing interested in fireproof batteries? Is Edward Snowden interested in a visa?

Eve’s next e-mail contained instructions on where and when to call to participate in the teleconference. At the appointed time, I dialed the number. A recorded voice said to punch in a two-digit code to be queued in with the other reporters. Then a real person came on the line and apologized for what she hoped would be a short delay.

“The boys are rehearsing,” she explained. “But they should be here any minute.”

The boys? Clearly she was a person of stature. Two of best musician-songwriters on the planet, and she gets to call them “the boys?” I’d been debating between “eminences” and “excellencies.”

After a short wait, “the boys” came on the line. It was almost surrealistic: Donald Fagen and Walter Becker live on my telephone!

The first question was from a reporter in New Jersey, who did not fare well. He made the mistake of being flippant and after a brief but withering response from the eminences was reduced to apologizing.

The teleconference lasted a little over an hour and was peppered with the droll repartee for which Becker and Fagen are known. Told that the next question would be from an Oregonian reporter, Fagen asked whether Oregon had a state song and if not, “would they like to have a state song and how much would they pay for it?” Becker’s suggestion for a title: “Please don’t eat the pomegranates.”

Asked by a youthful-sounding reporter if there were any young musicians they enjoyed listening to, Becker replied, “Charlie Parker. He was only 35 when he died.”

In 1955.

Asked why they never finished recording some of the songs they’d written, Fagen replied that “every time we get together we just go fishing,” adding that the first “fish” he ever caught was a box turtle, the second a lamprey.

Most of the reporters asking the questions were from magazines or fairly large newspapers. So it was encouraging when a reporter from a small paper in Indiana got a shot.

The bad news: It was the last question.

No! This couldn’t be happening! I’d started weeks in advance. I’d called the right number at the right time, I was queued up …

And I’d fumbled on the one-inch line.

It was Starr and McCartney all over again.

I didn’t know whether to scream, sulk or throw something. So I did all three. Then I e-mailed Eve.

She responded immediately.

“Did you punch in the *1 code?” she asked. “That’s the only way you were put in the queue to ask a question. … Everyone who was in the queue got to ask a question.”

No, as a matter of fact, I hadn’t punched in the *1 code. Every reporter in the Steely Dan universe had punched in the *1 code – except for one,   boneheaded Idahoan, who had punched in 1*. My only chance to interview my heroes, shot to hell by transposed digits.

It was hard to sleep that night. I lay there for a long time, gritting my teeth and thinking of fiendish ways to abuse my telephone.

The next day, when the daughter with the Steely Dan purse related the  sorry turn of events on her Facebook page, one of her friends responded by writing, “Now he knows how Bill Buckner felt when he let that ball dribble through his legs and cost the Red Sox the World Series.”

That was how it felt.

That was it, exactly.


Tim Woodward’s column appears in The Idaho Statesman every other Sunday and is posted on the following Mondays. Contact him at


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