Steely Dan Revisited: a Silver Lining

In music, mistakes or near mistakes sometimes have a way of ending happily. Synapses fire and a forgotten lyric is remembered a nanosecond before it has to be sung. The mind goes blank, but muscle memory takes over and something unexpected and wonderful happens.

On rare occasions in the musical world, even the most frustrating blunders produce gratifying results. So it was with me and the botched Steely Dan interview.

For those who missed last month’s column on that embarrassing episode, Steely Dan is one of my two all-time favorite groups. They played at the Idaho Botanical Garden in August, and I’d gotten myself included in a July  media teleconference that kicked off their tour. To say that I was looking forward to interviewing my heroes is an understatement.

If you did read last month’s column, you know about The Mistake. We were told at the beginning of the teleconference to press *1 to be entered in a queue for asking questions. I pressed 1* – and never did get to ask my questions. As my late mother might have put it, I felt like “two cents waiting for change.”

I was half hoping that Steely Dan’s press people would take pity on me and set up an interview with them when they came to town. That didn’t happen, but some other good things did.

They started, as good things sometimes do, with a bad thing. On the first or second song of the show, the inevitable contingent of fans who think that people would rather watch them dance than see the act they paid to see stood up and blocked the view of the stage. Incensed, my wife asked them to sit down. Miraculously, they did.

For one song. Then a woman old enough to know better not only got up and started dancing but gesturing for others to join her. That was all it took. What began with one dancing dolt ended with hundreds of people standing and dancing in front of the stage for the rest of the night.

You can only look  at the backs of knees for so long. If your chairs have been reduced to obsolescence and you’ve become part of a gyrating throng, you might as well be close to the front of the gyrating throng, where you can see something.

From there, you could get an idea of what it’s like to be onstage with a group of that caliber. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who began and jointly are Steely Dan, surround themselves with ten of the best studio musicians and backup singers on the planet. For someone like me, who has played in local bands most of my life, an evening in close proximity to that kind of  talent was akin to finding Shangri-la.

And we’d get even closer. The walk back to the car after the show took us past a white limousine stuck in gridlock. I was walking with my daughter who had had her Steely Dan license plates turned into a purse (the one pictured with last month’s column). We assumed some fans had rented the limo for a night of partying until a window rolled down and there, close enough to touch, was Donald Fagen – the co-writer, keyboard player and voice of Steely Dan.

“If ever there was a time to get your purse signed, this is it,” I said after regaining the power of speech.

“No,” she replied. “I don’t want to bug him.”

To understand this, you need to know that for us Fagen has almost mythical status. The man is an alien. His intellect is not of this earth. I was proud of her for not invading his privacy.

The story doesn’t end there. The next morning, we were loading the car for a trip when we noticed an unfamiliar cell phone on its roof. My wife, who is better than me with phones I consider to be the digital equivalent of Chinese water torture, checked its directory and called a number. No one answered, but seconds later someone called back.

“You just called me at my home on my cell phone,” a relieved-sounding voice said. “Thank you! My life is on that phone. Tell me where you live and I’ll come and get it.”

He lived in Ontario, Ore. It happened that the route for our trip took us by there, so we met him at a freeway restaurant.

“What did you think of Steely Dan last night?” he asked after thanking us profusely for his phone.

I told him I thought they were one of the best bands in the world.

“What do you mean ‘one of the best?’ They’re the best!”

I liked this guy. He may be even more absent-minded than I am when it comes to hanging onto his stuff, but his musical taste is above reproach.

I saved the best part of the story for last. The next day, an e-mail arrived from Julia Rundberg, the botanical garden’s executive director. It said she had “something I might like.” The purse-daughter all but melted down waiting for us to get home from our trip and find out what it was.

What it was was an autographed Steely Dan poster for her. And a framed, autographed copy of the botched-interview column for me. It’s on a wall in my home office now. If the house ever catches fire, it’s one of the first things I’ll grab.

Thanks, Donald and Walter, for doing that. It beats the hell out of asking you a couple of questions on the phone.

And thanks to Julia and all the folks at the botanical garden for making it  happen. And for all the great talent you’ve brought to the garden in the last few years.

A friend who saw Steely Dan in Portland said the garden show was better,  because the crowd was so into it. Becker and Fagen seemed energized by that, talking  to the audience more than I’d ever seen them do in other cities.

Maybe they’ll come back one day. If so, I have some questions waiting for them.




If you like humor with your music, you might want to put Oct. 4 on your calendar. Antsy McClain and the Trailer Park Troubadours will play a benefit concert for the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline (1 800 273-TALK) that night at the Egyptian Theater.

At his previous Boise shows, fans alternated between enjoying McClain’s  and his band’s musical prowess and laughing until they cried. I laughed so hard I hurt myself.

The show will raise money to extend the hotline’s hours to 24/7 and will honor veterans, a high-risk group for suicide. Tickets, $25, are available at the Egyptian and the Record Exchange. Information:


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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