Another extract from Steely Dan: Reelin’ In The Years, by Brian Sweet.
Steely Dan’s live set at this point included certain songs – ‘Megashine City’, ‘Take My Money’ and ‘Hellbound Train’ – that had been written specifically as vehicles for David Palmer and which would never make it onto a Steely Dan studio album. Becker, Fagen and Katz especially did not want to be reminded of Palmer’s brief and inapt contribution to the band.
Becker and Fagen had also written a tasty live guitar segue from ‘Megashine City’ into ‘Dirty Work’. These segues and bridges eventually became the norm at Steely Dan concerts in order to give Fagen a break from singing. “Our shows,” he recalled in his normal deadpan fashion, “were a constant din from beginning to end.”
Steely Dan were great musicians but they were far from the most photogenic band in the land. Fagen had a slight stoop, Becker’s long straight hair almost always looked in need of a trim and a vigorous shampoo, and their dress sense – or lack of it – in what was anyway a bizarre period fashionwise was risible. Critics were quick to lambast Steely Dan for their lack of “visual style”. After one of their early gigs at the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles, one reviewer referred to them as “the ugliest band in the world”. Of course, Becker and Fagen couldn’t care less: they were in rock’n’roll for the music, not the showbiz; they sought to emulate their jazz heroes, musicians who gave no thought whatsoever to what they wore on stage. Image was unimportant in jazz. “We were used to seeing a musician kicking over his bottle of beer,” said Becker, who would have been happy to turn his back to the audience for an entire set if he could get away with it.
The spectacle and theatricality that had crept into big-time rock – smoke bombs, face masks, ostentatious light shows, outrageous glam-rock clothes and platform shoes – revolted Steely Dan, although Jeff Baxter was perpetually amused by the stage clothes worn by some bands. Denny Dias once said that he was amazed that Elton John could play the piano at all while wearing six-inch heels. Of far more immediate concern to Fagen and Becker, and Gary Katz, was David Palmer’s vocal interpretation of their songs. Despite his reluctance to sing live, Fagen soon realised that he was the best person to accurately convey the attitude of their songs and that he would somehow have to overcome his fear of fronting the band. He was going to have to learn to talk to an audience and even crack a few jokes. “It was very difficult to convince me to get up in front of people and sing,” he told one interviewer. “But I finally got enough courage to do it and I’ve been getting into it slowly. Now it’s come together pretty well.”
Another drawback with lead singer David Palmer was his propensity to wear very tight trousers, and each time he bent over or stretched he ran the risk of splitting them. At one gig at a small club in Philadelphia, Palmer had met with friends before the show and drunk more liquor than was wise. With Palmer in a stupor, Steely Dan took the stage, but the singer was way beyond recall. Not only did he sing the entire set a half-tone flat, but he also split his tight pants right up the middle. The stage was just three feet above the floor and those seated directly in front were given a close-up view of Palmer’s sweaty crotch. To make matters worse, he wasn’t wearing underwear. On another occasion at the Whisky in LA, Palmer’s split trousers were repaired with gaffer tape. The Philadelphia incident didn’t help David Palmer’s cause. Neither did another disastrous occasion when he missed his mouth and poured a can of beer over himself at an important press reception.
Fagen was steeling himself to face the fact that he was going to have to be the lead singer, but he was reluctant to over indulge in pre-show intoxicants. David Palmer was a nice guy and everyone in the band liked him, but artistic considerations outweighed social niceties. In April of 1973, Palmer’s four-month reign as Steely Dan vocalist came to an end.
Fagen was backed into a corner; there was now no denying that his voice was the sound of Steely Dan. Occasionally, only half seriously, they would discuss getting someone else in to do the job. One voice that Becker and Fagen liked was Elliot Lurie, the singer from Looking Glass, who had a US number one hit with ‘Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)’ in 1972. Another vocalist Becker and Fagen thought would work well in Steely Dan was Gerry Rafferty, singer on Stealers Wheel’s 1973 hit, ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’.
But Gary Katz had no such doubts about Fagen’s ability as a vocalist. At an open air gig in the Balboa Stadium in San Diego, when Steely Dan opened for Elton John before a crowd of 30,000, Katz stood alongside Warren Wallace, who commented how he loved to hear Fagen sing. “From the first time I heard Fagen sing, everything else in my life became secondary,” Katz told Wallace.
“If we had known about Dave [Palmer] earlier, we could have incorporated him more fully into the Steely Dan sound,” Fagen said, almost by way of apology. “He was a good singer for us early on, but he almost didn’t really have the attitude to put the songs over. So I started doing it didn’t myself, much to my chagrin. It seems to have worked out.”