Can Buy a Thrill
Can Buy a Thrill
A Q&A with Jon Herington
By Geoff Gehman
Jon Herington considers his job as Steely Dan’s lead guitarist “the best gig on the planet.” He gets to gig with Dan founders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, those mad scientists of precise, popping grooves. He gets to groove with exceptional musicians who can play pretty much anything any which way. And he gets to play around with a holy host of sacred solos: the raucous romp of “Reeling in the Years”; the lightning streaks of “Peg”; the reggae raga of “Haitian Divorce.”
Herington’s career in the Dan has rubbed off on his life as the leader of a namesake trio that specializes in blues, rock and soul. On the band’s latest record, “Time on My Hands,” released last year by his own label, he plays longer solos with more intricate parts, the way he does in the Dan. His lyrics are more expressive and expansive, too. In “eGirl” he slyly romances an elusive Internet squeeze (“Can’t touch you but I’m so much in love”). In “I Ain’t Got You” he unfurls a lush litany of expensive things he’d gladly give up (“I’ve got the Porsche, I’ve got the Lexus/I’ve got a wine cellar the size of Texas”).
No matter what the setting, Herington’s guitar remains distinctively shapely, spacious and searching. He’s that rare lead guitarist who avoids backtracking, who actually leads.
Herington will sample his many selves on May 24 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. Joined by drummer Frank Pagano and bassist Dennis Espantman, his comrades since the late 1980s, he’ll play the Hendrix-Cream stomp of “Time on My Hands” and “Caroline Yes,” a blues-rock shuffle that extends the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No.” Covers will range from a “Devil with the Blue Dress On” steeped in the New Orleans vibe of Shorty Long, the tune’s original interpreter, to the melancholy love song “Pearl of the Quarter,” one of many Becker/Fagen tunes that Herington wishes he could play in the Dan.
During a recent phone interview from his Manhattan home, Herington discussed.his fondness for the Beatles, his funky tribute to buskers and the tricky business of performing for fanatics who know the Dan’s guitar solos better than they know their parents.
Q: One of my favorite tracks on your previous record, “Shine (Shine Shine)” [Decorator Records, 2010], is “Fabulous,” a kind of tribute to the Beatles in their pop-psychedelic phase. I hear elements of everything from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” to “Rain.” I also hear the kind of satirical slap at celebrity that was John Lennon’s specialty [sample line: “Mr. Fabulous has come to stay/But how strange—he has nothing to say”]. How in the hell did you conjure that one?
A: The song was inspired by a comment from my good friend Mike Miller, a guitarist and a very funny man, when we were on a Bette Midler tour in Australia. We were invited to see a Cirque du Soleil production and the band was all dressed up and very theatrical. It was okay, but it wasn’t our taste. Mike was joking around and at one point he pointed to the one of the musicians and said: “Well, that guy’s a little fabulous, isn’t he?” And a little light bulb went on in my head.
The Beatle-esque-ness in [“Fabulous”] is pretty much confined to the producing and arranging. It’s more treatment than essence. The essence is really more a comment on this strange fascination with celebrity in our day. This guy [in Cirque du Soleil] was no celebrity, and yet he thought he was, partly because he was being treated as a celebrity. I’ve never understood this hero-worship thing, this crazy-fan thing.
Q: One of my favorite tracks on the latest record is “The Bucket Song,” which could be a new theme song for musicians who earn money by passing the bucket, or the hat [sample line: “If you dig that sound/You better lay your money down”]. What well did you dip into for that one?
A: It really was written as a busker’s theme. About three years ago I decided to fulfill my unfulfilled dream to give my solo project a serious whirl, with this trio I’ve been working with since the late ’80s. I wanted to do more records more frequently, to invest more time and money, to write more songs, to pick up the pace. I decided to make that a priority, and part of the priority was to play more concerts. We had been off the road together for a few years, so at first we were not working for money; we were just working to get comfortable with the new music.
One of the places we liked to play was the P&G Bar on the Upper West Side [of Manhattan]; now it’s named 78 Below. During our first gigs there they were passing the bucket, and it felt kind of funny; I thought there must be a better way of doing this. So we played a song slower as the bucket was passed around. And then we’d get the bucket onstage and we’d play this little game: “What do you think—is that bucket full enough?” “I don’t know.” And then we’d pass it around and play the song faster. We’d repeat this maybe three or four times. We got people’s attention and, besides, it was always fun to play a James Brown tune.
That’s when it hit me that I should write a song about the experience. I put [“The Bucket Song”] on the record because it’s so much fun to play. Unfortunately, we can’t even think about playing it live because now we get paid too much to pass the bucket [laughs].
Q: What new directions did you take on “Time on My Hands” besides stretching your solos?
A: Playing longer, more involved solos was partly a reaction to people who were surprised there wasn’t more guitar playing on “Shine.” On that record I was basically following my natural leanings. My primary inspiration was Beatles songs. They never had long guitar solos; typically, they used the guitar as a break from the vocal, during a middle section that was short and melodic. This time I wondered: What would it be like if I made the solos a priority? So I decided to write solo sections first, before verse and chorus. I found I could touch more on my jazz history, and express more of the consistency and variety I express with Steely Dan.
It was a serious shift in my songwriting approach, one that required a shift of tone in my lyric writing. I realized that it would be smart to collaborate on the lyrics. So I began to call on [poet] Jim Farmer and [trio bassist] Dennis [Espantman] in earnest. And I found that the results were not only better, I had much more fun writing. The spirit of the songs benefited from the humor and irony, and I benefited from the social interaction. To have two people climbing around is a lot easier than one person.
In a way, it was a belated understanding and appreciation of how Donald [Fagen] and Walter [Becker] work. When they’re in a certain good mood, clowning around, it’s like watching a friendly game of one upsmanship. You get glimpses of this incredibly personal history of what they’ve explored together for so many years and what they love: jazz, movies, pop culture. I can just imagine how they would be in a room by themselves; I’d love to be a fly on the wall.
Q: When I heard you were joining the Dan as lead guitarist, I thought it was a natural match. Becker and Fagen are renowned for treating the lead guitar as a lead instrument, one that leads you on a journey. You’re a progressive player, too. You like to tell a musical story with a beginning, a middle and an end; you like to cycle rather than recycle.
A: You know, I wonder how Donald and Walter would have known about the way I play. I mean, they probably only listened to part of one song, an instrumental, on my first record. And my contributions to my first Steely Dan record [“Two Against Nature,” 2000] were pretty much rhythm guitar; I don’t think I played a solo. I guess they just sensed that I’m a fan of instrumental lyricism, that I’m a fan of melody, that I’m conscious of the entire shape, the entire arc, of a solo. I don’t like players who sound like a switch gets turned on at the beginning of a solo and it gets turned off at the end–a monodynamic.
I fell in love with the sound of a guitar through the sound of an amplifier. When you turn up a guitar like that, it can imitate a vocal so much more effectively, like a horn or a violin can do. It’s much more expressive.
Q: You’ve said that playing lead guitar in the Dan is “the best gig on the planet.” Is one reason it’s the best gig on the planet because the guitar solos are so well known to most Dan fans that you have the freedom to play around with them, to play, as you’ve said, with listeners’ “expectations”?
A: The audience comes to concerts knowing the Dan’s music so well; sometimes they know the solos as well as the lyrics–or better. The situation is loaded in a way. At times it feels like pressure. Other times it feels more like opportunity. I’d probably prefer the clean, mercenary role, without expectations. But that’s not a reality.
In my early days with the Dan I wanted to reference the original solos, to come up with basic parameters, to give me results that were different but just as appropriate and, hopefully, just as good. My approach was I could maybe work more with the sound than the notes.
The most obvious example is “Peg.” The solo gets talked about a lot; it’s a classic. It’s even featured in a video where Donald and Walter audition several guitar players. One of the most exciting things that [original guitarist Jay Graydon] did with that tune were the open-string things, one of many unusual choices he made. So I started exploring a few of those things and then the whole world started opening up.
So, today, I can kind of tease the audience on tunes like “Peg.” I can use some of that original material—like the opening line, which is so striking–and then surprise them. I hook them with something that will catch their ear, in a familiar way, and then I take a turn to the unfamiliar.
The bottom line is that I have an awful lot of room. Walter and Donald have always encouraged me to do whatever I want. I’ve never heard them say, “Oh, play like the record.” I mean, where can you get a job like that?
Having had that freedom for so many years in the Dan really was the impetus to put that freedom on my own records. I really wanted to make sure that I had at least one document like that, representing who I really am as a musician. I didn’t want to have any death-bed guilt [laughs].
Q: What Dan tunes would you like to play that you haven’t played?
A: If I could have my druthers I’d play the ones on the earlier records [i.e., before “The Royal Scam,” 1976]. “Any World (That I’m Welcome To).” “Throw Back the Little Ones.” “Fire in the Hole.” “Midnight Cruiser”—which Donald never sang [on the album “Can’t Buy a Thrill”]. But Walter and Donald tend to prefer the later songs, the stuff with horn arrangements. My feeling is: Hey, let’s give the horn section a little break.
Q: Shouldn’t you, as the Dan’s music director, get to pick a tune every now and then?
A: One of the reasons I’m still here after all these years is that I don’t push too hard [laughs]. You know, Donald and Walter call me music director, but the job is almost a non-job. Because when you have a band with such great musicians, there’s not a lot of music directing to be done; these are players who self-correct themselves. Basically, my role has been to sometimes rehearse the band before tours, to say, “Okay, let’s play ‘Aja’”; “Okay, let’s play ‘Bodhisattva.’” If Walter and Donald are late for sound checks, and the sound engineer needs us to practice some tines, that’s when I get to pick the tunes.
I think they gave me the title of music director because I’m very attentive to details, very aware of chord changes. I’m there to remind Donald when he forgets his own tunes. But he and Walter are absolutely the de facto music directors. They don’t need any help. They like being in charge and they’re quite good at it.
Q: To get back to the non-nutritional side of celebrity, have you had any memorable encounters with Dan fanatics, who are so obsessive they should be hospitalized? I see that you end the “Kudos” section of your Web site [www.jonherington.com] with a fan’s rather nasty comparison between you and Larry Carlton, a previous Dan guitarist: “Herington isn’t fit to lick Carlton’s shoes.”
A: That was so good I just had to put it on the Web site [laughs]. No, I haven’t had any memorable encounters with Dan fanatics. That’s partly because Donald and Walter have become experts at avoiding all contact with those celebrity hounds.
I thought your question was going to go another way. We were playing at the Hammersmith Apollo in London and we had a special guest: Sir Paul [McCartney]. After the show I took the liberty of meeting him and found he’s very pleasant and quite formal. But Donald was almost reduced to a 7th grader; it was clear he had been such a Beatle fan as a kid. He was so awestruck by Paul’s presence, he said something like: “Oh, can you tell us what to do to improve the show?” And Paul just laughed and shook him off, politely. The question was so ridiculous, and so charming, because Paul is probably such a huge Donald fan.
Jon Herington: The Scoop
First song he couldn’t forget: “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” which was minted by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. “I must have begged my parents to buy it. It was my first 45 and I wore it out. I was probably 4 or 5; it was a ripe age.”
After seeing the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” he made a construction-paper version of John Lennon’s Rickenbacker guitar. “I used to take it downstairs and jump on my parents’ discarded couch, playing along with my old 45 record player. I wish I still had it.”
He received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to study privately with the late jazz guitarist Harry Leahey, who was the favorite guitarist of Phil Woods, the renowned jazz saxophonist.
As a young musician he opened shows for fellow New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen, who also played dances at Herington’s high school.
He performed on two Steely Dan CDs and solo releases by Dan founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. He also produced four records by Dan keyboardist Jim Beard and toured with The Dukes of September Rhythm Revue starring Fagen, Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald, a former Dan harmony singer.
He wrote “I’ll Fix Your Wagon” with poet Jim Farmer, who contributed the bluesy bumper-sticker line: “I went out to paint my wagon but someone stole the paint.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He can’t wait to hear Jon Herington and the other members of Steely Dan play live versions of “Haitian Divorce” and “Barrytown.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.