To begin, here are some of their general observations on their lyric writing techniques.
DF: Well, when you're trying to cram a lot of information into what is basically a popular song form, you have to leave some holes. It's impossible to add that many details. We always have a story in mind and try to present it in the most entertaining way we know how. Sometimes we leave a few holes, that's all.
DF: We don't like to spoil the game by divulging exactly what the lyrics are about. If someone doesn't understand them already -- because people have to understand that for us there's quite a clear story being sprung in each of the songs -- and if somebody doesn't get it and comes up with their own interpretation that's fine, but we're not about to tell them exactly what's going on. It's really no fun for an artist to make an exegesis of his own work.
WB: We have a million laughs writing these songs.
DF: It takes a great deal of thought and work and energy and so forth, but there is an awful lot of hysteria and general jocularity while we're composing these songs, as you can imagine. I mean, these things are crazy, these songs should be locked up and put away.
DF: We try to not be morbid. We may cover some subjects that aren't all sweetness and light and so on, but we're never morbid and if we are we try to inject some humor into the subject. It is rock 'n' roll and I think if you get too serious with it, it's going to be pretentious.
WB: They're not cryptic to us. We know what we had in mind when we wrote them and they're not perversely cryptic just to confuse or dismay members of our audience, but they may be cryptic all the same -- in other words they may be open to various interpretations. I don't like lyrics that are over-simplistic, 'cause they really don't make you think twice. It's just something that's evolved that way.
WB: I would like to take this opportunity to dispel any rumor that Don and I ever use code. We use the English language as we understand it.
WB: We think of ourselves as comparatively detached from our writing, especially compared to other rock artists who seem to merely bare their souls to the screaming masses, but it may be that we're not as detached as we think, and there isn't an observer or chronicler to add flavor to what we do. I mean, when a song is written in the first person neither one of us is really the person but I think it still probably reflects things that we actually feel and think.
WB: Our songwriting is not unlike the creation of junk sculpture.
DF: We more or less put both our names on all the songs but I've written a few myself. I can't recall any one specifically except Barrytown on the Pretzel Logic LP. I don't think it came off so great anyway, so I don't know if it's a good idea to do stuff by myself. Ninety-five percent of our songs are collaborative.
DF: We don't necessarily try to communicate any specific thing to the listener. It's more or less we try to communicate an impression and the listener has the freedom to interpret as he wants.
DF: Because of the lack of input, experience in the US of A, or the world in general these days, we more or less rely on pure imagination for song ideas. And we like to make them original, and we'll set up a framework, no matter how bizarre it may be, and proceed to write a song on that basis.
DF: I'll come up with an idea and he'll come up with a scenario and we'll decide what we think the song is about, and which part of the exposition of what's happening is in each verse, and get a title together, and no matter how strange the idea may be we just go along and hope that we can finish the song and that it actually emerges as something.
Both of us in concert write the music and the words. You know, it's a lot of pacing around the living room. Whenever Walter has some free time he'll drop over, show me what's got, I'll show him what I've got and kick it around a little bit. It's very informal.
WB: We're very much concerned with the sound of the words and the music. There are times when we're writing lyrics when we'll sacrifice literal meaning or linear storytelling for sound effects. That's the way we've been writing for a long time.
DF: Well, the fact is that we were referring to a phone number, so I think people should take the lyrics more literally and it'll be on the safe side. That's a very simple love song to a young lady. I always thought it was a rather erotic, decadent sort of thing. Here you find a guy -- a rather rich gentleman -- living in a resort, and somehow he manages to capture this young lady.
Questioner: Pretzel Logic seems your most accessible album.
DF: We really don't think about it. The record company was starting to get annoyed with us because they couldn't get a single off Countdown To Ecstasy. The only thing we did was tighten up the arrangements. The songs weren't quite so long. And Night By Night was basically written for commercial purposes.
WB: About four-and-a-half minutes!
DF: No, Puerto Rico and New York City both figure in the fabric of that lyric. You'll have to construe the rest for yourself, 'cause we don't want to ruin it for you. The mystery is what makes it interesting, isn't it?
WB: If we were to tell you what that song is about, it would be doing a disservice to the song and we would always be lending credence to the notion that in order to enjoy the song you have to know exactly what it means. Or that it does mean exactly one thing. And it doesn't really. None of those things are true.
(A different interview) Questioner: Is the Royal Scam about Puerto Ricans trying to settle in New York?
DF: Because the interpretation is so accurate I wouldn't even want to comment any further.
WB: In other words, you already know more than is good for you.
DF: To tell you the truth, we tend to refrain from discussing specifics as far as lyrics go because it is a matter of subjective interpretation and there are some things that are better that man does not know. You are on the right track and whatever you make of it will suffice really.
(A different interview again)
DF: Of course, the royal scam would mean a confidence trick on a grand scale. That's about all I'd like to say about that song.
WB: 'Cause that Puerto Rico nonsense that someone over here invented is ... I don't know, I think it's gotten out of hand. And it's not really to the point, as far as I'm concerned.
DF: See, that song does have a topical aspect -- and because of that it's dangerous to give specifics, and it is an allegory and it is written in rather Biblical argot, I can tell you that. The song does have a rather poetic way of expressing what we wanted to express. I'm very fond of that lyric.
WB: The Royal Scam isn't the key song. It's regrettable that if you name an album after one of the songs, which is something we don't do all the time, people take it for more than it is. We like each song to be listened to individually without relating to the whole album, although if you record a certain selection of songs the album will have a certain character. Generally, the cheese stands alone.
Questioner: A dealer.
Gary Katz: You're in the right house. We're talking about a man of science. A maker...
DF: An artist.
GK: A chemist, a chef.
WB: Someone who makes consciousness-expanding substances of the most dramatic sensational type, no longer in vogue.
DF: The exact nature of the drug isn't important, but you have the right idea.
WB: We didn't have a particular guy in mind. There's no model for the song.
DF: I think it's about the age, the late Sixties. The record starts in 1968 or something and ends up in 1976.
WB: The reflections of one particular type of person who finds himself transposed into a decade where he's no longer of any use.
(A different interview) Questioner: Is it about a Leary or a Manson?
DF: I think it would be about a person who's less of a celebrity than those people.
Questioner: Did you have a definite person in mind?
WB: Well, there is a particular individual, whom we naturally can't name...
DF: ... for legal purpose...
WB: ... who hovered over the composition like a sword of Damocles, like Hamlet's father.
WB: The fact of the matter is when we put together some of these songs we'll decide on a story that we lay for ourselves as a framework to write a song about. It may very well turn out that very little of that story actually makes it into the song in a clearly identifiable form, so that story or concept we have is not essential to the song. Even in the simplest song, that no one would accuse us of being obscure with, there may be things that we had in mind that were not evident.
DF: I think the important qualities come through. You can only do so much with a song. It's not a novel. And because we're more literary, we use more literary techniques.
WB: That's true. In many cases, we're writing short story-type plots into our songs.
DF: We can't put all the details in or we'd have a lousy or pretentious song. And we certainly don't want to do that.
WB: I wouldn't call it the main theme. He wrote a melody that is featured. At least, he says he wrote it.
DF: We set up a riff and Paul started noodling around with a little melody, so we developed that.
Questioner: So that was written in the studio?
WB: No but there is an instrumental melody which Paul started playing in the session, and when we decided to build that melody up into a greater position, since we had some suspicion that perhaps this melody wasn't entirely Paul's invention, we decided to give him composer credit in case later some sort of scandal developed, he would take the brunt of the impact.
Questioner: Do you think a situation will arise where you may not even play on your albums at all?
WB: I wouldn't exclude it.
DF: If we ever received an award for something we'd like to receive it for songwriting. At least we'd rather be recognized for that than our musicianship, although we both feel we have interesting styles as musicians.
DF: That's true. Of course, it does take place on another planet. We sort of borrowed the Sin City/Pleasure Planet idea that's in a lot of science fiction novels, and made a song out of it. But indeed, you're right.
WB: Ah! In Queens, there is a community called Bayside, where I culled numerous members for my first rock 'n' roll band, and Bayside had a particular character to the community, which ranged from politically, rabidly conservative to absolute congenital mind-damage among its younger citizens. So the young women growing up in this community had a particular kind of character.
DF: It would be like saying Lady Knightsbridge.
WB: It may not mean anything to anyone, but it sounded good.
Questioner: How are you different as writers?
WB: I'm less concerned with tying everything up. I like swatches of color, images that don't necessarily make so much sense. But, of course, Donald makes me tell him how it makes sense when we write it. He's gotta make it all come together, and that's good. And Donald has a more organized mind than I do.
DF: It's just that if there's something in a first draft that sounds like it shouldn't be there and doesn't lend unity to the song, I will argue endlessly to exclude it or replace it.
WB: It works out pretty well, actually. When I consider how difficult the collaboration actually is I'm amazed that we're as single-minded between the two of us.
DF: We rarely have disagreements about any part of a song. The only thing, in fact, is the way Walter sometimes perceives. If I have some kind of -- usually -- vamp, Walter will perceive it in another key than I do. Sometimes we have problems in song structure. But that also leads to some interesting constructions.
WB: In other words what Donald thinks of as a one-chord, I will think of as a five-chord; and what Donald thinks of as a strong beat in a bar, I will think of as a weak beat.
DF: In other words, sometimes he's thinking of the song backwards as far as I'm concerned.
Questioner: Do you have a working routine?
DF: I wish we did, I wish we did! I am able to get up at a certain time and proceed to write. I spring awake in a great burst of guilt and anxiety and commence to come up with whatever I come up with. And then after several foolish calls to Walter, in which I make a fool of myself (mock French accent), finally he comes over and we finish what I've begun.
DF: It's a fierce and terrible ritual, I'll tell you that. You wouldn't want your sister to have a Haitian divorce, believe me. It was the quick divorce, without too much red tape. If you can say "incompatibility of character" in French, you're as good as gold. But we added a few moments to the ceremony itself.
WB: The thing is now, I know a lot of people don't believe in voodoo and all that, but people like that shouldn't go to Haiti. Because they'll just nail you with that stuff. That's powerful medicine. We did a lot of research.
DF: If you've been paying attention you'll know she's in a druged stupor and probably doesn't know anything about it. She is later ... er... impregnated by this exotic gentleman. Later she is reunited with Clean Willy and they have some rather bizarre offspring.
DF: And what was that about Ayida?
WB: "Ayida is not joking with you." That's what we'd like you to say about Haitian Divorce. You can simply write that "Donald and Walter are well aware of the fact that Ayida is not joking with you."
WB: No one will ever come close to Chain Lightning. No one will ever touch Chain Lightning.
DF: Even the clue wouldn't have helped. I'll tell you what the clue was. In the guitar break just before the second verse I was going to say "40 years later," but we decided it wasn't a good musical idea.
DF: Aja is a young Oriental girl.
WB: Donald claims he knew a girl named Aja once. I doubt it.
DF: That song is basically an attempt to refute the idea that in this life, there's no rest for the weary. In a New York Times interview, Randy Newman said he doesn't see any reason why songs have to have strictures on what they're about. Why they have to be of a personal nature. Randy sometimes takes historical situations and writes about those, 'cause his own personal feelings at the time are drawn into those songs, but subject matter is really limitless. Things you hear in the news, or parallels, science fiction...
And after all that, the final say has to come from Donald Fagen: "The bottom line for us is effective sound, and whatever associations may spring in the listener's mind, well, uh, Godspeed, you know? Like, Stravinsky wrote several cantatas where the words were basically meaningless; they were mainly for the sound, which is what we basically are after.