On June 21, 1981, Steely Dan had announced they were going on an indefinite hiatus, a culmination of the headaches and tragedies that coincided with the making of Gaucho. Walter Becker afterwards moved to the Hawaiian island of Maui to become, in the words of the official Steely Dan site, “a gentleman avocado rancher and self styled critic of the contemporary scene.” It’s also been said that he used the time for a little rehab, and he soon kicked his narcotics habit, eventually getting back into music by way of producing other artist’s records a few years later.
Donald Fagen, by contrast, didn’t take a break from the studio life even if the last time around wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience. He got the call to contribute a song for a movie soundtrack, this one being a series of adult animated vignettes called Heavy Metal. The movie, going from memory, did OK but it was no great shakes. The album, which also included songs by Sammy Hagar, Devo, The Blue Oyster Cult, Journey, Nazareth, Cheap Trick and Stevie Nicks, did somewhat better, peaking at #12 of the Billboard 200 chart, but unlike F.M., it didn’t originate a hit single for Fagen or anybody else.
Fagen’s entry, “True Companion,” is the first solo recording by either Becker or Fagen, and a very inauspicious start of the post-Steely Dan era. I remember hearing it only a couple of times on the local album rock station and like everyone else who heard it at the time, thought that this was a new Steely Dan song and got pretty stoked at the assumption that a new album was coming (I didn’t hear of the news about the breakup). When I found out that it was “just Fagen” and part of a movie soundtrack mostly full of artists I had little or no interest in at the time, I moved on and blotted out the song from memory for many years after that. It got a little bit more exposure when it was added to the Steely Dan compilation Gold, Expanded Edition released in 1991, but this remains one of the most forgotten officially released songs in Steely Dan lore.
Looking back, “Companion” remains an odd bird, being a barely noticeable blip between Gaucho and The Nightfly. The five minute version is an instrumental for the first three and a half minutes and Fagen sings only as a layered harmony on the last ninety seconds. Steve Khan, soloing on both acoustic and electric guitars, is the focal point before that, and he turns in some rather fastidious, Carlton-esque licks. The melody meanders until returning to the theme introduced at the beginning for the vocal part. It’s almost a through-composed piece.
So, it sort of seems as if Fagen didn’t know what he wanted to do with the song. But instead of slagging the song for being a little directionless, I think that’s the main charm of it. It’s got a dreamy quality you don’t hear on Steely Dan songs, even though it’s the similar kind of sophisticated, jazz-inflected pop heard on their prior two albums.
“True Companion” didn’t really do anything to tip Fagen’s hand as to what he had up his sleeve next, and it didn’t have Becker’s input on it, either. Thus, it stands alone, but it’s well worth a visit every now and then.