It's not easy being a Steely Dan fan. After a string of impeccable, sardonic hits like ''Do It Again,'' ''Hey Nineteen,'' and ''Rikki Don't Lose That Number,'' the group released its eighth album in 1980 and then quietly broke up. Its two founders singer-keyboardist Donald Fagen and bassist-guitarist Walter Becker lay low. Fagen, who still lives on Manhattan's Upper East Side, released one decent-selling solo album (The Nightfly) in 1982 and contributed to soundtracks, while Becker retired to Maui (reportedly due to a drug problem) and produced albums by obscure young acts.
Yet rock radio never stopped playing the group's records. Its albums are among MCA's top backlist sellers (a boxed set is in the works), and a Dan fan club still exists. When you consider the band's mystique, the nostalgia its songs induce in fans, and those fans' yearning for a reunion, Steely Dan has become nothing less than the Beatles of the '70s generation.
Now, with any luck, 1992 may finally be the year that Danheads get to see Fagen do it again. As part of the New York Rock and Soul Revue a rock and soul oldies band that plays club dates around Manhattan and often features Phoebe Snow, The Band's Rick Danko, and other pop fogies Fagen reappeared last fall on the group's album Live at the Beacon. Even more encouraging, Fagen is wrapping up his long-overdue second solo record, which he began seven years ago.
''I guess you could call it a block,'' he says of the delay. With his wire-rimmed glasses and short, gray-flecked hair, he could pass for a harried city dentist on a day off. ''After The Nightfly, I wasn't sure what to do musically. I wasn't inspired to write anything for a few years. The '80s were pretty dull, and musically the context I had been working in had disappeared. What people started to think of as rock music wasn't what I thought of as rock music. You'd hear cooler-sounding things on commercials than on the radio.''
Another disappearing context was Steely Dan's too-hip-to-be-happy attitude. ''The condition of irony is no longer special,'' says Fagen, 44. ''It's become * the normal mode of life. And since that was one of the ingredients of what we were doing, it just became irrelevant, because people didn't need us to point out the irony of things. They just lived it.''
Fagen's new album should be out this fall (the release date has become, he notes wryly, ''a big joke''), although he is vague about its sound: ''It's not a soul record I'm not sure what it is,'' he says. He does allow, however, that he'll release a science fiction-rooted concept album about a man who takes a journey in an ''environmentally correct'' steam-powered car and that Becker is coproducing and playing bass. ''I'm not immune to what's around me, but at least it's not scary anymore,'' he says of coping with the music business. ''It took me a while to realize that I just have to do what I do.''