by Kyle K. Mann
Gonzo Today Contributing Editor and Publisher
(I wrote this on July 28, 2017, but couldn’t publish it. Even now, in July 2021, I am still too close to it all, really. But it’s now or never. I’ve included an updated afterword.)
I felt like I was contacted by Roger yesterday.
It was very upsetting. I wanted to cry. I still do.
I was in the car listening to the O’Jays’ hit song “The Backstabbers.” The song has this dramatic forty-second intro that builds up, complete with a string orchestra, and it’s really well-recorded. Damn, I thought, sounds like Roger recorded this… and then the lyrics started about the Backstabbers, and suddenly I felt like Roger was right there, sitting next to me. I choked up.
The upshot: Roger was backstabbed by Steely Dan.
Audio engineer Roger Nichols was fired by Steely Dan in 2002 during the making of their ironically-titled last album, “Everything Must Go.”
You won’t find this fact on the internet, at least not on any official website. There’s a mention on an internet forum, but that’s it as of this writing, July 28, 2017.
But there it is. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker gave him the boot, after Roger won six Grammy awards with the band. After he tolerated innumerable hours of Fagen and Becker demanding insane numbers of takes. After, indeed, he was the only engineer that would trouble to record their very first demo back in the early 1970s, when Donald and Walter were nobodies.
It killed Roger to get fired like that, after THIRTY years of extreme and extraordinary labor, and then have the original Steely Dan tapes in his care confiscated by thugs that Donald and Walter directly or indirectly sent to his front door in Florida.
Oh, it didn’t kill him right away. But as the years went by, his morale went down incrementally. At age 65 he got pancreatic cancer, and he died at age 66. He was burned both emotionally and financially.
Neither Donald nor Walter attended Roger’s funeral services. Nor did they assist his cash-strapped family, or even send them condolences. When he died, they did the bare minimum on the Steely Dan website by posting a picture of Roger as a kid with his telescope that he had built himself. But that was it.
If you entered his name on the Steely Dan website search engine, Roger’s name came up a lot. A funny memo, numerous credits. But nothing after 2002. [And there is currently one minor mention of Roger, with no photo, as of July 7, 2021. Unbelievable.]
He was fired in the aftermath of 9-11 in New York, where he was recording “Everything Must Go.” 9-11 had hit everyone hard, but it steamrolled Roger with brutal intensity. In his profound depression in the following days, he stopped his signature wisecracks and jokes, which he was justly infamous for. Dude was a funny guy.
Once the recording sessions resumed, Roger was not even given the basic courtesy of being informed that he’d been replaced. He found out second hand. Man, that’s cold.
No more jokes from Roger after 9-11. This apparently was at the core of him being canned. He had only engineered two of the tracks on the album before he was, unbelievably, sacked by the two men with whom he had been so instrumental in helping achieve lofty sonic standards.
After his death in 2011, I spoke at Roger’s services, by the indulgence of Roger’s family. I heard a number of people present express incredulity that Donald and Walter weren’t on hand to pay tribute to him. The New York Times obituary had referred to Roger as “An artist among Sound Engineers,” but neither of those two could make it? Right.
Donald Fagen did give a couple minutes of radio interview with NPR and told a few stories. He has written nothing taking note of Roger, and believe me I’ve looked for it on the web. As far as Google goes, that’s it. No tributes, no acknowledgement. Donald didn’t mention Roger much in his odd book “Eminent Hipsters” though in fact he doesn’t mention Steely Dan much either. It’s mostly about what a drag Fagen’s touring life was. Yeah, no shit.
But the real disrespect came in the money. Roger was promised a “point” (one percent) on the later Steely Dan albums. He never got it. Roger was a generous guy with the credits, and while it is true that Roger had help with recording, the Steely Dan producer Gary Katz points to Roger for the overall brilliance and clarity of the Steely Dan albums. Katz oughta know.
I was horrified that Roger, on his deathbed, was tortured that he was unable to leave any substantial inheritance to his family after their devastating medical expenses. He made a harrowing statement in his final weeks calling for justice. His family turned it into a short video after his death, called “Roger Nichols Deserved Better.” It was only up on Facebook a few hours, then the family pulled it. There is a reference to the video on the Internet forum mentioned in the second paragraph above. Otherwise, it’s nowhere.
So, where’s that leave us?
I met Roger in 1983, and had numerous strange adventures with him, including an unforgettable drive from L.A. to Nashville in a big U-Haul truck. He was an amazing man, and we had a considerable number of interests in common aside from a zany love of driving long distances, including astronomy (we once stayed up all night watching the latest pictures from Neptune’s moon Triton) and the gnarly topic of UFOs. Roger was quite knowledgeable on those and many other subjects, and the 2,000 mile trip was epic in every sense of the word.
Over the years, I learned a lot from him.
He recorded some music I co-wrote with his wife Connie, and I couldn’t have possibly been more flattered when he liked a musical riff I came up with. What an honor. When I showed up at their place in Florida in 2009 on a madcap driving journey along both coasts and borders of the USA, he was nice enough to film part of it down in the Florida Keys. I think he was amused and impressed by my insanity, driving 11,000 miles on a whim.
We hung out in Maui, where I turned him on to my favorite spots. He recorded the waves at Alelele Beach for his “Roger Nichols Project” album at my special hang. I nearly wore that CD out, playing it later back in L.A.
We didn’t always agree. We had a number of tense discussions about nuclear power. I despise it, and Rog was a former nuclear engineer at San Onofre, one of his many astounding skills. But despite the heat of our arguments, in the end we always agreed to disagree.
Roger’s family didn’t ask me to write this. Nor did they ask me not to. I just feel like it’s something I have to do, to feel at peace with myself and Roger’s memory.
It’s after 4AM, Friday July 28, 2017. In a few hours I’m crewing on a television show in L.A.
I don’t want to be up writing this, I should be asleep. But… I wouldn’t have been able to until I got this written, a tribute to a dead sonic soldier, backstabbed by a pair of scumbags who essentially killed their “friend.”
Health is about morale. It’s all connected. We’re all connected.
I was taking care of Roger’s dog Spooky at Roger’s house in Florida when Roger died in Burbank. Spooky missed Roger terribly. I’d take her for walks and feed her, but I was no replacement. That dog collapsed at the same time Roger died, and had to be put down the next day. It was uncanny.
I stared Spook in the eyes as she died, finally on her way to see him. One of the most heartbreaking moments of my life.
So there ya go, Roger. Did I do this right? Did I tell enough of the story to set the record straight? Hey man, next month I’LL be 66. Pretty soon I’ll be older than you ever were. Older. That’s some strange shit, man.
Bless your soul, wherever you are.
Kyle K. Mann
July 28, 2017
OK, it’s four years later. The death of Walter Becker in September 2017 rendered this article an inappropriate read, and other subsequent events made publication difficult. Steely Dan biographer Brian Sweet has since disclosed the basic facts of Roger’s firing, as noted in Wikipedia articles on Roger and Steely Dan. But the information about the unpaid money has remained out of the media, and I feel it’s way past time for Donald Fagen, and Walter Becker’s heirs, to do the right thing. Give Roger’s surviving family that money he was promised.
Roger deserves no less. After all, he earned it the hard way.
Kyle K. Mann
July 6, 2021