Story Of A Song: Donald Fagen’s ‘True Companion’ (1981)

Steely Dan’s breakup was officially announced on 17th June 1981 when Donald Fagen gave a scoop to journalist and long-time fan Robert Palmer in the New York Times.

In the interview, Fagen didn’t rule out the possibility that he would one day reunite with Steely co-leader/co-songwriter Walter Becker, but neglected to mention that he had already returned to the studio as a solo artist.

Until a few years ago, I assumed The Nightfly was Fagen’s ’80s debut, but the one-off track ‘True Companion’ preceded it by a year. It was part of the ‘Heavy Metal’ soundtrack, an animated film based on the sex’n’slash fantasy comic book of the same name. Fagen used the song as an excuse to get back into the studio after a few years off.

‘True Companion’ was recorded at Automated Sound in New York and co-produced by Fagen and legendary engineer Elliot Scheiner (Dan helmer Gary Katz was busy producing Eye To Eye’s debut album).

Lyrically, the song seemed to be a ‘Dark Star‘-esque meditation on the spiritually-bereft inhabitants of a spaceship, possibly narrated by God, or at least some kind of omniscient being…

Crewmen of the True Companion
I can see you’re tired of action
In this everlasting twilight
Home is just a sad abstraction

Just beyond the troubled skyways
Young men dream of fire and starshine
I’ve been dreaming of my own green world
Far across the reach of space time

Musically, the track showcased some exceptionally dense Fagen vocal harmonies (prefiguring a similar approach on The Nightfly‘s ‘Maxine’), and typically tasty Fender Rhodes playing by Steely regular Don Grolnick.

But the first half of the tune was almost a mini guitar symphony for Steve Khan. I asked Steve for his recollections of recording ‘True Companion’:

During those years, I think that Donald was trying  to find the confidence to move forward with a solo career because, after Gaucho, it seemed that he and Walter were going to need a long, long break! “True Companion” was one of a few experiments Donald recorded just to test the waters, as it were. To be in the studio with old friends and bandmates like Don Grolnick, Will Lee and Steve Jordan and with Elliot Scheiner engineering, nothing could have felt more familiar. Actually, for working with Donald, things went really fast. I would imagine that I played the electric parts first, then overdubbed the solo, and thereafter the acoustic steel-string. With the Les Paul, I know that I was playing REALLY loud in the room, but I did that because I felt that this was the underlying attitude of the song. It was a blend of subtlety and power. So I tried to give it both…

On the ‘Heavy Metal’ soundtrack album, ‘True Companion’ sat incongruously alongside tracks by Black Sabbath, Grand Funk Railroad, Journey, Sammy Hagar and Stevie Nicks, a state of affairs that no doubt tickled Fagen.

But, most importantly, he had taken his first major steps back into the recording studio, and by late summer 1981 was recording The Nightfly. Almost 15 years later, a reunited Steely Dan also played ‘True Companion’ live on their second comeback tour.


13 thoughts on “Story Of A Song: Donald Fagen’s ‘True Companion’ (1981)

  1. Great piece. And I learned a couple of things! Had no idea Dan played ‘True Companion’ on some dates of that tour (I saw them in Frankfurt in 1996). And wonderful to read Steve Khan’s recollections.
    Naturally I have the s/track CD, but is that a promo 7″ single of the song? Wow. Double Wow if it’s yours!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fagen and Khan also did a duet cover of Thelonious Monk’s “Refections” shortly thereafter on a double album in tribute to Thelonious entitled “That’s the Way I Feel Now” by various artists. GREAT track…GREAT album. Both songs are amongst my favorite songs…EVER!


  3. It is kind of funny Donald would be on an album called “Heavy Metal”, but at the same time it makes sense because it was (supposedly) coined by William Burroughs and there’s a fair amount of sci-fi in Steely Dan and Donald’s back catalog.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Been listening to the Heavy Metal soundtrack off and on since it first came out. Still do. Started with classical and jazz music and continued to branch out to various styles (I’m a drummer). Currently in my 50’s. “True Companion” has always been my favorite piece on this soundtrack for its precision and musicality. It’s so precisely done that it’s almost like a bunch of Lt. Commander Datas were playing it! But of course, it’s simply fine musicianship at work.

    And yes, it *is* pretty funny that Mr. Fagen is on that album with Mr. Hagar, Devo, and the others. It’s about as eclectic a collection of music as I’ve heard. Perhaps that’s why it still sounds good today.

    Liked by 1 person

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