Imagine a world in which Chevy Chase, rather than being the award-winning comedian and actor that he is today, was, instead the drummer of jazz-rock outfit Steely Dan. I know, I’m in love with the idea as well. Amazingly, and as astonishing as it sounds, that bizzare fantasy was very nearly a reality.
Chevy Chase is something of a legend in his own right. After founding the underground comedy troupe, Channel One, in 1970, he went on to become a writer and actor on both National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live. Once named the “funniest man in America,” Chase quickly became a household name, establishing himself as a key force behind the immense success of Saturday Night Live and, indeed, one of the show’s defining contributors. Today, most people know him as the high and mighty ‘Pierce’ from the US sitcom Community and a somewhat disgraced actor. But, before all of that, he was a student of acting at Bard College in upstate New York. It was here, that he made friends with two nerdy musicians, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.
Chase was certainly a big name on campus. His joyful and frequently surreal personality seemed to seep from every pore. He joined the college as a pre-med student, but soon transferred to the acting course. He quickly became known for his slapstick comedy routines, physical style, and absurd sense of humour, which led to him inventing one of his signature bits, a routine in which he reportedly stuck forks into his orifices. I don’t know how such a thing can be figurative, but, for Chase’s sake, I really hope it was.
As he clarified in a 2009 interview, he was eventually expelled for keeping a live cow in his room. A few years prior, however, Chase had started jamming with a couple of different bands around the college, one of which was a particularly, or perhaps intentionally, “bad jazz band” called The Leather Canary, which was fronted by Chase’s two friends Becker and Fagen.
It’s possible Chase attracted the attention of the soon-to-be Steely Dan musicians because he possessed perfect pitch. He’d played keyboard and drums for a few bands and was known for being absolutely dead on both rhythmically and melodically. As Fagan once recalled: “We went to college with Chevy and before we ever thought of the idea of Steely Dan we used to do pickup dates with Chevy on drums. He was a very good drummer.”
Chase would also go on to play keys and drums for the psych-rock outfit, Chamaeleon Church, who recorded one album for MGM Records before disbanding in 1969. Chase has said that he was enraged to find that the producer, Alan Lorber, made significant alterations to his drum tracks, which included the muting of his bass drum.
After college, Chase worked his way through a stunning variety of occupations before eventually finding a foothold in the world of comedy in the 1970s. By that time he’d worked as a cab driver, truck driver, motorcycle messenger, construction worker, waiter, busboy, fruit picker, produce manager in a supermarket, audio engineer, salesman in a wine store, and theatre usher. But none of it, I imagine, compared to those heady days when he was sat behind the kit with two musicians who would go on to write some of the most iconic outsider rock anthems of the ’70s.