Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Walter Becker, 1950-2017

I had been putting together a short piece about the end of summer and how many of us seem to somehow instantaneously experience a drastic moodswing at the first sign of dusk on Labor Day. The trigger used to be Jerry Lewis singing the first verse of "You'll Never Walk Alone," but that hasn't happened in some time, and with Mr. Levitch's recent passing, sure to never happen again.

As a kid, Labor Day felt like a death sentence. I was ready for bed just as the last of the closing credits of the telethon scrolled to a finish. Why bother with the rest of Monday night when I have to be in school on Tuesday morning?  And still, as an adult, and I use the term loosely, my insides take a nosedive on Labor Day, even though technically, summer will be around for another three weeks, and with the current state of planet Earth, warm weather will be around until January 14th.

Yesterday, I experienced 1977 all over again. I was already in a piss poor mood for the ages, thanks to some general shopwear, when I heard the news about Walter Becker. At first, the blow wasn't as painful as the death of David Bowie, or as shocking as the death of Prince. It was only after spending some time on Facebook and seeing the posts of friends, that it hit me. Becker's death meant more to me than I thought.

One friend decided to play Steely Dan's music all day, and then rank The Dan's records from his favorite on down. I joined in on the discussion and suddenly, I fell into the rat hole, spending the latter part of a miserable afternoon, marveling at the magic emanating from my speakers. There is nothing like this band.

The difference between the music found on Steely Dan's first two records and their last two records--"Aja" and "Gaucho," I don't count those other two--is like the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing a bullet, as the expression goes. This tight, intellectual, and occasionally hilarious rock band that created "Countdown To Ecstasy" in 1973, just four years later, was now an elite duo, with a revolving door of stellar musicians from both rock and jazz, making a new kind of AM hit on "Aja." They were altogether groovy, funky, and hip. They could write three minute pop gems like "Barrytown" and "Rose Darling" and even four minute pop gems with ridiculous guitar solos, like "Reeling In The Years." BODHISATTVA?!" What the hell is that shit? Steely Dan were not of this Earth.

In 1977, I was still all about David Bowie and prog rock and just starting to find the right punk singles that were in my wheelhouse. A few Steely Dan records were in my collection, but they were collecting dust as opposed to spins. Once I heard "Aja," the pristine sound of the record, Steve Gadd's drumming on the title cut, Michael McDonald's vocals on "Peg," not to mention Jay Graydon's solo, I made a bee line for the debut, "Can't Buy A Thrill" and never looked back. Sure, I was still listening to Bowie's "Low" and "Heroes," and Iggy's "The Idiot" and "Lust For Life," but it was Fall, 1977, when I went all in with Steely Dan.  A few weeks shy of 40 years to the date of "Aja's" release, I went all in again, listening to what I could before overdoing it. I hit "Countdown To Ecstasy," "Katy Lied," a much better record than I myself had ranked it on my friend's Facebook wall, "Gaucho," my least favorite, with one of my very favorite tracks, "Third World Man," and "Aja," which transported me back to my elevator-size bedroom on Broome Street, with floor to ceiling albums and just enough room for me to stand and play air instruments.

All of this music, and really, there is not much, seven records in 45 years---I don't count those other two---created by two, one of a kind musicians. Donald Fagen...

...Walter Becker.



David Handelman said...

Yeah at My Old School Steely Dan was the currency that crossed over -- the artsy kids, the jocks, the greasers (as we called them) - couldn't agree about everything but it was the main band playing on the boomboxes at our senior HS class retreat. I agree with you about Gaucho, only one or two good songs, and Aja's gorgeousness is fine but somehow less vital to me than the earlier ones. Katy Lied was aways my go-to but Countdown and Royal Scam are close behind, and Dirty Work is a favorite even though it's got a different vocalist. they're as timeless as Bowie or Talking Heads, a new form.

At the recent run at the Beacon I saw the "Aja" plus hits show, and it was great, but Fagen and Becker walked on and off from separate sides of the stage and barely acknowledged each other during the show. Becker took the mike only once, I guess their show's format - Hey Nineteen - when he got t ramble about whatever the fuck he wanted. It was almost a parody of a drug burnout.

dogbreath said...

After too many years overdosing aurally on heavy metal, I lucked onto the Dan because a local DJ was a big fan & played as much of their stuff as he could get away with. It was like a breath of fresh air: all those cool, crisp & clever songs, the music & performances highly proficient technically, the tight arrangements down to Becker so I read. Those albums were matchless, even with the bus them in / bus them out teams of, admittedly, first class session players, with Becker & Fagen very much in charge. He'll be sadly missed but he leaves behind a fantastic body of work to enjoy.

Noam Sane said...

I was at my college radio station in the fall of 77 when Aja showed up. First of all, the album jacket was gorgeous, shiny and slick and beautiful to hold in your hand. The music? Like nothing ever before, particularly the title track.

Carless, I hiked a mile to the department store over the hill and shoplifted it (sorry, college-poor, I had no choice.) Put it on and climbed inside it for a few weeks. A lot of it (all of it?) has been overplayed and as such it doesn't quite have the power to kill any more. (I recommend the live version of Aja on "Alive in America" as a fresh take - Peter Erskine even nails the stick-click.)

Gaucho is a very good record front-to-back, I've never understood the poo-poo-ers. And Everything Must Go? Great shit, esp. title track. How about "Negative Girl" on Two Against Nature? Prime Dan. The last two are fine efforts.

Becker solo stuff - also good! Check out "Paging Audrey" from Circus Money, a personal fave. And Kamakiriad is more or less a Dan album, what's not to like about that?

Would have loved to do some of those Beacon shows but out of my price range, which I felt was kinda shameful of them. Karma for the shoplift I guess.

Dave Dimartino's book "Do It Again" is a good, informative, breezy look at the band/the boys up through Aja, and available on Kindle.

You stomped it, Walter. We'll miss you.

steves said...

This one really hurt, as Steely Dan had me at "Reelin in the Years." I got to see them in 1974 (with Elliott Randall guesting on guitar), when they and the Doobies opened for Loggins & Messina at Nassau Coliseum...think I paid $9.50 for the ticket. That was the only time I saw them live as the tix prices were prohibitive after that, but that was about as memorable as it gets, IMO. People say that Fagen was the heart and soul of the duo, but I always thought it was Becker. His personal demons, chops and lyrical edge were what gave them their allure, IMO.

I saw a great post at Steve Hoffman Forums yesterday (in a ridiculous old thread titled "Were Steely Dan the American Beatles?") which summed up the Dan for me: "...the brilliant but narrow range of styles, lack of playful charm or sex appeal, absence of ebullience and outgoing personalities, zero standards composed, no love songs to speak of, a hipster emphasis on cold irony, and a name derived from a hallucinatory literary sex toy." To which someone replied, "I've always loved them but could never put my finger on just why until now." I concur.

R.I.P. Mr. Becker. Brooklyn owes the charmer.

Joe said...

Sal, when you put Can't Buy a Thrill in your "under the radar" 100 records and mentioned "Brooklyn," I hearkened back to earlier times when I obsessed over that song. You rekindled that obsession.

I recall a recent article in RS where David Crosby was quoted as saying " I can't imagine a day without a little Steely Dan in it."

SD added value and enjoyment for me and I thank them for it. joe

Anonymous said...

Hello all...no, please remain seated,

Steely Dan music has given me a lot of pleasure for a lot of years. Wherever you are, may all your sneakers be good, Walter.

BTW...Great quote above posted by @steves. Adding to that...there are, like, NO covers of Steely Dan songs. Besides the knuckle-twisting chord changes, the vocal point of view is just too unique, I suppose. Can't imagine there'll be a Dan tribute album.


Sal Nunziato said...


Anonymous said...

Since goddamn FM rock radio is no longer slamming Steely Dan in my ears constantly, I've come to return to an appreciation of just how good they could be. Walter Becker will be missed.

Captain Al

neal t said...

Good tribute. I really like the first of "the other two".

Unknown said...

Great tribute. For me, you nailed it with the line "Becker's death meant more to me than I thought." I feel exactly the same way.

RIP Mr Becker.

Anonymous said...

Hello all...no, please remain seated,

Sal...nice cover of Any Major Dude, a great Dan song. Had not heard that record before. Props to Wilco.


Lesley said...

In this overheated atmosphere—general, not at Burning Wood—several issues have come up after Becker's passing the other day,

First, like almost everyone, I was truly shocked. I'm out of the loop but don't think many people were aware how ill he was. And my emotions surprised me, because though I played the crap out of my SD albums I never felt anything about Becker personally and didn't know much about him.

I had figured out a long time ago that his was the darker sensibility of the duo, because The Night Fly was so much sunnier in its outlook.

Then I started seeing the fanboys taking a piss on SD, within hours of the announcement. That felt truly indecent, tone-deaf, and the ones I saw were just wallowing in their pleasure at, what, speaking truth to power? I remember taking a lot of pleasure in glibly dispatching artists I didn't like. Not sure when I grew out of the glib part and realized that if I'm going to slam a band, record, movie, whatever, I have a responsibility to do it seriously, not like smart high school kids do it, to get the cheap thrill of feeling superior. And of course trivializing someone's death by using it as a chance to spew you opinions is disgusting, as is feeling righteous about the dis and how it may be hurtful to all those who are really grieving the loss and who, by these people's judgment, are wrong and should be told so in no uncertain terms. They're proud of this behavior. Bill Holdship posted yesterday about this, and how the day after Elvis died he was wearing a '68 comeback T-shirt when a hippie girl approached him and made fun of Elvis. I mean, why do people go so far out of their way to be dicks? And then feel *proud of it, like they were speaking truth to power. I know, I'm hopelessly old school and just...old. But really, folks, at long last, do you have no sense of decency?

I love Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied, and Royal Scam the best, with Aja in my 2nd tier and Gaucho just below that. The first two records have some great songs but don't hold together for me as albums. If that makes me a maroon, I'm a maroon.

And lastly, in all the scorn for SD I don't see any acknowledgment of the literary quality of the lyrics, which create a world all their own, oblique and often sinister. Fagen and Becker created a fictional world of losers and paranoia, exploitation and danger just under the surface. In this they were sort of noir songwriters, if that makes any sense. I haven't developed this idea at all, this is as far as I've gotten, and I just came up with the noir association this moment.

And the really last thing: The internet somehow whispers to us that with all these opportunities to air our opinions, we should do so at every opportunity. In the midst of a FB thread celebrating a song, artist, etc., somebody inevitably shows up to say "Sorry, I never liked them." A lot of these people wouldn't do this in real life (though some would, clueless souls that they are). This will come as a surprise to those who go around spraying their opinions everywhere, but the world is not waiting for your every opinion. And God knows I'm not.

Bill said...

This one did hit hard. For many of us growing up in the 70s and the 80s, Steely Dan were the soundtrack of our lives. Rickie Lee Jones' touching write up in Rolling Stone spoke about one of the other things missing 9besides the lyrics) in all the articles about Walter Becker and Steely Dan. And that's sophistication. Steely Dan made complex, adult rock music.

I had a long drive on Monday and listened to Katy Lied and The Royal Scam and Aja and Everything Must Go and Two Against Nature and had a great soundtrack for driving on a sunny Labor Day.

Regarding covers, the Me, Myself, and Irene soundtrack featured mostly Steely Dan covers. Besides the Wilco one Sal linked above, I recall the Ivy version of Only a Fool Would Say That as being pretty good. Full track list here:

Bill said...

And just found this nice Joe Jackson cover:

Anonymous said...

Reading this the first thing the other day hit me hard.
Walter was my contemporary.

1972, "back Jack do it again..." - I hated this band.
I was a Cream, Mountain, Jeff Beck, Allman Bros. guy.

We had friends who loved them. Every #### time at their house - Steely Dan.
So...we are at their house one day and he breaks out this Hash Oil that he brought back from 'Nam. Countdown to Ecstasy hits the turntable.
Skunk Baxter, Denny Dias duel and solo through some amazing songs.
How the heck did I miss this.
I became a fan, an advocate...listen to this.
Funny enough but I liked the darkness of Gaucho, the Royal Scam.

Who is the gaucho amigo
Why is he standing
In your spangled leather poncho
And your elevator shoes
Bodacious cowboys
Such as your friend
Will never be welcome here
High in the Custerdome

Countdown to Ecstasy is on my Desert Island 10 list

PS- check out the Chuck Rainey interview on his site - 2 thing...
1.Gaucho the best


Unknown said...

Our heroes are dying. It's a natural thing, but it sure hurts like hell.
Goodbye, Walter, and goodbye Steely Dan.
You left a mark.

Bill said...

Came across this piano & vocal take on many Dan classics: http://www.allmusic.com/album/fire-in-the-hole-mw0001646689