*Steely Dan, Donald Fagen (L), Walter Becker, (R)
“I cried when I wrote this song, sue me if I play too long, this brother is free, I’ll be what I want to be…” – “Deacon Blues,” Steely Dan
I almost never take a vacation. It’s one of the many things that drives my wife crazy. My work life is such that whenever I leave for some time-off, I return typically to face some kind of dystopian nightmare of problems and an enormous pile of punishing work. My corporate overlords have seen to it that it’s just not worth it to leave. Somehow my wife, the Rock Chick, convinced me to do back-to-back trips to end the summer this year… she can be… persuasive. The first jaunt was our Jack Kerouac trip to Denver to see Depeche Mode, which turned out great. The second of our two trips was to head out West again to visit my in-laws. Not quite a Depeche Mode trip… family, what are you gonna do? So it was with great surprise and grief that, whilst out on our travels/travails I learned that Walter Becker, founding member of one of my all time favorite bands, Steely Dan, had passed away. Damn it! To quote my friend Bob, Steely Dan “enriched my life.” This one hit me hard.
Steely Dan, despite never having a ton of hits, were ubiquitous when I was growing up in the 70s. They were always on FM rock radio. Their 1977 album ‘Aja’ is etched into my memory. “Deacon Blues” may be my unofficial theme song… it certainly was in junior high. ‘Aja’ was my first Steely Dan LP purchase and I slowly worked my way backward. Kansas City’s local rock radio station, KY/102 (God, how I miss that station), used to play “The Daily Dan,” which featured two (or maybe it was three) Steely songs in a row. Only Led Zeppelin (“Get the Led Out”) received such regal treatment on that radio station.
I can still remember in junior high school, riding home on the bus and listening to the stoner kids in the back of the bus, arguing about Steely Dan. The jocks all sat up front and the flannel-shirted, long-feathered-hair kids sat in the back. Naturally I gravitated backwards toward the misfits. They would argue the most bizarre rock and roll shit. I remember two of them coming to blows, literally punches thrown, after one kid suggested that had he lived, Jimi Hendrix would have turned to jazz. These were serious rock and roll fans. The Steely Dan argument would rage on over my entire junior high era. It goes back to the eternal question, were they rock? They were too jazzy or jazz-influenced, the naysayers would yell. They’d suggest they only had one decent riff, “Reelin’ In The Years.” The defenders would point to the flawless production and sound… smoke something then put them on, they’re like Pink Floyd, headphones music, they’d say. The talent of the musicians clearly meant they were rock. And besides, “Bodhisattva” was a great riff too… and back forth it would go.
What always draws me in is the lyrics. Becker and Fagen were always so amazingly literate and witty. I mean, you have to be pretty bookish to name your band after a dildo from William Burrough’s Naked Lunch. The lyrics were always cryptic at first but after a number of listens you began to realize perhaps there was more to the story. “Kid Charlemagne” was about a drug dealer. (I still like to yell, “Is there gas in the car? Yes there’s gas in the car,” which may explain why nobody asks me to drive anywhere). “Home At Last” was the story of Odysseus floating past the Sirens as much as it was about being stuck in a bad relationship. The humor and the intelligence of the writing was razor sharp. “Chain Lightning” was the story of two Nazi SS Officers going back to a spot where Hitler spoke… I could go on and on. Where Becker/Fagen found that brilliant, creative lyricism is awe-inspiring. I always thought, incorrectly, that Becker wrote all the lyrics and Fagen wrote the music. I’m not sure how I came under that misconception, they were a great writing team. Another bonus for Steely Dan in the eyes of B&V was the large number of booze references in their songs… from scotch whisky to black cows these guys knew their booze.
Becker, besides being a great songwriter and producer actually began in Steely Dan playing bass guitar. He and Fagen had moved to Los Angeles, after failing to get anything going with their songs in New York. Eventually their long time producer, Gary Katz, convinced them to form a band to help them sell their songs. Denny Dias and Skunk Baxter handled the guitars. Fagen, who suffered from stage fright, relegated himself to playing piano and they brought in David Palmer as an additional lead singer. It took years for me to figure out “Dirty Work,” sung by Palmer, was actually a Steely Dan song. Eventually they realized people liked the songs Fagen sang better so Palmer eased out of the band before their second album, “Countdown To Ecstasy.” By 1975 and the release of ‘Katy Lied,’ Becker had moved to guitar and Fagen was the only founding member left. Although to be fair, Denny Dias stuck around on rhythm guitar until they called it quits in 1981. By then Steely Dan had quit touring and had become, like the Beatles before them, a studio band. Becker and Fagen would augment the band in the studio with a ton of session musicians. They were the first band who I heard given the moniker of “studio perfectionists.” That certainly comes across when I listen to the vinyl versions of those records now. The sound is striking.
When you look at the Steely Dan discography, it’s pretty “choice” to quote those back-of-the-bus stoners of yore. ‘Pretzel Logic,’ ‘The Royal Scam,’ ‘Aja,’ and ‘Gaucho’ were all albums any band would kill for. The albums were all brilliant, cohesive works of art. Each LP a rich tapestry of catchy music with lyrics about the oddest assortments of creepy losers you’re ever going to find. One might call their songs “noir.” Unfortunately, they spent so much time recording ‘Gaucho’ that tensions began to rise. Becker was sued after his then-girlfriend OD’d in his apartment. He was hit by a car and broke his leg. They did so many retakes of the songs on ‘Gaucho’ I think Becker and Fagen just ground each other down. And so, in 1981, they broke up.
Becker moved to Hawaii where he continued to struggle with his budding heroin addiction. One of my favorite stories about Becker and Fagen, as friends, was one I read about that separation. Becker and Fagen had been friends and bandmates since they met at Bard College. Professionally estranged and geographically separated, Becker in Hawaii and Fagen in New York, Fagen continued to reach out to Becker. I read that Fagen would go out to jazz clubs to listen to the old jazz guys who were still alive and playing. Some of the jazz guys would recognize him, some wouldn’t… Steely’s music was always heavily influenced by jazz and both Becker and Fagen loved jazz. Anyway, whether recognized or not, Fagen would always wander up between sets and get an autograph from whomever he was watching. When he got home, he’d stick the napkin in an envelope and mail it off to Becker, who he knew was battling addiction. No note, no commentary, just a cocktail napkin with some semi-famous sax player’s name scrawled on it. I don’t know why but I’ve always found that touching.
Eventually, after a full decade had passed, Becker who had kicked heroin reunited with Fagen at one of those ‘New York Rock And Soul Revue’ things Fagen and Micheal McDonald put together. They ended up each producing the other’s next solo album. Finally, after twenty years they officially reunited to record ‘Two Against Nature,’ which actually won the Grammy for best album. I love, love the song “Jack of Speed” from that record. The magic was still there. They followed that album up rather quickly with ‘Everything Must Go’ in 2003, which I enjoyed, although not like ‘Two Against Nature.’ I had hoped, all these years later, that perhaps there would be another Steely Dan album. Group’s like Steely Dan putting out late period records is the reason I started this blog in the first place… Alas, now there will be no more new Steely Dan.
This is another in a series of huge losses in the world of rock n’ roll. Donald Fagen put out a very touching note about his friend and musical partner over the weekend. He says he’s going to keep Becker and his music alive for as long as he’s able. I hope he does… the world is better off when those songs are being played somewhere… and yes, “Bodhisattva” does rock…
Take care of yourselves out there…