Steely Dan and me: One for Walter

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With all the bad news inundating the Internet this month, there may have been one little item that escaped your attention.

On Sept. 3, 2017, Steely Dan bassist and co-founder, Walter Becker passed away at the age of 67. The news outlets, including Becker’s personal website, have kept strangely mum about the cause of death. They usually do, but I guess it doesn’t matter. One of the creative lights of American popular music has winked out.

This is not an obituary, I want to make that very clear. Nor is this a retrospective. No, brothers and sisters, what I want to share with you is Becker’s music. Becker’s music and what it meant to me growing up. There will be a little history, sure, but I promise to keep it to a minimum.

Let’s begin with who Walter Becker was, and why his music matters.

A brief biography should help us accomplish the former. Walter Becker grew up with his grandparents in Queens, NY. According to his longtime bandmate Donald Fagan, Becker had an unhappy childhood that left him rather cynical about human nature. Even so, it seems that not even a rough time coming up could take Becker’s passion for music from him and he pursued the saxophone throughout his teenage years.

Becker met Donald Fagen at Bard College in 1967, and while the rest isn’t exactly history it was the start of something. A few years, and various bands, later Becker and Fagen settled on a name for their personal project. That name was Steely Dan, after a sex toy mentioned in William S. Burroughs’ smack-dazed novel Naked Lunch.

I could go through Steely Dan’s music album by album, and have enormous fun doing so, but I won’t.

After all, I only have so much space allotted. Instead, I will just give you an idea about the general shape of their music. In the simplest terms, Steely Dan blended jazz, funk, and rock in a way that no one else had ever done before. Because both Becker and Fagen had real skill as musicians, they could really express the jazz part of their mix. Complex polyrhythms, call and response, improvisation, they did it all. And they did it with style. The jazz even seemed to filter into their lyrics. While Steely Dan used a standard rock structure for their lyrics, the lyrics themselves were often…elliptical. And this was when they weren’t downright enigmatic. Really, even their most straightforward material needs a few listens before you can tease the meaning from the verses.

But what, you might ask, does Walter Becker have to do with me, your humble narrator?

Nothing much and quite a lot would be my answer. For one thing, my grooving on Steely Dan goes right back to my diaper days. This, though it might sound very much like it, is not hyperbole. Some of my earliest musical memories are of my father playing “Pretzel Logic” on one of the many long trips to my grandparents’ home. When I was four, I drank in the striding piano lines of “Rikki, Don’t Lose that Number.” I devoured Donald Fagen’s plaintive vocals on “Barrytown.” The music seemed to speak of a world founded on outrageous hipness. A place so cool polar bears had to wear parkas. Even so, I took the music for granted, as children often do. Steely Dan was just part of the fabric of my life in those days. Like “The New Adventures of Johnny Quest” or “The Lion King.”

It wasn’t until my very early teens that I truly began to appreciate Steely Dan. As with most people, my teen years were difficult. I lived, for the most part, in my head. Doing so gave me a rich mental life, but left me with no social life to speak of. Isolation became my default state of being.

That’s when I really got Steely Dan.

Not the mechanics of their music, that came later, but the undercurrent of dark and subversive humor. Becker and Fagen seemed to look at the bleak lives of the characters in their songs and laugh. Not in a cruel way, but with a kind of off-kilter mirth that de-fanged the tragedy. I could certainly relate. Not to the tragedy exactly, but the resilience that finding the humor in imparted. I realized that there were depths to Steely Dan that I had never imagined. I began listening to them almost everyday, even playing them at night as I fell asleep. Steely Dan’s music opened up new vistas of imagination for me, as well as giving me something of an anchor.

All that is why Walter Becker’s death affects me so personally. Without his music, my life would be all the poorer and I would never even have known it.

Keep listening, everybody.

 

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