Walter Becker

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Steely Dan was always just Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.  Sure, they started out as a real band, but that eventually dissolved and the Fagen/Becker duo performed as Steely Dan with some of the best studio musicians ever.  They were also pretty much a studio band, a record band.  Yeah, they performed live and toured pretty regularly, especially after they reunited and found out how much money they could make touring the nostalgia circuit.  But they were at heart a duo that was best when they were recording.

The duo has now become a solo act with today’s passing of Walter Becker.  He co-wrote most of Steely Dan’s best work with Fagen, played bass and guitar, and was generally just a musical badass.  I am surprisingly saddened by losing Becker, and I’m not sure why.  I’m definitely a fan; they did some of coolest, funkiest, swinging-est, jazziest, most literary rock music ever.  Come to think of it, Steely Dan was pretty much a genre of one; no other musical act as been like them.  Which maybe is what makes Becker’s death so devastating.  No one else was like this act, and no one is ever going to replace him.  Donald Fagen has announced that he will keep Steely Dan’s music alive as long as can after losing his partner and friend, but it will never be the same again.  Half the heart of Steely Dan is gone.

“Black Friday”

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No, I didn’t go out shopping yesterday; I didn’t even shop online.  But I did unpack Steely Dan and various other Christmas decorations today.

A couple of years ago, my mother went out to Home Depot very early in the morning on Black Friday.  She bought about a dozen poinsettias, a couple of odd games we gave as gifts, and a pre-lit artificial Christmas Tree.  I have no idea what happened to the game gifts, but we still have the tree and some of the poinsettias (we lost several over the summer when I didn’t water plants for about three weeks because I was sick and there was a heat wave).

Now people who know me very well know that I like to name things.  My computer, the tea kettle, various and sundry household items (the kitchen timer is a pig that I call Mr. Piggly Wiggly).  I’ve been naming our Christmas trees since I was in high school and Mom made a joke about the tree really being “Irving the Chanukah Bush” (obviously, she named that one, but it’s been my job ever since).  Last year, as I was setting up our Black Friday tree, I happened to remember the Steely Dan song of the same title, and hummed it as I assembled the pieces and straightened the branches.

Part of my naming of things is my contention that I don’t really name anything; eventually, things just tell me their names.  It’s an odd contention, to be sure, but since I subscribe to the notion that all things in the Universe are one, there is no reason why inanimate objects cannot have souls and personalities.  There have been things that have never told me their names, and they remain nameless as I don’t want to call them something incorrectly.  As I was humming the chorus of “Black Friday” (the only part I can reliably remember most of the time), I realized that the tree’s name was Steely Dan.

So Steely Dan is glowing softly in the living room, all his sparkling ornaments adorning his plastic beauty.  I’ll feel a little sad when he wears out, but that’s part of the life cycle of things, too.  As some point, they’ve done their duty and are ready to leave us.  But Steely Dan is only three right now, so we’ve got at least a couple more years together.

“Kid Charlemagne”

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This song just swings.

If you just listen to the jazzy, syncopated music, then you’re dancing away in smokey club in a pleasure-filled, hedonistic haze.  If you listen to the lyrics, you’re in the middle of an episode of Breaking Bad.  This is pretty dark stuff.

Steely Dan did this kind of thing better than just about anybody else.  There’s no context for the story; there never is.  I remember saying once that Steely Dan wrote little novels, but I think short stories is a better description.  Their cynical brand of humor reminds me of someone like T.C. Boyle, which is kind of fitting since Boyle is sort of a rock star among writers.  The characters created by Becker and Fagen are literary, their images are crisp and poetic.  There’s not a single wasted note.

And like most good literature, “Kid Charlemagne” finds its inspiration in the real world.  Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have said that they based this song on Owsley Stanley, one of the LSD gurus that helped make the drug so popular in the 60s.  He worked in the biz as a member of the Grateful Dead’s extended family, working as their sound man.  (His professional name was “Bear,” although he didn’t create the famous dancing bears icon for the Dead.  He was, however, responsible for the Steal Your Face logo, using it to differentiate the Dead’s equipment from other people’s at festivals.)  I have a feeling he had some other duties with the band, as well.

I don’t think there’s much actual truth in this.  There’s a vaguely sinister, slightly paranoid feeling to “Kid Charlemagne” that I think accurately reflects drug culture of the 70s more than anything from the Owsley’s world.  Come to think of it, everything in the 70s was a little more sinister and paranoid.  I wonder if that has anything to do with how I turned out?

Repost: “My Old School”

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Note: I’m a little depressed about the announcement that our local school district is closing the elementary school around the corner from my house.  I have a lot of fond memories of that place (some not so fond ones, too).  It’s been open since 1953, and although there’s been a lot of changes, it seems pretty much the same to me.  Now, there is nothing in this song or post about happy/sad nostalgia over attending elementary school.  I’m also feeling a little lazy, tonight.  I did add video of the song, though.

Note on the video: I love this clip of Steely Dan lip-synching their song on American Bandstand, and while this was the best quality version I could find, the sound also gets a little hinky near the end because the videotape used to record it off TV isn’t pristine.  Sorry about that.

One of my dearest friends hates Steely Dan.  He doesn’t like the slick, jazzy composition, doesn’t think rock and jazz should be mixed (or at least not mixed this way).  I get that.  If Steely Dan were strictly an instrumental jazz combo, they’d be the kind of “smooth” jazz that gets played on the abomination that took over when KMET was murdered (nope, still not over it).  The kind of jazz that Tom Scott plays.  Don’t get me wrong.  Tom Scott is a consummate musician; he just leaves me cold.  Much the same way that Steely Dan leaves my friend cold.

That surprises me and it doesn’t.  He is a fan of classic heavy metal and indie rock; he helped educate me about Sonic Youth (which I’m grateful for).  But he’s also a teacher and writer.  Which is where Steely Dan comes back into this conversation.  See, they are one of the more literate acts ever (heck, they’re named after a sex toy in a William S. Burroughs novel. . .it doesn’t get more literate than that).  That’s the thing I love most about them.  If Paul Simon creates little movies, Steely Dan creates little novels.  Pretty smart and acerbic novels at that.  The only problem with songs is that you don’t have room for a lot of back story.  That’s okay if the song is “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” a classic boy-tries-to-pick-up-girl-in-a-bar story.  It’s a little tougher if the song is “My Old School.”

The basic premise seems to be a break-up between college sweethearts (yes, I said sweethearts).  A messy and confusing break-up that involves a lot of drugs and traveling.  It starts in Annandale and ends up in California, with a side trip to Guadalajara.  I know they’re in college because William & Mary gets mentioned.  After that. . . Just how exactly does she end up “with the working girls in the county jail”?  Why does he want to “take her down to Mexico”?  And precisely who is “Gino and Daddy G.”?  Surrounding this lyrical mystery is a wonderful black key piano riff and some seriously tasty guitar.  The music is flawless, the production as pristine as The Beach Boys or The Shins.  There’s even some perfectly harmonized background singers.  I’m pretty sure all the i’s get dotted and the t’s crossed.  The high quality of the music helps to disguise the anger and lack of resolution in the lyrics.

Which brings me back to what I think might be another reason my friend doesn’t like Steely Dan: They’re not really a band.  Oh sure, there’s more than one of them.  They release albums and even tour on occasion.  And when they do tour, it’s more than just Walter Becker and Donald Fagen up there playing the instruments.  But Steely Dan is a studio creation.  When Becker and Fagen collaborate, they hire a bunch of studio musicians to play their songs the way they want them played.  There isn’t the same kind of push-pull of a true band.  They sound perfectly unified, but a little artificial.  Steely Dan is just these two guys and their fictional friends.  Of course, all writers know that it’s just them and their fictional friends in a room, trying to tell the story.  Anyone else involved gets thanked in the acknowledgements and a cut of the royalties.

Maybe Steely Dan is even more literate (and literary) than I thought.

“My Old School”

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One of my dearest friends hates Steely Dan.  He doesn’t like the slick, jazzy composition, doesn’t think rock and jazz should be mixed (or at least not mixed this way).  I get that.  If Steely Dan were strictly an instrumental jazz combo, they’d be the kind of “smooth” jazz that gets played on the abomination that took over when KMET was murdered (nope, still not over it).  The kind of jazz that Tom Scott plays.  Don’t get me wrong.  Tom Scott is a consummate musician; he just leaves me cold.  Much the same way that Steely Dan leaves my friend cold.

That surprises me and it doesn’t.  He is a fan of classic heavy metal and indie rock; he helped educate me about Sonic Youth (which I’m grateful for).  But he’s also a teacher and writer.  Which is where Steely Dan comes back into this conversation.  See, they are one of the more literate acts ever (heck, they’re named after a sex toy in a William S. Burroughs novel. . .it doesn’t get more literate than that).  That’s the thing I love most about them.  If Paul Simon creates little movies, Steely Dan creates little novels.  Pretty smart and acerbic novels at that.  The only problem with songs is that you don’t have room for a lot of back story.  That’s okay if the song is “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” a classic boy-tries-to-pick-up-girl-in-a-bar story.  It’s a little tougher if the song is “My Old School.”

The basic premise seems to be a break-up between college sweethearts (yes, I said sweethearts).  A messy and confusing break-up that involves a lot of drugs and traveling.  It starts in Annandale and ends up in California, with a side trip to Guadalajara.  I know they’re in college because William & Mary gets mentioned.  After that. . . Just how exactly does she end up “with the working girls in the county jail”?  Why does he want to “take her down to Mexico”?  And precisely who is “Gino and Daddy G.”?  Surrounding this lyrical mystery is a wonderful black key piano riff and some seriously tasty guitar.  The music is flawless, the production as pristine as The Beach Boys or The Shins.  There’s even some perfectly harmonized background singers.  I’m pretty sure all the i’s get dotted and the t’s crossed.  The high quality of the music helps to disguise the anger and lack of resolution in the lyrics.

Which brings me back to what I think might be another reason my friend doesn’t like Steely Dan: They’re not really a band.  Oh sure, there’s more than one of them.  They release albums and even tour on occasion.  And when they do tour, it’s more than just Walter Becker and Donald Fagen up there playing the instruments.  But Steely Dan is a studio creation.  When Becker and Fagen collaborate, they hire a bunch of studio musicians to play their songs the way they want them played.  There isn’t the same kind of push-pull of a true band.  They sound perfectly unified, but a little artificial.  Steely Dan is just these two guys and their fictional friends.  Of course, all writers know that it’s just them and their fictional friends in a room, trying to tell the story.  Anyone else involved gets thanked in the acknowledgements and a cut of the royalties.

Maybe Steely Dan is even more literate (and literary) than I thought.