|Photo: Damon Gray|
"… and yet I feel as much as a secret agent with amnesia as I ever did. I can’t remember who I work for, but I know I’m spying on these people. I probably planted a bomb in their house, you know?" - Walter Becker*
I was 10 when I first fell for Steely Dan, hooked by the haunting refrain the opens the single version of Rikki (Don't Lose That Number), which I categorized alongside Golden Earring's Radar Love, another song with a kind of grim mystery, although my young mind would likely have just called them both "cool." Rikki was the one that stuck, however, and I liked to turn the lyrics, so full of unresolved lines, over in my mind, trying to figure out what was going on, while I marveled equally at the perfect guitar solo, which somehow seemed to answer all those questions.
Gradually, as the 70's wore on, I began to put Rikki together with other songs I heard on the radio: Do It Again, Reeling In The Years, Black Friday - taping them off the radio and starting to realize that this band was a force I needed to reckon with. Then came Deacon Blues, seemingly a betrayal. First of all, it was impossibly slick. Second of all, "Learn to work the saxophone"? What was that? Who spoke like that? Third of all, there were other attractions - punk, nascent new wave, and Electric Ladyland, which I had just discovered.
I remember commiserating with my best friend and musical partner in crime Mike Diamond (yes, that one), saying in effect: "What is this shit?" But Aja, the album that contained that egregious song, was a juggernaut, becoming Steely Dan's first platinum selling album. This was still the height of the Album Oriented Rock radio format, before it calcified into Classic Rock, so that meant airplay for lots of tracks from Aja. Peg was heard, Black Cow, even the lengthy title track, and then Josie. Ah, sweet, dark, funky Josie, the one for whom we "break out the hats and hooters," the one who was "the raw flame, the live wire," who "prays like a Roman with her eyes on fire," and she who causes us to "dance on the bones till the girls say when." What the heck was a "battle apple," anyway? Here again was some of that dark mystery that I had fallen for in 1974, with a salacious undertow that tantalized my 13-year old imagination.
In the midst of the sprung rhythm and pitch-black words came a guitar solo as tidy as the one from Rikki, while pulling against the beat like featherweight taffy. I never got tired of the way it seemed elevate the song out of the murk for a few seconds of bliss. Although I didn't know it at the time, I was coming face to face with Walter Becker in that moment. I bought Aja ASAP and discovered a new world of sarcasm in the liner notes and a new approach to making records. Instead of some equivalent to the four Beatles, there were different musicians on every track, and it was all under the direction of two guys: Becker and Donald Fagen.
There were snapshot-quality photos of the two of them on the inner sleeve, each of them in a kind of disguise. Fagen was at his California rock-god peak, looking tan, handsome, and almost "what's your sign" vapid. Becker was noodling on a guitar, his face framed in long stringy hair and hidden behind dark glasses, a hippie lab rat. There they were, exposed but somehow oblique and unknowable. The message was received: this was not a star trip, this was about the music.
There were also two songs on side two they didn't play on the radio, including the stunning Home At Last, which originated the still under-explored genre of Homeric funk. When I saw Mike again, it seemed he had come to the same conclusion, that Aja was a full-length masterpiece, and was more than happy to make a cassette from my copy.
Aja, and the other albums as I worked my way backwards, gave me that same sense of recognition and acknowledgement that I felt seeing Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove for the first time. There were others out there who looked at the world through black-humored glasses and who used that vision to make perfect art. It wasn't all great - there were some clunky lyrics on the first two albums and a few duff tracks on the third. But the level of quality was astonishingly high, from the almost tender musings on Pretzel Logic and Katy Lied (Razor Boy, Any Major Dude, Rose Darling, Dr. Wu), to the cinematic take-downs of 60's and 70's culture on The Royal Scam (Kid Charlemagne, the title track). There was also science fiction (Sign In Stranger) and hilarious story songs like Everyone's Gone To The Movies and Haitian Divorce.
While it's almost impossible to tease apart Becker and Fagen's individual fingerprints where the songwriting is concerned, I do think it's worth noting that Becker sometimes sang Haitian Divorce in concert. It also employs a reggae beat, something he drew on in some of his solo work. In fact a friend of mine described an encounter where Becker came into a record shop asking for Culture records and ended up buying the whole catalog. For some reason, I also associate telegraphic lines like "semi-mojo/who's that kinky so-and-so" with Becker's interview style. Goddamn he was funny.
While Steely Dan were as album-oriented as Led Zeppelin, post-Aja we also were bequeathed the delights of FM, composed as the title track for a movie so lame it doesn't even rise to the status of a cult classic. Instead of seeing this as a throw-away opportunity, they seized it, composing a lapidary track with sharp rhythms contrasting lush strings arranged by Johnny Mandel, something they'd never tried before. The lyrics satirized the very medium that had made them millions, biting the hand that fed them as surely as Elvis Costello had with Radio, Radio. It's a song that I never listen to just once, and I bought the double-album Greatest Hits mainly for the purpose of listening to it over and over. Way to Hoover my wallet, boys.
Then came Hey Nineteen, the next betrayal. From the toothless guitar sting that opened the song (and at which my older brother marveled - kiss of death), to the old-man tale of woe conveyed in the lyrics, this was a bridge too far. Also, if Aja seemed polished, this was another level altogether. I was not alone in thinking that way - even Rob Sheffield, who just penned a beautiful tribute to Becker (and John Ashbery) wrote as late as 2006 that Gaucho was "so slick it slid right off the turntable into the wastebasket." I was 16 when it came out, thinking I knew it all, and reveling in Bowie, Bob Marley and Bad Brains, I had no interest in even hearing any more of it. See where ideology will get you, kids?
Dolly back, fade to black - then fast forward five or six years and I was a college grad with a student loan coupon book trying to make ends meet. Which is how I ended up agreeing to do some painting in my brother's old apartment for a fee. Before setting up the tarp, rollers, paint, etc., I dug through his LP's for a soundtrack. There was Gaucho - could it really be that bad? Dropped the needle and...dun-dun, dun-dun, the bass clarinets of Babylon Sisters got their hooks in me and when Bernard Purdy's shuffle kicked in, and Fagen started singing those winking, desperate lyrics, I was sold. I had a wider palate of listening by then, including Henry Mancini and Kurt Weill's collaborations with Ira Gershwin, and I heard echoes of the glossy surface in college classics like Roxy Music's Avalon and Scritti Politti's Cupid & Psyche '85 - other artists were catching up and showing the way. I had also read William S. Burroughs (from whence had come "Steely Dan") and Raymond Chandler (from whence comes all L.A. Noir). Finally, I had a little more life experience under my belt, just enough "adulting" to find myself even in Hey Nineteen, laughing heartily at "the Cuervo Gold/The fine Columbian" refrain that ends the song.
Glamour Profession further sealed the deal with its laconic opening refrain: "6:05/Down at the stadium/Special delivery/For Hoops McCann/Brut and charisma/Poured from the shadows/Where he stood..." - I wonder now if that was more of Becker's telegraphy. It's amazing I got any painting done before flipping the disc. The title track hearkened back to Katy Lied with a compassionate sax and complex lyrics about friendship - another triumph. So Gaucho was firmly in the canon, followed by silence.
The Becker/Fagen partnership seemed to have dissolved. Fagen scored a hit with The Nightfly, an autobiographical album with heavy Dan overlap but a more straightforward approach, even including a Motown cover - further clues, at least by omission, to Becker's hand in the compositional side of things. Becker himself was off the map for a while, with rumors of drugs and a semi-retired life in Hawaii, followed by signs of life as a producer of everyone from China Crisis to Rickie Lee Jones.
The decade turned again, and amidst the welcome rumblings of Nirvana, the flowering of the golden age of hip hop, and the atmospherics of trip hop, came a new Donald Fagen album, Kamakiriad, a sleek sci-fi song cycle produced by Becker. I was surprised by the emotional resonance on Kamakiriad, especially in the latter half, including the Becker co-write Snowbound. He also played bass and lead guitar on every track, leading to an immediate call to my cousin where I enthused about the album: the moody, futuristic songs and the gorgeous sound, concluding with: "And Walter Becker has become a MONSTER on bass!" Yes, the guitar work was impressive, but as a bass player myself I was astounded by the combination of technique and feel he put on display. I remembered all the self-deprecating remarks I had read in interviews, how they hired Chuck Rainey and his ilk because there was no way Becker could play that well. Obviously, the man had used his hiatus wisely, woodshedding his way into glory. I felt a surge of vicarious pride. I always knew he was selling himself short!
The Nineties also included the release of Becker's first solo album, 11 Tracks Of Whack, which I didn't give much time to, finding his singing voice a little too idiosyncratic for my taste. Listening now, I hear a wry warmth and the inflections of a wisdom perhaps too hard-earned. Plus, most of the songs are excellent. Sorry, Walter.
By the dawn of the new millennium, the Dan was something my brother and I shared and, during a visit to his office he surprised me by putting on Two Against Nature, the first Steely Dan album in 20 years. It was shockingly good from the jump and I remember saying to my brother: "They sound happier." That was true, but time had not dulled their incisiveness and the album was filled with dubious characters like Cousin Dupree, Janie Runaway, and Jack Of Speed. It sold in the millions, won a Grammy for Album Of The Year, and soundtracked my year, which is when it occurred to me: Becker and Fagen were as uncompromising in their approach as any of my beloved avant gardists like Pere Ubu or Public Image.
They were able to put shifting harmonies, complex chords, diabolically clever lyrics, virtuoso soloing and a bad attitude into a package that millions of people loved - without ever caring whether or not they had an audience. They tried to satisfy themselves above all, pressing on in the face of some pretty dire critical responses. Besides the Sheffield quote above, consider they way their entry in the first Rolling Stone Record Guide ended: "Not the greatest American rock band (by a long shot), Steely Dan remain unquestionably the weirdest." Did they have to add that "by a long shot"?
While I say they didn't care about their audience, that's not quite accurate. I saw them three times in the 2000's and they always seemed genuinely delighted that people were still interested enough - and passionately so - to come out night after night. One of my favorite moments from those shows was at Roseland Ballroom when they pulled out Don't Take Me Alive, that deep cut from The Royal Scam about a man who has taken hostages. They went into the first chorus: "I'm a bookkeeper's son/I don't want to shoot no one," and when we all started singing along, they rocked back from their mics in astonishment, grinning delightedly, and let the audience sing the rest. I realized in that moment that acceptance is a two-way street. As much fun as it was for me to be in their cool kids club, they could also take pleasure in being among their people.
There was one final album, 2002's Everything Must Go, which was perhaps even better than Two Against Nature, although it didn't cause as much of a stir. As Fagen pointed out, "second album in 22 years" isn't as good a marketing hook as "first album in 20 years." It caused a seismic shift in my household, however, becoming the gateway album for my wife who had always been a Dan refusenik. I think I may have forced her to listen to Things I Miss The Most, so full of telling novelistic detail that she couldn't help but relate, and then we were off and running. "They've become the voice of a generation," she remarked in the car once, referring to that song along with The Last Mall and the title track, which limned the dot-com bust like a Douglas Coupland short story while seemingly predicting the financial depredations of 2008. There was also the fun of Pixeleen, with its cyber-heroine and her "flash of spectacular thigh," leading to the image of Becker and Fagen watching the first season of Alias like the rest of us.
Slang Of Ages featured a lead vocal from Becker for the first time, which I admit took some getting used to, but eventually integrated itself into the album as a whole, partly on the strength of wicked one liners like "Damn, she skipped dimensions/Was it something that I said?" and the uncanny blend of his wry rasp with the ever-tasteful backup singers. Everything Must Go also ever-so-slightly loosened the reins, leading to a more charged and dynamic album than Two Against Nature.
While Steely Dan had gone on the road in 93 and 94, it was in the 2000's that they became true tour bus denizens. They booked extensive live dates every other year, including residencies at New York's Beacon Theater, where they were the only potential rivals to the legendary stands by the Allman Brothers. It was there that I saw them for the last time, performing Aja straight through as well as a set of other favorites. It was as excellent as the other shows I had seen, with Becker in fine form on guitar, holding his own alongside a fiery Jon Herrington, and delivering his usual Hey Nineteen monologue with aplomb.
Somewhere amidst the touring, Becker managed another solo album, Circus Money, which had its moments, especially in the impressively assured reggae numbers - I guess all those Culture CD's proved effective! However, that album along with Fagen's enervated Morph The Cat only heightened my desire for them to create together again. Alas, it was not to be.
While there is more in the vaults than we were originally led to believe (including The Second Arrangement and Kulee Baba, both wonderful Gaucho outtakes), the moment has come for acceptance that what we will know about Becker and his achievements has already been revealed. Or, if not exactly revealed, such are the layers of obsfucation and misdirection in his output, at least made available for our delectation. There's more than enough there to keep us listening, laughing, pondering, and marveling at least until California tumbles into the sea.
Here's a playlist of deepish cuts from the Becker/Steely Dan catalog, many of which are my personal favorites. What are yours?
A note on concert recordings: Unfortunately, the only official live album Steely Dan has released (so far), Alive In America, from the 1994 tour, was a misfire. The sound quality was only OK, many guitar solos were marred by the overuse of a chorus pedal, and, perhaps most damning of all, drummer Dennis Chambers seemed to be having a rare off night. I've listened fairly extensively to bootlegs over the years and the one I keep returning to was recorded in Dallas on the same tour and featuring the same musicians, but with far more satisfying results. It's also twice as long. Seek it out for its full, rich sound and committed performances, especially a blistering Bodhisattva and a molasses-slow, dreamy take on Third World Man.
*From an interview with Dave DiMartino
*From an interview with Dave DiMartino