John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Legacy of Walter Becker

Steely Dan created some of the smartest music ever written.

By - Sep 5th, 2017 03:19 pm
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Walter Becker. Photo by Arielinson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Walter Becker. Photo by Arielinson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Why did Steely Dan often feel like a guilty pleasure for me? It has something more to do with my repressed Catholic upbringing, I suppose. I always felt I had to be sneaky about things I liked. Also, I liked being sneaky. The first time I heard “Do It Again” it was obvious this band knew a whole lot more than their contemporaries. My love was unleashed when I background singers started intoning “Going to Lost Wages.” This was so long ago I can’t tell you which came first, that stellar number or “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number.” It was a one-two punch that knocked me over with smarts, soul and sense of surreal melancholy that you could probably just call Steely Dan-esque. I would be a fan, openly, secretly, and then openly again, from that point forward.

Walter Becker, the guitarist, bassist and mostly non-singing half of Steely Dan, died on Sunday, September 3rd. They still haven’t revealed the cause; he was 67. For a group that emerged in the early 70’s, they both fit the times, with long, picky and very expensive record productions, but also didn’t. What were they singing about? Those lyrics were strange, not to mention a band name that was an off-color reference (to a dildo in William Burroughs‘ novel, The Naked Lunch). And what the heck was with those chords? I lost the ability to learn their songs somewhere around “Rikki…” The solos were way out of reach for me, I only had ten fingers. They were so unlike a lot of the pop and pap that that filled the airwaves at the time. Simply put, this band was over qualified.

Most striking was the tartness and paranoia about their lyrics. I got out of college just as they were about to explain words like existentialism. Listening to Steely Dan, I felt like I was continuing my education and listening to great rock and roll at the same time. I got my useless non-degree and even attempted one of their songs every once in awhile, knowing very well a few semesters at Berkeley would probably be the only way I’d be able to.

Then came the silly bout of guilt. It’s hard to explain, except I noticed the band was huge with guys and I never really heard women going on about them. And some people accused them of being geeky and mere craftsmen. Mere is a funny word when it’s applied to guys who play their butts off. All the shredding from original guitarist, Jeff Skunk Baxter, left young guitar slingers with slack jaws and probably contributed to the perception the music was some kind of jazz/fusion. But in certain circles, the ones described in the great Robbie Fulks song “Roots Rock Weirdos,” this level of sophistication was downright suspicious. Luckily, I married a woman who was as big a fan as I was and I quit worrying about silly things like that. Finally, a few years back, I saw them perform. They were astounding.

“Deacon Blues” and “Hey Nineteen” are near the top of my list. Both lyrics are quotable and constitute hooks even without the fine arrangements or Fagen’s super-underrated singing. Beyond that, they tell a story and frankly, qualify as some kind of upper middle class blues. Not a class I can direct a lot of empathy toward, but everybody gets to suffer on this planet, and they expressed a kind of out-of-it alienation that sounds genuine. “They call Alabama the Crimson Tide, Call Me Deacon Blue.” I can’t imagine a hipster in any scene or any time, who wouldn’t kill to have written that line. As for, “Hey Nineteen, that’s ‘Retha Franklin,” the gulf between the aging roue’ and his barely legal paramour sounds so immense you want to scream at both of them to run as fast as they can in the opposite direction.

It’s always good to acknowledge your betters (though I’d prefer not to  do it all the time). These guys were on that high shelf, out of reach for mortals, and it’s really humbling. But that won’t stop me from enjoying something that feels like a very necessary kind of medicine. Without apologizing one bit for their expensive educations and relative privilege, they managed to share their obvious gifts with millions. You can’t help it if you were born to the manor. But you can, at some point, give back in the best way you know. Steely Dan did that. Too smart for the room, but somehow indispensable to the 40 million who bought their records. Is it possible to be an uncompromising artist and extremely popular at the same time? Somehow these guys did it. The world may be smarter than we think and if it is, they helped with that. Donald Fagen has vowed to keep the music alive as long as he can. It will outlive him and then some. I hope Walter Becker knew that as he left this plane for whatever the next one might be.

6 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: The Legacy of Walter Becker”

  1. Daniel Holway says:

    Robbie Fulks doesn’t have a song titled “Roots Rock Nazis”.

  2. Kevin Keefe says:

    Beautifully said. I’ve had a number of friends who were always putting the Dan down, implying they were somehow inauthentic, as if authenticity requires that you don’t know shit about harmonics and music theory. Ridiculous. Becker and Fagen give the listener something to aspire to.

  3. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Out on the dance scene, everyone was always dancing to Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. A song of the times.

  4. Bruce Murphy says:

    Daniel, you’re correct, Fulks’ song was called “Roots Rock Weirdos,” corrected.

  5. Thomas says:

    STEELY DAN was chiefly about music. Their lyrics were clever, but they did not matter as much as the music. Walter Becker gave Don Fagen, his musical partner, beautiful music that lifted pop songs to art song status. His guitar solo on”Reeling In the Years” turned an otherwise unremarkable complaint on lost love into an iconic reflection. (Imagine if you will a Walter Becker guitar solo on, say, Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” or “Idiot Wind.”)

    I dig John’s guilt re digging “Steely Dan” because SD was primarily a pop band with jazz enhancements. That said, STEELY DAN added sophistication to pop music that made us listen to them on the radio and at their concerts with more attentive ears than we customarily devoted to pop music , due in part to Fagin’s unique perspectives – moreover due largely to Becker’s guitar enhancements to the works of STEELY DAN.

    This electronic wake for Walter Becker makes me feel blessed to have heard the music of a great musician and doubly blessed for a dialogue on same.

  6. Jumpy Snark says:

    Thomas, Becker did not play the guitar solo on “Reelin’ in the Years.” I thought everybody knew that.

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