The Legacy of Walter Becker
Steely Dan created some of the smartest music ever written.
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.
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.