The Dan

I was truly saddened by the death of Steely Dan’s Walter Becker earlier this week, and I was going to write something about him and Donald Fagen when I remembered that I’d already done so back in October 2007. I found the piece, re-read it and cannot add a single thing to it. Here it is.

No Pumpkins Here

After revealing my love for the music of ABBA and the BeeGees last week, I got an email from a Reader:

Okay, I can’t believe you like that commercial crap, with your taste in classical music and all. What is your favorite kind of music then?

Leaving aside the classical music for a moment, to concentrate on errrr “modern” music, I have to say that I prefer complex music when it comes to pure listening pleasure.

“Favorites” is a loaded term, because in making that decision, it almost depends what I last listened to.

You all know about my “art rock” preferences (eg. Genesis, King Crimson, Yes, Happy The Man, and Jethro Tull), so I’m not going to talk about that stuff here.

Those who know my dislike for jazz, however, may be surprised by a band whom I absolutely love, and whose albums I have in their entirety: Steely Dan.

There is a need and a time for straight-ahead rock, and then there’s a time to enjoy the dense, complex music patterns of Messrs. Fagen and Becker.

I started off with Steely Dan’s Royal Scam album—I’d heard their earlier hits like Reeling In The Years, but for some reason I never got round to listening to their albums. Then, on a whim one day, I bought Royal Scam along with a couple of other tapes, to listen to on a long car trip I was taking.

For the next four days, the Steely Dan album was the only music I listened to—none of the others could hold up. To this day, if I hear a single song off the album, I have to get the CD out and listen to the rest.

Lots of words have been written about Steely Dan’s music, so I’m not really going to add many of my own to the chorus. Suffice it to say that whenever someone asks me to list my favorite songs of all time, it’s really difficult for me—because I can’t even list my favorite Steely Dan songs, so much do I enjoy them. The arrangements are tight and dense. I use the word “dense” a lot with their music, because there’s really no other way to describe the busyness—there’s always a lot going on with the instruments, but even within each instrument, all sorts of stuff is happening. (The next time Donald Fagen plays a straight major chord will probably be his first.)

And all the musicians who’ve ever played with Fagen and Becker have been artists and craftsmen of the highest order. To see exactly how good these guys were, you have to try and play a few Steely Dan songs—and I don’t mean an approximation of the song, I mean an exact copy of the song, to see how good these guys really were. I think I only ever managed a few: The Fez, Don’t Take Me Alive, With a Gun [duh], and Boston Rag. Players like Skunk Baxter, Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton were the norm, not the stars—and current bassist Freddie Washington is beyond astonishing in his virtuosity.

But above all, one has to allow that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker themselves are brilliant musicians, and beyond-brilliant composers and arrangers. The cerebral, cultured Fagen and explosively-funny, irreverent Becker combine to make music that is… cerebral, cultured, funny and irreverent. And just to make things more confusing, they look like a pair of Ivy League college professors:

I’m also love with, in addition to the music itself, the wry, ironic feel to the lyrics and melodies. This is really unusual for me, because when it comes to that kind of thing, I’m an unashamed sucker and romantic. Hell, I’ve shed many a tear on maudlin ballads of the Streets Of London genre, but of course, tears are not what comes from listening to the hip, sly and obscure Steely Dan lyrics—that would not be cool, after all; and “cool” is a word which describes Steely Dan’s music better than any other. “Cool”, in lesser hands, could easily lead to “cold”, but it’s impossible to feel that way when listening to, say, Any Major Dude or Pretzel Logic.

And if you can’t see the comic genius and intellect of the people who wrote this letter and this article, you’re beyond redemption.

For the musicians among my Readers, I tend to prefer Skunk Baxter’s guitar work over Larry Carlton’s, not for any technical reasons—Carlton is a genius—but simply because I like Baxter’s sound for this kind of music. But that doesn’t stop me from preferring Royal Scam (a “Carlton” album) to any other of their offerings.

Did I imply from the above that I have a “favorite” Steely Dan album? Well, maybe. Royal Scam is certainly the first among equals, but then again, that’s just because I haven’t heard Countdown To Ecstasy or Pretzel Logic recently.

So I’m going to go and remedy that situation, right now. You could do worse than follow my example.

If you’ve never heard Steely Dan before (and there may be one or two sad souls who haven’t), and you like your music to have a complex, slightly jazzy feel, then here’s Amazon’s main Steely Dan page. Help yourself, to any one. You will not be disappointed, regardless of your choice; and how many bands can you say that about?

(I’d recommend the Citizen Steely Dan set for a starter choice, myself.)

And of course, not all Steely Dan’s lyrics were cynical and ironic.

Charlie Freak had but one thing to call his own
Three weight ounce pure golden ring no precious stone
Five nights without a bite
No place to lay his head
And if nobody takes him in
He’ll soon be dead

On the street he spied my face I heard him hail
In our plot of frozen space he told his tale
Poor man, he showed his hand
So righteous was his need
And me so wise I bought his prize
For chicken feed

Newfound cash soon begs to smash a state of mind
Close inspection fast revealed his favorite kind
Poor kid, he overdid
Embraced the spreading haze
And while he sighed his body died
In fifteen ways

When I heard I grabbed a cab to where he lay
‘Round his arm the plastic tag read D.O.A.
Yes Jack, I gave it back
The ring I could not own
Now come my friend I’ll take your hand
And lead you home.

R.I.P. Walter

 

10 comments

  1. To me, Steely Dan will always be “The Sound of the 70’s.” Not raucous and rebellious like the 50’s, not heavy and protest-y like the 60’s, but cool, smooth and sophisticated – the kind of sound you’d hear coming out of the speakers of a high-end audio system in a hip bachelor pad.

    Unlike other “classic rock” songs of the era, Steely Dan generally hasn’t been overplayed on the radio so much that it’s lost all connection to its era.

    Hearing a Steely Dan song can instantly transport me back to my youth.

    1. It’s strange, but when I listen to one of their songs, I can almost see that hip bachelor pad, complete with a fantastic view of a night lit urban landscape outside, carefully muted track lighting, and glass coffee table with suspicious patches of white residue.

  2. In terms of clever lyrics I think “Kid Charlemagne” has to be one of my favorites. So many great lines!

    “All those day-glo freaks who used to paint the face/They joined the human race/Some things will never change”

    “Careful what you carry/’Cause the man is wise/You are still an outlaw in their eyes”

  3. I used to design and build monitor-balanced clean high-output home audio speakers as a sort of hobby/sideline.

    For years, the only albums I would use to taste-test and exhibit my finished products were Aja or Gaucho.

    Such a wonderful clean tight sound. They could make any speaker sound good.

    1. Beat me to it.

      Whenever I’m trying to judge a new set of headphones or an audio system, I play some Steely Dan.

  4. I am one of those who also knew about Steely Dan long ago, before some of the people hopped onto the train. I am an aging sax player, and learned a lot back in the day just from listening to some of the more obscure tunes that didn’t make it on the radio, but were instead hits for those of us who were in the know. One favorite of mine came from Donald Fagen, his first solo studio album, called The Nightfly. The song is Maxine, and is perhaps a perfect song to showcase the entire album and it’s flavor. I especially loved it because the sax solo on it had the same sound that I had, and I was young and so I just found it cool. Perhaps best known on that album is I.G.Y., not my favorite, but a good tune also.
    You can feel the absence of Becker on this album, not necessarily in a bad way, but it is there. Now, we have sadness of his absence always. The hell of it is that Steely Dan is scheduled to perform near me next month.

    1. Having spent some time in a broadcast studio, in a tiny market, late at night, “The Nightfly” will always be one of my favorite albums. “New Frontier” and “Walk between the raindrops” being my favorites on the album. And Mel Torme does a cover of “Walk between the raindrops” that is sublime.

  5. It’s grown-up music. The older I get, the more the lyrics resonate with me personally.
    “Deacon Blues” especially.

  6. They were nothing if not tight. Having been to a couple live shows, the flavor and quality of the live performances were, if anything, tighter than the studio work.
    Skunk Baxter is amazing, and extra cool because he is a Department of Defense consultant.

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