It happened again last night. Almost exactly as before.
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.
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.
Longtime Readers may recall that I’ve confessed to a guilty pleasure: reading writer John Sandford’s novels (both the Lucas Davenport- and Virgil Flowers sagas). Well, old Lucas is getting a little long in the tooth (although his latest career move seems to have rejuvenated him), and I’m a little iffy about Virgil Flowers’ character, so subconsciously I’ve been looking for a replacement guilty pleasure — and I think I’ve found it.
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Volker Kutscher‘s Inspector Gereon Rath of the Berlin CID’s Homicide Division. Except that whereas Davenport and Flowers are both set in contemporary Minneapolis, Rath is busy solving murders in Depression-era Berlin — to be specific, 1929-1938: one of my all-time favorite periods of history, and my dream setting for a novel*.
I think Rath is one of the best characters in fiction, of any genre, and I am so fortunate to have discovered him. (By the way, I found Babylon Berlin by chance at Foyle’s Books, which makes up for my disappointment at their “modernization” of the venerable establishment.) I read the novel in one night, and went straight back the next day to buy Silent Death.)
And the novels really are terrific: as I said, Babylon Berlin took me just one night to read and Silent Death only a little longer than that, because I didn’t want it to end quickly, so much was I enjoying it. Sadly, only these two (of the half-dozen Rath novels extant) have been translated into English so far, so I won’t be able to binge-read them; but you can be sure I’ll buy the rest as soon as they’re available. (Sadly, my conversational German is adequate, but my literary German is schrecklich, so I’ll just have to be patient.)
Even better, Babylon Berlin has been made into a 16-part TV series for German TV, so if anyone from Netflix is reading this… oh, wait: someone’s on the ball already. I can’t wait.
*I was contemplating writing a companion piece to Vienna Days, to be set in 1928 Berlin, but there’s no need now: Kutscher has relieved me of the responsibility. So: 1900 Budapest it will have to be.
Long before most of us were born, there were The Shadows, probably the greatest “guitar band” ever, judging by the number of #1 hits they had. Yeah, they were also known as Cliff Richard’s backing band, way back in the late 1950s and 60s… and the 70s, and 80s, and 90s, and 00s.
I know, I know: the music is simple by today’s guitar “gods” — and yet, ask any of the modern guitarists worthy of the term, and without doubt almost all — Clapton, Brian May, Ritchie Blackmore, Tony Iommi and others — will speak in respectful tones about Hank Marvin, the Shadows’ lead guitarist, probably one of the great pickers of all time. Other musicians will speak equally as respectfully of Bruce Welch’s rhythm guitar work, the bass lines and Brian Bennett’s drums, which together produced one of the tightest sounds ever.
So hie thee hence and watch the “Shads” in action — or rather, don’t watch them because once again by today’s standards the concert is so understated it’s quite soporific — no clouds of smoke, no strobe lighting, no special effects at all: just the Shadows playing their music — rock, country, jazz, ballads — for over two hours, without a single misplaced note. (Ask any modern rock musician if they can play a two-hour concert without a single mistake, and they’ll give you a rueful look.) There’s something to be said for a fifty-year career playing together…
So don’t watch the whole show; do what I do: watch the first few songs, then carry on with your regular Saturday household activities or Internet surfing, and let the Shadows be your background music for a couple hours. Every so often, you may recognize a tune, and think, “So that’s who did it!” and smile. It’ll happen a lot, especially the smiles.
There’s no need to thank me; it’s all part of the service.
As my life has slowed down to a crawl while I continue my sabbatical Over Here, I’ve rediscovered the joys of reading. (Yes, some of this is because Teh Intarwebz is down a lot of the time, but not all of it.)
Here’s a list of what I’ve read over the past month or so:
- Sniping In France — Maj. H. Hesketh-Pritchard
- Battle Tactics of the American Civil War — Paddy Griffith
- Lost Battlefields Of Wales — Martin Hackett
- Leadership In Conflict 1914-1918 — Matthew Hughes & Matthew Seligmann
- The Secret War: Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939-1945 — Max Hastings
- Europe, 1815-1914 — Gordon A. Craig
- Nationalism, Industrialization and Democracy 1815-1914 — Thomas G. Barnes & Gerald D. Feldman
- Ruined City — Nevil Shute
- The Girl Who Wasn’t There — Ferdinand von Schirarch
- Holidays In Heck and How The Hell Did This Happen? — P.J. O’Rourke
- The Savage Empire: Forgotten Wars of the 19th Century — Ian Hernon
- Flashman On The March — George MacDonald Fraser
- James Purdey & Sons: Two Hundred Years Of Excellence — Donald Dallas
…and about half a dozen anthologies, humorous books and such, as well as the Daily Telegraph every day, and The Times On Sunday each week.
I’m currently working on:
- Prisoners Of Geography — Tim Marshall
- The Year 1000: What life was like at the turn of the millennium — Robert Lacey & Danny Danziger
No, I haven’t done any writing other than this blog. That will come back when I feel the urge again. Right now, I’m topping up the batteries.
If you guys haven’t yet given a helping hand to Chris Muir over at Day By Day, please do so. DBD isn’t a hobby for Chris, it’s his livelihood, and other than when his Dad passed away, I don’t think he’s missed a single day in well over a decade of wonderfully-creative cartooning.
Funny, conservative and sexy as all hell: DBD is one of my five daily must-reads, and in fact it’s my first read every morning. Glenn once said about some other old fart that “he’s one of the good guys”. I think Chris is one of the best.
Help the man out, please.