Walter Becker slipped away last year, causing barely a ripple in the media. He was half of the writing team of Steely Dan, along with the more forward Donald Fagen, since their days together at Bard College. Their music defined my 1970s,along with that of many of us who were more cerebral than, say, Eagles fans. It is said that they wrote the charts for every so-called solo that their “band” (which also needs to be put in quotes because they never were a band) played. This drove some of the better musicians associated with them, like Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, nuts, but he returned again and again. It was perhaps typical of the hipness and oddness of the Dan of steel that Baxter became a national security expert after 9-11, and was responsible for catching many terrorists, though he still looks like a California hippie and still plays occasionally with the big band, the current incarnation of Steely Dan.
Since Bard days, Steely Dan was really only two people, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, with the entire American jazz and pop songbook in their heads (listen to their arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “East St Louis Toodle-Doo”), and what some say was darkness in their hearts. Jay of Jay and The Americans, who used them as a backup band in days gone by, called them Manson and Starkweather. A critic at, I believe, Time, called them The Grateful Dead of Bad Vibes, showing an almost willful contempt for and ignorance about both the Dead and the Dan. But despite the fact that they were named after a dildo in a William S Burroughs novel and occasionally wrote about mass murderers and cheating gamblers, the most typical Dan hero was a failed romantic, a loser of some essential thing, a melancholic and a stoic, living as best he could. From the Midnight Cruiser on the first album (“I am another gentleman loser…”) through the fellow who until his ship comes in lives “Night by Night” to Deacon Blues, to besotted lovers pursuing pornstars, old men in love with unsuitably young women, the entire populace of Puerto Rico (The Royal Scam) and the fool begging Rikki not to lose his number in what must the beautiful song about a deluded lover ever written, all of Becker and Fagen’s heroes come at last to a worn door in an Asian (or universal? after all, “Klaus and the Rooster”, who sound like Euro- trash mercenaries, are also patrons) bar and whorehouse where they “knock twice, rap with their canes” to find a kind of false peace and security that may be the only kind that exists, here at the Western World.
Such realism is not usually the province of rock bands, nor such musicianship; nor, for that matter, so much submersion of the ego to the music. Walter Becker, the more self- effacing of the pair, died in Maui months ago, and I didn’t even find out until last week. That I am still playing their songbook almost weekly, when they closed entirely in 1980 but for rare big band tours doing “archival” material, is a tribute to the quality of the music they made.
With Baxter, recently