Other Players

RIP Walter Becker

3

I had a friend once who characterized Steely Dan as "Rock for Smart People", and I've recently read an article that credited them for the creation of "College Radio" rock. Many aspects of their music, for example Jeff Baxter's lead solo on the song "My Old School", are often cited as epitomizing FM-Band AOR rock music in the 1970's.

I don't know about all that, but I do know that Walter Becker was part of a team that sometimes made music that made people happy sometimes. As legacies go, that's not a bad one.

4

Thanks for the link to the RS obituary....nice article. Also, thanks for bringing this up again...Walter deserves the recognition.

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Many aspects of their music, for example Jeff Baxter's lead solo on the song "My Old School", are often cited as epitomizing FM-Band AOR rock music in the 1970's. -- Timthom62

6

I've loved the Dan from my first hearing of "Do It Again", just as I was beginning freshman year of college. Bought the album, fell hard for "Reelin' in the Years."

I don't know that any of us (that is, the guys I hung with, for all of whom SD was always fully approved for the stereos in dorm rooms where we gathered for...well, music AND) thought of the band as "thinking people's music." Did you have to go to college to dig the Dan?

Anyway, we dug the Dan. I've continued to dig the Dan. I still do dig the Dan. Their poetry of suburban angst, hi-jinks, and hedonist decadence remains unexcelled (though I doubt they quite lived the lives portrayed); the music, sophisticated as everyone always says it is, always nonetheless melodic, lush, stunningly well orchestrated (without ever getting precious). Perpetually hip, I guess - but there's a lot of heart buried under the surface too.

The songs are little novels - or maybe mind's-eye visual tableaus - without ever being over-wordy or turning into interminable narratives, the music always supporting and coloring in the picture. Remarkable what came from the intersection of two geeky east-coast college kids' skills, attitudes, imaginations, insistence on craft.


I loved the whole first act, from Can't Buy A Thrill through Gaucho. They certainly evolved in that time - from the east coast collegiate preoccupations and plots and more rock-than-jazz of the early albums to the LA ennui and more jazz-than-rock of the later, but it was still all of a piece. It was always something like a holiday when I got my hands on a new Steely Dan album, I played them incessantly, and they always blossomed with repeated listening. Never a dull moment, never a clunker. Impeccable musicianship, faultless craftsmanship, ridiculous return on my investment in money, time, and attention. Whatever their personal demons, their work ethic and commitment to the craft had to have been epic.

Then the long intermission, and into it dropped the lovely gifts of Fagen's solo albums - and Walter's inimitable 11 Tracks of Whack. Reminders - and nourishing helpings - of what Steely Dan had been.

But what capped Steely Dan for me was the long last act: the reformation of a touring Dan after decades away from the stage, and the last two albums. There was no problem connecting the dots from their previous output - but it wasn't rehash either. Same guys, same approach, same narrative technique, but grown up.

It was sometimes hard to find oneself in their early subject matter: unless you'd had similar experiences, you could inhabit the stories the way you watch a movie without quite being there. But in the later albums (at least for me), while the subject matter could be as wryly twisted, I could find myself. They'd opened up a little; maybe the processes of age and mortality had softened the corners of the shiny plates of their carapace, but at long last the Dan had become more emotionally affective - without losing a bit of their arch, dry wit and distance. Or maybe I'd grown up.

Musically, as rich and rewarding as ever.

Altogether, an astonishing catalogue. As consistent as The Beatles' in quality, if not a little more so.


Walter was always the quieter partner, apparently the more troubled, whose contributions were perhaps less obvious (because he floated from instrument to instrument, and was rarely the voice). Still, a comparative listen to classic Dan and then Don's and Walter's solo albums reveal their differences in outlook and approach. Don's solo work sounds a little Dannier than Walter's, imbued as it is with his thematic interests, harmonic and melodic genius. Walter...well, that's where the Steel came from.

I'm grateful we still have Don, and I hope he continues to produce. Whatever he does will be worth listening to. But a mysterious alchemy results when some particular two guys work together which yields more than the sum of the parts. Simon & Garfunkel (for a relatively trivial example), Lennon & McCartney, certainly Becker & Fagen. We won't get any more Steely Dan. After Everything Must Go - which sounded like the duo's official going-out-of-business sale - I guess I didn't expect it.

This just falls with awful finality. For me personally, it's like losing Chris Squire. Either musician's lifetime achievements and legacies are secure, their musical vehicles may go forward in some fashion - but there can be nothing new that really captures the fire.

OK, sorry. Didn't know I had that much to feel about this cool thinking man's band. (What a friggin' insult that is. I always thought SD was a sensual experience.)


Really interesting video in many ways, Bob. First, Steely Dan and American Bandstand?! Whuh? And then: Donald Fagen LIP-SYNCHING? He must have approached that with a particularly convoluted Fagentude. (Though he's so convincingly committed to the performance that, despite a few hints of a wry grin here and there, I wasn't really sure it was mime till I didn't see a brass section.)

Also: I love the SD tradition of backup singers. They're truly important to the arrangements, and I once spent a happy couple of hours going through all the albums and noting the womens' (it was usually women) names, how the ensemble evolved through the years. Again, I really believed the trio of backup singers in the video were live...till there wasn't brass.

And if they'd gone that far - brought in the backup singers for the appearance - why not the brass section? Or IS it a live performance, with the brass flown in from tape? Man, I doubt it.

Funny to hear Dick Clark explain where B&F got the term "Steely Dan" - without clarifying exactly what it meant. Who wants to bet just that much information was either embedded in the band's press pack, or that Don or Walt fed Dick just the bare bones of the info, hoping he'd mention it exactly as he did?

And WHAT is DC doing with a Dynasonic 6120 at the end of the clip?

7

What typically happened in those days was that the record company would create a track which contained everything but the lead vocal. This would permit the band to basically mime the song during the television performance, yet the lead singer could sing an authentic lead vocal and give it the feel as if the entire performance were live. Listen to what Jeff Baxter is playing as a solo -- it is exactly what you get on the studio recording. I didn't study it carefully enough to know if Fagen was singing live or not, but if he wasn't, he did a capable job of lip-synching to it.

I asked myself all of those same other questions you raised about the Dick Clark and American Bandstand performance. Why no horns? Too many people on stage, perhaps. Maybe too much money to have to pay to have them appear. Why the sly reference to the origin of the band's name? Dick never let on that he actually knew the origin, so I also concluded that he had been fed just enough information to have him say it, but not reveal the inside joke that the band members all knew. Very clever of them. And, whuh? A 6120 in DC's hands? No clue what that was going to lead into and I was disappointed when the tape stopped.

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What typically happened in those days was that the record company would create a track which contained everything but the lead vocal. This would permit the band to basically mime the song during the television performance, yet the lead singer could sing an authentic lead vocal and give it the feel as if the entire performance were live.

I wonder if maybe they got a track sans all the vocals, and maybe the piano - which also sounds purdurn real.

Also wonder what it sounded like to a studio audience with a band faking along. Drum and piano noises would have been hard to hide.


As for the 6120 leading into something, I thought maybe another guest was coming on. I gave it 10 minutes or so with Google, looking for logs or guest lists of DC shows, see if I could find a roster. I could find the season and episode number - but SD is the only listed guest.

There HAD to be a reason for the Gretsch. I guess looking for a longer version of the tape would be the way to go.

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Hmm. A ütube poster I'd guess from his name (Stan Deely) is a Dan expert (at least self-appointed) says in his commentary on the video:

The guitar Dick Clark is holding at the end belonged to Eddie Cochran. And yes, it's a lip-sync/playback! It's unfortunate, but people will just have to get over it.

It's a maddening short clip of the 6120, but that could well be a P90 at the neck. It's believable till proven otherwise, I guess.

So why in the world, in 1973, would DC have EC's guitar? Doing a 50s rock retrospective? Did an artist current in '73 release a Cochran cover? Would either of those conditions have induced Eddie's mother to loan that guitar? (If indeed she had it at that point.)

10

Sad news about Walter. For me it's been an opportunity to revisit their music. They did an amazing job. All those chords, they made them all fit like they belonged, and the resulting music was fresh.


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