I was perusing Facebook posts this evening as I was taking in the news that Walter Becker of Steely Dan had passed away today. There was a post amid the forest of others that made me think about what the passage of time might be about. Sometimes I think the true mark of our aging comes from balancing what we’ve gained and then by what we’ve lost throughout the years. I don’t know if I’m necessarily a lot older psychologically at this very moment now that I’m pondering Walter Becker and Steely Dan. However, I think I’ve been educated by Becker and Donald Fagen into being ready for this moment because of the fact that I’m a product of a period in time when a harder edge to thinking took place culturally in the ’70s.
I’m feeling more prepared for this moment than I realize. It’s because all of these articles I’ve been reading tonight about Becker have been mentioning about their sense of sarcasm and wit in their lyrics. Yeah, there was that element. That can’t be denied. But it was also their sense of the obtuse which seemed to fit so perfectly with the ’70s. The ’60s were literally over although it was still hanging on through in every other way at the end of 1974. We had enough justification to let cynicism to creep into our daily vernacular and let it become a daily part of our lives. We didn’t know where were going, but we sure knew where we had been.
So, if this column comes off more as being about Steely Dan than about Walter Becker, you must please forgive me. As far as I’m concerned, the band that we knew as Steely Dan has officially passed away today. And with it, cynical cool has gone into the ether with it.
From their first album in 1972, Can’t Buy A Thrill, on up to and including 1977’s Aja album, Steely Dan was as vital a force in the music business as any of their time. The beautiful thing about Steely Dan was that you could take their sense of the obtuse and make it your own. Steely Dan was a great band to protect yourself with. If you liked them and took them to heart, their mystery was your mystery. You couldn’t figure them out and at the same time you couldn’t figure yourself out either. You could take it with you and not reveal your own insecurities while while trying to figure out how it was that they managed to be so damned cool while, at the same time, being so damned hard to figure out. Both on the AM and FM sides of the dial, they had the market cornered on mysteriousness. Across the land, they were the subject of many a discussion at High School recesses and lunch periods regarding just what their songs actually meant. And for those kids who were still in Grade School, they were a subject of discussion in general without letting your guard down too much because none of us knew what they were about. It’s just that they were so cool that we had to borrow some of their swagger whether it fit like proper fitting clothes or not. For our times, it was just right. We were all feeling a little harder edged and we didn’t even fully know why. Because of their influence in my life, I can honestly say that I still don’t fully know why. I’m now 55.
Back in late 1972, I started out on the single-edit of “Do It Again” and occasionally had the good fortune of having one of the Bay Area AM stations give us a treat and play the full album version. I slid into the groove from the moment I first heard it and never let go. The electric sitar break dazzled me. All I had to do was make my own adjustments to the lyrics. Once I did that, I was ready to go along with the ride in full (or until they made an album I didn’t take to-that came in 1980 and Gaucho). “Reelin’ In The Years”, also from Can’t Buy A Thrill, was one of my major theme songs to my last season in Little League in the Summer of ’73 when my team won the Westside Little League Championship in Santa Clara. I’d walk out over to third base and have it playing in my head while fielding grounders during practice.
When the Pretzel Logic album came out in 1974, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” was one of the calming (to me) songs of the Summer when I got sent off to Summer School and I rebelled against it with everything I had. It was one of my pool-side and keeping company with mockingbird songs which will stay with me for eternity.
In the Summer of ’76, when The Royal Scam album was out and getting airplay, I would end up taking to heart “Don’t Take Me Alive” and then let it gradually grow into a song that defines some of the parameters about being stuck in Oregon that I deal with to this day. It was if the song was placed into my own private little incubator and didn’t really get born until after I moved up here again.
In late 1977, Steely Dan released the Aja album. It is still amazing to consider how that album was solid enough to grow into a major force clear through to the end of 1978. That was the period of time when I moved back up to Eugene (Labor Day of ’78). I can still remember listening to “Deacon Blues” on KSAN-FM San Francisco as I was packing my bags before the plane ride up. When I got to Eugene, “Josie” and “Peg” took me through some of the transition to living up here for a second time and the great regret which was to sink in over doing so over time. I’d see “Josie” and “Peg” as these fuzzy women whose faces I couldn’t see taking over the space in my thinking.
Sadly, it was in 1980 and when they released Gaucho that I hopped off. I started seeing a distinction about Steely Dan that I hadn’t seen before. Instead of being my cynical and obtuse heroes that they had been, I began to see them in a different light. In my discovering people like Bruce Springsteen and, eventually, The Clash, I needed people with a hard edge who also could philosophically fight in my corner. With Gaucho, I couldn’t see that Fagen and Becker could get through it all the way with me anymore. I felt like Fagen (especially) wasn’t putting the sharp observations to good use anymore. I realize that this all sounds very vague, but it was a distinct feeling I was having about them at the time.
I would not trade the period of Can’t Buy A Thrill on up to and including Aja for anything in the world. It has been one of my big wishes that Universal would remaster their entire catalog and release their albums as Deluxe Editions. I honestly don’t know if they left enough in the can to warrant Deluxe Editions of their albums. It needs to be done. In the meantime, I plan on taking the protection they gave me and put it to use as much as I can wherever appropriate. You will be missed, Walter Becker. Thank you for the great taste in your personal musical choices and how it helped to shape your craft.