Monday, September 4, 2017

Four Memories of Steely Dan/Walter Becker (1950-2017)

Genius musician Walter Becker, one of the two people who founded and made up the constant core of Steely Dan, died yesterday. I thought I'd share some memories of Walter and the Dan, since their music was impactful in my life.

I am six years old. We've moved from Marblehead, MA to Rancho Palos Verdes, CA. I'm in second grade, and my favorite thing to do is to go through my parents' big vinyl record collection and listen to the music that sparks an emotional reaction within me. Sometimes it's Beethoven, sometimes the Beatles. But if I'm feeling really rambunctious, only one song does the trick: Steely Dan's "Reelin' in the Years" off Can't Buy a Thrill, an album that was always in heavy rotation in my home in the early/mid '70s. I don't know what it was about that song; perhaps it was the driving 6/8 shuffle, or the harmonized solo guitars. But every time the song comes on, I go into this insane combination of spastic dancing and a sort of early version of parkour, jumping over furniture, caroming off walls, and rolling around the entire living room. I get seriously fucking nuts each time the song came on, from the very first bent guitar note of the intro all through the fade. I'm six, and Steely Dan is my favorite band. And you wonder why I grew up weird. Case closed.

Also: there's a naked lady on the collage artwork of the album cover, and I sneak furtive glances at her when my mom isn't around.

I'm a more mature guy now at age 10, about to start middle school, and I'm really into music. I've been playing piano since I was three, and took up violin and guitar early on. Now I'm ten, and my tastes in music have become more sophisticated as I begin to appreciate what goes into creating stuff beyond the 5-6 chords I can play well. Meanwhile, the Dan has released Aja, an album that my mom would put on and listen to start to finish, and why not? Track by track, it remains one of the best albums ever released, with many moods, many shades, many feelings between putting the needle down on "Black Cow" and taking the record off the turntable after "Josie" is over. It's a mystical journey through time and space. I listen to the album over and over, just trying to hear what these guys are doing. I've already got a terrific ear and can play many pop songs just by listening to them once, astounding my parents and teachers alike. But I can't play Steely Dan -- I can't even tell what those chords are, for God's sake -- and I find this both challenging and scary.

Unlike a lot of other bands, Steely Dan seems to shun the spotlight. The guys in the band seem to be reclusive, and when they do rare interviews, their answers are heavy in sarcasm, cynicism, and rarely answer the questions being asked. I find it intriguing, and I find them funny. I also find it weird that only two guys seem to make up this band, and they have super geeky names, and they look really geeky too. Definitely not like Peter Frampton. It takes awhile before I ingest the idea that Steely Dan is whoever Donald and Walter are working with at a particular time.

It's summer, I'm 16, and I'm between my junior and senior years of high school. I'm a good musician for my age, already playing in little garage bands, and leaning toward difficult music that young musicians often find compelling, such as progressive rock and metal, and a little jazz here and there. I'm enrolled at Berklee College of Music for their summer semester, and I'm at least temporarily living in Boston, 3,000 miles away from my parents. During one of the first days, I meet with a counselor who asks what I'm interested in learning. I tell her that I want to expand the level of sophistication of my music for songwriting and performing, pushing beyond the simple standard barre chords of most pop and rock. I want to play more than boring pentatonic scales and blues motifs. I don't say it like that, though. I tell her I want to play chords like Steely Dan. She understands.

Around that time, and over the subsequent years, I dig deeper into the Dan's catalog, getting into the deeper cuts from Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied, The Royal Scam and the rest. I obsessively pore over the liner notes, seeing the names of the many studio musicians who add their skills to these magnificent recordings... names like Michael McDonald, Larry Carlton, Jeff Porcaro, Hal Blaine, Rick Marotta, Chuck Rainey, Bernard Purdie and many others. As I start getting into creating my own little multitrack recordings, I marvel at the quality of the records themselves, wondering how the sounds were captured with the degree of pristine clarity that is a hallmark of the band.

I attend Musicians Institute in 1988, and then enroll in college as a music major at Cal State Dominguez Hills, where I graduate in 1992. I get much deeper into the world of music history, theory, and composition. I start to better understand the music of Steely Dan, even though I still can't really play it or write any original stuff that's comparable. In 1993, I start working in the music/audio products industry, only to discover that at trade conventions, when manufacturers wanted to show off the quality of their high-end speakers, almost always do so by playing back Steely Dan. It all makes sense.

I'm in my 40s, and have had a personal backlash to heavy musicianship. I tend to listen to music that is much more about the vibe than about perfection, and hence have put Steely Dan on a remote back burner while my interest lies in exploring new music by indie bands... kind of the opposite of the Dan. But in some ways, Steely Dan is the ultimate indie band. They never, at any point in their career, created music that was purely designed to fit in with other current popular music styles. Nevertheless, when my mom gives a birthday present to Christina and I and they are excellent seats to see Steely Dan perform Aja in its entirety at what was then the Nokia Theater (now the Microsoft Theater, probably soon to be the Uber Theater, or PornHub Theater or something) in downtown LA, we are excited. The show, held in August of that year, is spectacular. It might be the best-sounding, most well-performed live music I've ever experienced in person in my life.

At the show, the band has impeccably gone through the album being featured and is now playing a selection of other hits and misses. One of them is "Hey Nineteen", and in the midst of the tune, Walter Becker starts addressing the crowd, which is jarring since the Dan summarily ignores the audience on a general basis. Walter is giving a little speech. It's somewhere between a pep talk, a rant, and sage words of advice from someone who's been there and done that many times over. He's talking about psychedelic drugs, he's talking about where to go and what to do after the show ends, he's listing the names of communities around the LA area with which the Dan is, of course, intimately familiar.

I realize, while driving back to the South Bay after the show, that despite all the amazing music I'd experienced, the most memorable portion of the night was probably Walter's chat solo. Why? I don't know. But here in September 2017, the day after Walter passed away, I feel that that I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for something that probably transcends whatever words I might write next.

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