So Long and Thanks for All the Snark

Thank you Walter

Walter Becker (on the right) died this weekend at the young age of 67. If you’re not one who follows band whose origins/hey days were in the 60s and 70s, there’s a chance you don’t know who Walter is. But it’s highly likely you’ve heard the name of the band he co-founded, co-wrote all the material, and played guitar/bass in: Steely Dan.

Walter Becker met Donald Fagen while in college. They shared the same snarky and sardonic outlook on life and a similar taste in music (jazz, the American songbook, classic R&B). Except for about a decade (1980-92) they worked together, first as songwriters in the famous Brill building, then in the backing band for Jay and the Americans, and finally in the group that became Steely Dan.

It’s hard to explain Steely Dan. Many tend to pigeonhole them into that nebulous genre of soft rock/yacht rock. That’s unfortunate. There was nothing soft or complacent about Steely Dan. Lyrically they were incomparable, writing catchy and complex songs about drug dealers, pederasts, losers, deadbeats, stock market crashes, and a nuclear holocaust. Their lyrics were hilarious, obtuse, pointed and wicked. They loved the loser who was hoping for one last shot, one last chance at redemption, any world that he’s welcome to.

Take the song “Don’t Take Me Alive”. There’s a lot of “criminal on the run” songs in pop culture but nothing like this, where a desperate man is all too self-aware:

Agents of the law
Luckless pedestrian
I know you’re out there
With rage in your eyes and your megaphones
Saying all is forgiven
Mad dog surrender
How can I answer
A man of my mind can do anything

I’m a bookkeeper’s son
I don’t want to shoot no one
Well I crossed my old man back in Oregon
Don’t take me alive
Got a case of dynamite
I could hold out here all night
Yes I crossed my old man back in Oregon
Don’t take me alive

Can you hear the evil crowd
The lies and the laughter
I hear my inside
The mechanized hum of another world
Where no sun is shining
No red light flashing
Here in this darkness
I know what I’ve done
I know all at once who I am

I’m a bookkeeper’s son
I don’t want to shoot no one
Well I crossed my old man back in Oregon
Don’t take me alive
Got a case of dynamite
I could hold out here all night
Yes I crossed my old man back in Oregon
Don’t take me alive

Musically the Dan were a force unparalleled. They often get characterized as slick perfectionists and there’s merit in that. Becker and Fagen’s obsessiveness drove many a sideman freaking nuts. But there was a method to the madness. The drums found their pulse and swagger in R&B and rock, the chords never went anywhere even accomplished musicians expected, and the melodies in these twisted masterpieces would hang in your head for days. Then there were the solos.

Studio musicians loved to play for them despite their perfectionism. The challenge of getting it right for Becker and Fagen was far more exhilarating than playing something simple. And the guitar/sax solos were jaw-dropping. Becker played some of them. Right now my obsession is the opening tracks on the Katy Lied album, “Black Friday” and “Bad Sneakers” with Walter picking up the lead on both. He soars and dives on the first, always playing within the song and then defining it. Then on the second he solos in conjunction with a grand piano riffing underneath, finding a concise perfection.

 

So farewell Walter, and thanks for all the great music. I’ve listened to the man’s music since my college days, obsessively trying to crack the genius simmering beneath the gleaming surface. Not to mention I distinctly remember a long-legged girl in my room in the frat house, wearing little more than one of my dress shirts, swaying to “My Old School” on a weekend morning (she just walked down the hall with one of the dogs).

About jeroljohnson

I guess I'm the crying on the inside kind of clown
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2 Responses to So Long and Thanks for All the Snark

  1. Brad Combs says:

    Stellar review and commentary. One of my too ten bands for sure

  2. jeroljohnson says:

    Thanks Brad. This is indeed a band I’ll be listening to until the end.

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