No marigolds in the promised land. There’s a hole in the ground where they used to grow.
Walter Becker was Steely Dan’s spirit animal, the impossible to pin down mojo pumping through the bloodstream of one of the most switched-on, wide-awake, and gorgeously carved outfits of the past 50 years and one of the rare rock acts whose output sits comfortably next to the jazz giants like Duke Ellington that sparked them more than anything in the 60s Summer of Love (outside of stated and somewhat obvious influence The Beatles). Perpetually scraggly even in a suit and wearing a bemused expression that let us know he knew more about this whole human condition than most ever will, Becker seemed to bask in this knowledge in recent years, the man in the shadows finally able to step into the spotlight as creative foil and partner-in-crime Donald Fagen warmly introduced him in concert. It seemed to surprise him a little each time how rapturous the applause was, how deeply and fiercely this odd, detail-minded, often-prickly and never easy to pin down fellow was cherished by thousands.
Well, the danger on the rocks is surely past, still I remain tied to the mast. Could it be that I have found my home at last?
Knowing Becker got to experience such well-earned love and respect on a regular basis since Steely Dan’s return in 1993 takes some of the sting out of his sudden passing on September 3. As idiosyncratic and distinct a personality to ever hit popular music, Becker was like a character that wandered out of a band-name-inspiring William S. Burroughs story or perhaps a Hunter S. Thompson tale, a guy who’d seen and understood too much too young but retained his faith in the possibility of love and connection as well as his humor about how people behave with one another, his keen eye snatching beauty from ugliness and marrying these thoughts to seductive melodies woven with an off-handed complexity that made them challenging and fun for those daring enough to try hanging with the Dan. He was the devil in the details, his knack for unearthing insightful, impactful brevity in language, composition, and performance of the highest order. Becker was as singular as any artist to have multiple platinum albums and countless sold out amphitheatre tours to his credit, and the world already seems a touch diminished by his absence.
I hear you are singing a song of the past. I see no tears. I know that you know it may be the last for many years. You’d gamble or give anything to be in with the better half, but how many friends must I have to begin with to make you laugh?
My earliest memories of Steely Dan are of my stoner uncles, giant headphones on with the music bleeding out due to the insane volume, rolling and smoking joints, smiling and nodding in knowing understanding. They were a band I knew belonged to the world of adults and thus all the more tantalizing to a kid anxious to be grown as soon as he hit kindergarten. My understanding of the lyrics and technical nuances has evolved with every passing year, the songs an ever-giving source of inspiration and sonic succor, especially as I stumble into middle age, perhaps the natural habitat for Steely Dan’s mortality pondering, ennui-drenched epics.
If you come around, no more pain and no regrets. Watch the sun go brown, smoking cobalt cigarettes. There’s no need to hide, taking things the easy way. If I stay inside I might live ‘til Saturday.
Steely Dan has a well-deserved reputation for being cynical. Their 1972 debut album, Can’t Buy A Thrill, was released the same year as Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, and there’s a kindred underlying philosophy to each work reflected in this passage from Thompson’s book:
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda…You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…
And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
True cynics tend to spring from places of wounded hope and bruised love, the sharpness and negativity a response to feeling too much not too little – one can’t be REALLY disappointed in the world if one wasn’t once enraptured by it. While Fagen’s solo work reflects some of the key Steely Dan characteristics, Becker’s solo efforts lay bare where the Dan’s weird soul resides. For example, one suspects it was Becker that pushed for Steely Dan’s comeback single (“Cousin Dupree”) to be a lightly incestuous ditty in a songbook dotted with them, another wicked joke on a mainstream that rarely understood their songs, motivations, or much else about them besides their preternatural ability to move units.
One night we’re playin’ gin by a cracklin’ fire and I decided to make my play. I said, “Babe, with my boyish charm and good looks, how can you stand it for one more day?” She said, “Maybe it’s the skeevy look in your eyes or that your mind has turned to applesauce – the dreary architecture of your soul.” I said, “But what is it exactly turns you off?”
Like the resounding impact Bernie Taupin has on Elton John, Becker brought out the finest in Fagen. They etched best when drawing together, and Becker kept things a touch off-kilter, leaving cracks and backdoors for the weirdos, grifters, and sad sacks to sneak in, smoke a bowl, and feel less alone in this big, cruel world. More so than Fagen, who frankly I don’t think likes humanity all that much, Becker saw our wounded, shuffling ranks and opened his arms, inviting us to laugh at our foibles and failings while divine guitars danced around our heads.
On the counter by your keys was a book of numbers and your remedies. One of these surely will screen out the sorrow but where are you tomorrow?
There will countless think pieces dissecting the musical savvy and inspired intricacy Becker displayed in his musical endeavors but for this book loving boy it was and will always be the words – and the way the music twirls so achingly gracefully with them – that cement Steely Dan as my favorite rock lyricists, surpassing even the Bard-like Bob Dylan for me because of their embrace of common charms and everyday disasters, the compassion they show the weary and overlooked, as well as their saucy naughtiness and tales of wrong side of the tracks adventure. And I think much of that too-fucking-much-to-fully-explicate power flowed from Walter Becker, channeled and artfully sculpted by the least enthusiastic frontman ever.
In the night you hide from the madman you’re longing to be but it all comes out on the inside eventually.
Of course, all of this is pure conjecture. Part of Steely Dan’s appeal is how the men behind the curtain never fully reveal how the magic happens. I didn’t know Walter Becker personally but I felt like he knew me and a me I don’t often share with the outside world, the quiet me that emerges in the still hours before dawn on sleepless nights or on long, solitary road trips where the veils necessary to societal interaction fall away and I can allow my frustration, loneliness, questionable appetites, and other close-held thoughts to roam around in the open. To feel understood in our complicated fullness is rare and Walter Becker helped usher into being a catalog that serves as a safe space for clear-eyed romantics and guardedly loving nihilists to mingle with shark-suited slicks and other gamblers on life’s uncertain fortunes. It is a blessing that he was here at all and walked the path he did, but I’m still gonna miss this charming instigator for a long, long time.
Drive west on Sunset to the sea. Turn that jungle music down, just until we’re out of town. This is no one night stand, it’s a real occasion. Close your eyes and you’ll be there. It’s everything they say. The end of a perfect day, distant lights from across the bay.