(This post, written in 2017, was originally published elsewhere)
I’m trying to remember where I was when I first heard Reelin’ in the Years. Probably in my parents’ bedroom listening to the radio. This was a place more or less guaranteed to be unoccupied during the day, and therefore free from the fierce disapproval of my father, who hated pop music. This would be about 1973, I think. I have been listening to Steely Dan and therefore to the work of Walter Becker, whose death was announced yesterday, for nearly 45 years.
Thanks Walt. To say that Becker’s death leaves a hole in the world of music would probably not be true, since the years between 1972 and 1978, when Steely Dan released the six albums at the heart of their output, are decades in the past and their work still lives. But it’s sad all the same. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, and all that.
Such is the pleasure their music has brought me, I once reflected that amongst the downsides of death would be that I would no longer be able to listen to it.
Unlike many great songwriters, Becker and Donald Fagen’s material doesn’t travel well to other artists. Almost none of their best songs have been covered by others, partly because they were so brilliantly realised by the odd mix of Becker and Fagen themselves, regular players like Jeff Baxter and Denny Dias, and a coterie of session wizards; but perhaps more pertinently because the material was so idiosyncratic and so obviously a consequence of their own hipsterish personae.
Becker and Fagen liked jazz as well as rock and roll, and the idea of the Sonny Rollins-loving cool cat with the black polo neck, the pallor of late nights, the succession of cigarettes and the copy of The Naked Lunch in the pocket oozes from their work, and from the way they presented themselves.
Although enthusiastic about jazz, it’s hard to imagine Becker and Fagen being in favour of much else. A rich vein of cynicism courses through their stuff, and if they ever considered charting the obvious emotions it rarely shows. There’s little doubt that this was what Becker and Fagen were really like – there are interviews online which display their mordant humour to good effect: it wasn’t a front.
They were sceptics at a young age. Whilst still students at Bard College, New York, they quickly grasped that the 1968 Summer of Love was a sham. “I heard it was you“, Fagen sang on Only A Fool Would Say That a few years later, “Talking ’bout a world where all was free / It just couldn’t be / And only a fool would say that“. Cynicism and irony can be overdone however – they are good responses to some aspects of life, but other emotions are useful too. Becker and Fagen sometimes struggled in their personal lives, and Becker’s descent into heroin addiction was one reason for the long hiatus in the pair’s collaboration which followed Aja in 1978.
Nevertheless, some of their best work displays a wonderful tenderness and subtlety. Their songs are musical short stories. I read Gaucho as a monologue by a man who returns home to find his gay lover with a young Hispanic. Glamour Profession may or may not be the tedious boasting of a Hollywood driver-to-the-celebs. Kid Charlemagne recounts the panic stricken flight of LA drug dealers.
And all these songs are set to a dazzling variety of jazz inflected stylings – ballad, rock and roll, gospel, waltz, reggae, disco, funk and blues. Some – for example Your Gold Teeth II and Home At Last – seem to invent a new genre all of their own. For me, it’s no accident that the pair’s most popular tunes – Reelin’ in the Years, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, Deacon Blue, Do It Again – are the ones whose subject matters veer closest to the mainstream (they could have made a lot more money if they’d wanted). Coincidentally or not, female Dan-heads are in short supply.
And yet I also feel that Becker and Fagen saw the limitations of jazz. They worked very hard and spent huge sums of record company money to find soloists who could add something other than virtuosity – although there was plenty of that – to their material. They were aware of the possibility of empty note-spinning, and of the blandness of jazz-rock fusion. Music always says something, and a good deal of the genre seems to devote itself to saying, “Look at this F sharp 7th chord suspended over an A/G diad“, or “Look how many million notes per minute I can play“. Not in Becker and Fagen’s hands. The writer Richard Williams described Steely Dan recently as “clever” above all else. Not so. Yes, they were clever. Smart arse if you like. But they never allowed cleverness to be the goal.
Becker was a decent enough bass player and rather underrated guitarist, who also played a bit of keyboards. Like Fagen, he preferred others to play on the band’s records, and only performed himself when he had to. Although he never sang on a Steely Dan record, those who bought his first solo album, Eleven Tracks of Whack, were surprised at the strength of his scratchy baritone voice. With Donald Fagen, he mined an art form with results that can induce dizzying pleasure, and charted the underbelly of the American (and human) condition with rueful wit. Thanks again Walt.