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Reelin’ in the Years

 

Walter Becker  Feb 20, 1950- September3, 2017.

Walter Becker
Feb 20, 1950-
September 3, 2017.

 

Walter Becker died today. He was 67, about the same age as I am, and that, faster than the guitar break in Bodhisattva, will make you stop and consider his contributions (and your own). Rock gods have a nasty habit of dying too soon but few, if any, would call Walter Becker a rock god. He could play guitar (and bass) but the heavy lifting on the albums was generally done by guys like Skunk Baxter, Larry Carlton, Denny Dias, Rick Derringer, Mark Knopfler and Elliott Randall who actually played the solo on Reelin’ in the Years.  Here’s how I see it: It’s as if Becker and Donald Fagen decided that they would write the most musically demanding and complex, lyrically subversive and cynical jazz infused rock songs ever written and then get the best musicians they could find to play them. And it worked for decades. Notably (to me anyway) there is hardly a Steely Dan song that I can play with any competence.

The songs are still, in my opinion more sophisticated and innovative than anything I’ve heard since. And no, I’m not a jazz guy so please don’t write to me to tell me this jazz piece or that one is more sophisticated. I’m sure they are plenty sophisticated musically but nobody wrote lyrics like these guys. This is mainstream rock and roll for folks with a brain.  The lyrics could range from philosophical to silly and from introspective to invective and everything in between. The love songs (Hey Nineteen) could be kind of dopey but they were dopey with a wink-they knew they were dopey. They could also be quite moving in their simplicity (Aja). The story songs were always my favorites (Caves of Altamira, Charlie Freak, Don’t Take Me Alive) because that’s what songs were invented to do. Tell a story.

I honestly don’t really know how Becker and Fagen worked. Did they write everything together or, like Lennon and McCartney, generally write their own songs and put both names on them. It doesn’t matter to me. The lyrics are often brilliant, surprising and as clever as anything Cole Porter ever put to paper. That’s saying something. I can gush over great musicianship (as a less than mediocre guitar player ) and have a great appreciation for complex musical structure, rhythm and innovative melody and harmony. I get that stuff, but it’s born of a lack of musical knowledge whereas when I look at the lyrics Becker and Fagen turned out, I see it from a different perspective. I can make the words dance on a page when I put my mind to it. Writing is one of the things I can actually do. But I can’t write like Becker and Fagen.

I’ve never grown tired of the music and every time I hear it, I hear something new that I missed. A dazzling chord change or even a dazzling chord. A turn of a phrase that makes me stop and think. A half dozen Steely Dan songs live forever on my little iPod shuffle that I use when I walk or run. The only band with more songs on it is The Beatles. If the only back seat you take in (my) life is to Lennon and McCartney, then, Walter Becker, you did pretty good.

I saw them last at the Beacon Theater in New York City in maybe 2007.  I paid a fortune (scalpers suck) for two tickets- one for me and one for my son who was maybe 19 at the time. Fourth row center and we were dazzled (and he wasn’t that much of a Steely Dan fan). Notwithstanding the douchebag who kept standing up in front of us and singing along, it was a great show. The awesomely talented Jon Herrington had to be all those guitar players I mentioned up top and Walter Becker, age 57 or so, looking a little shopworn, was holding his own on guitar and just looking like there was somewhere else he’d rather be. I’m guessing he’d rather have been at home writing. It was, after all, the thing he did best. Goodbye Walter. We will miss you.

Walter and Donald just standing around thinking about the next brilliant song they would write.

Walter and Donald just hanging around looking really serious and maybe thinking about the next brilliant song they would write. Or maybe wondering what’s for dinner. They look kind of hungry. Hard to know with these guys.

 

7 Responses to “Reelin’ in the Years”

  1. RAB says:

    An innovative writer and player…RIP. Lesson; live it up while you can y’all! Never know when the Grim Reaper will pay a visit!

  2. chuckNC says:

    Well said, Charlie, well said.

    RIP Mr Becker.

  3. Rob says:

    I’ve never been much of a lyrics guy much preferring guitars and accompanying instruments to do the singling. Steely Dan was an exception. Top shelf musicians all the way for a long long time. RIP Walter.

  4. RAB says:

    Another reminder that we are temporary caretakers of our beloved vintage guitars…only interim owners! They’ll be pumping out the Blues long after we are pushing up the daisies!

  5. James says:

    Wish I could have been around to see these guys back in their early years. Absolutely fantastic all-around musicians and entertainers. It was only a few years ago that I started to get into Steely Dan. In my opinion, that speaks to the quality of music they created, that so many years later, people discover Steely Dan and are really drawn in. Their contributions to the music world have clearly passed the test of time, no static at all.

  6. Michael Minnis says:

    Great post, Charlie. Like yourself and so many others, I’ve been a huge Steely Dan fan for decades. I own all the Dan records up to Gaucho, love every single song. I last saw them live two summers ago. Ironically, I went to see Donald Fagan and the Nightflyers this past Saturday night. Great show. Only to wake up the next morning to read of Walter’s passing. With today’s somewhat bleak musical landscape, it’s comforting and inspiring to find so many tributes to Walter Becker and Steely Dan. Oh, and a great vintage 3×5 is a wonderful way to play some Steely Dan. R.I.P., Walter.

  7. DavidK says:

    Charlie – thanks for articulating your thoughts so well. Found myself nodding furiously in agreement with your view. Wish I’d seen them live.

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