During the Spring of 1973, I was finishing up my fourth grade year in school. I am not sure if I was precocious or just a pain in the butt to the older kids in the neighborhood, but I was constantly picked to play basketball with those high school kids. Sure, I got roughed up, but I was finding that I could get my shot off against the bigger kids. Plus, I could dribble so well that I could make myself difficult to guard off the dribble. And, I know those guys were not holding back by the number of times I would make the cuss when I made someone look bad with a no look pass here or a behind-the-back dribble there. But, that was NOT the important thing about playing hoops with high school boys at such a young age. Nope, there were two other things: great rock music and high school girls.
Sure, I was only ten, but I knew a good-looking girl when I saw one, and those guys attracted them by the car loads. After a while, I got to know the girls, and I could impress my buddies whenever one of them would see me away from those driveway courts and say “Hi!” to me. Yes, it was an advantage to have “friends” who were older. But, in addition to the young ladies, I learn much about rock music that summer from all those older teens. They would play the Doobie Brothers, Seals & Croft, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple and Elton John, among many others. From them I also learned that the cool radio stations were on the FM dial or AM Chicago stations at night.
Yet, the biggest thing I learn about with those guys was Steely Dan. That band had debuted the year before with the album Can’t Buy a Thrill. Those guys would tell me that chicks loved the Dan, and laugh while giving themselves five. Me? I wasn’t sure what they were talking about, but I made a mental note about Steely Dan. Now, at the time that Spring of 1974, I was hooked by the soaring guitar played during the Steely Dan classic “Reelin’ in the Years”. That song was brilliant to me for not just one awesome solo during the song, but three of them! I was hooked by Steely Dan through that one song; however, the hook was fleeting, because I did not understand much of those others songs that were as smooth as any R&B and sophisticated as any jazz song, but it was totally rooted in rock and roll.
Well, one of the creative minds of Steely Dan, bassist Walter Becker, passed away over the weekend to the shock of many. I was totally caught off guard, but I was also happy knowing of all the enjoyable times I have had over the years with Steely Dan’s music in the background. They made the perfect music, in that it was smooth and sophisticated as stated earlier, so it made for excellent music over which you could talk with people or romantic enough that it made for good make out music during those single years. But, if you wanted to take the Dan’s music on a deeper level just read the lyrics sheet. Those lyrics will make sly references to other bands and artists, as well as some of the most sexually risque lyrics this side of Prince. But, the key in the band getting away with those lyrics was the smooth, deadpan vocal delivery of Donald Fagin and the smooth, nearly jazz musical landscape to which those lyrics are set.
When Becker and Fagin first began to form bands, their drummer was Chevy Chase. That’s right! The very same Chevy Chase who hit the big time as a Not Ready for Prime Time Player in the original cast of Saturday Night Live. But, as the duo’s musical ambitions grew, so did their need to find the best musicians available. And, although that first album contained an actual set line-up, subsequent releases were simply Becker and Fagin leading some of Los Angeles’ top session musicians through the recording of their music. By the time the band, whose name came from the name of an oversized, steam-powered name “Steely Dan III from Yokohama” from the book Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. As you can see, the band was little off-kilter from the start.
By 1977 and 1978, Steely Dan reached their commercial and artistic peak with the sublime Aja album. That album yielded four Top 40 hits in the title song, “Peg”, “Josie” and “Deacon Blues”. But, all of the songs from that album are Classic Rock standards today. It was during this “hot streak” that Becker and Fagin recorded the theme song to a little-known movie with an outstanding classic rock soundtrack. The movie was FM, and the hit song was “FM (No Static at All)”. Both the song and movie were an ode to the free-form radio formats of the late-Sixties and early-Seventies that had been found on the FM bandwidth that were quickly being changed into the radio we hear today with tightened playlists that make it seem as though one can hear “Free Bird” every day at 9 PM on your favorite classic rock station.
Steely Dan will be one of those unique aberrations in rock history. Unfortunately, few artists have the guts to move in the direction of Steely Dan’s wake. I have yet to hear them. Most artists that move to an avant-garde beat attempt to emulate Captain Beefheart’s noise-based blues or Frank Zappa’s classical musical freak-outs. But no one attempts the rock/R&B/jazz triumvirate that Steely Dan perfected.
Walter Becker, I’m certain that your family will miss you more than the fans of your music, which is only proper. But, I will miss your vision and courage to try to fulfill that vision in the field of rock music. Thank you for a lifetime of great memories, and may you find peace in the eternity. May Steely Dan live forever!