Sunday, September 03, 2017

Creature of the margins: Goodbye, Walter Becker

RIP, Walter Becker. Via Rolling Stone, a quick rundown of 10 essential Steely Dan songs. [Update: 9/13/17] And a roundtable Walter Becker podcast with RS staffers Brian Hiatt, David Browne, Rob Sheffield and myself, as well as Steely Dan engineer Elliot Scheiner.

Do you ever get a kick out of the idea of hearing a song as dark and strange as “Deacon Blues” on classic-rock radio?

Yeah, I think that’s great. That’s sort of what we wanted to do, conquer from the margins, sort of find our place in the middle based on the fact that we were creatures of the margin and of alienation, and I think that a lot of kids our age were very alienated. To this day when I read some text that somebody writes about alienation, I always think to myself, Gee, they make it sound like it’s a bad thing! So yeah, I think that’s great. Naturally that’s very satisfying to us to hear that something has slipped through the cracks.
Asking Walter Becker the question above and having him respond so eloquently was easily one of the highlights of my journalistic life so far. We know him and Donald Fagen as consummate deflectors, masters of evasion, but when I spoke to Becker in '08, for a piece timed to the release of his second solo album, Circus Money, he couldn't have been more open, direct and generous with his time.

We may never know the true division of labor in Steely Dan ("Sometimes we really work very closely, collaboratively on every little silly millimeter on the writing of the song and certainly of the records, and sometimes less so," Becker told me when I asked about it), but one thing that's clear is that his and Fagen's partnership was a) nearly telepathic (their non-versation over the mixing board in the section on "Peg" in the Classic Albums doc on Aja is an all-time masterpiece of snide shorthand) and b) extraordinarily fruitful. In just nine years, they put together some of the most profoundly idiosyncratic yet paradoxically pleasurable pop songs ever composed. One could argue that they were snobs in some ways — from reading Eminent Hipsters, I doubt Fagen would dispute this characterization — but they never looked down on the magic of pop, the fact that a three-(or four-, or five-, or six-)minute song could contain an entire universe. (They never looked down on their fans either, even if they poked fun at them sometimes, as I can attest from having seen four of their legendary Beacon Theater shows over the years, at which Becker always played the good-natured ringmaster.)

 Even without fully knowing what they mean, I have become more lost in Steely Dan's songs, from "Bad Sneakers" and "Haitian Divorce" to "Sign in Stranger" and "Razor Boy" than those of almost any other band. What gets glossed over in all the knowing shorthand — "smooth," "jazz," "yacht-rock," "cocaine," etc. — is just how tender and empathetic their music can feel (I think of songs like "Deacon Blues," "Gaucho" and the haunting masterpiece of a B side "Here at the Western World") even when it's at its most barbed and venemous.

In some ways, Becker's solo work was even more so. He was a limited but soulful singer, and, on his own, a songwriter who knew how to blend satire and deeply felt humanity in intensely poignant ways. For one thing, he nailed the bruise of soured love like few others have. To wit:

"Junkie Girl":

"Book of Liars":

"Downtown Canon":


Donald Fagen can of course be masterful on his own too, but as Fagen's statement from today suggests, there's little doubt that each artist's finest work came out of their partnership. Together, they created a sprawling catalog of, in Becker's words, America's many "mythic forms of loserdom" that's pretty much without parallel.

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