Was shocked and shaken this morning to hear of the passing of Walter Becker, bassist/guitarist and co-founder of Steely Dan. Apparently he'd been ill for some time with an unspecified ailment. I didn't know that either, but that's not surprising; the man was an artist, not a celebrity.
If you came of age during the '70s, the Dan were the soundtrack to your wayward youth, literate misanthropes in soft-rock clothes whose obscurantist musings somehow crept into the Top 40. When some hipster tells me '70s music was dreck until The Ramones, Sex Pistols et. al. righted the ship, I point them toward Steely Dan. In the words of songstress Rickie Lee Jones, they're "the beginning of college rock."
As a kid, I bought the singles: "Do It Again," "Reelin' in the Years," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number." These slivers of wax sounded like nothing I'd ever heard, and listening to them now, they still do. Becker and collaborator Donald Fagen were originals. Jazz-rock was in vogue then, yet Steely Dan steered well clear of the pack, whether on the rock (Chicago, BS&T) or jazz side (Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report). I can tell you what they weren't, but I'd need a musicology degree to tell you what they were. As I understand it their influences are mostly jazz greats like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, with dashes of R&B—yet without exception, their oeuvre consists of pop songs, albeit with a jazzy sophistication underpinning those great hooks.
I've long envied their songwriting, but their style is hard to emulate without serious chops and a knowledge of jazz harmony, both of which I lack. Why, for a few seconds today I entertained the thought of working up a Steely Dan song in tribute to Becker and quietly nixed the idea. In the past I've tried three or four of their "easier" numbers (the ones with fewer tricky jazz modulations), and they simply don't come off with one guy and an acoustic guitar, at least not this guy. The Steely Dan influence has, however, shown up once in my music—fittingly in an obscure way that only a pedant would appreciate. "After You," one of the songs on my forthcoming album, features a pedal steel part in the bridge—actually a sample that I plied, twisted and manipulated in a week-long bout of studio obsessiveness that would make Walter Becker proud—that I think gets the official Steely Dan Award for Best Use of Pedal Steel in a Non-Country Song. (Check out Jeff Baxter's gorgeous steel work on Can't Buy a Thrill or Countdown to Ecstasy, their first two albums, to hear what I mean.)
In any case, you will be missed, Mr. B. May the afterlife treat you well. Won't you sign in, stranger?