Perhaps you remember, as I do, when your parents would speak in astonishment about some entertainer from their youth who had just passed away. I would always think to myself, “Duh, yeah, they’re old”. I didn’t realize that even though the person was old in relation to me he or she wasn’t old to my parents.
As a member of the tail end of the baby boomers I am now of the age where I have more years behind me than in front of me. I have become like my parents. Many of the artists who could have been my older brothers or sisters are dying every day. Walter Becker was one year younger than my older sister.
I first heard Steely Dan on AM radio in 1972 when Do It Again and Reelin’ In The Years became hits. I loved both songs instantly but they were guilty pleasures. You see, in 1972 AM radio was no longer cool. Since the late 1960’s all of the counter-cultural trends in music started on FM. AM radio was where you would hear what lame people thought was cool. Good music only reached AM when it had caught on with the masses after debuting on FM, or so I thought.
Eventually, I heard Dirty Work on WNEW FM. After this, the Dan became staples of FM rock radio – guilty pleasures no more.
Becker and Donald Fagen met at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson. A bucolic setting of ivy covered buildings and historic mansions on the banks of New York’s Hudson River overlooking the Catskill Mountains – not exactly one of the gritty locales of their songs. It was in stately Ward Manor, built in 1916 for Louis Gordon Hammersley and designed by architect Francis Hoppin, that they wrote songs on an old piano and rehearsed a band that included Chevy Chase on drums.
This is the college that was immortalized in the song My Old School. A song about a drug bust involving none other than Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy (Daddy G) who was the D. A. of Dutchess county (where Bard is located) at the time. As they said in the song, they were “not going back to Annandale”. Fagen graduated Bard in 1969 but Becker left without graduating.
I started writing this post when Walter Becker passed. By waiting this long to post it, I have probably sacrificed any boost my blog would have received at the time. I don’t care about that. I have had time to process the news.
I saw Steely Dan on their Shuffle Diplomacy tour in 2011 at Tanglewood, where they performed songs from all of their albums except Pretzel Logic. Walter spoke about his visits to the Berkshires as a young man as well as his experience at Bard. Some critics who reviewed the performance didn’t appreciate his rap, but, I did.
Becker and Donald Fagen represented musicianship, striving for perfection, appreciation for jazz, blues and rock and roll, and, a desire to write literate and clever lyrics. Unfortunately, these values were not in sync with the aesthetics of Punk and Rap, and these genres, unfortunately, quickly became darlings of critics.
My appreciation of Becker and Fagen has grown over the years, especially since I have delved into recording and discovered how difficult it is to get even very good performances to even sound decent. Walter Becker will be sorely missed in an age where artists who have little musical ability can simply digitally sample his work and make money.