While reading the many fine tributes written over the weekend for Steely Dan’s Walter Becker — who died Sunday at age 67 — I noticed two common threads. The first is that people have been eulogizing Steely Dan as much as Becker, I think, because it was never clear who did what in the partnership between him and Donald Fagen. It’s not like Lennon/McCartney, where we know that John Lennon wrote “In My Life” and Paul McCartney wrote “Yesterday.” Steely Dan, like the album cover of 1977’s masterful Aja, was a black box. The band’s songs were as opaque in their construction as they were lyrically. Perhaps that’s also why Fagen felt compelled, after paying heartfelt tribute to his fallen comrade, to immediately assure fans that he intends “to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.”
So, Steely Dan isn’t going away, and for once a classic-rock institution carrying on in the wake of a band member’s death doesn’t seem crass. In life, Becker had expressed ambivalence about playing on his own records; he would rather utilize the finest session musicians to do his songs justice. In death, Becker finally gets his wish.
The other thing that has come up is that familiar, reflexive defensive posture whenever someone tries to explain how great Steely Dan is. This is still a band that is frequently dismissed as square, staid dad rock — Steely Dan might in fact be the emblematic dad-rock group of all-time. The dad-rock cliche is so common with Steely Dan that the counterargument about how Steely Dan is actually a MOR Trojan horse for scathingly funny, bitterly sad, and deeply subversive songs about the inner rot of American culture has also become a cliche.
If you’re among the unconverted, don’t worry, I’ll spare you the lecture on how the progression from 1972’s Can’t Buy A Thrill to 1980’s Gaucho is among the most impressive runs in all of ’70s rock. And I won’t explain that those albums function as a social history of the decade, charting the slowly sinking despair of post-Watergate America into the morass of self-involved Reaganism at the dawn of the ’80s.
Instead, let me briefly recount a story about dancing to “Hey Nineteen.”
As a kid who grew up obsessively listening to the local classic-rock station, studying the playlists and learning about the canon, I could not stand Steely Dan. It sounded like music that middle-aged people played when they wanted to make out. On classic-rock radio, there was a hierarchy — Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Springsteen, and Neil Young were in the top tier, as those were the artists you always wanted to hear the most. And there was the underbelly: REO Speedwagon, Supertramp, Chicago, Styx. Those were the bands you had to tolerate to get to the good stuff. Steely Dan, for me, belonged in the underbelly. (To be clear, I don’t think this way anymore. If you’re mad about these classifications, take it up with 14-year-old me back in 1991.)
My feelings about Steely Dan started to change during my sophomore year of college, when I developed a life-destroying crush on a girl with great taste in music who loved Steely Dan. One night, she took out her cassette copy of Goldand played “Hey Nineteen,” a song I had previously dismissed. Then she pointed out the references to cocaine and tequila and creepy old guys trying to make it with young girls. And she did this while we danced to the song’s dead-eyed backbeat — so stiffly funky, so warmly narcotized. And, for the first time, I got it. Steely Dan was the shit.
I like this story because it dispels the familiar dad-rock narrative about Steely Dan — I fell in love with this band because a 19-year-old woman got me to dance to them.
After Becker died, I wracked my brain trying to pick one Steely Dan song as my personal favorite, so I could share it on social media. I wanted to go with something obscure, a song that would encapsulate the Dan’s harmonic complexity and thematic perversity and also impress other Steely Dan fans. I considered “Everyone’s Gone To The Movies” from 1975’s Katy Lied, the jauntiest song ever written about a pedophile. Then I remembered “Fire In The Hole” from Can’t Buy A Thrill, which is about (I think?) a riot at a circus freak show. No no no, I thought, I have to go with the funny-sad travelogue “Haitian Divorce,” from 1976’s underrated The Royal Scam, which I like to imagine is a caustic sequel to David Bowie’s “Young Americans.”
But why try to be cool when we’re talking about Steely Dan? The truth is, my favorite Steely Dan song is the title track from the band’s most popular album, 1977’s Aja.
I became obsessed with Aja a few years after my “Hey Nineteen” dance party, when I was out of college and navigating a series of very adult traumas. It’s amazing how experience can make music you’ve heard your entire life sound different. When I was a kid, I thought Steely Dan was terribly lame. But now that I was in my early twenties and faking my way through a grown-up job and a couple of dysfunctional romantic relationships, I couldn’t imagine ever being as cool as Fagen and Becker in the face of heartbreak, alienation, and encroaching cynicism.
My Aja period coincided with my immersion in Robert Altman’s 1973 masterpiece The Long Goodbye. To this day both works remain linked in my mind. In The Long Goodbye, Elliot Gould plays the classic Raymond Chandler detective Philip Marlowe as a bruised romantic who is stuck outside of his own time, a cursed figure who tries to understand how the perfect beauty of 1970s Los Angeles can cover up so much ugliness and darkness.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Two recovering jazzbos from the opposite coast who suddenly found themselves rubbing shoulders with rock and roll bros like Don Henley and Glenn Frey, Fagen and Becker were similarly lost in LA. And yet they were enamored with the very LA idea of papering over the sorrow in their songs with the era’s shiniest, most impeccable sonic architecture.
(In the film [SPOILER ALERT!] Gould finally snaps and shoots his cretinous, murderous friend in cold blood, and then skips into the horizon while Altman plays “Hooray For Hollywood” on the soundtrack. If that scene is not a Steely Dan song, I don’t know what is.)
As I was trying to come up with an appropriately obscure Steely Dan track, I kept thinking of the song “Aja,” which has always struck me as an almost-unbearably sad song about loss. “Up on the hill, people never stare, they just don’t care,” Fagen sings at the start. It’s the most hopeless moment in a catalogue loaded with hopelessness. Then the guy in the song hears music from his past. He remembers a woman he once loved. “I run to you,” Fagen says, sounding as close to tender as he ever would.
In light of Becker’s passing, it occurred to me that the person in that song could be a man on his death bed. (Or, to make another Altman connection, Julie Christie at the end of McCabe And Mrs. Miller.) My hope is that, in Becker’s final moments, he heard his own version of evocative “Chinese music under banyan trees.”