I just trashed a post on which I’d been working for the last two days. It was ostensibly about the late Walter Becker, but really more about Steely Dan and how much I’ve enjoyed their music over the years. It didn’t take long, however, for me to discover that my knowledge of Steely Dan is more limited than I thought. I’m better off listening to music than writing about it.
A better piece to read is the heartfelt tribute written by Rickie Lee Jones. Unlike me, she actually knew Walter Becker. I only listened to his music on my stereo and in my car.
What I can at least say is that Steely Dan are one of those bands which always reminds me of my college days. For instance, I’m pretty sure it was the album Aja that was on the turntable the first time I smoked pot. The title track was — and still is — mesmerizing to the ear. All those sounds stimulating the senses!
Becker and his musical partner Donald Fagen wrote music that grabbed you by the collar and pulled you into their world. The songs didn’t make you think of a former lover, painful memories of junior high school, or some other experience from your past. Nope, this was their story and you either paid attention to them or you didn’t. The tale told in “My Old School” certainly didn’t bear any resemblance to my own collegiate time, but that really wasn’t their point was it?
My very first Dan album was Pretzel Logic, which was released in 1974. I remember buying it on the strength of the radio hit,”Ricki Don’t Lose That Number.”I can still hear that strange but cool-sounding flapamba that opens the song at least on the album version anyway.
Steely Dan songs were rarely about things I could relate to at all. But their mix of jazz, pop, and R&B, along with those grown-up lyrics, made me a fan straight-away. A roommate in college used to utter Dan lyric nonsense as we were all straining under the pressures of exams and term papers. Years later, when he passed through Washington, DC on a business trip and called to see if we could get together, I answered my office phone only to hear faux-falsetto singing on the other end, “Is there gas in the car?”
The only way to respond to that was to sing back, “Yes, there’s gas in the car” It was like a private club. Millions of others were also in it, which of course pokes a hole at the whole exclusivity thing. But it doesn’t matter. Steely Dan’s music made you feel like you were part of something special regardless.
Rest peacefully, Walter. And thanks for the tunes.