I had a glimmer something was wrong when I tried to reach the Grey Goatee Research Geeks with a mundane question about golf, of all things.
Closed. Shut. No answer. While I wasn’t expecting cheerful service, I was surprised by the total silence.
It was Barry who told me, after a round of golf, the same Barry I project onto “Barrytown” on Steely Dan’s least-appreciated early album whenever I hear it.
I gave the research goons another try later on. Somebody answered, warily. I asked whoever it was if anything was wrong. The voice said, “Yeah, fuckhead. Walter Becker died.”
I didn’t know they cared. About anything. About Walter Becker? They have souls … who could have known?
The snobbery of jazz musicians toward rock ‘n’ roll music is well-established, and well-founded, for a lot of it.
“They don’t even write their own songs,” the old jazz guy I knew best said once about the Beatles, which we know not to be true, but for the sake of argument I said, “Somebody did.” He snorted, and it’s an argument I didn’t want at the time, and I really don’t want it today.
I got in the rotation of a woman named Willa for a while. She liked jazz, mostly, but she took me to see Joe Ely one night in the late ’80s at Parker’s, so I know she wasn’t closed off to the world. Her father was a jazz musician, a major player, and I asked her once if her dad liked anybody outside his genre.
She said, “He likes Steely Dan, a lot.”
We had cassettes, but I don’t remember if we had anything to play ’em on, and we had a turntable, but not very many LPs, but by god we had an eight-track player in that dorm room, the beauty of which was you never had to turn the album over or restart it when it ended. It just looped and looped and looped. Did we have more than one eight-track tape? No fucking idea. We had “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” and it went ’round and ’round and ’round and we never didn’t like it. We never got tired of it.
I know, and I know Mark, the old rooomate, does, too, every verse and bridge, every lick and chord change of that album.
And then the new ones came in. On a first listen to a new Steely Dan album you’d say, out loud, “Wow. I’m not so sure about this.” To yourself, you might say, That line doesn’t go where it ought to be going. Why’d they do that?
Three listens later, or less, the tunes were in your ear, and even if you never said it out loud you knew no phrase of any of the songs could ever resolve themselves in any other way.
He was fast and skilled, and his improvs fit in — he wouldn’t have been in Walter Becker’s band if they hadn’t — that night at The Gorge, the first time I saw Steely Dan live. Good player, and lucky to have Steely Dan on his resume. I hope the kid learned something when Walter stepped out-front to play lead. He wasn’t fast, not so you’d notice, just dead on; not flashy, just Dan-perfect.
I don’t have a Steely Dan scholar’s knowledge of who wrote what or which part of what songs, but Donald Fagen said today it was a true collaboration, like an old married couple finishing each other’s sentences.
And today there’s no couple, so, no Steely Dan. To bastardize the great Walter Becker: “Please make it clear/when his day is done/he got a place to go” … ’round and ’round and ’round and ’round, on eight-track players everywhere.