COLUMNS | POEMS | NOTES
WALTER BECKER (1950 – 2017)
Obituaries for guitarist Walter Becker, who died on September 3, referred to the music he created with Donald Fagen, his partner in Steely Dan, as “jazzy,” as “sophisticated pop.” Tidy terms, perfect for limited-character exchanges (and attention spans) trafficked through social media. But, do they really cut it? Can that terse language address the impact of their efforts, the effect Steely Dan had on its dedicated followers?
When news of Becker’s death spread, it unleashed a torrent of running commentaries – remembrances, thanks, acknowledgements, appreciations, all in the service of lives changed. Many were from baby boomers whose teenage years were wallpapered with sounds emanating from radio or turntables. Though many of Steely Dan’s tracks were heard as smooth pop flaunting ear worm hooks, their complexity and polish revealed remarkable depth and attention to detail. (The group’s audiophile standards were so high, the records were routinely used to test check stereo components.)
Hit singles such as “Do It Again,” ”Reelin In The Years,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, “Hey Nineteen” and “Peg” – representing airwave domination throughout the ’70s – were not throwaway ditties, designed for consumption and disposal. They were painfully constructed by creators who reveled in the role of joyful subversives.
In fact, both Becker and Fagen, as youths, were heavily influenced by the surround sound of jazz radio and recordings. Fagen bowed at the feet of Sonny Rollins and the classic releases from the Blue Note label, while Becker grew up following dj’s such as Mort Vega, the legendary New York broadcaster whose programming featured heavy doses of jazz greats, big bands and stand-up comedians. Becker acknowledged that the sounds and harmonies that enveloped him as a child provided the foundational groundwork for Steely Dan. Reportedly, he was the product of a broken home who endured a difficult upbringing. One can guess that the echoes of his early years served as both balm and inspiration. Once he met Fagen at Bard College, their music merged, their partnership bloomed.
It wasn’t enough that Steely Dan’s songs featured people who lived on the fringe of society – fugitives, grifters, lechers – and story lines that veered left from typical ’70s radio fare – the vacuity of California excess, the subterranean allure of the jazz life. Becker and Fagen were reflecting the needs of those who felt disenfranchised, with that period’s music and, possibly, life itself in post-Vietnam America. Their fans may have been like them: literary types, exceedingly smart, knowledgeable about music history and sonic fidelity, boasting a taste for the absurd, welcoming sounds that enabled acceptance of life’s weirdness.
Becker and Fagen were songwriters with a vision, bleak and funny, featuring complicated characters in situations that often tested morality and survival. The desperado lamming it on “Don’t Take Me Alive” could not have sprung from the minds of others, say, Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
I’m a bookkeeper’s son
I don’t want to shoot no one
Well I crossed my old man back in Oregon
Don’t take me alive…
Becker and Fagen were skilled at creating musical short stories rich in humanity. That they did so with precisely-produced records utilizing musicians of a very high order attests to their perfectionism. The role call of jazz players who graced their efforts is formidable – Wayne Shorter, Phil Woods, Jerome Richardson, Larry Carlton, Steve Gadd, Warne Marsh, Ernie Watts, Pete Christlieb, Randy Brecker, et al. They were subjected to exhausting challenges aimed at exceeding Steely Dan’s beyond-pop standards. (Brecker confided that at the beginning of a recording session he never gave them the good stuff. He learned to save his best trumpet solos for takes 30 and above, knowing he needed to preserve what he had while Walter and Donald pursued “perfection.”)
The game-changer for many was the 1977 album, Aja. It struck me as a perfect record – the fulfillment of bold ideas, integrating complex musics with inquisitive narratives with mainstream accessibility. “Sophisticated,” if you prefer.
As a 20-something working in rock radio, the album was offered to me precisely because it was “jazzy,” and it bumped up against the contours of the station’s programming. Its effect was immediate – a visceral zap, followed by a reckoning of the players. The title track featured a tenor solo from Wayne that sent me on a mission. Who is Wayne Shorter? Where can I find his records?
Time travel ensued, which proved the ride of a lifetime – from Wayne to Joe Zawinul, to Cannonball Adderly, accelerating through the constellations of Bird and Lester Young and Louis Armstrong, shifting into higher gears with Monk, Miles, Bill Evans, Trane and Ornette. Backwards and forwards, my side trips provided the purest of exhilarations, knowing that the genetic code for Aja is written in the bones of all these spirits. A forensic journey, fueled by the fumes of pressed vinyl.
All of a sudden, a track from Pretzel Logic, a record from three years earlier, made sense: “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” written by Duke Ellington and trumpeter Bubber Riley, now masterfully updated to feature Becker’s wah-wah replication of Riley’s depression-era mute. Not the most obvious song choice for a rock group breaking through to teenagers in 1974. But the impulse was undeniable: that music was in their bones, without concern for the categorical differences or demands associated with genres.
I felt then (and I feel now) they were having a private laugh the whole time, opening that door, suggesting I walk through, knowing I’d be gobsmacked by my discoveries. That gesture might have been the most generous gift they offered me. Curiosity begat a calling. A career was born.
I’ve often thought about the entirety of Steely Dan, even pondering the absurdity of the band’s name, especially now that Becker is gone. Steely Dan was inspired by William Burroughs’s reference to a strap-on dildo in his novel, Naked Lunch – an amusing thought as you weigh the staying power of their music. Once Becker and Fagen found their song ideas – often wry, without precedent – they draped them in majestic hipness, showcasing a musical range well beyond other purveyors in pop music. So much of what Walter and Donald created was big. Theirs was a partnership for the ages. Any major dude will tell you.
—by Jeff Levenson, JazzFM, 2017
BRIAN WILSON, SONGWRITER
In 1999, when Brian Wilson toured without the Beach Boys for the first time and made his celebrated “comeback” from years of reclusiveness and stage fright, he opened his New York show at the Beacon Theater with “The Little Girl I Once Knew.” An interesting choice, I thought, at the time. “The Little Girl…” is well known among Beach Boy enthusiasts; less so, among pop main-streamers. It is an unusually crafted song and record, distinguished by timely silences not favorable to mid-’60s radio programmers mandated to fill precious seconds with winning content. Here, on this special night, Wilson chose to re-launch himself with a song less connected to his reputation as hit-maker than songwriting craftsman.
This thought came to mind last month as I witnessed pianist Brad Mehldau at the Village Vanguard. Playing to a packed house (one of 12, throughout his week-long run), Mehldau bejeweled his set with a lesser-known Wilson composition, “Friends,” written 40-plus years ago in the period following the complex song constructions (and studio sessions) actuating the legendary Smile project.
When Mehldau and I chatted following the set, he received my comments on behalf of “Friends” and Brian Wilson warmly. “It’s an amazing tune,” he said, “because it seems so simple yet it’s got very cool chord changes. It’s a song you can dig into.”
Given his remarks I was reminded that over the years numerous jazz artists have tackled Wilson’s tunes: saxophonist Charles Lloyd earned accolades last year with Mirrors, which featured a pensive read of Wilson’s “Caroline No” (decades ago, Lloyd and the Beach Boys appeared on one another’s records); pianist Larry Goldings released an album named, In My Room, drawing parallels between his own artistic development and the title song’s ruminative air; guitarist Charlie Hunter and drummer Leon Parker waxed a duo version of “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder”), a centerpiece of the Pet Sounds album; and Seamus Blake won the 2002 Thelonious Monk Competition with a Hail Mary pass amidst competing jazz tenorists – a poetic read of “God Only Knows,” considered by many to be Wilson’s finest composition.
The sum of these moments affirms an evolving verity in the narrative of music history – simply, that Brian Wilson is one of our Mount Rushmore composers. Having earned his stripes as an advanced studio alchemist, vocal arranger and conceptualizer – pop’s first great auteur – Wilson is being ushered into the songwriting spotlight by jazz artists. He is among an elite group of post-WW II tune-smiths whose work continues the traditions of the great American Songbook, even though their work was created primarily for radio and records, rather than film or theater. (He is joined in that regard by Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and Jimmy Webb, among others.)
Wilson’s contribution is as much sociological as it is musical. Given his developing years (he was born in 1942), he was a product of the dream state that fueled America’s western expansion. It held to a sweetness and optimism that proved mythical and came to define California. Wilson harnessed this and districted his own virtual geography, doing for the Golden State (and its associative mindsets) what Antonio Carlos Jobim did for Brazil, and George Gershwin did for New York. His music branded a sense of place.
Now, as news circulates that the Beach Boys will be embarking on a 50th Anniversary tour, featuring a core group of litigious band members who have functioned independently yet spread Wilson’s foundational work, we can see more clearly Brian Wilson, Songwriter. Last year he released …Re-imagines Gershwin; this year, it’s In The Key of Disney, a signature collection of treatments covering tunes associated with the Disney film archives.
The compositions on those albums are not his, but they bring him full circle, In 1961, inspired by “Rhapsody In Blue” and “When You Wish Upon A Star,” he believed that he too could write. His inaugural effort was “Surfer Girl,” which established an emotional template heard throughout his long career. Its wordless intro - the longing, melancholy, ache - provides all you need to know about Brian Wilson and, perhaps, ourselves: The dreams beyond reach are those worth chasing.
- by Jeff Levenson, JazzFM, 2016
DISPASSION CHALLENGED, AS ONE WOULD THE UNTAMED BEAST
A man with a camera shoots me
and I stand upright,
bracing myself for a
my eyes a cool frieze.
FOR MAX GORDON, AND OTHERS SIMILARLY POSSESSED
Deep within the vanguard darkness
Lovers enraptured by spirits
Set time on its ear.
"Vibes," they say
Is that ghosts?