One word that kept popping up on the internet after the death of Steely Dan guitarist and founder Walter Becker at the age of 67 was subversive. A quick dictionary scan produced this definition “seeking to subvert an established tradition.” Other terms included troublemaker, dissident and agitator. It’s hard now to imagine a band as well respected and accepted by millions as dissidents or agitators but back in the early 1970s, when they were coming on the musical scene, they were indeed different and if not troublemakers certainly enigmas. Were they jazz? Or just super cool rock guys? Did they even exists because no one saw them perform live for over 20 years and well what were they really singing about anyways?
The litany of hits that came off the shared pen of Becker and his longtime writing and band partner Donald Fagen puts them if not quite at the Jagger-Richards or Lennon-McCartney level, it certainly has them in a special place in the songwriter’s wing of best ever duos. And some would say these weird eccentric geniuses from Bard College were some of rock’s most cerebral writers and man did they pay attention to the production elements. It was often a Steely Dan record that was used whenever you went into a stereo store to listen to the quality of the speakers. The sheer brilliance of sound of a Steely Dan record alone made it a work of art-throw in the unique jazz stylings, ridiculous harmonies and some of rock’s most sublime lyrics and you had a stew of intelligence that you could zone out to or play confidently when your parents where in the room.
Though Fagen went on to have a mildly successful solo career and Becker mostly remained out of the spotlight, their work with Steely Dan was considered an collaboration of equals. Becker brought a sense of ultimate perfectionism to the band’s recorded output. You might not like Gaucho but man does it sound good. The band itself went though some personal changes mostly due to the Becker’s reluctance to tour. It’s unfortunate because if you do find some of the rare footage of the band performing in the early 1970s you will see and hear some incredible musicianship. Even if “you couldn’t tell a diamond if you held it in your hand.”
The music was complex and the lyrics even deeper. From the greed of “Black Friday” to the tribute to the Grateful Dead’s drug dealer (“Kid Charlemagne”), the music of The Dan made you ponder more than dance. For awhile it was almost uncool to like Steely Dan, but the reality was you couldn’t stay away. Sure it was all over the radio in the Seventies but more than that it pulled you in. Made you suspicious of their themes, thoughts and message. In the introduction to the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame inductor Moby called their music ‘Weird, warm, beautiful and quite foreign.” It was at the time and even now with such pristine production and lyrics worth weeks of Google searches, Steely Dan remains the enigma of their times. Brilliance and substance over one of the most consistent music outputs ever. I will miss the anti rock star personae of Walter Becker but when it comes to the music he left behind, I’ll always be happy that “there’s gas in the car.”