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writing for godot

RIP Walter Becker

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Written by CD Sutton II   
Sunday, 03 September 2017 21:05

Can you hear me, Doctor?

When Steely Dan burst upon the music scene in 1972, I was a child of twelve, and fascinated by all things rock and roll. So when I heard Reelin In The Years with its instantly iconic guitar riff, I knew a door had been opened...and that once through that door, there was no return to what had been.

Certainly I have felt the same about other artists before and since. I was a child of the Top 40 era, tuning into Casey Kasem on the weekends, listening to WIBG in Philadelphia, still hoping The Beatles would see the light and regroup. But then someone told me about these new stations popping up on the FM band, WMMR in particular, which played cooler tunes by artists I barely knew. Believe me, once exposed to Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, there was no turning back.

It was there I discovered music that was not three and a half minutes in length. Music that was eventually termed by the broadcast industry as "album oriented rock" or AOR for short. And it was there I began to develop a deep respect for the musicianship it took to create these great soundscapes, which became the soundtrack for my teen years. It was there I found the inspiration to learn to make music of my own.

I still liked pop, was hopelessly in love with Karen Carpenter, still favored The Beatles over The Rolling Stones, and was fanatic about all things Elton John. But I kept going back to AOR as if it were a deep secret...like some form of illicit pleasure forbidden me by The Man. This was late night radio. And through all of it, there was Steely Dan.

To classify this band remains an impossibilty. Perhaps Becker said it best; "We are a Rock band...with a lot of Swing." Elements of Jazz, Soul, and Rock are evident, but there was something else that made it all work. Fagen and Becker never seemed to adhere to one or any of these styles, instead seeming to fuse it all together with some of the best songwriting and arranging the world had ever seen. This was and is art of the highest order, and what they have created has drawn the admiration and awe of every musician I know. Like King Crimson, their audience at a live show are predominantly players.

Who could be surprised by this? Even a cursory examination of the list of musicians who have recorded and played live with them is stunning. Names like Ritenour, Carlton, Purdie, Gadd, Feldman, Graydon, Beard, Shorter, Scott, McDonald and Keltner jump off that page...and they are a small fraction of the artists who, at the peak of their crafts, leased their time and talents to alchemize gold and platinum from acetate and iron filings.

And at the center of all this were two guys who met at Bard College and formed a bond that, through all these years, has remained tight and fast. Two superior musicians, both of whom fairly dripped talent from their fingertips, dedicated to the idea that old school musicianship combined with modern recording techniques (and some "very expensive German microphones") would produce something totally unique. That singularity has been called "The L.A. Sound" in an attempt to define what our ears could not believe. Maybe that definition hits closest to the mark...I cannot say for sure. But nine albums and forty-five years later, we are still fascinated.

I am lucky enough to have a friendship that tight. Someone I have known for thirty-five years with whom I can still create musical magic on cue. We never made the big time, but we did get close enough to feel it. Because of that friendship, because of those shared experiences, I fully understand the dynamics of the Fagen/Becker partnership and, because of that, understand that we are, none of us, without demons. For we who are artists, these demons are of a type I refuse to describe here, but are common within our community. Most of us get through it and come out the other side, far wiser for the experience and still driven to create and perform. Those who succumb are forever enshrined in tragedy.

Mr. Becker made it through. He did come back to the music, to Steely Dan, showing he still had the chops and passion required to blow us away. His work on "Two Against Nature" and "Everything Must Go" revealed the presence of a refined and elegant guitarist still able to captivate an audience of musicians with style, technique, and the most laid back stage presence in the history of live performance. I mean...man, Ellington and Basie were never that cool.

Beginning sometime in 2016, I had heard through various sources that Mr. Becker's health was failing and he was unable to do many live performances with Steely Dan. As I am sure many of us did, I silently wished him a swift recovery and best wishes in general. Yesterday, as I was having dinner out and watching a ball game, the news came over CNN that he had passed. 'Walter Becker, guitarist and founding member of Steely Dan, dies at 67,' I read, and realized that any immediate expression of the sense of loss, no matter how sincere, would be to embrace understatement. The only thing I could do, I did. I walked to the jukebox and played "Dr. Wu" and wept.

I cannot contemplate on any level what Mr. Fagen is going through. I can only send my empathy. I have read that he is dedicated to the continuation of Steely Dan as a band, which is a great tribute to their friendship and to the timeless music that has defined and influenced more than one generation. But if I may, Donald, I sincerely wish there was something I could say or do to ease your grief. I can only say with certainty that you have both made me a better musician, songwriter, and engineer, and when I practice today. it will be with Mr. Becker in my thoughts.

Certainly as my heart goes out to Mr. Becker's family on this sad day, I send my deepest condolences through this inadequate eulogy. Forgive me, all of you; it is the best I can do.

Are you with me, Doctor?

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+1 # chapdrum 2017-09-05 14:00
Beautiful. Thank you.
 

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