Change of the Guard

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(Pictured: Walter Becker, onstage in 2016.)

I really don’t know what to say.

Through the middle of the 1970s, Steely Dan was merely a band I heard on the radio, although I liked whatever I heard. Under the right conditions, “Do It Again” can still transport me back to the winter I turned 13 and how I tried to figure out just what the hell it was about—and not just the song, but everything else that was happening to me in that season. “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” reminds me of the summer of 1974, and how I spent it hanging out in the musty basement of our house after the fire in the upstairs that spring. In each of the next two summers, there were Steely Dan songs on the radio that I didn’t hear nearly often enough to suit me: “Black Friday” and “Kid Charlemagne.”

Then came “Peg,” at the end of 1977. I had never heard a sound like that sound—not from Steely Dan or anybody else—and it blew my mind. I got Aja for Christmas that year (after a couple of months of begging, no doubt), and I played it constantly for the next several months. I went out and bought every other Steely Dan album I could get my hands on, and by the summer of 1978 I had them all, and I got everything new that came out after. When I got my first CD player in the late 80s, one of the first discs I bought was a Steely Dan compilation. One of the most pleasing gifts I ever received was the Citizen Steely Dan box set. In the download era, I have acquired literally dozens of bootlegs. For 40 years this fall, Steely Dan has been my favorite band of them all.

I have been fortunate enough to see the band live three times: in 2000, in 2007, and again in 2013. At the 2013 show, it was clear that Walter Becker wasn’t moving particularly well—in fact, he didn’t move much at all, standing stiffly and sometimes looking uncomfortable, and I recall reading that in succeeding years, he would sometimes perform sitting down. He had missed shows earlier this summer, but all indications were that he would return to the band. Now, of course, he will not.

Steely Dan started as a conventional band, but by Katy Lied in 1975 was down to Becker, Donald Fagen, and the best session players in New York and Los Angeles. Sometimes Becker was like a session cat himself—he’s not on “Peg” at all—and Steely Dan’s ever-shifting studio lineup was such that I couldn’t tell you if he played some famous solo, or if it was some other big-time player. (He never took a lead vocal until the band’s tours in the 1990s.) I was not too concerned with who played what. To me, Becker and Fagen were a hive-mind, architects of a sound that nobody else could hear. That sound—which eludes my ability to describe, although I know it when I hear it, words and music, cool and funky, dissonant and harmonious, funny and cynical and ominous and ultimately inscrutable—has been in my head and heart since I was a teenager. And it’s always going to be there, at least until I follow Walter Becker to wherever he went yesterday.

The first iteration of this post included an attempt to rank my favorite Steely Dan songs. (The list included “Change of the Guard,” a track from Can’t Buy a Thrill, which gave this post its title.) I might post the list eventually, but this is not the day for it. And it’s likely that such a ranking is a fool’s errand. Ask me tomorrow and I’d probably rank today’s list in an entirely different order, and the day after that, the list might be 10 entirely different songs. Steely Dan is like that with me. I never get enough, and I never want the same thing twice in a row.

Rest well, sir. And thank you for everything.

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8 responses

  1. Beautiful post. I agree that with Steely Dan, a top ten list will change day by day. Picking a favorite album is hard to do!

    I’m assuming you’ve heard their first single “Dallas” and “Sail the Waterway.” The guys pretty much disowned it, so it’s never appeared on cd, but they are lovely little tunes as well.

  2. Agreed. Beautiful post. My favorite band from day one.

  3. James Allen Hunter | Reply

    Just last month I fired up the turntable and listened to “Can’t Buy A Thrill.” Looking at the hip liner notes I saw the copyright and noticed that I was listening to something that was released 45 years ago. You’d never know it. As Becker himself said, he wasn’t into that jazz stuff, he considered Steely Dan rock that swung. And swing it did.

  4. I knew this would hit you hard. My knowledge of them doesn’t go much beyond modestly deep cuts you nonetheless hear at least occasionally on the radio, but I really like much of what I know. It’s pedestrian to say, but “Peg” and “Reelin’ in the Years” are both simply brilliant.

  5. Very nice tribute, Jim. Dan and Walter heard stuff in a unique way. Their music has always been “must buy” for me, and I’ve listened to their albums hundreds of times. Saw them when they were in Madison a couple years ago. They rocked the house.

    A few months ago my wife and I were doing the Saturday morning grocery shopping and the young checkout girl wore a nametag that said “Aja”. I asked where her name came from. “Some band my parents used to listen to.” My wife and I shared an eye-roll.

    I was tempted to return and give her a copy of Naked Lunch.

  6. Becker and Fagen are the black licorice of rock n’ roll — if you like them you can’t get enough; if you don’t, you don’t understand what the big deal is.
    (I fall into the former category.)

    I would be interested in your shot at a Top Ten Steely Dan list, fool’s errand or no.
    Sure, they’re all great songs (OK, maybe not “Through With Buzz”), but which ones speak most to you, musically or lyrically?

  7. “Pretzel Logic” has long been a favorite of mine. As for Steely Dan songs, “Don’t Take Me Alive” is great in a storyteller perspective. I just love “Josie” off the “Aja” album just for the lyric “She prays like a Roman with her eyes on fire.” Coolest sound on a Steely Dan album: the police whistle on “Aja,” the title track, played by Donald Fagen

  8. […] I wrote about Walter Becker and Steely Dan in September, I said that I’d made a list of favorite Dan songs but then decided to leave it out of the […]

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