RIP Walter Becker, Your Work Here is Done

Walter-Becker

RIP Walter Becker.

Not many musicians were involved in a run as productive and consistently sublime as Steely Dan’s. My life, in short, would make much less sense without his work.

Here’s my tribute, from (yikes) 2006.

Steely Dan will not be denied. At this rate, within the next decade or so, the total of greatest hits collections will surpass the number of actual albums they made. This, shall we say, lack of restraint does not necessarily become the badass band that famously refused to tour and took its name from a dildo in William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. And yet, the music makes most of their excesses excusable. Unfortunately, there is not much new or provocative in this latest set. Fortunately, it’s still fantastic.

Steely Dan, these days, is kind of like the kid you remember as an insufferable smarty-pants from high school who rolls up at the reunion suddenly the coolest dude in the class. Only more so. They could be accused of many things (and they are), but Steely Dan was never stupid: they knew enough to get out while the getting was bad, and managed to avoid ever making a substandard record. Indeed, their swan song, Gaucho, was not their finest hour, and if the sweetly sung invocation of the semi-obligatory addictions of its time (“The Cuervo gold / The fine Colombian”) is any indication, it’s not a stretch to speculate where most of the royalties from Aja went. After that, they stayed gone until deciding it was safe to come up for air, touring in the ‘90s and making new music in the new millennium.

Steely Dan remains impossible to pigeonhole, and therein lies their difficult-to-define appeal. How many other bands could boast their jazz influences so brazenly as to build their biggest hit (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”) on a Horace Silver standard, and then sing wistfully about Owsley Stanley, the legendary chemist who supplied, among many others, the Merry Pranksters with the fodder for their acid tests (“Kid Charlemagne”)? Answer: exactly one. These guys were smart. They were also shrewd: the best player-coaches of their era, Walter Becker (bass and guitars) and Donald Fagen (keyboards, vocals) made albums with a sweet sheen that just barely subdued the strained malaise always lurking beneath. Take “Black Friday,” for instance, which chugs along pleasantly enough until the lyrics kick in: “When Black Friday comes I’ll stand down by the door / And catch the grey men when they dive from the fourteenth floor.”

A band has to know its limitations, so Steely Dan built their studio of dreams, and sure enough, the players came. Looking at the personnel listed on virtually every song is like reviewing a roster of (mostly) unsung heroes from the ‘70s: Pete Chistlieb, Larry Carlton, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and Jeff Porcaro—to name but a handful. Notorious control freaks who spurned world tours, and wanting the best of all other worlds, Steely Dan made their unique blend of perfection seem, or at least sound, effortless, conjuring up the production chops of George Martin, the sonic skills of Phil Spector, and the sardonic acumen of Captain Beefheart. Somehow, it worked.

Not many white guys could ask the world to call them “Deacon Blues” and avoid coming off like William Shatner. Listening now, it seems safe to suggest that Steely Dan was rock music’s stealthy shadow, filling in some of the dark space between bloated early ‘70s side-long suites and the stripped-down punk rock revolution. These studio nerds’ street cred only escalates in hindsight, especially when considered alongside the pantsuit pomposity of, say, 1975. (Emerson Lake & Palmer, anyone?) Mostly behind the scenes, Steely Dan blazed an eccentric trail no one could copy, with one foot in a past they knew better than to reproduce, the other foot in a future they ultimately became too uncomfortable describing.

And so, another Steely Dan collection? The question should not be who wants this album; the answer is who needs it, and that would include anyone not already in the know. For the uninitiated, it’s a safe bet and hopefully will serve as a gateway to more dangerous Dan. Those seeking familiar favorites will not be disappointed: “Reelin’ in the Years,” “My Old School,” and “Peg” are a few of the usual suspects making another curtain call here. Like most compilations of well-known bands, half the songs have been beaten into banality by unimaginative radio stations, or else—the ultimate sign of dubious immortality—born again as Muzak. None of this, naturally, is the artists’ fault. As such, it’s hard to quibble with a collection that includes, as it must, the hits. As an incremental bonus, The Definitive Collection features a couple of samples from the Y2K incarnation, which are just enough to render the glory days more immutable. Steely Dan has not died, and they are still the coolest dudes in the class.

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Art vs. Life and Death, Again (Revisited)

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Wow, look at the New York Times, today, on the complicated legacy of Roberto Bolano, here.

Money quote(s):

Few writers are more acclaimed right now than the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who died of an unspecified liver ailment in 2003, at the age of 50. His posthumous novel, 2666, appeared on many lists of the best books of 2008, and interest in him and his work has been further kindled by his growing reputation as a hard-living literary outlaw…At the same time, some of Mr. Bolaño’s friends in Mexico, where he lived for nearly a decade before finally settling down near Barcelona, Spain, are questioning another aspect of the life story he constructed for himself…Regarding Mr. Bolaño and drugs, numerous Latin American and European critics and bloggers have taken the side of his widow, accusing American critics and publishers of deliberately distorting the writer’s past to fit him into the familiar mold of the tortured artist.

This, as they say, is a propos. Where my previous post focused more on the ways in which critics (and fans) have their own reasons (sometime legitimate, often selfish) for propagating the romanticized image of the decadent artist, there is no question that some artists are very invested in their own mythologizing. I was more concerned with the idea of the posers who are probably not artists at all (i.e., the ones who will corner you at a party and talk, endlessly, about all the projects they’ll get around to working on, someday), but of course there are the ones, ranging from obscure (James Frey) to already established (Bolano) fabricating an entire autobiography based on a deliberate embellishment. Or, to put it more bluntly, a lie. And this could warrant considerable examination, but I think the bottom line is, it’s a mutually rewarding endeavor for writer and publisher/editor when this sham works. It creates the dangerous aura the writer can cultivate to generate interest (and sales) and it creates a buzz about the writer, which generates sales (and interest in future books). The blame game–so typically American–only commences when the author’s work (or bio) is definitively exposed as fiction (see: James Frey) and you have editors scrambling to cover their asses (or idiots like Oprah Winfrey who, personifying the prurient American reader who is taken hook line and sinker by the outrageous, over-the-top exploits of the bad-ass artist, shifts from huckster to soap-box admonisher overnight, just to save face). This is a tricky dance: some editors are genuinely duped, some are simply disingenuous, and find that their usually infallible bullshit detectors tend to malfunction at the first promise of a potential best-seller. The agents, editors and publishers who are shocked to discover that they were taken tend to protest too much.

But in the final analysis, despite how despicable and petty the business side of publishing is, once the silk curtain is pulled back, the fact that artists lie (or feel it’s a good business decision to lie) and publishers turn a blind eye says more about the collective audience who sits back and laps it up.

If you are going to create your own persona, at least do it transparently, and with some measure of self-deprecating humor. And, always, elan. Like Donald Fagen did with his immortal, tongue-in-cheek ode to aggrandizement, Deacon Blues. But then, he really was a rock star.

You call me a fool
You say it’s a crazy scheme
This one’s for real
I already bought the dream
So useless to ask me why
Throw a kiss and say goodbye
I’ll make it this time
I’m ready to cross that fine line
I’ll learn to work the saxophone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel
They got a name for the winners in the world
And I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues

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Art vs. Life and Death, Again (Revisited)

We were saying?

Wow, look at the New York Times, today, on the complicated legacy of Roberto Bolano, here.

Money quote(s):

Few writers are more acclaimed right now than the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who died of an unspecified liver ailment in 2003, at the age of 50. His posthumous novel, 2666, appeared on many lists of the best books of 2008, and interest in him and his work has been further kindled by his growing reputation as a hard-living literary outlaw…At the same time, some of Mr. Bolaño’s friends in Mexico, where he lived for nearly a decade before finally settling down near Barcelona, Spain, are questioning another aspect of the life story he constructed for himself…Regarding Mr. Bolaño and drugs, numerous Latin American and European critics and bloggers have taken the side of his widow, accusing American critics and publishers of deliberately distorting the writer’s past to fit him into the familiar mold of the tortured artist.

This, as they say, is a propos. Where my previous post focused more on the ways in which critics (and fans) have their own reasons (sometime legitimate, often selfish) for propagating the romanticized image of the decadent artist, there is no question  that some artists are very invested in their own mythologizing. I was more concerned with the idea of the posers who are probably not artists at all (i.e., the ones who will corner you at a party and talk, endlessly, about all the projects they’ll get around to working on, someday), but of course there are the ones, ranging from obscure (James Frey) to already established (Bolano) fabricating an entire autobiography based on a deliberate embellishment. Or, to put it more bluntly, a lie. And this could warrant considerable examination, but I think the bottom line is, it’s a mutually rewarding endeavor for writer and publisher/editor when this sham works. It creates the dangerous aura the writer can cultivate to generate interest (and sales) and it creates a buzz about the writer, which generates sales (and interest in future books). The blame game–so typically American–only commences when the author’s work (or bio) is definitively exposed as fiction (see: James Frey) and you have editors scrambling to cover their asses (or idiots like Oprah Winfrey who, personifying the prurient American reader who is taken hook line and sinker by the outrageous, over-the-top exploits of the bad-ass artist, shifts from huckster to soap-box admonisher overnight, just to save face). This is a tricky dance: some editors are genuinely duped, some are simply disingenuous, and find that their usually infallible bullshit detectors tend to malfunction at the first promise of a potential best-seller. The agents, editors and publishers who are shocked to discover that they were taken tend to protest too much.

But in the final analysis, despite how despicable and petty the business side of publishing is, once the silk curtain is pulled back, the fact that artists lie (or feel it’s a good business decision to lie) and publishers turn a blind eye says more about the collective audience who sits back and laps it up.

If you are going to create your own persona, at least do it transparently, and with some measure of self-deprecating humor. And, always, elan. Like Donald Fagen did with his immortal, tongue-in-cheek ode to aggrandizement, Deacon Blues. But then, he really was a rock star.

You call me a fool
You say it’s a crazy scheme
This one’s for real
I already bought the dream
So useless to ask me why
Throw a kiss and say goodbye
I’ll make it this time
I’m ready to cross that fine line
I’ll learn to work the saxophone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel
They got a name for the winners in the world
And I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues

Share

Art vs. Life and Death, Again

We were saying?

Wow, look at the New York Times, today, on the complicated legacy of Roberto Bolano, here.

Money quote(s):

Few writers are more acclaimed right now than the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who died of an unspecified liver ailment in 2003, at the age of 50. His posthumous novel, 2666, appeared on many lists of the best books of 2008, and interest in him and his work has been further kindled by his growing reputation as a hard-living literary outlaw…At the same time, some of Mr. Bolaño’s friends in Mexico, where he lived for nearly a decade before finally settling down near Barcelona, Spain, are questioning another aspect of the life story he constructed for himself…Regarding Mr. Bolaño and drugs, numerous Latin American and European critics and bloggers have taken the side of his widow, accusing American critics and publishers of deliberately distorting the writer’s past to fit him into the familiar mold of the tortured artist.

This, as they say, is a propos. Where my previous post focused more on the ways in which critics (and fans) have their own reasons (sometime legitimate, often selfish) for propagating the romanticized image of the decadent artist, there is no question (as Marjorie pointed out) that some artists are very invested in their own mythologizing. I was more concerned with the idea of the posers who are probably not artists at all (i.e., the ones who will corner you at a party and talk, endlessly, about all the projects they’ll get around to working on, someday), but of course there are the ones, ranging from obscure (James Frey) to already established (Bolano) fabricating an entire autobiography based on a deliberate embellishment. Or, to put it more bluntly, a lie. And this could warrant considerable examination, but I think the bottom line is, it’s a mutually rewarding endeavor for writer and publisher/editor when this sham works. It creates the dangerous aura the writer can cultivate to generate interest (and sales) and it creates a buzz about the writer, which generates sales (and interest in future books). The blame game–so typically American–only commences when the author’s work (or bio) is definitively exposed as fiction (see: James Frey) and you have editors scrambling to cover their asses (or idiots like Oprah Winfrey who, personifying the prurient American reader who is taken hook line and sinker by the outrageous, over-the-top exploits of the bad-ass artist, shifts from huckster to soap-box admonisher overnight, just to save face). This is a tricky dance: some editors are genuinely duped, some are simply disingenuous, and find that their usually infallible bullshit detectors tend to malfunction at the first promise of a potential best-seller. The agents, editors and publishers who are shocked to discover that they were taken tend to protest too much.

But in the final analysis, despite how despicable and petty the business side of publishing is, once the silk curtain is pulled back, the fact that artists lie (or feel it’s a good business decision to lie) and publishers turn a blind eye says more about the collective audience who sits back and laps it up.

If you are going to create your own persona, at least do it transparently, and with some measure of self-deprecating humor. And, always, elan. Like Donald Fagen did with his immortal, tongue-in-cheek ode to aggrandizement, Deacon Blues. But then, he really was a rock star.

You call me a fool
You say it’s a crazy scheme
This one’s for real
I already bought the dream
So useless to ask me why
Throw a kiss and say goodbye
I’ll make it this time
I’m ready to cross that fine line

I’ll learn to work the saxaphone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel
They got a name for the winners in the world
And I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues

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