I GOT THE NEWS

[Recording: Bright daytime voice over fade of smoky alto sax solo]

This is independent station WJAZ, all night jazz and conversation. 

Now back to your host, Lester The Nightfly

LESTER

Hello Baton Rouge. It’s coming up to 2:15 on a drizzly Saturday night… or Sunday morning if you’re that way inclined. Continuing our tribute to Walter Becker; guitarist, composer, long-term collaborator with Donald Fagen in iconic seventies band Steely Dan.

If you have a Dan story, call in to the station. You know the number. But turn your radio down. Respect the seven second delay.

I believe we have Donald Fagen on the line now. Do you remember encountering Walter?

FAGEN

One afternoon in 1967, I walked over to the Red Balloon, a crummy little shack in the woods that serves as an on-campus music club. As I approached, I could hear someone playing some electric blues guitar inside, just messing around. But this wasn’t the trebly, surfadelic, white-guy sound I was used to hearing from other student guitarists. this fellow had an authentic blues touch and feel, and a convincing vibrato. His amp was tweaked to produce a fat, mellow sound, and turned up loud enough to generate a healthy Albert King-like sustain. Inside, playing a cranberry red Epiphone guitar, was a severe-looking bespectacled kid who would turn out to be my partner and bandmate for the next forty years.1

LESTER

And you, Walter? Earliest Donald memory?

BECKER

When I got (to Bard College) I figured that the place would be crawling with musicians but it turned out there was only a handful, and Donald was in all of the bands of all the different styles of music… He was crawling from band to band so I figured I should join up with him.

I first time I saw you perform, Donald, you were playing “The Star Spangled Banner” on an alto saxophone and you had on a leather jacket with black feathers attached to it.

FAGEN

And that was before Jimi Hendrix played his version.4

LESTER

So it begins.

Can’t Buy A Thrill was the 1972 debut, spawning not one but two successful singles. “Do it again” — not to be confused with the Beach Boys ditty of the same name — was Top Ten while “Reeling in the years” goes up to eleven. (Little Tap joke there, hipsters.)

Countdown to Ecstasy followed the next year. Didn’t do as well. Becker and Fagen believed this was at least partially to do with the quality of the recording (an ongoing theme in their music-crafting) and rushed visits to the studio between tour dates.

Got another call here. Long-distance from Melbourne… wherever that is. What’s your Steely Dan memory, Bruce?

BRUCE

I can’t remember which Steely Dan album I first got. It’s bugging the hell out of me. Was it Gaucho, the 1980 smooth-as-palm-oil high-sheen final album from the initial iteration? Or 1974’s Pretzel Logic on the back of the monster single “Rikki don’t lose that number” which was huge in these parts?

LESTER

Can’t help you on that one, guy. While you think about it, let’s spin a track from Pretzel Logic. Becker and Fagen were huge jazz fans, and particularly admired Duke Ellington. Well, who doesn’t? Here’s a 1996 live rendition of the Ellington tune “East St. Louis Toodle-oo”…

[Cue music]

LESTER

Something strange in the airwaves tonight, insomniacs. Snakey atmospherics and radio wriggles. ‘Cos now Donald and Walter are joined by UK journalist Andy Gill2. Evening guys. Andy, you have a question about the early, pre-Dan days…

GILL

Barbara Streisand recorded one of your songs, didn’t she?

FAGEN

The first song we ever had recorded (“I mean to shine”). Not a good song, but at least she recorded it.

GILL

What kind of royalties did you see from it?

BECKER

The royalties from that song were actually signed over to our previous manager, to escape from his clutches.

GILL

Which manager?

BECKER

One of the previous managers.

GILL

You had several?

BECKER

Well, the tradition is to have a succession of previous managers. Like suitors at a gang-bang, y’know? 2

LESTER

Er, let’s talk about guitar.

Walter, I believe you learned some licks from Randy California of Spirit back when he was known by the more priapic lupine handle, Randy Wolf.

BECKER

Randy’s uncle in LA owned a folk and blues club called The Ash Grove, so Randy had learned to play blues stuff from these old guys who had played his uncle’s club. He also knew Taj Mahal and had learned all these techniques. I was always attracted to that style of playing. Jazz guitar is tame by comparison… 2

LESTER

Walter’s fading out there, but hey, Bruce from Melbourne is back. Sorted out your memories, dude?

BRUCE

When I went to live in Germany for a year in 1996, one of the first things I noticed were posters for Steely Dan playing in Frankfurt in a few weeks. I had bugger all money and lived an hour’s drive from the town in question, plus I didn’t have a car. My partner did and offered to drive us if I arranged the tickets. It took just about all my remaining capital but we went.

LESTER

And…?

BRUCE

Well, the acoustics of the Frankfurt Festhalle are notoriously crap, but it was great. Fabulous even. And I got the set list from the sound engineer. Read about it here, if you like.

LESTER

Been doing some research, man. I believe The Dan visited your hometown too.

BRUCE

Twice. Saw them both times. Bought both t-shirts. Though my self-perception must have deteriorated between first and second tours, as the garment was way too tight. OBITS.

LESTER

Orbits? You smokin’ something other than Chesterfields, Mister?

BRUCE

O-BITS. It’s an acronym I made up during the concert to describe the majority of the audience.

LESTER

Yeah? Spill—

BRUCE

Old Blokes In T-Shirts.

LESTER

Wicked.

BRUCE

Anyway, that last tour—Shuffle Diplomacy 2011, it was called—had Steve Winwood as the opening act. Can you imagine that? Steve Winwood supporting Steely Dan. The Dan wheeled on his Hammond B3 for their encore and Winwood sang “Pretzel Logic”. What a finale.

LESTER

Good story, man. Gotta favourite Steely Dan album?

BRUCE

Aw, the entire cannon is essential, don’t you reckon? But you can argue a case that each album was better than its predecessor. Still, I’d probably say the peak was Aja; that’s my personal favourite—the perfect blend of shape-shifting rhythms, esoteric yet intriguing lyrics, and a jazz sensibility seeping through a context that is never anything but rock. Though the two ‘re-union’ albums aren’t too shabby either.

LESTER

Time for some music. Here’s a track even major Steely Dan fans might not know. It’s a version of “Chain Lightning” recorded in a small group setting with veteran pianist Marion McPartland for her Piano Jazz show.

[Cue music]

LESTER

Got a caller from the Midwest on the line. JH wants to comment on the contributions of Donald and Walter to Steely Dan. Go ahead, JH.

JHUBNER73

For the longest time Donald Fagen was the face of Steely Dan to me. He was the voice. He was the slinky ghoul behind the electric piano that told these tales of degradation and seemed to be the puppet master to a handful of studio wizards. But while Fagen may have been the narrator, Walter Becker was just as prominently helping to build the worlds within those Steely Dan albums. Fagen was the glitz, while Becker added the greasy grime. He made those tunes dirtier with his playing.3

LESTER

Nicely put, dude. (More of JH’s tribute here)

Just about time to put this all to bed, folks. The Nightfly is high on java but low on cigarettes. Just a couple more callers…

PITCHFORK

Hey, wanted to let you know that Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers and long-time Dan collaborator has written a song in tribute to his friend Walter Becker. Read about it.

LESTER

Thanks, er, on-line magazine. And talking of tributes, Bruce is back on the line. Again.

BRUCE

Kinda assembled this today. It’s not very good, but maybe…

LESTER

Swing, baby—

BRUCE

We were show biz kids

Kings of the world

Night by night we lit

a fire in the hole.

Any major dude will tell you

There was dirty work and tears

Razor boys and midnight cruisers

We were reelin’ in the years

LESTER

I see what you did there, with the song titles. But no bridge? No third verse?

BRUCE

There is a third verse, actually. Bit darker.

LESTER

Lay it out.

BRUCE

With a gun or with a needle

Peg and Josie hate that jive

Doctor Wu says ‘Sign in stranger’…

Don’t take me alive.

LESTER

[Brief pause]

Somehow both tacky and touching. Thanks man.

And thank you Walter Becker, for the music.

This is Lester, The Nightfly, signing off.

[Cue “Everything must go”, from the 2003 Steely Dan album of the same name]

*

SOURCES

Donald Fagen (2013) Eminent Hipsters. Viking, New York 1

Andy Gill (1995) Steely Dan. Mojo Magazine #23 2

John Hubner (2017) Goodbye Kid Charlamagne: Walter Becker 1950 – 2017 3

Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz Radio Broadcast (2005) Steely Dan. The Jazz Alliance, USA.4

Got something to say to The Nightfly? Go for it…

36 comments

  1. Nice. Becker was important for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed. His departure demanded a little extra effort.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This was fantastic. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This very well may have been the coolest and greatest thing I have ever read on WordPress.
    Like Wayne and Garth used to say “We’re not worthy.”

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you Brian. You’ve made an old Dan Fan very happy. 😎

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent post, Bruce!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks John. I enjoyed yours too!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This was a fun, creative read, Bruce. I’ve been wanting to actually do a post since Becker’s passing, but events here have overtaken matters. But I do plan on at least something over the next few weeks even if it’s short. My first Dan album was Pretzel Logic, which I still think is a damn fine album (“Barrytown” is my favorite track from it). But for me it’ll always be Aja. The performances and the writing are startling on that album. Thanks for the fun trip down memory lane. – Marty

    Like

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Marty. I’m sure we are not the only long-term Dan fans who need to acknowledge his passing.
      I’ll watch our for something from your good self.
      Cheers, Bruce

      Liked by 1 person

  6. A few years ago, I don’t think I would have agreed with that Bruce fellow from the interview about the entire cannon being essential – but a switch went at some point, and based on the 4 I’ve heard, I think he makes some compelling arguments.
    Creative tribute Bruce – I imagine I’ll be part of the OBITS crowd from now on at most shows I attend!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, Geoff, we all end up as OBITS eventually. Just a couple of lines in the Notices section of the newspaper and a drawer full of tour t-shirts.
      Still, PARTY ON while you can!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I really thought this was fabulous, even though Steely dan are a totally closed book to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I still believe you can be converted to the cult of Dan, Joe, I do really. We’ll just have to get you into a special reading group. Then your Countdown to Ecstasy will begin.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know Steely Dan more as a Burroughsian dildo, than a band.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. And that is a fine place to start, though exercise caution when using sex toys, is my advice.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. I’m telling you I don’t even know what this is. This sort of thing ain’t my bag baby.

          Liked by 2 people

        3. So you say, so you say.

          Like

    2. One day you will have your Aja moment.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Loved this, Bruce. Really pretty brilliant. Exceptional, really. Made me smile and think “I really ought to get a Steely Dan record”.

    And a mention for Mr California, too. I’m a big fan of that guy and that’s a thread for me to follow into the Dan shenanigans.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad, J. Thanks a lot. Interesting to read that Becker considered his guitar playing blues based. Not what immediately hits you about Steely Dan, but certainly audible, especially on the earlier records. Talking of which, try Countdown to Ecstasy if you see it at the right price. Good entry point.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve only ever had the briefest of listens to various bits and pieces, but I never picked up the blues leanings myself. However, I’m looking forward to exploring their stuff a bit further!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I enjoyed that. I’ve had a SD take in the bag for a few months. Should be up next. You had to know that we’re on the same page with these guys. So much great music from Walter and Don. Whats that 1537 on about? Sex toys? CB is a total innocent.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Allow me to enlighten you:
      “Fans of Beat Generation literature, Fagen and Becker named the band after “Steely Dan III from Yokohama”, an oversized, steam-powered strap-on dildo mentioned in the William S. Burroughs novel Naked Lunch”. [Wikepedia]

      So now you know. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know they were fans of WC and the Marx Brothers. They could have easily called the band ‘The Margaret Dumonts”. Steely Dan works.

        Like

  10. pinklightsabre · · Reply

    “Both tacky and touching,” really neato piece here, for the OBITS. They are one of the ‘invisible’ bands for me, meaning I never knew what they looked like or wanted to, but sure spent a lot of time with the records. I think they said that about the band Foreigner, kind of anonymous visually…which I like. I’d go for Aja, too. And my mom explained for me the meaning of the lyrics to Deacon Blues, which is not what I expected. Kind of like “a life imagined.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Donald has spoken about their lyrics being short stories, but having bits left out to make them fit a song format. Which kinda explains the enigmatic nature of many of their songs.

      Like

      1. pinklightsabre · · Reply

        Ah, that’s neat. They are lush, the tunes.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Lush. Lovely word in this context.

          Like

  11. Fantastic tribute, Bruce. (Is Lester the Nightfly a nod to Lester Bangs?) I’ve had my Dan playlist on shuffle for days now…yesterday afternoon found me sitting at a stoplight, singing out (very) loud to My Old School…I think Aja is my favorite release, too; it’s impossible for me to sit still (I mean that in a good way) whenever I hear Peg, though my favorite cut is Home At Last…in addition to the musical delights–the piano, those *drums*!–it’s how I learned the word ‘retsina’…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How marvellous to be introduced to retsina by Messrs. Fagen and Becker. Yes, I’ve been singing Steely Dan songs all week too.

      As for Lester the Nightfly, he is the narrator/character in the lead track of Donald Fagen’s outstanding first solo album, The Nightfly. Like the song-title poem, its a rather silly in-joke for Dan tragics. The first verse goes:
      I’m Lester the Nightfly
      Hello Baton Rouge
      Won’t you turn your radio down
      Respect the seven second delay we use

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Of course I recognized Nightfly as Fagan’s work, but yikes!, embarrassing that I didn’t know there was a narrator for the title track…I confess to selective listening of that work…mostly I.G.Y (with which I was obsessed for a time) and Ruby Baby.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Amazing what turned up in a wordpress search, I was looking for S-3 Viking and ended up hitting this. Well, I quickly cued my Steely Dan list before I start reading – and ended up with Slinky Thing as the first track … Ah Well. its definitely a Like for this article.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In a random universe, even a slinky thing can lead somewhere different.
      Hope you enjoyed your visit.

      Like

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