On Sunday, Walter Becker, co-founder of the band Steely Dan, died, and the world lost a great musical and lyrical talent. The songs that Becker wrote with his college friend Donald Fagen filled the sonic gap left by the Beatles in 1970. Beginning in 1972 with â€œCanâ€™t Buy a Thrillâ€ and ending in 1980 with â€œGaucho,â€ Becker and Fagen catalogued the shifting craziness rattling around our country â€” and our minds â€” in those eight years.
If the Beat writers exposed a new America in the 1950s, and novels such as Joseph Hellerâ€™s â€œCatch-22â€ and Thomas Pynchonâ€™s â€œThe Crying of Lot 49â€ ushered in the absurd and paranoid â€™60s, then Steely Danâ€™s lyrics nailed the slick, confusing, drug-fueled dramas of the â€™70s.
Like true English majors in love with words, Becker and Fagen knew the value of a story with indelible characters. Their songsâ€™ socially astute portraits of various strangers, gauchos, daddies, losers, alienated curb holders and unrehabilitated returnees stay with us the way a good piece of literature does.
Itâ€™s surprising, then, how little has been written about the band and its songs. If we dismiss the books full of sheet music and chord changes, not much is left, especially compared with the critical output about Dylan or the Beatles.
There are online sites about Steely Danâ€™s lyrics such as Song Meanings and Songfacts. These sites focus on interpreting the lyrics, and, though the posted comments can devolve from serious literary discussion into a free fall, they reveal close readings of words, which is commendable. The Steely Dan Dictionary also helps out with obscure and slangy terms in the songs.
Books and articles offer something more substantial. At the top of the list is â€œAja,â€ Don Breithauptâ€™s dissection of how this platinum album was made. Assured on musical aspects, Breithaupt rightly deals with the lyrics as literature. For example, in the song â€œBlack Cow,â€ Breithaupt discusses the â€œmeticulously matchedâ€ vowel sounds of the lyricsâ€™ inside lines.
More general books include Brian Sweetâ€™s â€œSteely Dan: Reelinâ€™ in the Years,â€ Bill Martinâ€™s â€œAvant Rock: Experimental Music from the Beatles to Bjorkâ€ and Steve Oâ€™Rourkeâ€™s â€œThe Steely Dan File.â€
Steely Dan has probably lured more white listeners over to jazz than any other popular band. And, happily, listening to jazz can lead to reading black authors. Greg Tateâ€™s â€œEverything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Cultureâ€ offers a fascinating conversation with Vernon Reid. Reid posits that â€œSteely Dan is the manifestation of the white Negro made rock, made jazz, made pop. They embody the subversive idea of the Below Radar Against the Wall Outsider.â€
In 2004, Walter Everett, famous for his musical analysis of Beatles songs, wrote â€œA Royal Scam: The Abstruse and Ironic Bop-Rock Harmony of Steely Dan,â€ published in the journal Music Theory Spectrum. (Note the internal vowel rhyme in bop/rock.) Another academic, Paul Clements, discusses the bandâ€™s â€œoutside hipâ€ and â€œrepresentational ambiguityâ€ for the journal Leisure Studies. And for an â€œinside hipâ€ read, nothing beats Donald Fagenâ€™s own joyful and funny memoir â€œEminent Hipstersâ€ (2013).
Kid Charlemagne, Deacon Blues, Doctor Wu, Peg, Rikki, the bookkeeperâ€™s son, the Babylon Sisters â€” just a few indelible portraits Walter Becker helped create.
Great music, great words. Becker will be missed.
Sibbie Oâ€™Sullivan, a former teacher in the Honors College at the University of Maryland, has recently completed a memoir on how the Beatles have influenced her life.