I have no conscious memory of the first time I'd heard Steely Dan, but their music seemed omnipresent growing up in the early- to mid-80s. They were always on: whether being funneled into our living from my father's stereo, aired over the PA at our local ACME supermarket, or just on the radio. And I didn't think much of them. Steely Dan was unfortunately of a musical category that often deserved vehement derision: clean, precise, smooth rock grooves that were too pleasant to offer a generation's progeny any reason to flip off their parents. And parents? Well, parents loved them. At least, mine did. My mother's station of choice in those days was Magic 103, (now formatted as a classic rock station, 102.9 WMGK), which was where Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, Michael Bolton, Christopher Cross, Kenny Loggins, and others of the soft-to-the-point-of-sterile rock ilk were on rotation. Steely Dan fit the mold accordingly and were a daily presence. So, just about every morning as I was eating breakfast or being driven to school, I heard "Deacon Blues," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," "Hey Nineteen," or "Peg."
Your ears tend to wake up at some point, though, as avid listeners develop an appreciation for things like subtlety or understated showmanship, creative distinction, and harmony. It wasn't until many years later that I picked up Steely Dan's 1977 milestone release, Aja, and was engaged by the band's approach to rhythm and arrangement, distilling so much with every listen and sort of impressed by how the band's seemingly outward rep as geezer rock allowed them to get away with singing about drugs and alcohol. The first couple lines of "Black Cow" ascribe drug use to its addressee, the simple acknowledgement of being "high" in a song criteria enough to attempt censoring The Doors and The Beatles from airplay not too many years before. And yet, these topics were abound in their songs, put to music so brilliantly "inoffensive" that you would be unaware you were hearing the exploits of junkies and derelicts while selecting off-brand cereal.
(Plus, the band took its name from William Burrough's Naked Lunch, the complete nomenclature "Steely Dan III From Yokohama" used to describe a strap-on dildo. So, there's that.)
But, I was also enamored by the music. The title track to Aja was a song I returned to quite often and it wound up on more than a few mix tapes when I was attempting to explain through force of listen alone why Steely Dan ruled. Aside from those ridiculous sax rips (courtesy of Wayne Shorter) and the midway and outro drum fills, the song itself was built from a remarkably seamless series of time signatures. And, as someone who'd only really attributed structural changes to this level with the blatancy of a Frank Zappa or a Mr. Bungle at the time, it made an impression on me.
And leave it to hip-hop to figure out how great this band was: De La Soul, 3rd Bass, Ice Cube, Kanye West, MF DOOM... DJs, producers, and crate diggers can always be counted on to find a groove and many artists have pulled from Steely Dan's catalogue. So, it was of no shock to find eulogizing from the likes of Talib Kweli and Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, both of whom addressed Becker's importance as an artist and his influence on them.
To quote Thompson, "They got a name for the winners in the world: his name is Becker." There's really no better way to put this.
R.I.P., Walter Becker.
Letters From A Tapehead