Spring 1978. To show off their stunning new stereo system, the guys in the next room in Beecher dorm at the University of Hartford usually crank up The Motors, but if it’s a little early in the day for cranking, the album of choice is Steely Dan’s masterpiece Aja. And the song of choice is “Deacon Blues.” What does that line mean, about “the day of the expanding man”? Who knows, the song just sounds good, all cool and jazzy. Other Aja moments from the classic Side 1 threesome: Waking up late on a weekend morning to the backbeat of opener “Black Cow” in the next room. Grooving to the eight minutes of exotic, enigmatic jazz-rock that’s the title track, the band’s longest track to this day. On Side 2, two women (“Peg” and “Josie”) bookend two rarely-heard songs, “Home at Last” and “I Got the News.”
The sound of Steely Dan first enters my ears through crackly, lo-fi radio in late 1973 as WABC plays their Top 100 of that year – “Reelin’ In the Years” at number 78 with its rockin’ and reelin’ guitar riffs. The following summer brings the cryptic lyrics of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” – and another great guitar solo. Later into the 1970s, as crystal-clear FM radio and album tracks infiltrate the airwaves (no static at all!), it’s all the rest – “Do It Again,” “Midnite Cruiser,” “Bodhisattva,” “My Old School,” “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” “Black Friday,” “Bad Sneakers,” “Kid Charlemagne,” “The Fez,” “FM,” and of course Aja, released 40 years ago this week, September 23, 1977…and as I already rambled on about, a hit at my old school (which I’m never going back to – well, not right this second).
Eventually I realize they are a band, not a guy named Steely Dan, and that the band is essentially two rock recluses named Walter Becker and Donald Fagen (and that they are named after a dildo in William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch). And eventually they settle into the soft-rock-smooth-jazz genre with stuff like “Hey Nineteen,” featuring soft-rock specialist Michael McDonald on backing vocals…and those lines that sound like an ad for Cuervo Gold tequila but are more likely an ad for the smokable variety of Cuervo Gold.
A distinctive Steely Dan ingredient, besides vocalist-keyboardist Fagen’s tales of assorted sordid characters delivered in his slightly marble-mouthed but soulful style, is always a tasteful guitar solo. Okay, if all the songs are composed by Becker and Fagen, then Becker must be that amazing guitarist, right? Uh, not always. He’s the bassist more than anything else. The Steely Dan guitar sound is the work of numerous musicians including Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Denny Dias, Elliott Randall (the driving force on “Reelin’ In the Years”), Dean Parks, Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour (both prominent on Aja), as well as Becker on occasional later tracks. But Mr. Becker was always fifty-percent of Steely Dan as far as songwriting credits on those black-and-silver ABC record labels of the ’70s. And all the record labels since. In 1994 he released a solo record, 11 Tracks of Whack, produced by Fagen and himself (so kind of Dan-like). Check it out here.
Walter Becker passed away earlier this month. May he rest in peace, and when he’s not resting may he reel in the years jamming with all those other luminaries up in the great rock ‘n’ roll attic.
images courtesy ultimateclassicrock.com, musicmusingsandsuch.wordpress.com, rollingstone.com, guitarandmusicinstitute.com
YouTube videos courtesy mirrorro77, vzqk50CL, CabinFeverReliever, Steely Dan – Topic / Universal Music Group International