Read Rickie Lee Jones' Poignant Tribute to Steely Dan's Walter Becker
I first heard Steely Dan back in Kansas City, Missouri, where I ended up living with my dad after running away from home a second summer in a row. It was 1970 and I was just 15 years old. “Do It Again” was playing on the radio that summer night. I had just dropped some acid and I was on my way to see Led Zeppelin for their KC concert on their first USA tour. My date was a fat guy I had just met – him driving by and said, “Hey you wanna go to a concert?” He had high hopes I guess, and I just wanted to get out of the house. What I remember more than Led Zeppelin though is “Do It Again” drumming through the twilight heat, and the joy of all that Victor Feldman percussion.
Sexy. Contained. Because what “the Dan” accomplished was this: They introduced a new idea into the musical conversation of the time. It was the idea that intelligent music was cool. In a year where drum solos lasted minutes, quarter hours even, and singers screamed – a lot. Steely Dan made it cool to be educated. It is safe to say that they are the beginning of college rock.
There, right there, that’s where that idea begins. Two homely guys who write with a fortitude that no one else processed. None of this emotional crap. They were all business. Which led to sophistication. Which is how they are categorized by punk rockers today. Which is kind of funny, because they loved the simplicity of the blues and 12 bar rock & roll. Yes, they were, more or less, responsible for the drum machine (built by their engineer Roger Nichols). But I like to think that was some kind of punishment for being so exacting from every player they worked with.
By the time I started college, 1973, “Reelin’ in the Years” had become a college anthem. And now with the release of Countdown to Ecstasy, kids were bringing the record just to stare at the cover. It was holy ground; it was biblical. It was also cynical and kind of… well… women-hating. They seemed to really be obsessed with women they did not really like. I would come to understand some of how that came about, personal information I am not prepared to share, even though Walter has died. Those heartaches go with him to his grave.
Steely Dan became a part of my life in a much more personal basis in the next few years. That boyfriend from “Living It Up” he practiced Steely Dan solos nonstop. I can sing most of the solo from “Kid Charlemagne.” But… I think they were part of my life long before they formed their dildo-named duo. (In case you don’t know by now, Steely Dan is a dildo in the book Naked Lunch, by the famous drug addict William Burroughs.) I read that book, too, but I don’t really remember the dildo passage.
The duo’s first success was as songwriters. Sixties rock “band” Jay and the Americans hired Fagen and Becker as their back-up band. I believe the rest of the group became an early incarnation of Steely Dan. In case you don’t remember Jay, he was a handsome all-American guy along the lines of Paul Revere and the Raiders. At least to my 13-year-old brain they were about the same. He sang songs like “Only in America” and “Come a Little Bit Closer,” one of those rather dubious lyrics about the morality of certain women.
I moved back to Santa Monica College. We were four of us, hanging on the lawn during breaks, going to clubs on Main Street some nights – Pink Elephant, a newly discovered gay bar, we’d go dance to “I Will Survive” on the jukebox. Turned out one of us had not yet come out of the closet, but that’s another story. The best musician of our group loved his Steely Dan, and that was how I came to hear “Bodhisattva,” “My Old School,” “Pearl of the Quarter.” Lines about Annandale and oleanders with pesky stomping bass and drums. I mean these guys knew how to make music. They had a hit on every record – I mean a thing that was played on the radio over and over – that became part of how we saw our collective selves.
I was brought up, you might say, on writing thick with imagery and subtle implication and I loved it. I loved the innuendo, the humor, the sting. The genius was as much in the part we filled in, the lines they didn’t write. That was where the sticky stuff of memory made their music a part of our own personal history. I knew about hiding behind the oleanders, heck I grew up in Arizona. (In case the Orb forgot to tell you) It wasn’t the specific line, it was the sorrow and fury of the melody, “Bring back the Boston rag. Tell all your buddies that it ain’t no drag.”
I was only 19, and I wanted it to come back and I didn’t even know what it was. I felt the melody, you get me? “Johnny swept the playroom and he swallowed up all he found. It was 48 hours till Lonnie came around.” I have often said that so much of what we write seems to be prophetic. Walter lost too many people to drugs. He found too many people laying on the floor. The bed. Too many heartbreaks.
Walter and Donald. Walter Becker, the quiet half, the straight man to Donald Fagen’s main man. Donald the Voice, and… Walter. Walter wrote much of the music than the public realizes. As much as Donald. A true partnership. “Done up in blue print blue… It sure looks good on you… Peg.”
“What’s blue print blue? Like, blue-print paper an architect uses?” – Rickie Lee
“I don’t know. I just felt like writing it that way.” – Walter B.
I met Donald Fagan when I was working on my second record, I think. He did some synth stuff one of the tracks. It was so cool to meet him, late one night in New York City at a studio where his producer kept their stuff. But Walter wasn’t there. I was kind of glad because Walter scared me. His pictures scared me. I often said he looks like the ugliest guy I ever saw. He looks so mean. Really mean.
So, fate arranged that I should learn a lesson about my presumptions, and the terrible things I might say to nobody in particular. My career in 1989 was… how shall I say… unsure of itself. In search of a lost chord. Waiting in a room with a number. Walter was on a list of potential producers. I came back from living in France, pregnant, moved to the L.A. area. I met Walter there one afternoon; he drove all the way up to Ojai (60 miles) after flying all from Maui, just for the meeting with me. And as it turned out, he was not so ugly after all. He was rather delicate looking. And he had a soft energy, nothing like what I thought I saw in the pictures. A softy. A recovery addict. Hey, me, too. He knew more about music right off the bat than anyone I had met in a long time. He didn’t patronize, he didn’t condescend, not even a tiny bit, not for one moment.
He respected what I had written, he had listened carefully to everything. He had ideas. He didn’t say, “Let’s do a Marvin Gaye kind of thing on this.” Like the previous ridiculous producer candidate had said. If you don’t know what’s wrong with saying that, then maybe you should never produce a record. Although nowadays that would be a moot point I guess.
I hired him, and we agreed to start working in September. My previous two records had also begun in September. Hmm. I had to quit nursing my daughter. I spent August readjusting my life, an apartment in town, getting ready to leave my infant and make a different kind of child.
When the record was released, he did all manner of promotion for it. I was sorry for that. This red-headed DJ in Austin, he just wanted to touch the purple of the royal Steely Dan. Walter called him personally. But that DJ had no intention of playing the record for that or any favor. And making artists prostitute themselves to get heard, at that point in his “important” career, it felt so dirty to me. I was sorry he was trying so hard to help me.
Our fight was about producer credit. I wanted credit. I guess I felt like I was contributing in a way that I did not get credit for. Walter came to my room at the Chateau Marmont and said this:
“Rickie, what is a producer? Because whatever it is, you have hired me to be that. That is my title. If you put your name there, what is it that I did? You see, you are the artist. As creative as you are. You do a lot; you do nothing; I am still the producer of that effort. That is my job. Please, don’t do this. Don’t dilute my title.”
I was ashamed. Suddenly I understood how much he had at stake, trying to build a career of his own after Steely Dan. He had crashed and burned from on high. Like me. Me, I wanted some credit from a larger audience, who would never ever give me that credit no matter what I did. What sleazy DJ made a great man dial his number. Well, It had nothing to do with Walter really.
We finished the record [Flying Cowboys] with Walter’s favorite engineer, the exasperating Roger [Nichols], a genius who was always making bad jokes. It was a great record. Perhaps still ahead of its time. Too many great songs. Too much pop from a wild outlaw. The theme, a kind of western supernatural… Maybe it went over a few heads. It spawned two hits – “The Horses” and “Satellites” – but not real hits. Just kind of hits. Geffen was disappointed and pulled the plug suddenly in the middle of promoting the record. It was almost gold within six months, but they expected so much more. They didn’t even get me a Grammy nod. I mean, really. Mystically it stopped selling about 30,000 short of a retroactive bump. And did not sell another 30,000 for a couple years.
I didn’t see Walter again until Steely Dan went on tour for the first time. There he was at the Hollywood Bowl with all the big name cats from the record. I was so proud of them. It was a house full of agents who were there to be seen. No one seemed to give a shit about “The Boston Rag” or “The Royal Scam.”
Suddenly, last year, I get a request to open for Steely Dan during their run in New York City. They play at the Beacon Theater every year, a week long. Hit after hit after hit. Played perfectly. I played for 30 minutes. I was fine, not bad, good enough. My friend and virtuoso Mike Dillion played his wild vibraphone with me. And we came off feeling OK.
Mostly, we were walk-in music. That’s hard. But backstage Walter and Donald were sweet. Donald was actually friendly. I felt comfortable. I was glad I came.
Next night they invited me to sing some of their songs with them. I sang “Showbiz Kids” with Steely Dan. And they wanted to do “The Horses,” but I said no, I can’t quit hit those notes in the key change anymore. Walter said no problem. Another time.
As I left Walter hugged me. “We will be playing down your way in the fall, maybe you can come and open for us some more.”
“I’d love that.”
It is September now. That fall will never come. I cannot tell you why his death has hit me so hard. I have seen a few friends go, but they are not close. People I go to see often. Something about this passing hurts.
They brought an education and precision to a conversation taking place in the late Sixties of mostly long drum solos and jams. They brought jazz solos to rock, they made being funny in lyrics cool, and they made being cool more important than being handsome. They were the first college band. That’s for sure. And I am nostalgic today for that feeling of all the life being before us, and not behind. All things possible, and not relinquishing to inevitability.
I am Rickie Lee Jones. And I was one of the women Walter Becker took such good care of in his short life. I would want you to know that. He was so funny. And no, I didn’t like the soprano sax on “Satellites,” but that sound ended up… well, listen to Dave Mathews, for one. Walter knew what he was doing. He planted music. It grows all around us now.
Rickie Lee Jones resides in New Orleans. “On the water down in New Orleans, red beans and rice for a quarter. You can hear her almost any day singing voulez vous.” “Pearl of the Quarter,” Steely Dan, circa 1970…