I join the world of popular music and beyond in mourning the death this week of Walter Becker, partners with Donald Fagen in a songwriting/recording team responsible for some of the greatest songs and recorded music of the 20th century, much of it under the band name Steely Dan.
Becker & Fagen were originals. They charted new paths in popular music, mainly by taking elements that had been used in pop songs before, but were uncommon in pop, and combining them in unexpected ways (combinations that have now become familiar and part of the mainstream).
At their best – which was often – they found a perfect balance of lyric, melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and sonic elements. Overall, they achieved a unity of sound and meaning in their recordings that will rarely be equaled or surpassed.
Don’t be put off by how their innovations have been watered down to ‘smooth jazz’ and its like. Go to the source.
Rather than praise the many aspects of greatness that they achieved, I’m going to focus now on one – their lyrics, which are often misunderstood.
Often considered hard to follow and understand, many people felt B & F’s lyrics were ‘difficult’ and that their ‘meaning’ was obscure. By and large, I don’t think any of this is true. But why did the lyrics sometimes land this way?
For one, B & F peppered their songs with words rarely found in pop songs, which normally use a simple vocabulary. Certainly their subject matter was not the usual love songs, and didn’t support conventional morality and judgements. They told their stories in a detached way, not in the quasi-heroic mode of most pop stars (Fagen described Becker as ‘cynical about human nature’). And their stories and character studies often relied more on the accumulation of telling detail than on typical chronological storytelling.
You do have to listen closely… and connect the dots. But the dots are not that hard to connect, if you pay attention.
I’ve picked a song, almost at random (I could’ve picked dozens of others and made the same point), from their great album Gaucho, called ‘Glamour Profession’. It’s a portrait of a drug dealer (Hoops McCann) living a decadent L.A. lifestyle with his friends. It starts:
Outside the stadium
For Hoops McCann
Brut and charisma
Poured from the shadow where he stood
He’s a crowd pleasing man
“Brut and charisma”. You haven’t heard that before! And it poured from the shadow…
The Chorus sums it up:
It’s a glamour profession
The L.A. concession
Local boys will spend a quarter
Just to shine the silver bowl
Living hard will take its toll
Under the sun, boys
The last two lines are basically what you might call a Refrain, or Tag, after the Chorus.
Verse 2 starts:
The Carib Cannibal
Off to Barbados
Just for the ride
Jack with his radar
Stalking the dread moray eel
At the wheel
With his Eurasian bride
Rather than describing the life to you, they put you right in the middle of it (“All aboard…”). And check out the last three lines! B & F always seemed to take special delight in writing songs that made singable lyrics from words that anyone else would be afraid to even try.
Even given that, matched with winding melodies, their words always sang beautifully, no matter how unlikely that may seem when they’re viewed on paper or monitor. In this song they only use rhyme occasionally – in the Verse, for emphasis, and then (not dummies) rhyming the Title, and the Refrain.
The final Verse:
He’s in from Bogota
Meet me at midnight
At Mr. Chow’s
Now that the deal has been done
I’m the one
I’ve quoted about half the lyrics of the song. As you can see, they’re not that esoteric, particularly if you listen (below) for the missing lines. Their songs are unusual and you have to listen to them differently, to pay attention in a slightly different way.
But if you listen for a while, the songs teach you to listen differently. That’s what all music that’s original, all art that’s original, does.
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