Tag Archives: Donald Fagen

Walter Becker RIP

I was away last week and read about Walter Becker’s passing in the New York Times. They gave him a full-page obituary – indicative, I thought at first, of the band’s  higher profile in the US compared to here, until I opened up the BBC News app on my phone and saw that his death was a top story there, too.

I’m no different from any other pop fan, and can’t keep the music and the artist entirely separate. It requires a particular cast of mind to do that, and I don’t have it. My thoughts about the character of the musicians whose work I admire (none of whom I know) feed into my understanding of that work.

But with Walter Becker, I had to make an attempt to consider the music as separate from the man, as he was always something of an enigma. His partner Donald Fagen made a somewhat autobiographical solo album (The Nightfly) in the 1980s, and published a book a few years ago detailing his teenage art-cultural obsessions. Moreover, he was the singer, and it’s hard not to hear the words being sung as a reflection of the singer, even when you know that he didn’t write all of them.

Reticent though Fagen is next to his rock’n’roll peers, Becker was even less forthcoming. Photographs of him suggest a stern character, or perhaps a supercilious one (his friend Rickie Lee Jones said in her tribute to Becker that he hated to be photographed, which may explain why he could look off-putting in photos). His work suggests a bottomless sarcasm and cynicism. In the Classic Albums documentary on Aja, he’s gimlet-eyed and brutally dismissive about the faults he hears in recordings and performances that appear faultless to we ordinary mortals. Yet those who knew him speak of a gentle, patient man, generous with his time, but shy and affected by a difficult childhood and some troubled adult relationships.

What we know for sure is what we know from his work. Like Fagen, he was a studio perfectionist. He was egoless in pursuit of the best record possible, handing over tracks to trusted players whenever he thought someone else would do a better job than he could – despite being a crackerjack guitarist himself. For years, I didn’t know that he played one of my favourite ever guitar solos (the one on Aja‘s Home at Last), simply because he so rarely allowed himself the luxury of taking a solo when Denny Dias, Larry Carlton, Jay Graydon, Elliott Randall, Rick Derringer and Mark Knopfler were a phone call away. Think about that: a guitarist working in rock music who was self-effacing to the point where he was willing to not play on songs off the last two albums at all (songs that he wrote) in pursuit of the best possible records.

That kind of musical humility deserves applause. But really, everything he did as part of Steely Dan deserves applause.

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10 of the best Steely Dan lines

Presented without comment or context, 10 magnificent lines from Steely Dan songs:

Bodacious cowboys such as your friend/Will never be welcome here high in the Custerdome
Gaucho (Gaucho)

Don’t believe I’m taken in by stories I have heard/I just read the Daily News and swear by every word.
Barrytown (Pretzel Logic)

Is there gas in the car?/Yes, there’s gas in the car
Kid Charlemagne (The Royal Scam)

Double helix in the sky tonight/Throw out the hardware/Let’s do it right
Aja (Aja)

I loved you more than I can tell/But now it’s stomping time
My Rival (Gaucho)

Hey Nineteen, that’s ‘Retha Franklin/She don’t remember The Queen of Soul
Hey Nineteen (Gaucho)

Now you swear and kick and beg us that you’re not a gamblin’ man/ Then you find you’re back in Vegas with a handle in your hand
Do It Again (Can’t Buy a Thrill)

Jive Miguel, he’s in from Bogota/Meet me at midnight at Mr Chow’s/Szechuan dumplings after the deal has been done/I’m the one
Glamour Profession (Gaucho)

Agents of the law/Luckless pedestrian
Don’t Take Me Alive (The Royal Scam)

Lonnie swept the playroom and he swallowed up all he found/It was 48 hours till Lonnie came around
The Boston Rag (Countdown to Ecstasy)

Thanks to Nick Elvin for a couple of killer suggestions.

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Adrift in the musical multiverse – alternate versions, demos, outtakes, mixes

A perfect, definitive, best-of-all-worlds recording doesn’t exist. Not outside of the imaginations of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, at any rate.

Whatever direction a song is taken by a team of artists and producers during its production, different decisions could have been taken at every single step of the process, any one of which may have in some small way made for a better or worse end result. The crazy thing is how little we as listeners ever really think about that when we listen to our favourite songs.

Even music obsessives only really confront this when we’re listening to the alternate versions, different mixes and demo versions that fill up the second disc of two-CD special editions of classic albums. (And yes, I know you do. You wouldn’t be here otherwise, would you? It’s OK. You’re among friends.)

Let’s enter this hall of mirrors, this musical multiverse, where every decision that is taken could have gone another way and resulted in the world knowing an entirely different end product.

What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye (Detroit Mix)
One of the best tracks off one the best albums ever made. A masterpiece of a song and recording. Surely any competent presentation of it would have resulted in a killer record? And yet.

Listen to the “Detroit” mix of the title track, done in Gaye’s absence by Motown staff engineers at Hitsville USA, Detroit, available on 40th Anniversary “Super Deluxe” version of the album. It’s the same tracking as on the album mix we know and love, it’s still a great song, it’s still a very fine record. The mix is lucid and the key decisions – to place the two lead vocals in opposite channels to allow them to play revealed without the different phrasings stepping on each other, for example – are defensible. But play it against the LA mix that made it to the album and the song seems palpably diminished in its Detroit form.

It’s not just the approach to panning and the general topology of the mix that isn’t optimal here. The LA version is pristine, light and airy in a way the Detroit version just isn’t. The Detroit mix is compromised somehow. It just doesn’t soar. But no console has a “soar” fader  – it was flesh-and-blood people who made What’s Going On as we know and love it. People with good ears and fertile auditory imaginations, and possibly better consoles and equalisers. Hearing this, it’s immediately why Gaye felt more could be extracted from the masters and insisted the Detroit versions be canned.

Everybody’s Been Burned – David Crosby/The Byrds
Everybody’s Been Burned, Crosby’s first great song, had apparently been written as far back as 1962 in Crosby’s folk-club days (the year of the first Bond film, Dr No, so the song’s 007-theme chord sequence may have been a mere coincidence) and was demoed several times before it found its way on to a Byrds album (1967’s Younger than Yesterday – probably their best record).

The band’s recording of it, distinguished by bass playing by Chris Hillman of intuitive genius, is one of the best things they ever did, but having spent some time with this demo version, available on a compilation called Preflyte Plus, I’m basically convinced that this rough recording is the best version that exists, better even that that spine-tingling album take. Everything that would blossom in Crosby’s work is in here, and in a neat historical curlicue, this rough demo weirdly presages the version that would be cut 30 years later by the king of lo-fi acoustic balladry himself, Lou Barlow (on Sebadoh’s wonderfully titled Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock).

Son of Sam – Elliott Smith
Speaking of Barlow… Despite many similarites, and despite the fact that they knew each other and were friendly, Elliott Smith was not Lou Barlow. Barlow has released an absolute ton of material officially, and has given away even more on his website. If you want to hear the drum version of Puzzle from Emoh, Barlow’s cool with that. He made it available on his website. (It’s not got the arrangemental details of the Emoh version, but it’s very nice.)

Smith never did that. There have now been nearly as many Elliott Smith songs released after his death as there were when he was alive, but as for what permission he may have given for all this, who can say? Lawyers’ statements. Rumours. The truth resides in neither.

As a fan, though, much of what has been released since his death in 2003 (on From a Basement on the Hill, New Moon and now the soundtrack to documentary Heaven Adores You) seems to me to be weak: songs that tread the same ground as other, superior songs that we know he was satisfied enough to release, because they came out in his own lifetime. Why wasn’t High Times (also sometimes called Coma Kid) not released on Elliott Smith? Probably because Needle in the Hay used the same 8th-note downstroke strumming, and was much better. Would Smith have wanted us to hear this recording of High Times, given that he didn’t see fit to use it on the album? Depends who your source is.

So listening to this stuff is a morally complicated matter, and an often unsatisfying experience musically, except in an academic sense (hearing the unused stuff does, it can’t be denied, sharpen your appreciation of the work that made the cut). Sometimes, though, a true gem appears, which only makes things worse from an ethical point of view as a fan, as I genuinely have no idea whether Smith would have been cool with people hearing this stuff.

Much of the pre-release buzz about the soundtrack to Heaven Adores You was about it being the first time the song True Love would be appearing on an official release. But True Love really isn’t all that much of anything. Far more intriguing is the acoustic version (it sounds a bit too considered to called a demo) of Son of Sam. Smith’s guitar playing is especially impressive. I’m not sure whether he’s in standard tuning or not, but the inversions and droney voicings he uses for many of the chords make the song sound very different from the way it does on Figure 8. It’s Son of Sam as Smith might have recorded it if it had been written in 1994 or 1995. It’s fascinating to hear a song that became a pretty big production rendered in the simplest way possible, and being equally effective as it was in its studio incarnation.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps – The Beatles
The phenomenon of emptying the vaults in the name of revenue generation began in earnest with the Beatles’ Anthology project.

There were three double-CD Anthology releases, and they were a mixed bag indeed. Much of what was included was banal in the extreme: an alternate take of Kansas City-Hey Hey Hey Hey where the only difference is that the band hadn’t warmed up yet? Hmm, could have lived without that one. But the glimpse into the evolution of, say, Strawberry Fields Forever was stunning. As you listen to John Lennon strumming the chorus hesitantly on a guitar in his house, you realise just what kind of work it took to turn that half-formed thing into Strawberry Fields as we know it; hundreds of hours of combined effort by the band members, the producer and the engineering staff, making one inspired contribution after another, doing things with tape editing that defy belief.

For many fans, though, the greatest treat of all was hearing George Harrison’s demo of While My Guitar Gentle Weeps, with a simple acompaniment of acoustic guitar and harmonium. Taken at a faster pace than the album cut and in a lower key, allowing Harrison to sing higher, it’s a much lighter experience than the White Album cut, which is slower and squarer, and weighed down further by its overly literal lead guitar work by a guesting Eric Clapton. Yes, Eric, we get it. Your guitar is weeping, now kindly be quiet.

If you want to hear how it should be done, click on this, wait three and half minutes and let Prince melt your face. RIP, little dude.

prince-hall-of-fame

Only one image I could post really. Prince, in face-melting form at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2004

Holiday Harmonies Part 7: My Old School – Steely Dan

Steely Dan weren’t a harmony group in the Everly Brothers sense. A few tracks on Can’t Buy a Thrill aside, Donald Fagen always sings lead. The other voices are always subservient to the lead, and few songs have sustained two- or three-part harmony sections other than in choruses, though we’re looking today at a song that does. The band members were there for their musical chops rather than their vocals.*

That said, the band’s first line-up had three strong voices in it beside Fagen’s, in drummer Jim Hodder, bassist Walter Becker and kinda-sorta lead singer David Palmer.** Betweem them, those guys are responsible for all the male backing vocals on Can’t Buy a Thrill (including some stratospheric high parts on Dirty Work), so when they bring in (female) session vocalists on Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me) and Kings, it has a very different effect.

And achieving different effects was always the thing with Steely Dan. They used harmony vocals in just about every way conceivable, and they cast the parts unerringly, always making the right call on whether it should be a female trio*** or multitracked Michael McDonalds, or covered by the guys in the band.

My Old School is from the second Dan album, Countdown to Ecstasy. Countdown doesn’t enjoy its creators’ favour all that much, but I’m very fond of it. Recorded during breaks from touring, and featuring songs that were written to be played live (and presumably tried out live on stage before they were cut in the studio), it’s the group’s most “rock” album. That it’s heavy on Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s guitar playing just seals it; Skunk was always a rougher, noisier player than the clean, precise and more jazz-inflected Denny Dias.

Famously, My Old School is about a drug bust at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, during which Becker, Fagen and Fagen’s girlfriend were arrested, along with some 50 other students. Dismayed that the school was complicit in this, Fagen nursed a grudge for years, even refusing to attend his graduation.

Accordingly, Fagen sings My Old School in a tone of sustained mock outrage, and the harmony voice, whoever it belongs to****, matches it note for note, getting truly querelous at times by going up on the last syllable of the line (“doing what she did be-fore“; “tumbles into the sea“). In the choruses, the backing trio come in and, as so often, the band milk all the humour they can from the incongruity of the soul revue-style vocal arrangement and the lyrical content – “Woah, no,” the singers interject. “Guadalajara won’t do now,” answers Fagen. It’s tremendous fun.

Steely-Dan
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker

*And after a few albums, most of the band were regular session players rather than official members anyway.
**David Palmer sings lead on Dirty Work and the amazing Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me). He was brought in on Skunk Baxter’s recommendation because Fagen wasn’t a confident vocalist, particularly on stage. But Fagen’s vocal persona was so crucial to the songs that he was eventually persuaded to handle the job full time and the band asked Palmer to step aside. He went on to write Jazzman with Carole King.
***Clydie King, Venetta Fields and Sherlie Matthews were Fagen and Becker’s go-to trio, when available. And why wouldn’t you get them on board if you could?
****And who is that harmony singer? I wish I knew for sure. Judging from his vocal contributions to Turn that Heartbeat Over Again it’s very possibly Walter Becker, but it could be the album’s credited male backing singer, Royce Jones. Or it could even be a second track of Fagen, but the vocal sounds less warm and round than 1974-vintage Fagen.

New Frontier – Donald Fagen

Note: The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build. D.F.

Fagen’s liner notes from The Nightfly

To the extent that he has an image, Donald Fagen’s will always be defined by the cover of his 1982 debut solo album The Nightfly – a super-cool late-’50s hipster miraculously still around in the present day, spinning jazz records and smoking endless cigarettes long into the night (the time on the clock to his right reads ten past four).

Fagen’s accidental memoir, Eminent Hipsters, suggests that he pretty much was the young man whose persona he adopts on The Nightfly: a precocious wannaBeat in love with the culture of jazz and outsiderdom; “sentenced to a long stretch at hard labour in Squaresville” but not yet the hip sophisticate he needed to be to fully escape it. The Nightfly is the work of a man approaching middle age, looking back on his younger self and the world he grew up in with fond affection. Compared to Steely Dan, Fagen’s old band, it’s almost cuddly.

True, it’s the creation of a well-read and impressively self-educated man who doesn’t mind making you work a bit (the video for New Frontier wisely doesn’t assume its audience will know who Tuesday Weld or Brubeck were, or what Ambush is, or how you might wear a French twist – note that the girl in the video does not have one), but the mood is friendly and warm. After the bitterly cynical and ultimately tragic Gaucho (the final Dan album, from 1980), The Nightfly is probably the only music Fagen could make without driving himself crazy.

New Frontier shows he’s still the incorrigible craftsman of old, though. There are beautiful little details all the way through it: the way the backing vocalists hang on the last word of every line, making each terminal word into a hook; Fagen’s hilarious enunciation of “wingding” (how many other lyricists would have chosen that word over the more prosaic “party”?); the guitar playing of Rick Derringer and Hugh McCracken; the little riff the backing vocalist in the right-hand channel does on “Brubeck”; the tone-cluster piano squonk just before the guitar solo; the contrast set up in the lyric between the bright optimistic future the singer imagines for himself (studying design overseas, of course) and the suburban nuclear paranoia he’s living in right now. Fagen is a guy with warm memories but a clear-eyed view of his atomic-age youth.

As he doubles down on what I hope is merely his crusty-old-geezer routine in his new Rolling Stone tour diary (his Eminent Hipsters tour diary is, while very funny, also very crusty), it’s refreshing to relisten to The Nightfly and certain songs off Aja (the title track, Deacon Blues, Josie) and hear a Donald Fagen that meets the world with neither a defiant snark nor a cane raised in the air.

Nightfly

The author’s own recently recorded work:

First world problems: Gaucho & Third World Man – Steely Dan

Third World Man is the bleak conclusion of the bleakest album of Steely Dan’s frequently bleak discography. Bleak, I say? I’ll go further. It’s horrifying.

The cynicism they displayed throughout the seventies curdles into something rank and foul-smelling on their last album Gaucho. Their previous album Aja had been perhaps their warmest effort: Peg, Home at Last, the title track and Deacon Blues are hymns to the companionship of a good woman or, in the latter case, of jazz music. What mockery is evident is light-hearted (I Got the News) or regretful (Black Cow). More than on any other Dan album, you sense that the songs’ first-person narrator and Donald Fagen are the same person, or at least that Fagen and Becker have put themselves into their lyrics more than before.

Gaucho, in contrast, is populated with losers, cheaters, stalkers, dealers, users. Fagen and Becker have their fun with all of them. The narrators of Glamour Profession (a drug dealer who thinks he’s a Hollywood star in the making), My Rival (obsessive jilted lover), Gaucho (middle-aged gay man with unfaithful younger lover) and Hey Nineteen (incorrigible pussy-hound falling headlong into an age gap) all deserve his contempt, and they’re the targets of some of his funniest one-liners, while spinning off some good ones themselves: ‘Bodacious cowboys such as your friend will never be welcome here,’ says the narrator of Gaucho to his boyfriend, having found him and the Gaucho in a compromising position. Yet the sum of all this is an album dripping with contempt, a record that surveys the last days of the Me Decade with evident disgust.

That is, until we get to the ambiguous subject of album closer Third World Man, the only character in the whole album whom Fagen treats with any sympathy or compassion, the only one who deserves any.

Who is Johnny? Is he a veteran with PTSD? Is he an immigrant driven mad by the disparity between his circumstances and the privilege taken for granted and squandered by the sort of people who appear throughout the rest of the album? Fagen declines to specify why the sidewalks aren’t safe for a “little guy” like Johnny, or why he wears a disguise, or why the fireworks start (or whether the fireworks and disguise are metaphorical or literal). And surely no one in the narrator’s world had ever tried to find out.

Third World Man is the album’s conscience – the conscience of Steely Dan’s whole career really – and yet it only made the cut because some hapless tape operator recorded test tones all over the master tape for The Second Arrangement, a track Becker and Fagen had previously deemed the best thing they’d ever recorded. TWM (an Aja outtake?) was pulled from the vaults and completed by the addition of Larry Carlton’s guitar solo, the most nakedly emotional playing I’ve ever heard from him, a career highlight for a supremely technical but sometimes bloodless player.

Fagen was dumbfounded by the loss of The Second Arrangement; it was yet another setback in what had already been a tough project, during which he had been shouldering the load almost on his own. Becker had been mired in a heroin addiction, before being hospitalised with a broken foot sustained in a freak car accident. Then he suffered the death of his girlfriend from an overdose. Her family sued him for, they claimed, getting her hooked in the first place (Becker was eventually found not guilty). Left on his own and weary of the work and the responsibility, Fagen’s use of Third World Man in place of what he saw as the band’s ruined masterpiece was an admission of defeat, a rare “will this do?” shrug of the shoulders from a guy for whom no amount of work in the studio had ever been too much. Yet had he chosen to persevere with re-recording The Second Arrangement, we’d have been denied one of the greatest, most humane Steely Dan songs and one of the most affecting album closers in the history of popular music.

Steely Dan chris walter
Walter Becker, Donald Fagen