Here’s a surprise: I and my peers, friends and colleagues are all reaching our four score and ten – or getting damn close - and one by one ‘names’ we grew up with, especially musos, are falling off their respective perches. And the surprise? Well, the surprise is that they are all rather surpised that even though in the past folk have tended to kick the bucket pretty much at any time on from the age of 60, they (and their peers, friends and colleagues) expect somehow to buck the trend, to live on for ever if not longer.
Earlier this year it was Prince, and now Walter Becker has gone to meet his maker. I mention those two because I went a bundle over their music, and then some. In Prince’s case I have to admit that I was surprised by his death in that he was still only 57, but also that his death came as the result of a drug overdose. It was not, however, a ‘drug overdose’ as in ‘injecting too much heroin’ or suffering a heart attack after years of cocaine use and abuse – Prince was, in fact, rather sniffy about using drugs in that way - but a ‘drug overdose’ in that to cope with pain from a damaged hip and to carry on working for days on end without any sleep, Prince had become addicted to painkillers and had been taking them in ever greater amounts. So it wasn’t actually ‘for the pleasure’ of taking drugs or, to use the ludicrous phrase which is often used by folk to try to demonstrate how broadminded they are, he was not taking the pain killers ‘recreationally’.
Becker, on the other hand, was at one point hooked on heroin, though I don’t know when the habit was formed and he did not die of an overdose. Nor do I – or anyone else apparently judging from the obits – know a great deal about the man. Each obit I have heard recites and recycles the same ‘facts’ as though they are cribbing their copy from each other: of his childhood we are told that he ‘was born in Queens in New York’ and that ‘he had rather a rough time of it’. What his parents were called, whether he had siblings and what became of them, what his ‘rough time during childhood’ consisted of we don’t know. I mention that because such details are known and repeated about his songwriting partner and the guy he formed Steely Dan with, Donald Fagen.
Then we are told that Becker ‘attended Bard College ‘a private liberal arts college in Annandale-on-Hudson, a small hamlet in New York’. Such an education at ‘a private liberal arts college’ does not come cheap, so it might be safe to assume that Becker’s miserable childhood was not due to poverty or race. At Bard he met Fagen and both found they had a lot in common – they liked the same jazz, they were into sci-fi and shared the same sense of humour. They formed a band or two (and, a usual factoid often included, comedian and actor Chevy Chase was once a drummer in one of those bands). And on it goes.
My point is that nothing much new is known about Becker apart from the details always trotted out. So: once he was addicted to heroin, his then girlfriend, a Karen Stanley, died of an overdose in his flat. A few months later, he was hit by a taxi in the street and spent a long time in a wheelchair and was confined to the wheelchair while helping to produce the album Gaucho. Except by then his habit made him inconsistent and unreliable (heroin does that kind of thing) and more often than not Fagen was obliged to do most of the work.
Final facts: both decided to put their partnership on ice and Becker took himself off to Hawaii where he beat the habit, married and became an avocado farmer (and I still can’t decide whether that last ‘fact’ is indeed a ‘fact’ or just another in-joke for the two). Either way it is now appearing in Becker’s bios and his obits.
Yes, there’s a bit more which is trotted out, but not much. You will now see him lauded as ‘a great guitarist and bass player’, but it is legitimate to ask why if he was so great did he and Fagen hire so many other guitarists and bass players? He could certainly play, but, for example, his guitar playing has - had I suppose - that noodling quality which can often give the impression of being great without actually being great.
. . .
The friend mentioned in the following (below) informed me a few hours ago that an incident at a Steely Dan concert he and I attended in London was referred to in the comments from readers which are appended to the obit which was published in The Guardian. Here it is. I took a look but couldn’t find it the reference to the incident. So I then googled ‘hotel california “steely dan” “wembley arena” to see if I could track it down. I couldn’t but reached the following, rather breathless, piece about Steely Dan. And here is the comment I left there. I have simply copied it and reproduced it here quite simply because it makes points I would go on to make here and – call me lazy if you like – it saves time.
I avoided listening to Steely Dan during the Seventies because it was trendy to do so. Then one day, in 1977/8 in a god-forsaken down-at-heel steel town in South Wales called Ebbw Vale where I was working as a reporter, I was going through the bargain bin in a newsagent’s chain — of all places, not even a record shop — and came across Aja. It was on sale for 50p (half of £1, about £2.71 in 2015), and at that price I bought it. Even if it was complete shite, at least it was cheap. [But] I loved it immediately and over the next few months I bought all the other albums, which I also loved. Then Gaucho came out, and I bought that and loved that, too.
I think it was their age and possibly because by then they were pretty much at the centre of New York’s art establishment, which whenever I’ve come across it, almost always on TV — I have no personal experience of it one little bit — strikes me as far to self-regarding for comfort, as in ‘Christ, aren’t we cool.’ A good example is David Byrne and his band who are fine as popsters but who seemed to think they and their acolytes are somehow ‘art’. No, you’re not kids, you were just another generation of popsters.
Becker and Fagen strike me as the same: pop/rock dies when some pretentious fuckwit wants to promote it to the status of art and all that ‘art’ brings with it: significance, importance, morality and loads of other crap. And Becker and Fagen seem to have bought into the whole pop as art notion completely.
In the early 1980s I heard an interview with them on Radio 1. I had tuned in eagerly, but was left distinctly disappointed: my then heroes came over as such self-conscious clever dicks that I wanted to puke.
More recently I and a friend went to see them play the Wembley Arena. It was (I’ve just looked it up) in 1996. And once again my one-time heroes showed themselves to have feet of clay: Becker, to his eternal shame, supposedly cool as shit Becker began with that corny old standby ‘hello, London, we love your fish and chips’ and received, as I suppose he expected and wanted, whoops and cheers from the faithful. I felt ill.
A little later — we were in about row three right at the front of the stage — I mischievously shouted to Fagen ‘why don’t you play Hotel California’, and boy did he hate it. This was right just as another song was going to start and it must have preyed on his mind throughout cos when it finished he — rather lamely, I thought — came out with ‘bad things happen to people who say that’.
But oh well, there’s still the music, especially the early music, and nothing can detract from that: music is music is music. But as for ‘the Dan’ and ‘cool’ and arty Becker and Fagen, er, I’ll happily leave the adulation to someone else.
. . .
Don’t get me wrong: I still love Steely Dan’s songs and music, Fagen’s voice and their individual solo albums (though Fagen’s Kamakiriad is, in my view, a little weak). It’s just (and I think I’ve said this before) the usual adulation makes me feel a little queasy. And when someone dies, it becomes intensified. My comment in the Guardian appended with the rest to the obit it was carrying of Becker and where everyone and his dogs was recording just what a sheer genius he was, that we would never see his like again (cont p94) consisted of asking whether ‘Anyone been down to Kensington Palace yet to dump flowers at the gate? It's got to happen, to honour ‘the People's Guitarist’.’ It was not a popular comment. The responses were:
It seems you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
It’s just that I really, really don’t go a bundle on all the canonisation and beatification, and boy does it go on. I’m praying that a certain Bob Dylan is in great health and will wait until I have popped my clogs before he, too, goes. I really don’t think I could survive the hoopla about him.
. . .
PS I was chasing around the ‘information superhighway’ – sorry, the web – looking a picture of Walt and found myself deciding whether to use one of him young or old, until I decided not to use one at all, when I came across this: a woman who claims she was married to Becker, but has been written out of all the bios. Well, you decide. . .