After Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker’s death on Sunday, Sept. 3, World of Tomorrow author Brendan Mathews was moved to reflect on his “teenage fascination” with the band that he says has been seen as “another old geezer act” in recent years. But to Mathews, as a high schooler in the 1980s, they represented much more: “Steely Dan offered a vision tailor-made for a smart kid desperate for adventure that wouldn’t wreck his high school GPA.”
Below, EW can exclusively share Mathews’ appreciation of the band that promised him he could have it all.
Where Are You Going, Midnight Cruiser?
Since hearing the news that Walter Becker had died, I’ve been bingeing on Steely Dan, the band that Becker co-founded with Donald Fagen in the early 1970s. It’s been years since I’ve had Steely Dan in heavy rotation, but those songs bring me right back to a time and place where music makes a deep, lasting impression on the psyche.
During my high school years in the early ’80s, I listened to a lot of Steely Dan. I was never a hardcore fan, never one of those guys (it was always guys) who called the band, “the Dan.” And unlike a lot of the true believers, I wasn’t taken in by the jazzy riffs or the pristine sound engineering (the band actually won a Grammy for that).
What drew me to Steely Dan were songs about a world more dangerous, more alluring, more technicolor than my own. Granted, this was a low bar to clear. Growing up in Albany, New York, a big night involved chicken wings and a game of Trivial Pursuit. As a high school freshman, the highlight of my month was taking the Number 13 bus to the Northway Mall to buy the latest issue of Dragon Magazine. It should come as no surprise that I was an uptight brainiac; a dateless, straight-A perfectionist with borderline OCD.
Steely Dan offered a vision tailor-made for a smart kid desperate for adventure that wouldn’t wreck his high school GPA. I didn’t grow up hiding on the backstreets. I was no knight in shining armor coming to anyone’s emotional rescue. But if Steely Dan’s songs were to be believed, then just over the horizon was a world of sex, drugs, crime, and yes, college (I still took pride in acing the maps section of the Iowa Test).
In Steely Dan’s songs, smart-aleck guys fell in and out of love with “languid and bittersweet” women. They mixed up cocktails of “kitchen-clean” drugs that made them briefly rich. They were quick-witted and sarcastic, had access to good booze, and occasionally got themselves into jams that required them to run from the law or split the country entirely. And still, they managed to be the dandy of Gamma Chi, go to good schools — even if unhappily — and spend the weekend visiting diffident women, who attended other colleges. The message to my 15-year-old brain was loud and clear: You can have it all.
I started my collection with Steely Dan’s 1977 album, Aja — the first album that I ever bought with my own money. A few years earlier, my brothers and I had convinced my Mom to buy us Billy Joel’s Glass Houses, and before that, Shaun Cassidy’s Da Doo Ron Ron. I tell you this to establish that I did not grow up a music snob. As a kid, the most-played albums in our house were Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell (we were Catholic; it was the ’70s), along with a heavy dose of Cat Stevens. I had no exposure to jazz. I was not a Yes sympathizer. I had no attachment to the prog-rock agenda.
Steely Dan seemed to me like something that was my own. My parents didn’t listen to Steely Dan. The closest thing in the family record collection might have been The Moody Blues’ lushly orchestrated Nights in White Satin, which had a self-important grandiosity that was anathema to Steely Dan. There was too much acid in the lyrics to mix with a string section.
Steely Dan always had its detractors, but in recent years, the criticism took on a derisive edge. In their early days, the band that was either praised or dissed by critics for its legendarily obsessive craftsmanship. How obsessive? The recording sessions that would eventually produce 1980’s Gaucho took three years and employed 42 different studio musicians. Becker and Fagen also put a premium on what rock critics either proudly or dismissively referred to as musicianship at a time when punk had pushed the notion that knowing how to play your instruments was just selling out to the man.
More recently, it became de rigueur to mock Steely Dan as smarmy dinosaurs. The best they could hope for was to be referred to as “venerable jazz rockers.” In article after article, any praise for the band and their music was couched in a protective shell of ironic misgiving. One writer tried to account for why, in his 30s, he suddenly didn’t hate Steely Dan anymore — finally admitting that his newfound semi-appreciation was “a way to embrace the awful creeping softness that comes with middle age.” An otherwise glowing review of a Steely Dan concert in Boulder, Colorado still mentioned the writer’s “will to fight against precise yacht-rock smoothness.” And the Washington Post was even more blunt: In April 2015, after the band headlined the Coachella Music Festival, a headline declared: “Coachella Is Dead, and Steely Dan Killed It.”
To a new generation, Steely Dan was just another geezer act — old rockers with a loyal, balding, and well-heeled following willing to shell out hundreds of dollars to spend a few hours jamming to songs that once soundtracked a night of bong hits in an Amherst dorm room.
But for me, Steely Dan made promises that my uptight teenage self needed to hear: Maybe I couldn’t buy a thrill, but I could imagine a world where I could take risks, screw up, and still pull it all together. Until I worked up the courage or the carelessness to try for real, I could get along with Kid Charlemagne, or find myself in Vegas, or simply reel in the years. But what snared me was more than the urbane world of vice and debauchery that Becker helped to create. Like any self-respecting teenager fresh from his first encounter with Holden Caulfield, I responded to the way Becker and Fagen saw the world with a jaundiced eye. They knew that everyone was on the make, and few could be trusted. Even if you were smart enough to see it, you couldn’t necessarily do anything about it. Except, of course, write a clever song with a tight guitar hook.
Becker himself was often described as pessimistic, cynical, even misanthropic. But in a 1976 interview, Becker put a positive spin on cynicism: “Cynicism, I contend, is the wailing of someone who believes that things are, or should be, or could be, much, much better than they are.”
So, farewell, Walter Becker, major dude and midnight cruiser. You were always a champion in my eyes.