[ Howard Rodman's remarks made as keynote address on the occasion of the re-naming of the corner of 112th Street and 72nd Drive in Forest Hills, Queens as ‘Walter Becker Way.’ ]
In his legendary essay, “Paris, Capital of the 19th Century,” the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin talked about the ways in which Paris, with its boulevards, its arcades, its poets, was truly the capital of the 19th century. But an equally compelling argument can be made: that Forest Hills, the community that spreads out from the very corner on which we stand now, was indeed the capital of the twentieth.
Think about it: how many of the disparate musical and cultural strains that define the second half of the twentieth century had their origins right here. Paul Simon grew up at 137-62 70th Road. Jeffrey Hyman, later Joey Ramone, grew up at 102-10 66th Road, and John Cummings, Tommy Erdelyi, Doug Colvin – later Johnny, Tommy, and Dee Dee Ramone respectively – came up a street or two away.
It’s hard to think of Bridge Over Troubled Water and Beat on the Brat [with a Baseball Bat] as coming from the same planet. But in fact: they came from within blocks of each other.
The Ramones and Paul Simon were not Forest Hills’s only odd pairings. Leslie West and Pia Zadora. Donna Karan and Thelma Ritter. Wilhelm Reich and Anthony Wiener. But in weighing the contribution of this piece of outer-borough soil to the country, and the larger world, we inevitably find ourselves speaking of Walter Becker. Who when I first knew him, age ten, lived right there.
Like many of the friends and comrades with us this morning, we went to PS 196, whose anthem I can still sing, “PS one hundred and ninety six, we raise our voices high…” I wish Walter were here to sing the rest. Though in theory there were no ‘tracks,’ everyone knew that 5-5 and 6-2 were the IGC classes. In theory that stood for Intellectually Gifted Children. In practice: smart-ass wiseacres, using whatever intelligence we could muster in service of mocking the world into which we’d been born, fueled by transistor radios and Mad magazine. And even then, just kids in Miss Bishop’s class, in Miss Cathey’s class, Walter’s lead was the one we followed. In Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth , as deep as they go, cavern after cavern, they again and again come across a scrawl or a sign of Arne Saknussem – the 16th century Icelandic magician who’d always gotten there first. Walter was our Saknussem.
There was something older about him, and most certainly wiser. He had his aesthetic down cold, as if received. And was extravagant about letting the rest of us know what to listen to, what to read, what to watch. He gave me my first Borges, my first Nabokov, my first Burroughs. He told me what movies to see. He’d toss music my way — I remember, in particular now, Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity . And if I balked, or was unreceptive, he’d say, “You’re going to like this in a year or so, so why don’t you start now and save yourself some time.” While the rest of us were (awkwardly; clumsily) fashioning our personas, his seemed always to have been there. Part Terry Southern, part Lenny Bruce, but always — as was the case with him, and not yet with us — far more than the sum of his influences.
We’d drink Romilar, bought over there, and watch re-runs of The Million Dollar Movie , in his apartment right up there. Somehow, the movie was always Panic in the Year Zero . On another night Walter and my mother and me got so stoned that we listened to a record skip-skip-skip for half an hour before we realized it wasn’t intentional. An evening I had forgot entirely about, until Walter chose to recount it, forty-five years later, at a Steely Dan concert during the vamp of Hey Nineteen . At the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. In front of six thousand people. In detail, and with my mother’s name carefully pronounced. (Word travels fast. When I got home that night my fifteen-year-old son had a Cheshire Cat grin. And said, “Dad, is there anything you want to talk about?”)
But back to days and nights in vintage Forest Hills. We had our peacoats, our McCreedy & Schreiber boots, we walked like this, we’d take the E train to the Village on Friday nights to hang at the Café au Go-Go. I see a few people out there who will know exactly what I mean. We were, face it, tragically hip bridge-and-tunnel teenyboppers. As John Boylan, one of Walter’s early collaborators would put it, “E train, to Forest Hills. E train, so easy to find. E train, home from the Village, let mother take care of your mind.”
But Walter didn’t have a mom to come home to. Perhaps this accounts for why he was getting stoned with mine. Perhaps this accounts for how he was able to run so wild, and so free: with no mother at home, and a father so often away, and a grandmother whose threats terrified no one, Walter could do as he pleased. We’ve long recognized the astonishing, revelatory work that this enabled. But let us take a moment, too, to acknowledge the pain. He taught those of us who knew him, and millions who didn’t, how to become what he and Donald would call “gentlemen losers.” But all of that came at a real cost that neither he nor we would often want to name or to face. Which is why my favorite of Walter’s songs might be This Moody Bastard from 11 Tracks of Whack .
These days it's like a tomb/ Amid in the stacks of gloom/ Looking out the window/ In the downstairs room
And the time goes by/ And the time goes by/ Sometimes it goes so slowly/ You know a man could cry
Till the day goes down/ In deep disgrace/ With empty pockets/ And a dirty face
This moody bastard remembers/ You were some kind of friend even then
Once in a great while/ He needs one...
I think we all of us know what “once in a great while” means.
We’re left with memories, to be sure. Glorious memories. And we’re left with the music, which is indelible, music which was never was quite in sync with its time, and because of that will never grow old. Nor will the world he limned: an unparalleled gallery of local losers, smalltime hoods, dive-bar cynics, rooming-house romantics, would-be has-beens; the autodidacts, the isolatoes; the carneys, shills, junkies, dealers, conmen, fugitives – all of them on the run from the one thing they cannot change: who they are. We feel large and uneasy empathy for them, even as we know they’re getting exactly what they deserve. We know them better than they know themselves. And Walter knew them best of all.
This would be the place to mention the obvious: that if you’re looking for a top-40 hit, you don’t use as your hook, “Even Cathy Berberian knows there’s one roulade you can’t sing.” Yet Walter and Donald did, anyway, and sold forty million records, anyway. They did it not by reverse-engineering what an audience might like, but by being deeply, obsessively, cannily true to themselves. The success of Steely Dan was because, not in spite of, its celebration of the marginal.
With the passage of time one learns to look past Walter’s brilliance, past his astonishing way with words and with music – strike the Mu Major chord! – past the sensibility he helped forge, past the obsessive dedication to getting it right— Past all of these to Walter’s true generosity of spirit. Reaching deep inside himself, taking the joys and pains he found there, and making them our own.
As Walter Benjamin put it: “The flâneur stood at the margins of the great city. He sought his asylum in the crowd.” It took Walter Becker – indelibly cool, impossibly droll, triumphantly cryptic, unimaginably hip, with the intelligence to see life as it is, and the heart to set it down in ways that have now circled the globe it took Walter Becker to look out at this suburban landscape of postwar six-story housing, and recognize it for what it was: not a bedroom community, a bridge or a tunnel or an E-train away from Manhattan, but as something grand and glorious in and of itself. Forest Hills. A place he saw as the capital of the 20th century. And then: made it so.