On the night of September 2nd last year, I was at my twenty-year high school reunion. Connecting with some friends I hadn’t seen since we graduated back in ‘97, we talked about kids, jobs, husbands and wives. We talked about classes and teachers and a few friends who couldn’t make it because they live too far or work too hard or died too young. We looked through our senior yearbook, laughing at haircuts long out of style or made impossible in the present by the very real threat of male pattern baldness. Outside of my senior portrait, which they forced us to take in tuxedos for the boys and dresses for the girls, one thing is common in the three or four pictures of me. My high school friend Lanessa asked if I watched the show “The Goldbergs,” because she thought I was the embodiment of the character Johnny Atkins, the saxophone playing, responsibility shirking, smart-ass kid with long hair and ever present RUSH t-shirt. Except in my case, it was Steely Dan.
There’s something to that. And it was more than just the shirts. An Alive in America promotional poster was on the wall of my bedroom, next to the Dexter Blows Hot and Cool and Shaft posters. Anyone that received a mixed tape from me could expect a Steely Dan song or two to be thrown in there. Girlfriends grew to love (or at least begrudgingly accept) that they would be hearing this music in my car. And a fair portion of my wardrobe was indeed Steely Dan t-shirts.
Those shirts were special. They separated me from the other black t-shirt wearing populace of my high school in a few ways. This wasn’t Hanson or the Spice Girls (both of which had Number 1 hits that year). This wasn’t Nirvana or Pearl Jam. This wasn’t even Led Zeppelin or The Beatles, retro, but safe. For me, Steely Dan was cool, and not in an “even though your dad listens to it” kind of way. For me Steely Dan was cool in a way that transcended boundaries. My dad listened to Steely Dan AND Steely Dan was cool. Maybe it’s because I was a nerd. I was in Academic Honors classes. Shit, I was on the Academic Decathalon team. I wasn’t cool, but Steely Dan, who spoke to me and in a voice that I could pretend was my own, absolutely was.
When I woke up early on the morning of September 3rd, the day after my reunion, I learned that Walter Becker had died the night before.
It isn’t often that the smartest person in the room is also the coolest person in the room. But when Walter Becker was in a room, that was almost always the case. He was effortlessly funny in a way that was equal parts assurring and intimidating. He was smart, genius level smart, but self-assured to the point that he seldom felt the need to show you how smart he was. He was creative, with a legacy nearly unmatched in popular music. And he was kind. Those shirts I was wearing in all those pictures in my senior yearbook? They had arrived after the ‘96 tour, along with a promo copy of the Citizen Steely Dan box set, with a little hand written note that simply read:
It is strange that anniversaries carry so much weight. One would think that a year passed since a tragic event would hurt less than 8 months, 6 months, 4 months. But today it is brought real to me again that Walter Becker is gone. Over the course of the last three hundred and sixty-five or so days I’ve thought often about what that means. I’ve written a few times about Walter and my connection with him, however tenuous. Between the Hey 19 Raps archive and the Walter Becker Media Project and a few written pieces here and there, I’ve tried to say something about my musical hero. I don’t know if a year has made it easier or harder. I just know that I miss Walter.
I don’t think I’m ever going to say any of this in a way that is satisfactory to me. I don’t think I’ll ever think I’ve said enough. I don’t think I’ll ever think I’ve done enough. It isn’t my job, though, to prove that Walter was a genius. That he was funny or smart or kind. Walter did that. He left a legacy carved into to the lives of so many people. He wrote, he played, he produced, he sang. I can throw on Aja or 11 Tracks of Whack or Circus Money and he’s still there, speaking to the man pushing forty the same way he spoke to the 18 year old kid wearing that Steely Dan t-shirt. Walter’s music meant something. Walter’s life means something. For whatever it is worth, those of us that got it, that get it, we’ll keep trying to explain to others exactly what it is. It’s the music. It’s the memories. It’s the man, Walter Becker. In words, in unreleased tracks, in html code, in street namings, in protecting a legacy earned and deserved.
Thanks again, Walter. For everything.