When my parents jumped in their Honda Civic and set off on their honeymoon in the summer of 1978, they had three cassettes: Music From Big Pink by The Band, Sophisticated Giant by Dexter Gordon, and Aja by Steely Dan. According to my father, it was the third of those great albums that lead directly to my conception, the details of which will be spared both for the reader, as well as the author, except to say that after a subsequent period of gestation, I was born.
The music of Steely Dan would become the ubiquitous soundtrack of my life, enjoyed but not necessarily relished until somewhere between sixth or seventh grade. I remembered my dad telling me about a song that involved a young man inviting a girl down into his father’s fallout shelter, an appealing concept for a young man who had recently discovered that Judge Sam Payne had an old fallout shelter on his property just through the woods behind his house at the same time as the sudden realization that girls were cute and smelled nice and occasionally enjoyed speaking or spending time with me. Discerning readers might know that the song in question is New Frontier, on Donald Fagen’s solo debut The Nightfly, but because of the aforementioned ubiquity of this music in my life, I assumed it was on one or another of the Steely Dan albums in my father’s collection. That night I went through the whole of the Steely Dan catalog, with the buildup of proverbial floodwaters gathering behind some inner dam. Then, somewhere in the third or fourth hour of this search, I chanced upon an unlikely dam-breaker. The cd was entitled Becker & Fagen The Early Years, and it was a collection of rough demos that I would later discover the titular gentlemen vehemently disregarded as subpar work. The words to that song struck me…
I recall when I was small
How I spent my days alone
The busy world was not for me
So I went and found my own
Was it possible that this music was written by someone as dissatisfied or disassociated with their peers and the culture around them as I felt? It seemed as if someone was expressing something that I felt, and had heretofore believed solely existed inside of me. But I had heard this song, here just two voices accompanied by a piano and a bass, somewhere before, with depth and punch and horns, glorious horns. I turned the cd case over, and looked for the name of this song. There it was. Track 14 – Android Warehouse. Now with each Steely Dan album arrayed before me on the floor, I looked through song titles. Pretzel Logic? No. The Royal Scam? No. Gaucho? No. None of the albums had a song called Android Warehouse, though I knew for a fact I had heard this song. Again, the discerning reader may recognize the problem. The song in question that had been mislabeled on this particular release as Android Warehouse was in fact The Caves of Altamira, though in my defense the lyrics to the song contain none of the following words: android, warehouse, cave, or Altamira. I began playing each album again, and by the time I found the track I was looking for, by my recollection on the very last album I listened to, the floodwaters had spilled over the dam walls, burst forth into my imagination, and carved a canyon in my musical experience that remains to this day.
As a teen in the mid to late 90s, with contemporaries tying flannel shirts around their waists and appropriating hiking boots for school wear, I was trying to learn the sax solo to Dirty Work or the piano voicings for add2 and dim5 and maj7b5 chords. My dad picked me up on a late spring day in 1993, with music playing in the car. The song was Snowbound, and within a few seconds of hearing that bass a question formed on my lips…”Is this…new?” Steely Dan was complete in my mind. There was no new. Everything had been released by the time I was three years old. And now there was this. It wasn’t Steely Dan though…it was Donald Fagen. Except this song says it’s by Becker AND Fagen, just like all of those songs I’ve been obsessively repeating over and over for the last few years.
The next year, my dad gave me the gift of a prerelease copy of Walter’s 11 Tracks of Whack, earned as a thank you gift for his pledge to our local NPR station. I devoured this album, with an interesting side effect. My girlfriend at the time, who was completely uninterested in listening to Steely Dan or Donald Fagen’s solo work, thought this shit was great. This trend carried through with each subsequent girlfriend being more interested in Becker as a solo artist than Steely Dan, to varying degrees. If the music of Steely Dan was in some way a part of my superego, Walter was speaking or singing for my id. Rawer and rougher around the edges but cutting through the bullshit to the truth, the quickest route between two points being a straight line and all that.
I was aware that somewhere, but not in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were touring as Steely Dan. In 1996 I tried to convince my parents that loaning their seventeen year old son the car for a trip to Kansas City (It’s only 685 miles away Dad!) was a wonderful idea. They disagreed, possibly because I had up to this point refused to learn to drive and hadn’t actually gotten my driver’s license. Next tour, I told myself. Next tour.
In the meantime, the aforementioned girlfriend and I had mutually chosen to part ways after she dumped me, and I had discovered that within the vast confines of the internet there were other people close to my age that enjoyed the same things I did. History, Piers Anthony books, old Doctor Who episodes, and the music of Steely Dan. One of them was even a girl! So somewhere in the mid-90s I reached out, based on the fact that said girl’s AOL quote (remember those?) was a Steely Dan lyric, and we became friends. Though our friendship wasn’t limited to Steely Dan, it was centered around that. We were from vastly different worlds (a small southern town and Los Angeles proper) but tied together by a shared sensibility and outlook.
That next tour didn’t happen in 1997, or 1998, or 1999, though the occasional Steely gift of a boxed set here or a t-shirt or twelve there significantly decreased the pain. Another girlfriend who liked Walter’s music but just couldn’t get Steely Dan came and went, and as the end of the millennium approached, so did a NEW STEELY DAN ALBUM. This was it, the big one. Under various assumed names and disguises I had become a part of the Dandom, and connected with others of my kind with names like St. Al or Hoops or Mizz Ducky or Diane Diane Diane (I may be skipping a Diane). We gathered together electronically and virtually to anxiously await THE NEW ONE. And then it came. And with it came the announcement of a new tour. Finally.
This was to be my year. I had missed this band, this all important band, in 1993 and 1994 and 1996. I was not going to miss them this time. My online friend and I, having connected IRL a few times at this point, bemoaned one night that we were too far away to go and see a show together. “I wish we could just drop everything and do the whole fucking thing.” I said, knowing such a thing could never happen. “Me too,” she replied, knowing better.
A few days later she called me (we racked up hours of long distance charges that her dad generously never firebombed my house over) and asked how serious I was. I said that I hadn’t been serious, but that I might be serious. So we both dropped everything else in our lives (I quit my job) and followed Steely Dan on their 2000 Two Against Nature tour in her jeep. We racked up thousands of miles and spent a good amount of money on hotel bills and fast food and gas..but not on concert tickets. Walter, who had gotten wind of our crazy scheme, just gave those to us. This is a kindness that I could and can’t repay, though I will continue trying for the rest of my life. When the band started into The Boston Rag at the Rose Garden in Portland, I sat mesmerized. That night is etched into my brain.
Boston Rag - Walter Becker solo, Jon Herington soloBodhisattva - Herington solo, Becker soloNight By Night - Herington soloJanie Runaway - Ari Ambrose solo Ted Baker piano segue intoJosie - Becker solo, Ricky Lawson soloBlack Friday - Herington soloDaddy Don't Live In That New York City Anymore - Becker sings + solos, Cornelius Bumpus solo Band IntroJack of Speed - Becker solo, Tom Barney soloDo It Again - Herington solo, Lawson soloWest of Hollywood - Herington solo, Ambrose solo IntermissionBand plays Mancini's "Hank's Pad"Royal Scam - Herington solo, Michael Leonhart throughoutDeacon Blues - Bumpus soloCousin Dupree - Becker soloMonkey In Your Soul - Becker sings, Jim Pugh solo, Ambrose soloDirty Work - Victoria Cave sings, Leonhart soloPeg - Herington soloDon't Take Me Alive - Herington soloKid Charlemagne - Herington solo EncoreMy Old School - Herington soloFM - Becker solo, Bumpus solo.
With the next night came the next kindness. An invitation backstage. June 3rd, 2000, we stood on the wooden deck behind the stage at the Gorge looking down at the Columbia River. Walter Becker (Walter FUCKING Becker) walked over an introduced himself to me, shook my hand, and practically gushed about how happy he was for us to be there. I had and have no answer for his kindness and generosity, which was to be displayed time and time again throughout the tour. You kids are eating McDonalds (again)? Why aren’t you eating with us? Hotels are expensive in West Palm Beach, why don’t I set you up at the Four Seasons? At every turn he was not just funny and smart, which I had expected, but kind and generous, which I wasn’t prepared for. When I brought my parents, the longtime fans who had brought me up on this music, to the show in Saratoga Springs, New York, Walter not only gave me some backstage passes so I could introduce them to him, he convinced (or perhaps cajoled) Donald to come out of his dressing room so that Walter could introduce my parents to him.
On the last night of the tour, in Dallas, Texas after a concert in the sweltering August heat, we were invited to the hotel and the wrap party. The tour was over, and after a June and July of listening to and occasionally hanging out with my favorite band ever, it was sadly time to go home. I said goodbye to the musicians I had met, some like Ricky Lawson and Cornelius Bumpus who are sadly no longer with us, and others like Jon Herrington who still remembered my name the last time I saw him in 2014. We walked out, my friend and her dad and me and Walter. We shook hands and Walter turned a thumb to me while he talked to my friend’s father. “This guy,” he said. “is really fucking funny.”
Steely Dan’s music is as ubiquitous a part of my children’s lives as it was my own. Each of my children has been to multiple shows, and my wife and I (I got married and had kids in those intervening years) have made planned trips around shows, though she admittedly doesn’t understand why I feel the need to TALK so much about something I should just LISTEN to. Another Steely Dan album, two Donald albums, and Walter’s Circus Money have filled in the music blanks, as has being part of the larger Steely Dan community online. And as much as I love this music today just as I did trying to figure out which album Android Warehouse was on all those years ago, I appreciate even more the time and kindness shown to a 21 year old kid by one of the greatest musicians of his time. Though Steely Dan, and Donald Fagen and Walter Becker as individuals, cultivated an air of mystery or aloofness, I have experienced nothing but joy and kindness both in the songs, the live shows, or in actually getting a chance to meet and spend time with both Donald Fagen, but to a much greater extent Walter Becker.
When the opportunity to put together this site arose, I jumped at the chance. I make my living working on websites, largely because I learned how to make a website for the project my friend and I worked on back during that 2000 tour and by studying the creation of Walter and his Webdrone over at steelydan.com. What I’ve been given is much more than I can pay, but any time the opportunity arises, I’ll be around to honor an amazing songwriter, a wonderful musician, and a fucking great guy.
Thanks W. For everything.