When I was first asked to speak at an event honoring Walter Becker, my inclination and instinct was to say no. Why say something about someone who so often expressed things better than anyone else?
According to my dad, I was conceived to the music of Steely Dan. As much as I didn’t then and don’t now want to picture my parents having sex, I even more so don’t want to picture them having sex to I Got The News. When I told that to Walter, he grinned and simply replied, “You’re very welcome.”
When Walter passed away on September 3rd of last year, music magazines rushed to honor Walter as the silent partner of Steely Dan. The irony would not have been lost on Walter. Anyone who knew the man to any degree knows that Walter Becker was anything but silent.
Walter spoke and spoke loudly with a voice unique in popular music. While others desperately sought to be the voice of their generation, of the prevalent or emerging social culture, Walter effortlessly gave voice to the counter-cultural zeitgeist. In his music, both with Steely Dan, on his own solo albums 11 Tracks of Whack and Circus Money, and as recorded by a incredibly diverse range of musicians, Walter managed to defy categorization. Walter was at once fiercely private, but also soul baring in the self he revealed in his music. He was literate without being pretentious. He was sophisticated with a splash of sophomoric humor. He was jazz and he was rock. He was mentor and learner, professor of infectious vibes and student of rhythm and soul. Grammy winner, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee, Honorary Doctorate from the Berkeley School of Music.
Walter was an amazing guitarist who cherry picked the finest of session musicians to realize his musical visions, a gifted bass player who wanted Chuck Rainey to play on every song, a man who loved to sing but waited until 22 years after his first record to release an album where he took a lead vocal. Walter Becker was anything but silent.
Walter’s songs included the classic tales of loves lost and won, of moments missed and taken, but always with a twist. Walter inherently knew that if he didn’t try to write songs for everyone, he could write music that reached someone. Often in songs about less than savory characters, Walter managed to find the profound in the profane, all without resorting to tropes or cliches. He told tales of a world both dark and real. Sorry kids, not every hooker has a heart of gold.
Walter’s voice as a songwriter was uniquely New York, uniquely Queens, uniquely Forest Hills, uniquely 72nd Drive. This place shaped Walter’s worldview and his voice. It provided him with friends that lasted a lifetime, experiences that proved foundational to his life and his art, and a context for understanding the world around him. Forrest Hills was home, and long after life took him to Annandale, to Manhattan, to Los Angeles and to Maui, Walter would often return to this place, driving around these streets to show friends and loved ones the old neighborhood.
And now children growing up in this neighborhood can glance up at a sign and wonder who this Walter Becker guy was. The thought that one of these kids might ask a parent, or more likely take to the internet to discover who this man was, and what his legacy is makes this moment all the more poignant. So the next time you hear Walter’s music, either when you pop in the USB drive we’re giving you today, played by the incredible team of musicians that Walter and his partner Donald Fagen assembled that are in residency at the Beacon this week, as you walk through your local mall or grocery store or sitting in the chair at your dentist’s office, hearing these songs about unsavory characters in the most unexpected of places, spare a moment to remember this street, and Walter Becker; who he was and what he remains.
In the days and weeks after Walter's passing, the web was thrumming with tributes to this special man.
It was gratifying and comforting to see just how many people felt, as we did, that Walter was truly one of a kind.
Some moving words were written in celebration of Walter's talent and kindness, but none, perhaps, more moving than those that appeared in the LA Times Review of Books, as offered by our next speaker, Howard Rodman — describing as they did what it was like for a lonely and lost neighborhood newcomer to come across a 10-year old Walter Becker right here on these very streets.
Howard managed to convey how special Walter was at an age when most of his cohort were little more than an amorphous collection of inarticulate yearnings — yearnings for an identity, and, yes, even for some kind of dignity — albeit of the 10-year old variety.
To hear Howard tell it, Walter had an identity and a dignity even then, that seemed to foretell of a life of uncompromising creativity, authentic cool, and a killer wit.
No slouch himself —Howard is:
a screenwriter (Joe Gould's Secret, Savage Grace);
a novelist (Destiny Express; and The Great Eastern, forthcoming in June);
Past President, of the Writers Guild of America West;
Professor, School of Cinematic Arts, at USC
We're so grateful he crossed the continent to be with us here today, and to share his thoughts about a boy and a man; a boy who roamed these very streets, grown up into a man who, with the greatest warmth and appreciation, we honor and celebrate today.
Please join me in welcoming Howard Rodman
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 Vernes' 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 isolatos; 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.