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 Walter Becker 1950-2017

Blacklight Bar

The guitarist, songwriter, and cofounder of the pioneering jazz-rock band
Steely Dan died Sept. 3 at age 67. The Mountain Goats mastermind and
novelist John Darnielle reflects on Becker's profound influence.

Walter Beckern 1988 I moved to Norwalk, Calif., to work at Metropolitan State Hospital. I was drawing a decent paycheck and had very few financial responsibilities, so I drove around looking for record stores on my days off. There was one place down Norwalk Boulevard a ways that had a big wall of tapes, and it was from this wall that I grabbed Steely Dan's Katy Lied one day on a whim. The following week I grabbed the Aja / Gaucho twofer, also $4.99.

John DarnielleI spent much of the following year scrutinizing these albums as a jeweler might inspect a rare gem. I copied out lyrics onto large sheets of paper and taped them to the walls; I rewound the tape and played "Rose Darling" over and over, parsing phrases for nuance. It was harder then to learn things about bands, but I found references to Walter Becker as the "sadist" of the band, the darker foil to cofounder Donald Fagen's nostalgic leanings. Fagen's solo record The Nightfly seemed to support this theory of the partnership; it was sweet and warm, even when it went noir. Steely Dan were neither sweet nor warm. They were sharp and cutting.

Over the years I heard more things that Becker had a hand in -- his production on Rickie Lee Jones and China Crisis records in particular -- that suggested there was more to him than the thumbnail sketch available to information-starved Steely Dan fans in the pre-internet age. More warmth, more scale. But for me, a clip from the Aja episode of the Classic Albums documentary series will always be the moment where Becker's subtlety and wit are most evident. Becker and Fagen are listening to multiple rejected takes of the guitar solo from "Peg"; the first one they call up doesn't fit the song at all. "Speaks for itself, really," Becker says, not cracking a smile as the take plays on. It does speak for itself, and so did Becker, quietly sculpting music of such broad scope that its like will probably not be seen again in this world.  


A look back at five of Steely Dan's best tracks.

"REELIN' IN THE YEARS" (1972) "It's no fun," Walter Becker told Rolling Stone in 2009 about the group's most well-known single. We respectfully disagree.

"RIKKI DON'T LOSE THAT NUMBER" (1974) The opening track off Pretzel Logic, which hit No. 4 on the Hot 100, lays a cutting tale of unrequited love over sprawling samba rhythms.

"DEACON BLUES" (1977) Steely Dan have long been a touchstone for the down-and-out, and this single -- about a guy who wonders what life would've been like had he learned the sax -- is a tender satire for that base.

"PEG" (1977) A sleazy guy narrates this funky ditty, which finds him regaling a hopeful starlet with the promise of bright lights. (Turns out it's all smoke and mirrors.)

"COUSIN DUPREE" (2000) On their Grammy-winning comeback LP, Two Against Nature, the band proves that naughty minds never grow up with a track about a man who catches himself eyeing his cousin.

 Soul Survivor

Blacklight Bar

'Shakey' author Jimmy McDonough has just released the new Al Green biography
'Soul Survivor'. In this excerpt, Al appears on the public TV program 'Soul!' at the
height of his popularity, and purchases his new home near Memphis.

'Soul Survivor - A Biography of Al Greenn February 16, 1972, Al Green appeared on the legendary African American public television program Soul! at WNET in New York City. When he returned to Soul! for an October 22, 1972, broadcast, he was the only guest, performing a live, in-studio concert interrupted only by a short interview. Now a full-blown star, Green was in full command of the Enterprise Orchestra, directing the dynamics with a raise of the hand or a glance back at the drummer. Any signs of awkwardness were gone. The Afro was trimmed tight, the beard replaced by a carefully executed five o'clock shadow, and there were two outfit changes -- first, a black silk jacket with reddish-orange shirt and pants, plus a black silk tie dotted with spots of yellow and red; second, a plaid suit, blue turtleneck, and large gold medallion.

The show opens dramatically with a close-up of Al doing a quiet solo acoustic version of "What a Wonderful Thing Love Is." It is riveting, and your eyes don't leave him for the rest of the show. It never lets up. He goes from the odd funkiness of "Look What You Done for Me" to the slow anguish of "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" without pause. His showbiz affectations are eccentric, funny. Al sings a few lines of the verse of the Bee Gees song only to follow his breathtaking phrasing with a calculated look out into the audience as he asks, "Is there anybody in New York City that can mend a broken heart?" During "I'm Still in Love with You" he actually invites the audience to sing along, as if any mere mortal could navigate the vocal gymnastics of that particular number.

Al GreenTo preface "Let's Stay Together," Green sings a bit of the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun," and it is stunning. No doubt taken with the melody as well as the sentiment of the lyric, which reads like a more polished version of one of his own, Green takes this already fully-realized pop confection by the whitest of groups and, as he did with his Bee Gees cover, invests it with an unexpected richness and deepness. Al seems determined to get to some other plane, some higher state, when he sings, taking us all with him. "I like to be free as the air when I get onstage, so I can say, be and do just what I want to." That in-the-moment approach is central to the magic of Green's live performances. "We seldom rehearse... it takes away from the show to plan everything... the show changes every night depending on how I feel." Not that Al finds any charm in imperfection. When displeasure registers on his face after the horns hit a few sour notes during the Soul! broadcast, you feel he hates being dragged back into a less-perfect reality.

The crowd is hushed while he sings, clearly transfixed by his every utterance and gesture. The women in particular seem to be collectively holding their breath. They sit frozen, staring, some absently mouthing the lyrics. Clearly they feel Al is singing directly to them, for them. One pair even high-five each other after a particular couplet. Has any performer ever cast a spell over women like Al Green? My wife, Natalia, who's seen the footage from this show many, many times, was entranced watching it once again. When I asked what's Al's particular appeal was to the ladies, she just said, "He's a man-child," as if that explained everything. Maybe it does.

* * *

"I live way out in the woods, where there are twisted roads that lead to my home," said Al Green. On October 10, 1972, Green spent $128,000 on a split-level house surrounded by forty acres about forty minutes away from Memphis in Millington, Tennessee. 1404 St. Paul Road was a remote hideaway situated next to a state forest. Green made it clear in the press that unlike many of his fly-by-night peers, he wasn't going to squander all his loot on flashy baubles: "I didn't want a Cadillac, I was just as satisfied with a Buick. That wasn't my great inspiration... I had a lot of friends over my shoulder sayin', 'Hey man, it's about time for that new hog, isn't it?' I said, 'Well, okay -- I tell you what: you go spend yours on a hog, and I'll drive my old raggedy Buick -- and I'll buy this crib, this house."

Built in 1963, the home had five bedrooms, four bathrooms, and a G-shaped swimming pool. The few reporters lucky enough to visit his lair have poked fun at Green's gaudy taste in furnishings: bronze cupids; round beds with furry covers; a leopard-skin recliner with matching phone; a huge art-deco urn whose artwork featured Christopher Columbus, American flag-waving angels floating above his head; and a room done all in red, down to the plastic-covered sofa and even the lightbulbs. Apparently the Green hacienda remains frozen in time. When Davin Seay interviewed Al there in the late nineties, he found it to be a "fantastic place... a split-level ranch with pink shag carpet. A lot of wrought-iron, gnarled oak furniture. It looked like nothing had changed from 1972... it was like a seventies drug den."  

- Excerpted from Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green, Copyright © 2017 by Jimmy McDonough. Boston, MA: De Capo Press.

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