Tuesday, 5 September 2017

The Shine Of Your Japan, The Sparkle Of Your China

The most shocking thing about Walter Becker's death this week, for a 63-year-old Steely Dan fan, is to learn that he was only 67. Somehow those four years seem far shorter now – dangerously shorter – than they would have done in 1973, when I first heard Countdown To Ecstasy, which is, let's face it, probably the best album by any group ever. At 19, you assume that anyone even a little older than you is entitled to be responsible for major monuments of culture; at 63, it can come to seem unreasonable and unfair. "What A Shame About Me", you might even feel inclined to complain.

I didn't know it at the time, but the great thing about Donald Fagen and Walter Becker was that in 1973 they had already passed through the 1970s, glanced with disdain at the 80s, and been gifted the X-ray spectacles of some alternative future which rendered even the shiniest and prettiest people as transparently losers in the making, eaten up by ambition, chewed up by regret, and spat out by circumstance. Hey, it's a vision, and it's a truer one than most. It's certainly truer than any amount of the coke-fuelled grandiosity or faux-naive optimism more typical of the era. We're all gonna die, kid, so go ahead, waste your time and sell your soul while you still can, if you must.

Obviously, this is not a message that is to everybody's taste, even when set within some of the most original arrangements and solos in popular music. Some have called it cynical, but "cynicism" is a word that should be reserved for those who see ugly truths and nonetheless persist in selling us their pretty, palatable lies. Disenchantment, skepticism, and even resignation are better words; it's an imperfect world and, as the song says, even Cathy Berberian knows there's one roulade she can't sing. Admittedly, there is also a gamey note of what we might call nerd's misogyny – a rather too ready identification with the romantically-challenged and the creepy – and even, dare I say, a little racism, but I doubt most listeners to "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" or even "Haitian Divorce" ever hear those songs for what they are; dramatic monologues or short stories that tell ugly truths set to a catchy beat. But there is also always questioning and rejection of privilege – I'm never going back to my old school – with just a little desperation sprinkled into the kitchen-clean mix...  Is there gas in the car? (Yes, there's gas in the car).

What a shame there won't be any more. But there probably wouldn't have been, anyway.

Oh, and John Ashbery died this week, too, aged 90. One of these days I suppose I may get around to finishing "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror", but I suspect I will never get past that elementary error about the "right hand" in Parmigianino's painting. At least, I presume it's an error. Maybe it's a false trail laid to entrap and infuriate us left-handers.  If so, it worked. Give me Bodhisattva any day.


Dave Leeke said...

I must admit that I would (obviously) argue about "best album ever" status as my own personal favourite album by the Dan is " Can't Buy A Thrill". I don't really think they ever bettered it: a contender for best ever debut album definitely. It's interesting that Becker's death has created an outpouring of grief in a way usually held for more 'famous' personalities. Maybe it's the fact he died mysteriously or perhaps it's his age. I'm not sure but I think SD were a band that crossed genres for sure and his death has certainly hit many hard. I order if the fact that many of us of a certain age grew up listening to them and got into jazz (possibly because of them?). I still hold CBAT in highest esteem probably because it's their least jazzy album. Still, only a fool would say that.

Dave Leeke said...

Hi, thought you'd appreciate this if you haven't already seen it:

Mike C. said...


As with all these deaths (more to come, guaranteed!) I think what people are grieving over is their own youth as much as anything. Becker has mainly been growing avocados in Maui for decades, not laying down immortal tracks...

Thanks for the Rickie Lee Jones link -- that's a terrific bit of writing. On "Boston Rag": "I was only 19, and I wanted it to come back and I didn't even know what it was."