In 1977, I was a sixteen-year old kid in high school, a dedicated “wanna-be” musician. I had been playing guitar and bass for a whopping three years. Besides playing at church, and a brief stint as the clueless bassist in the Erwin High jazz ensemble, my career could boast having been in a garage band that played nowhere BUT the garage. We would pound out loud and furious versions of classic rock staples from Kiss, Led Zeppelin, and Bad Company. Such seeds of “greatness” sown…
But by some strange fortune, I had been taken underwing by two guys in my church who happened to own a honest-to-god professional multitrack recording studio! While normal kids were doing normal high school stuff, I was hanging out in a sonic wonderland, playing on actual records, and learning the craft and business of music on both sides of the glass. As much fun as the garage was, THIS was heaven on earth (with overdubs, no less).
So it was a fateful day at Solid Rock Sound Recording in Center Point, Alabama that I came across a package containing cassette samples from a duplication company trolling for business.
There may have been 4 or 5 different tapes in their offering for perusal. One of them was Aja by Steely Dan.
I may have been a “church guy” but as the youngest of seven kids, I knew my rock and pop music (and grudgingly even some country). Steely Dan was a band of just two guys (how did that work?), Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Rolling Stone magazine was a fixture at our house, and Steely Dan were fixtures in that trade and on Top 40 radio as well.
So here in my hands was a cassette tape with a bizarre yet cool cover. The band I knew was great, but with packaging so different, I couldn’t wait to listen.
I don’t even remember asking if I could keep the tape, but it was soon to be on endless repeat in my self-installed Radio Shack stereo in my hideous green Datsun 810. Little did I know I was establishing a pattern of consumption when gobsmacked by new music.
I didn’t just listen; I devoured and digested every riff, chord, and solo. To say it was over my head and beyond my harmonic and lyrical grasp would be the essence of understatement. I was never really into jazz, but Becker and Fagen introduced me to chords beyond the triad, lyrics that were emotionally sophisticated, and melodic lines that were “outside” yet still accessible. So when I found a sheet music collection of Steely Dan songs at my local music store, I was elated to find the introduction written by Messrs. Fagen & Becker, explaining their approach to chord voicings (and truly an insight into their writing process). Here was the Rosetta Stone of how to play these songs on guitar just like the records!
So today when I heard the news about the passing of Walter Becker, I was immediately taken back to when he and his music helped crack the code of my passion. Without his immense creativity, my ears wouldn’t have been ready for future gifts from Sting, Elvis Costello, and all the other greats fearless in their art.
Much has been and will be written about Walter and his life and legacy, and I will devour and digest every word. That old cassette tape was worn out decades ago, but the music it contained is eternal and still raises my temperature and my pulse even to this sad day.
Rest In Peace, Walter…