On Sunday, Walter Becker, co-founder of the band Steely Dan, died, and the world lost a great musical and lyrical talent. The songs that Becker wrote with his college friend Donald Fagen filled the sonic gap left by the Beatles in 1970. Beginning in 1972 with "Can't Buy a Thrill" and ending in 1980 with "Gaucho," Becker and Fagen catalogued the shifting craziness rattling around our country — and our minds — in those eight years.
If the Beat writers exposed a new America in the 1950s, and novels such as Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" and Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" ushered in the absurd and paranoid '60s, then Steely Dan's lyrics nailed the slick, confusing, drug-fueled dramas of the '70s.
Like true English majors in love with words, Becker and Fagen knew the value of a story with indelible characters. Their songs' socially astute portraits of various strangers, gauchos, daddies, losers, alienated curb holders and unrehabilitated returnees stay with us the way a good piece of literature does.
It's surprising, then, how little has been written about the band and its songs. If we dismiss the books full of sheet music and chord changes, not much is left, especially compared with the critical output about Dylan or the Beatles.
There are online sites about Steely Dan's lyrics such as Song Meanings and Songfacts. These sites focus on interpreting the lyrics, and, though the posted comments can devolve from serious literary discussion into a free fall, they reveal close readings of words, which is commendable. The Steely Dan Dictionary also helps out with obscure and slangy terms in the songs.
Books and articles offer something more substantial. At the top of the list is "Aja," Don Breithaupt's dissection of how this platinum album was made. Assured on musical aspects, Breithaupt rightly deals with the lyrics as literature. For example, in the song "Black Cow," Breithaupt discusses the "meticulously matched" vowel sounds of the lyrics' inside lines.
More general books include Brian Sweet's "Steely Dan: Reelin' in the Years," Bill Martin's "Avant Rock: Experimental Music from the Beatles to Bjork" and Steve O'Rourke's "The Steely Dan File."
Steely Dan has probably lured more white listeners over to jazz than any other popular band. And, happily, listening to jazz can lead to reading black authors. Greg Tate's "Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture" offers a fascinating conversation with Vernon Reid. Reid posits that "Steely Dan is the manifestation of the white Negro made rock, made jazz, made pop. They embody the subversive idea of the Below Radar Against the Wall Outsider."
In 2004, Walter Everett, famous for his musical analysis of Beatles songs, wrote "A Royal Scam: The Abstruse and Ironic Bop-Rock Harmony of Steely Dan," published in the journal Music Theory Spectrum. (Note the internal vowel rhyme in bop/rock.) Another academic, Paul Clements, discusses the band's "outside hip" and "representational ambiguity" for the journal Leisure Studies. And for an "inside hip" read, nothing beats Donald Fagen's own joyful and funny memoir "Eminent Hipsters" (2013).
Kid Charlemagne, Deacon Blues, Doctor Wu, Peg, Rikki, the bookkeeper's son, the Babylon Sisters — just a few indelible portraits Walter Becker helped create.
Great music, great words. Becker will be missed.
Sibbie O'Sullivan, a former teacher in the Honors College at the University of Maryland, has recently completed a memoir on how the Beatles have influenced her life.