Friday, June 28, 2013

The Other Guy: Walter Becker

Steely Dan: Slang of Ages

Steely Dan: Slang of Ages (live)


Steely Dan got their start forty years ago, but they only qualified for this week’s theme with their last studio release, 2003’s Everything Must Go. Until then, Donald Fagen always handled all of the lead vocals. One thing that becomes clear from listening to Fagen’s solo work is that, with Steely Dan, he is usually singing the words of Walter Becker. Becker has a cynicism and a sense of irony that are missing when Fagen writes for himself.

One stock character in Becker‘s writing is the sexual predator. You find him, in various forms, in Everyone‘s Gone to the Movies and Cousin Dupree, just to name two. Slang of Ages features him in a less threatening form. Here, he is a down-on-his-luck would-be Lothario, trying to pick up a woman in a bar. This character is not Becker, but rather someone he wants us to see and understand. We don‘t have to like him, and we are even allowed to laugh at his misadventures. But the laugh must be a nervous one, because the character shows us urges we try to deny in ourselves. The way the song is written, it is even possible that the entire encounter takes place only in the narrator‘s mind. In the end though, it does not matter if it is real or not; we have still seen what Becker wanted to show us.

Becker speak/sings his way through most of the lyric here. He can carry a tune when he needs to, but this delivery suits the character. Nevertheless, based on the evidence of this performance, Donald Fagen is certainly the more expressive singer. There is no sign that Steely Dan has any intention of doing any further albums, although they continue to tour. It may be that they decided that Becker should take this vocal because it would be his last chance to do so in the studio with Steely Dan.

I found a nice fan-made slide show for this song. As a bonus, I have also included a live version, also from 2003. The live video should have cut off thirty seconds before it does, however; the song that Donald Fagen begins to introduce at the end, if you’re wondering, is Peg.

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