Friday, January 5, 2018

In Memoriam: Walter Becker

Steely Dan: Don’t Take Me Alive


By most reckonings, Walter Becker was one half of Steely Dan. The other half was Donald Fagen. I have written before how I consider Steely Dan at its peak to have been a trio, adding producer Gary Katz. However, it is Walter Becker whom we lost in 2017, at age 67. Donald Fagen is probably the man most people would think of when discussing Steely Dan. Fagen was the lead singer, so that made it his band in the minds of some. But you have only to compare the Steely Dan album The Royal Scam with Fagen’s solo album The Nightfly to understand Walter Becker’s importance. Both albums feature Fagen’s writing and Katz as producer. Both feature the shimmering pop-jazz surfaces that Steely Dan became known for. But, on his own, Fagen creates a set of songs that is sweetly nostalgic, although laced with sly irony at times. Don’t get me wrong, The Nightfly is a great album. But The Royal Scam has a bite that The Nightfly is missing. You can hear it in the razor sharp guitar solo Becker played on Don’t Take Me Alive, but this is also a lyric that Fagen would never have written. Becker gives us the story of a desperate man. A crowd urges, “Mad dog, surrender,” but it is the mad dog’s point of view that interested Becker. Becker gives us this man’s story, and makes him a human being without making him any less fearsome. It is this quality of desperation that interests Becker. You find it in the story arc of Kid Charlemagne, and from a woman’s point of view in Haitian Divorce. Even on the album Aja, in the song Josie, which seems to be more a Fagen kind of character portrait, the title character is “a raw flame, a live wire…”, descriptions that come from Becker’s need to work out his personal demons.

It was those personal demons that eventually broke up Steely Dan. Becker would descend into the depths of drug addiction, and he became unable to devote himself to the meticulous process of shaping the music that had also become a hallmark of Steely Dan. It would be thirteen years before Becker and Fagen would work together again, and twenty years before Steely Dan released a new studio album. There were musical high points in this later Steely Dan output, and in Becker’s solo albums, but they would never again capture the spark that made the classic run of Steely Dan so great. In part, this was because Becker had finally put some of his demons to rest. I am glad he lived long enough to experience a happy marriage. I am glad that he and Fagen were able to renew both their friendship and their musical partnership. But it the music of those tortured years that Becker will be best remembered for.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Top Posts of 2017


We interrupt the In Memoriam theme for our third annual listing of the most viewed posts of the prior year.

Through our (usually) two-week long themes, our international roster of writers address many different kinds of music, and bring different perspectives to their pieces. In our top 10, there are personal memories, political and social discussions, covers, remembrances of those who have passed, both famous and personally important, and even just posts about songs, music and musicians, both famous and obscure. This list includes discussions of folk, rock, prog, power pop and other genres.

So, in case you missed them, here are the most viewed posts from the last calendar year. But they are only a small sampling of what you will find in our archives, which we invite you to explore.  Also, we invite you to like us on Facebook, so that you won't miss anything.

This year, one piece, from the Middle theme, about Cody Jinks, was by far, the most viewed of 2017.  Here are the top 10:

1. Middle-Cody Jinks, Somewhere In The Middle
2. True Stories-The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
3. On/Off-2 From Creedence Clearwater Revival
4. Pour-Coffee and Tea Edition
5. In Memoriam-Martin Stone
6. In Memoriam-Some Overshadowed 2016 Losses
7. Change-David Bowie's Changes
8. Change-The World Has Changed
9. In Memoriam--Black (Colin Vearncombe)
10. In Memoriam--Dan Hicks

Because so many of the most viewed posts are from early in the year, which makes sense, since they were on the site, available to view, for the longest, below are the top posts for each of our themes not represented in the total top 10:

Frozen-A Burning Snowman/The Sadies
Small Towns-Boy (Bronski Beat) & Girl (Tracey Thorn)
Prison-Alan Lomax, Prison Recordings, circa 1947-1948
Steel-Alison Steele-Night Bird Flying
70s Motown--I Want You Back
Movies About Musicians-Old Joe's Place
Gold-Heart of Gold
Large Numbers-Bill Million
Hard-Clearwater's Great Hudson River Revival
Right-Red Right Hand
Two Words-Somewhere Rocks
Chaos/Confusion-Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll & Chaos
Shadows--Shadow of a Doubt (Complex Kid)
Incompetent/Can't-Mayor of Simpleton
Down-Burning Down
Listen-Are You Out There?
Train-Somewhere Down The Crazy River
All the Fixings-Pecan Pie
Leftovers-Two Words/Perfect Way/Scritti Politti
The End-Both Ends Burning
Seasons-Must Be Santa

And look forward to more great music and writing in 2018!!


I actually chanced upon the music of the grizzled and younger member of the eponymous brothers band via his solo work, which may be the exception proving the rule. It was about 1974, maybe 3, and I was "out of bounds", visiting a newly opened record shop in Eastbourne, a town on the south coast of England, where I had been sent away to school. It was just over the borderline of Terminus Road, whereby I would be gated (aka grounded) if caught there by a prefect or a teacher. It had been commended to me by my study-mate Nige, a 15 year old with a ridiculously large and precocious record collection, usually involving gritty singers like Van Morrison, Joe Cocker and Captain Beefheart. He had a copy of 'Laid Back', by Allman, and had been ramming it into my ears on rotation. I liked and he told me where to buy it. I was entranced by the maudlin, hoarse drawl, ever a moment just behind the beat, and drenched in a spicy southern stew of country, soul and blues. I was not caught that day and bought a copy I still own, unplayable from day 1 due to some pressing error. I never had the opportunity to again to sneak out and get it changed, so had to rely on playing Nige's copy to death. My entry, probably, to much of the music of the southern states, as I was soon gorging on he and his brothers, blood and otherwise, at the Fillmore East, as well as all the other vivid colours coming up out of the Capricorn label, with which I became swiftly acquainted. Hell, if the South was going to rise again, did Eastbourne count?

It was easy to be drawn into the fantasy. Short haired adolescent schoolboys in uniforms will always be drawn into outlaw vibes, and I was no different. Gregg Allman was one step better than the rest as he played the organ: my earlier musical infatuation was with E.L.P., so I was still more comfortable, then at least, with a keyboard than a fretboard. (And I say the brief solo in Stormy Monday remains one of the most consummate few bars in my heart, at about 5.12.)

I never knew much of his backstory, relying on the inkies and upon record sleeves for my information. I thus followed the tragic death of his brother and of other band member Berry Oakley with interest, if, truth, preferring the more melodic direction led by Dickey Betts, centred upon his chiming guitar and the rippling piano of Chuck Leavell. Indeed, Allman seemed increasingly sidelined, renowned more for marriages and for snitching on his dealer, in the music press of the day a despicable deed. I lost interest and the decades went by.

Fast forward into this century and, whilst the Allman Brothers Band were still on the road, give or take a break or two, they were making little impact on my musical tastes of the moment. That is until I foolishly decided I might like the Grateful Dead and to investigate their oeuvre. Part of this involved looking at whatever other near apocryphal forever bands were up to. Like Govt. Mule. And, via Warren Haynes, guitarist thereof and also of the post Grateful and post Jerry band, the Dead, listening to a couple of his solo efforts, I got drawn back to his other other band, the Allmans. It was as if I had never been away, the sound an amalgam of my memories and my fantasies. Then two years or so ago, which I now discover was 2011, Allman brought out one of the comeback albums of the age, 'Low Country Blues', a mere 16 years after his last solo recording. (OK, strictly speaking, he hadn't been away, even if the stories similarly suggested he hadn't been all here either. A liver transplant had been involved.)

'Low Country Blues' caught my imagination, sonically and symbolically, the old ranch hand coming again good with the album of his life, looking and sounding fit, raring to go, with a fresh complexion belying his years. This time, rather than awaiting his 3rd wind, I went back and researched out his intervening years, yes, even the Cher ones. Suddenly he was, in my eyes, a colossus and unimpeachable until came the news. At 69 his liver cancer was back, a complication of Hepatitis C unappreciated at the time of initial surgery, and he died in May, with the last hurrah provided by his final record, the posthumous 'Southern States', another cracker, following 4 months later. What better legacy? Listen to the words.

Or his own words, when asked about what may lie next:
"Music is my life's blood. I love music, I love to play good music, and I love to play music for people who appreciate it. And when it's all said and done, I'll go to my grave and my brother will greet me, saying, "Nice work, little brother—you did all right." I must have said this a million times, but if I died today, I have had me a blast."

Dig in here!!

Monday, January 1, 2018

In Memoriam: Larry Coryell

purchase [Eleventh House Level One]

passed away Feb 19, 2017
Andy LaRayGun may not have known his was to be the last post of the 2017 <season>, but it ended up being a nice transition to the new theme. He's so right - so many musicians now gone, but their music goes on. That's the cool thing about recording music - it hangs on after they've hung it up.

I "turned on" to Larry Coryell back about '73. At about that time, I was listening to Mahavishnu John and a fair amount of most anything that came out of the ECM label. Within a short time, I had added Steely Dan. At one point, I must have had about half a dozen Coryell 33 albums -the man managed to put out nigh on 100 in his life-time!

Back in about '76, when I was spinning 33's at WQFS,  Coryell was in my regular playlist: I was bridging the line between more pop-jazz oriented music like Steely Dan (someone else may take on Walter Becker, RIP 2017) and musicians like Coryell and Mahavishnu John, who were [at that time] skirting the edges of popularity. Sad to say that we lost 2 of them in 2017: Walter Becker of Steely Dan and Larry "Maestro" Coryell.

Now... Steely Dan appears to be in a different couloir - ECM, John McLaughlin and Coryell are pretty solidly Jazz. Steely Dan ends up more frequently in the pop charts. However, for my likings, Steely Dan  [lightly] pushed the I-IV-V format far enough to the jazz edge to also turn me on. 

Coryell, however, was on the fringes of what most people would listen to - known, but outre. Harmonic but vaguely dissonant. Jazz but then again with a scent of pop - if you made it that far.
There's a lot to Coryell's oeuvre: myself, it was the Eleventh House collection that meant the most, but that's highly subjective - most anything he did is full of class.