Category: Steely Dan


Covered In Folk: Steely Dan
(RIP Walter Becker, 1950-2017)

September 4th, 2017 — 9:44am





I’ve always felt rather connected to Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the core and founding membership of long-time classic rock staples and multiple Grammy winners Steely Dan. Like them, I dropped out of Bard College; like them, my tastes run vast, past the boundaries of genre, and through it, to where the intricacies of meaning shrink down to playful, tight nuance, layered complexity, and more than a little dissonant swing.

Too, though their heyday started while we were still too short to care, the band’s influence on my own generation cannot be denied. Theirs is the accidental summer soundtrack of our youth, the pop and crackle of a car radio, the windows rolled down and the sun streaming in. The sharp horns and sharper arrangements from the yard sale records that kept me up at night before I knew what to do with it all, like The Little Prince and the sharp taste of espresso. The thoughtful, innovative playlist for our long miles driving North through unknown country, equal parts soul, rock, jazz, pop, and something new: a music deliberately designed to celebrate and serve the alienated, discomforted soul.

So to honor guitarist, bassist, composer and co-arranger Becker, who passed yesterday at 67 due to an undisclosed illness and was still touring as recently as last Spring, I went looking for coverage. And more than anything, I found it hard to find.

I suppose this should be no surprise: covering Steely Dan offers no small challenge to the folkworld. We’re talking about a collaboration that produces intimidatingly complex landscapes beyond the ken of most cover artists; a name brand whose high-lexile lyrical wordplay, like that of John Ashbury (a mentor of mine at Bard, who also passed yesterday) and the rest of the New York School of poets so en vogue at Bard College during all our shortened tenures, serves as percussive instrument as much as – and sometimes more than – a carrier of sizzling, irony-laden, image-heady narrative; a band aptly described as “the most sonically sophisticated pop act of the 21st Century“, fully in control of its faculties.

Add to this the band’s tendency to name their songs simply, making them hard to search for, and the result is a lean but no less stunning tribute in postmillennial acoustic and roots transformations, ranging from Wilco‘s faithful turn on Any Major Dude to familiar jazzfolk from Rickie Lee Jones and Jemma Mammina to live bluegrass settings from Mountain Heart and The Barefoot Movement, with the ragged, grungy treacle of British throwback folkrock foursome Turin BrakesRikki Don’t Lose That Number, instrumental gypsy Jazz from New York electric violinist Joe Deninzon, deceptively crisp chamberfolk from Heartscore with Jamie Rivera, a truly amateur but no less loving solo acoustic cover from YouTuber Enormously Small, and – just for good measure – Nik Hunt, The National Pool, and Michael Rand‘s decidedly weird and entirely different deconstructions of Do It Again, Home At Last, and Reelin’ In The Years.

Somewhere, Walter Becker is explaining chords to the heavenly choir, their heads nodding in rhythm as they listen. May they sing as precisely for him as they did on his records, and in our dreams.


Any Major Dude: The Songs Of Steely Dan
A Cover Lay Down Tribute Mix
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Always ad-free and artist-friendly, Cover Lay Down celebrates its tenth year in the ether this month with grateful thanks to our donors, our readers, and the musicians that make it all happen. Stay tuned for mailbag marvels, Kickstarter previews, new covers and tribute albums, and more as September stretches out before us!

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