Tuesday’s Tune: Reelin’ in the Years

I’d like to introduce my first ever – guest blogger – Chris White. I’ve known Chris for a over forty years, he was my backdoor neighbor growing up and the leader of all things fun in the neighborhood. There were a lot of boys our age in the neighborhood growing up and only a couple of girls in our age bracket. Chris was a few years older than me, but I never felt that way – we played tackle football in the side yard,  baseball in the vacant lot, and when I got older, he became my boss at Tempo Records and Tapes.  I moved away from Texas in ’87 and he moved, too. We lost touch, but I never forgot growing up in the neighborhood. We got back in touch a few years ago on Facebook and we’ve messaged back and forth a several times catching up. His whimsical sense of humor was inspiration and I vividly remember many of the laughs we shared, many of which are not fit to print. Despite our moves, both of us still root for Houston sports teams. Which, if you know the history of most of Houston’s sports teams, is funny. Very funny.

I let Chris tell you the rest of the story…… 

I first discovered musical idols the day my older sister brought home “Meet the Beatles.” Not yet ready myself to idolize anyone not wearing a cape and tights, I watched fascinated as my sister melted into a puddle while the moptops went about changing popular music forever.

Flash forward a few years, leaping over a Herman’s Hermits infatuation that’s better left unexamined, to my freshman year in high school, when I first discovered that athletic skill wasn’t necessarily a prerequisite for attracting the opposite sex. I began to gravitate toward those girls who’d never heard of Johnny Bench but who could have described Led Zep’s Robert Plant in sufficient detail to satisfy a police sketch artist. It was around that time I discovered the first musical idol I could latch onto and call my own: Keith Emerson, the genius behind Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Keith was a giant of progressive rock, a colossus among multi-keyboardists — it was decades later that I learned he was (and still is, presumably) all of 5’4”. Regardless, Keith seemed larger than life at the time.

Since my family owned a Hammond organ, I began to teach myself how to play, taking baby steps at first. Wrangling a couple of friends who shared a remarkably similar complete lack of musical talent, I formed a band. Or more accurately, a “band.” Clay, the proprietor of this blog (thanks for the guest spot, Clay!), whose boyhood home was right behind my own house at the time, can attest to the fact that no amount of volume can make up for a dearth of musical skill. The amazing thing about lack of ability, though, is that it’s often accompanied by a simultaneous lack of awareness. Not realizing how bad we were, my bandmates and I continued hacking away on our respective instruments until a miracle occurred. Lo and behold, we gradually became mediocre. Eventually we progressed through “adequate” and “not terrible” and by the time we were seniors in high school, ended up somewhere around “pretty damned good,” complete with a record (recorded in an actual honest-to-God music studio) that got a few spins on KLOL, the dominant FM rock station in Houston at the time.

Chris White on flaming guitar with Rex meredith on vocals and Curtis Peet on guitar

It was on a road trip in 1976 to play a spring break gig in Corpus Christi that I was introduced to the musical idols who would keep all others at bay for the next forty years. One of my bandmates brought along a supposedly high-fidelity 8-track tape of Steely Dan’s “The Royal Scam” album, which we listened to over and over and over in my dad’s Olds Delta 88. By the time I was back in Houston a few days later, the trajectory of my life had been irreversibly altered. No longer would I be quite as satisfied with the bombast glam of Queen or the overwrought noodlings of Kansas. I had discovered complex chord changes, jazz harmonies, guitar solos wicked enough to send the swiftest-fingered rockers back to the practice room, all set to rock songs with lyrics that were literate without being pretentious. A shimmering, gorgeous surface hid the musical complexity underneath, and the lyrics only gave the faintest of brush strokes to the sordid tales they painted, forcing the listener to fill in the details using his own imagination. That some people didn’t “get” Steely Dan, taking them as a light-rock band with glossy songs, only made it that much better. I was in that select group who understood how deep their music actually was. Genesis? Yes? Rush? Don’t get me started with those prog-rock posers, Steely Dan were real musicians playing music that was challenging in a way nothing else I’d ever heard on rock radio was.

977 - Chris on keyboard and ?
1977 – Chris on keyboard and Curtis Peet wailing away!

Sure, I knew of the band, but was only familiar with their relatively few hits, “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Do It Again” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” All fine tunes, mind you, but this “Royal Scam” album was light years ahead of that. As I learned more about my new idols, I discovered that they weren’t actually a band any longer. Over the course of their first four or five albums, they’d continually booted people from the lineup until there were only three or four left. Then Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the two demented songwriters who founded the band, decided to stop touring and focus on writing and recording. At that point, Steely Dan became a duo with a rotating cast of studio hotshots who were called in to record an astounding number of takes in so many configurations and permutations that keeping track of it all must have been a full-time job in and of itself.

aja_coverThen in 1977 came “Aja,” a masterpiece of pop/rock/jazz that has never been equalled, and in fact, barely even approached. “Aja” was exquisite — but also served as a punch in the face that made me acknowledge that no matter how hard I tried and how many hours I invested in learning to play and write music, I could never be that brilliant. I was already 21 and had wasted far too many hours doing the kinds of things that non-geniuses do with their time. I was also disheartened that I would never see my non-touring heroes live in concert, so you can imagine my ecstasy when I learned the band was putting together a tour in support of “Aja.” Two months later, word filtered out that the boys had scuttled the plan, unhappy with the substandard sound of live performances compared to their pristine, immaculate recordings.

As for the duo behind the music, Becker and Fagen were no ordinary rockers. They rarely did interviews, and when they did, the result was usually a series of sarcastic, smartass quips that did precious little to shine a light on their private lives or their songwriting method. There were maybe a dozen pictures of them to be found anywhere. The two were practically hermits, letting their astounding music speak for itself at a time where rock stars seemed to all be all competing for the spotlight.

That's them - Walter Becker and Donald Fagen - Steely Dan
That’s them – Walter Becker and Donald Fagen – Steely Dan

By this time I’d graduated to playing with some actual degree of hard-won skill, and the bands I was in reflected that advancement. In my twenties, I was managing to earn a living (sort of) playing music in and around Houston. Life was good, and Steely Dan provided a soundtrack to that life.

In 1980 they released another album, “Gaucho,” this one nearly too perfect. Not a note out of place, as perfectly arranged as songs could hope to be. Some critics derided the album as sterile, and there may be some truth to that, but the songs and performances were glorious. Still no tour, though.

Shortly after that, a bomb was dropped, out of the blue: Donald and Walter had amiably parted company, deciding not to work together anymore. What was this nonsense? I needed that music! A Donald Fagen solo album, the sublime “The Nightfly,” surfaced a few years later as a balm for my aching musical soul. Then nothing at all, save for a couple of subpar movie-soundtrack songs.

The years passed. I stopped playing music and began programming computers for a living, driven by a burning desire to not be broke all the time. I moved from Houston to Los Angeles, still lugging my keyboards and home studio with me, but spending less and less time actually using them. A full decade whizzed by before Donald Fagen released his second solo album, and it was like manna from heaven. Right on the heels of that came news that Donald and Walter had done a few small club jams together in New York City and had decided to throw caution to the wind, hire a band and hit the road. Just like that, Steely Dan was reborn and I found myself at the Greek Theater in Hollywood on a cool September night in 1993, seeing my heroes play before my very eyes. They were utterly spectacular. Words fail to convey what I witnessed that night, and I can say without exaggeration that it may be the closest I’ve ever come to understanding what religious people feel in church.

And that’s when it all began to go south.

My relationship with my idols dissolved slowly, as relationships usually do. Things unravel bit by bit, piece by piece, until one day you find yourself holding up a threadbare piece of cloth where once was a beautiful, one-of-a-kind garment. Steely Dan continued to tour every few years and I enthusiastically continued to catch their shows whenever they did. Never less than amazing, they were somehow never as good as that first one had been. They released an album in 2000 — after a 20-year drought — that won a bunch of Grammys, thrusting them into the spotlight that these now middle-aged men had avoided for years. By then, though, they’d softened and were less cantankerous. They began doing interviews, only occasionally throwing barbs at the unwitting journalists sitting across from them, but also giving actual answers. Another album followed quickly, then a couple of solo albums, and by the mid-2000s tours were now a yearly occurrence, as dependable as summer.

Steely Dan on tour - 2013
Steely Dan on tour – 2013

The set lists for those live shows began to follow a familiar pattern: a dozen of their most well-known songs were played at every single show, and one or two deeper cuts were rotated from show to show and tour to tour. The last few songs of the set remained the same every time out, and the encores were similarly stagnant. To be honest, the musicians were some of the best around and they played out of their minds on some incredibly difficult material, but I soon began to feel I’d seen it all before. Even the banter with the audience slowly became a little too Vegas-y for my taste.

The last time I saw the band was in Seattle in 2013, and I was horrified. Steely Dan concerts had become a gathering of suburban parents not unlike a Promise Keepers rally. The band that I once idolized for taking huge risks and blazing a path nobody else had even attempted was now more like a glorified lounge act — albeit a lounge act that could still kick every other lounge act’s ass, musically speaking. The two men who were at one point the coolest people on the entire planet had morphed into a couple of aging summer-fair musicians basking in a spotlight they’d somehow come to enjoy, perhaps even require. Though their new recordings are still surprisingly high-quality in an age where that’s in short supply, this new happier, crowd-pleasing touring version of Steely Dan depresses me.

Donald Fagen’s recently published road diary, “Eminent Hipsters,” only served to cement that feeling that, in his own words from the song  “Pretzel Logic,” “those days are gone forever, over a long time ago.” Current day Donald spends an awful lot of time whining and complaining. Sure, it’s bitingly sarcastic and funny, but in his old age my idol has become way too much like ME for my taste. Idols are supposed to be the us we can’t possibly be, not the us we’re not far from.

Over the years I carried my musical equipment from Houston to LA to San Diego to New York City to LA again to Cleveland to LA (yes, for a third time) and finally to Seattle. I’ve sold off things along the way and pared down my setup to where it’s now a single piano and a couple of guitars. I’ve also picked up and set down more musical idols along the way, though none inhabited my very soul the same way Becker and Fagen once did.

Hope I die before I get old? No, Mr. Townshend, I’m quite happy to be alive. Unfortunately, my idols kind of bit the dust at some point.

8 thoughts on “Tuesday’s Tune: Reelin’ in the Years

    1. Chris was out of high school when I was a freshman – he was sort of a ‘hero’ or the big brother, I never had in the neighborhood. I remember going to dance and seeing them play – I never saw the flaming guitar, but I heard about it. I’ve been listening to a lot of Steely Dan lately, especially “Gaucho.” Have a great day and enjoy the weekend.

  1. Interesting how your musical journey paralled theirs. Makes me wonder what might have happened if you’d continued on in music instead of switching to the computer world. Perhaps you would have been idol to some garage band too?
    BTW I think it’s really cool you and Clay reconnected!

    1. Thanks Denise for stopping by Chris is closer to you (geographically) than me. I love reading his stories on FB and I loved this story. I busted out my vinyl and have been listening to Steely Dan since. Have a great week.

      1. 🙂 a trip down memory lane! My hubby grew up skiing at Snoqualmie Pass east of Seattle. When he was in high school a then-unknown band used to play in the ski lodge. Imagine his surprise when the Doobie Brothers hit the big time 🙂

    2. Denise, I’ve been through more incarnations than I can count, having left computer programming years ago and moving on to more creative endeavors. After all these years, though, one thing I have no doubt about are my limitations as a musician. 🙂

      That being said, a few years ago I received a friend request on Facebook from someone I’d never met. He said he’d heard my band play at a local school when he was in 7th grade and that we had inspired him to practice the drums more so that he could one day be in a band. Turns out he did just that, performing in a handful of well respected local bands, including a couple that I saw play (completely unaware that my old band had lit that spark). He also gave up music to pursue other interests, but not until he’d played professionally for 25 years.

      So as it turns out, you don’t have to be famous to make a lasting impact on someone else’s life. Teachers like Clay can certainly attest to that.

  2. This post took me way back to the last years of high school – I remember jamming to 8-track tapes with Aja in my VW bug on the way home from Surfside. I do remember when Gaucho came out – I have both on vinyl. Great tunes. Great inspiration.

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