Walter Becker (1950-2017)

“I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.”
–Donald Fagen, in a statement

When you read up on the pop era’s most memorable songwriting teams (Leiber-Stoller, Bacharach-David, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Goffin-King, John-Taupin), it usually emerges that each member was generally responsible for a particular element of the song. One guy does the music, the other the lyrics, maybe they both help arrange the song, but the division of labor is clear. Even Lennon and McCartney had moved away from their “eyeball to eyeball” writing sessions by the end, their shared credit just a gentlemen’s agreement.

The long and innovative collaboration of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen — whose music under the Steely Dan moniker is every bit the equal of those other songwriting teams — was, by all accounts, a genuine and inextricable partnership. It’s not possible to delineate with any assurance who contributed what to each song. Their mutual appreciation of jazz and of sci-fi/beat literature meant they were already in sync, musically and lyrically, when they started to write songs together on demand as Brill Building-type songwriters, and it continued when they created out of thin air a sound that to this day carries an aura and mystique that is unmistakably theirs.

Of course, each member brought his own sensibility to bear. Despite Fagen’s arranging genius (and I believe he is one), without Becker, Steely Dan would have been exactly what its critics always thought they were: antiseptic, vacuum-sealed, and bloodless. Becker brought the edge to Steely Dan (hard-earned, it turned out), an attitude that all the yacht rock successors who superficially imitated their sound could never match (I’m looking at you, Toto).

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What It Takes (1992), by Richard Ben Cramer

Is there such a thing as being too definitive?

The late Richard Ben Cramer’s titanic deep dive into the 1987-88 presidential primary season is rightly regarded as the last word on the crazy-making rigors of electoral politics in this country. Hard to argue: books like Game Change, which purport to tell us what the candidates are really thinking, are but superficial imitators to the throne in comparison.

 

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The level of commitment from Cramer here is awe-inspiring, likely rivaled only by Robert A. Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson in the category of total immersion. But at least Caro has been writing for nearly 40 years about one man; Cramer somehow managed to follow six different campaigns around in real time over a two-year stretch, apparently leaving no stone unturned and unpacking each candidate’s life story in indelible detail (at great cost to his own health, it turns out).
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A New Project: The Stories of John Cheever

I have finished reading the next book in the Time Magazine project, Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net, and will post some thoughts about it very shortly as the series chugs along at its deliberate pace. It is always my intention to speed things up, lest I devote another 10 years to completing what seemed at the beginning like a perfectly modest challenge, but other commitments always rear their heads.

One of those commitments is what should prove to be a stimulating, enriching new series of posts over at Trevor Berrett’s wonderful lit-blog The Mookse and the Gripes. Trevor was once a patron at my public library, and I have continued to keep his website bookmarked in the years since. It is therefore a real pleasure that I’ll be writing about John Cheever’s collected stories over the next few months on his blog. Please check them out and join the discussion!

I don’t plan on writing about all 61 stories, so I will periodically add the titles I’ve chosen to discuss here.

The Breaks of the Game (1981), by David Halberstam

It’s easy to see why this book is so highly regarded by so many people “in the know”; it feels like a model of the form, often duplicated but rarely as successful. It’s now SOP for a championship-winning team to have a book or two published about it by beat writers of the team’s local papers, but somehow those always seem like disappointments, ephemeral and utterly forgettable. Perhaps you need someone who is not associated with the game to get a true perspective, to give the game its proper scope in the social fabric. That’s where David Halberstam, reporter par excellence, comes in.

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A breakdown

Before I launch into the Time 100 list, I thought I’d take a closer look and see what can be gleamed from it.

The first thing is that it’s actually more than 100 books. A Dance to the Music of Time is a 12-book cycle, Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories is two novels assembled in one volume, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is, obviously, three books. I would presume the list’s creators intend for completists to read each and every one of those added books (thanks, guys!).

Beyond that:

  • 80 were written by men, 20 by women (which is still more equitable than the Modern Library’s infamous 92/8 split)
  • 9 authors appear twice (Bellow, Faulkner, Greene, Nabokov, Orwell, Pynchon, P. Roth, Waugh, Woolf)
  • A breakdown of the books selected by decade: 1920s (10); 1930s (15); 1940s (12); 1950s (15); 1960s (21); 1970s (7); 1980s (9); 1990s (3); 2000s (5).  Isherwood’s two novels came out in the 1930s; Tolkien’s trilogy was published in the ’50s. Anthony Powell’s 12 books are spread out over 25 years, from 1951 to 1975.

Looks like the distribution is fairly even until we get to the ’60s, when it spikes with 21, before plummeting and then flatlining for the rest of the century.  What happened there?  Maybe the list’s creators felt we weren’t sufficiently far enough away from the last 30 years to assess what books would endure.  (This is still an improvement of the Modern Library 100, which included as its most recent title 1981’s Midnight’s Children.)

I had wanted to break the list down to publication locations (how many American authors, British, Australian, etc.), but I couldn’t find a source that tallied them up.  As I work through the list, I’ll keep track myself.

Anyway, enough analysis.  Time to get down to business.

Next entry, hopefully written this week, will be about the first book tackled from the list, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.