Memories can be faulty things. With the death of Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker a few days ago, I was thinking back to the one time I saw Steely Dan in concert. It was on the 1996 tour (dubbed the “Art Crimes” tour by the band) at the USF Sundome in Tampa, FL. I could have sworn they did “Book Of Liars” from Becker’s then recent solo album 11 Tracks of Whack. Doing a bit of online research though shows that the only song they did on that tour sung by Becker was “Jack of Speed.” A song previously unreleased, not to see the light of day till 2000’s Two Against Nature Dan album.
You wouldn’t be alone if you’re searching your memory banks for “Book of Liars.” Most of the Becker obituaries and tributes I’ve read the last few days only gloss over his two solo albums, if they mention them at all. Though I remembered the wrong song, I have a clear memory of people starting to talk while “Jack of Speed” was being played, and people getting up to use the bathroom, get refreshments, etc.
This was partly due to it being an unfamiliar song, but just as much because it wasn’t Donald Fagen singing it. Two or three songs from Fagen’s solo album The Nightfly were played during that ‘96 tour, but none from 11 Tracks of Whack. Even though Fagen co-produced the Whack album and played keyboards on it. I’m probably not alone in my opinion that it’s also a stronger album than much of Dan’s 1990s and 2000s output (Everything Must Go in particular). Many in the audience probably didn’t even know who the bearded and bespectacled guy singing was.
Neither Fagen or Becker are normally considered “great singers,” but Fagen’s distinctive nasal tones are immediately identifiable as Steely Dan. Yet, originally, Fagen had no desire to be the lead vocalist and ended up being one almost by default. Which makes me wonder what would have happened if the default had fallen to Becker instead. Would Steely Dan still be revered and influential as they are?
Though the song writing and creation of Dan albums was very much a partnership between the two, the angular and idiosyncratic qualities in the music would have been much more toned down if Becker was singing the songs. Where Fagen’s voice is somewhat neurotic sounding and more high-strung and attention-grabbing, Becker’s is very laid back, very cool. Very much like his 1970s sunglasses/long hair/cigarette stoner image. A jazzy stoner, someone who looked like he rarely saw sunlight and spent all his time in the studio or in late night jazz clubs. Which wasn’t too far from the truth, probably – for both Fagen and Becker. But whereas Fagen sounds like he’s ready to jump up on stage with the late night band, Becker sounds like he’s fine just sitting in the back corner nodding his head.
It would have been a different Dan for sure with Becker on vocals. Not worse, not better, just very different. The quality of the songs and the caliber of musicianship would have been the same, but the songs would have sounded more world weary.
That 1996 Steely Dan show I saw happened to share a locale and date – July 12 – with one of the best shows I’ve ever seen when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers tore the place down in 1985 the day before they played Live Aid. Yet, the Dan show was relatively mediocre (I remember being miffed at the high price of tickets too – $40! Little did I know that that would be considered a low price in just a few years.) The only part I remember clearly is the Walter Becker song. Well, sort of…maybe they snuck “Book Of Liars” in when nobody was listening but me…