The Back Page: That ’70s Show

If I was, as Jeff Tweedy sang, “raised by rock ’n’ roll,” then I have to face a pretty grim reality right about now.

The people who raised me are dying off. And I don’t mean that a random few of them have passed away. I mean that we’re in the era when any one of them could go at any time and it isn’t really surprising anymore. I mean, it was surprising when Bowie died, but it wasn’t really all that surprising when you did the math. It wasn’t Prince-level shock or, God knows, Cobain-level earthshaking.

It happened. It happens.

This is a reality that people in my age bracket (old to pretty damn old) have to face in our everyday lives. Our parents are in their 70s or early 80s and they simply aren’t going to be around that much longer. When they die, we’re going to be at the top of the hierarchical ladder, the next in line to step off into the dustbin.

This all seemed very relevant when Walter Becker died in early September. Becker seemed about as random a member of the rock generation that raised me as anyone. As half of the duo that formed and maintained Steely Dan, Becker was one of the more mysterious figures in ’70s rock music. He didn’t sing—that was his partner Donald Fagen—and he never did interviews or appeared to give a shit what anyone thought of him or the band. He just co-wrote and played on some of the more intelligent and cynical music of a pretty cynical decade.

A couple of years ago, I caught a few passing references to Steely Dan that seemed to lump the group into what was called “yacht rock” by the too-cool-for-school set that had been too young to know anything about the 1970s or its music. I guess that’s understandable enough. I mean, the face of yacht rock is probably Michael McDonald, the smooth-piped crooner on a lot of ’70s hits, most notably the Doobie Brothers’ classics. McDonald sang on the first couple of Steely Dan records, so Steely Dan literally employed the King Of Yacht Rock.

Still, to define Steely Dan by its association with McDonald (and by extension, the fucking Doobie Brothers) is to miss the point by a wide margin. It showed a fundamental ignorance of ’70s music that I couldn’t begin to correct when I heard it. Let’s put it this way: There was punk and there was the music that punk was meant as a middle finger thrown up against. The Doobie Brothers and, I don’t know, Toto and Journey were bands that were getting the middle finger from the punks.

Steely Dan? I don’t think so. Look, Steely Dan was as musically competent as any band of the era. They could play. But their attitude was another story. It was more in line with the Replacements than with anyone else I can think of. They were cynical and identified with losers in a profound way.

“They got a name for the winners in the world/I want a name when I lose/They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/Call me Deacon Blues”

No, punk rock wasn’t throwing a middle finger up at Steely Dan. And if you think Steely Dan was “yacht rock,” you just don’t know what you’re talking about.

And just to bring our pal Tweedy back into the conversation, at around the same time I heard people lumping Steely Dan with the Doobies and other “smooth” ’70s hitmakers, I first encountered the term “dad rock” to describe bands like Wilco. That more or less brings us back to the top of this column. Tweedy is also at the age where his parents—his real ones and the surrogates provided by rock ’n’ roll—are getting close to the end. That means that yes, he literally is a dad. But that doesn’t mean he is suddenly in the near-obsolescence bin with his forefathers. He still has his 50s to do with as he pleases.

I know I went ahead and got old, but that doesn’t mean that younger people get to misunderstand and misinterpret everything that happened in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. There is still a historical record—even historical records!—that we can all point to and acknowledge as definitive.

The problem is the way we lose the details on people and things as time goes by. So Michael McDonald sang on Steely Dan albums as well as some other smooth-as-shit ’70s hits. That doesn’t erase the vast gap between the Dan and those other ’70s hit-makers. It just doesn’t, even if that gap isn’t as easy to see from this end of the binoculars. It doesn’t mean Steely Dan was cut from the same bland cloth as those other bands.

Steely Dan was unique, and Walter Becker was half the driving force behind that uniqueness. The other half was Fagen, who wrote an appreciation for his partner in which he promised to keep playing their music as long as he could. Bravo for that. I would respect Fagen if he felt differently, but I like the idea of him playing those twisted songs and snarling those bitter lyrics for as long as he can.

It’s his right, and it keeps people my age just that little bit further from the edge of the abyss. That’s fine with me, and with Jeff Tweedy, too.

—Phil Sheridan