Walter Becker died yesterday, and I keep wondering why it’s hitting me so hard. The most obvious reason is that he comprised one half of my favorite songwriting team ever, but as a fan, I dealt alright with the deaths of Jason Molina, Levon Helm, and Adam Yauch — all artists who I love just as much (okay, maybe not quite) as Steely Dan.
But here I am, choking up every time I think about Becker’s humorous stage banter during the Cuervo Gold outro of “Hey Nineteen”. Here I am, having a hard time singing along to “Down in the Bottom”, the opener of his 1994 solo debut, 11 Tracks of Whack. Here I am, knowing that when we read Christine in a couple weeks for our Stephen King podcast, The Losers’ Club, it’s going to sting seeing “Deacon Blues” as the intro to one of the chapters.
The only other artist whose death has hit me this hard in recent memory is Glenn Frey, who, oddly enough, also has a song that opens a chapter of Christine. The musicians’ paths frequently crossed in real life, too, both within and outside their songs. In addition to both Steely Dan and The Eagles having Irving Azoff as a manager, each group referenced the other in their lyrics.
For The Dan, the goodhearted jab came in 1976’s “Everything You Did”, where Donald Fagen coaxes an ex-lover to “Turn up the Eagles/ The neighbors are listening.” The inspiration came from a girlfriend of Becker’s who supposedly pissed him off by playing the Eagles nonstop. The Eagles winked back a year later in “Hotel California” with the line “They stab it with their steely knives/ But they just can’t kill the beast” (“knives” was originally supposed to be “Dans”). In a final coincidence, future Eagles bassist Timothy B. Schmit contributed backing vocals to The Royal Scam, the album on which “Everything You Did” appears.
Fascinating as all of that is, it’s also esoteric rock trivia that probably only appeals to music geeks like myself. There’s actually a softer, spiritual, and more parental connection between the death of Frey and Becker that may resonate with the rest of you, if only because you’re a human being who has a father.
I’m talking about “dad rock.” It’s a term that’s becoming similar to “hipster” in that it was once used to describe something very specific, but has since become broader in definition. I’d argue that dad rock could now apply to any form of rock music that isn’t too raucous and places a high value on FM classicism. Where as I used to see people play the dad-rock card when discussing the key-party friendliness of bands like The Eagles and Steely Dan, I’ve since heard it in the same breath as Ryan Adams, Real Estate, and even Mac DeMarco.
But let’s go back it its original meaning, which more or less covers the first generation of classic rock, or, if we’re getting into sub-genres, yacht rock, soft rock, and coke rock. All of these terms have been used to describe Steely Dan, and they all sort of mean the same thing.
“Dad rock” popped up again today in The Ringer’s fantastic retrospective on Becker, and other than here on this very site, it was the first time in a while that I had heard the term not used as an insult (remember, it’s the new “hipster”). When describing Michael McDonald — Fagen’s frequent tour mate and backing vocalist on several Dan records — Rob Harvilla praises his “exquisitely stacked harmonies [that] have thrilled dad-rock scholars for decades.”
Harvilla’s focus on time and academia got me thinking about my own personal history with Steely Dan’s music. “Reelin’ in the Years” is the first rock song I remember hearing at two years old, and indeed, it was introduced to me by my dad. It wasn’t part of any kind of formal musical education — just part of a mixtape that blared from our garage in Audubon, New Jersey, while he lifted weights.
That story isn’t much of a story and it certainly isn’t unique. I just turned 33, and I expect many Americans around my age had a similar exposure to Steely Dan, The Eagles, and other bands that fall under the old-school definition of dad rock. This is music that tends to be loved by dads of a certain time and place. It’s music that, at one point, started to be made by dads of a certain time and place. And as we start to grow up, our dads might start to seem corny, as does their music. The same song that once gave you and your family endless joy on a road trip could now get you made fun of by your peers.
But then we get old enough to realize that maybe we were the ones being corny. We were the ones pretending not to like something because of what others would think. Hopefully, that swings back the other way for you. Hopefully, your journey with dad rock parallels your journey with your actual dad. Walter Becker was 67. My dad is 55, and while he’s healthier than he’s ever been, it gives you a sobering perspective.
After mulling it over the past 24 hours or so, that’s why Becker and Frey’s deaths hit me as hard as they do. Where artists like David Bowie and Prince seemed to operate on another plane — so alien and godlike in their personas and modern-day output — Becker and Frey just seemed like dads in the most dad-rock sense of the word. Yes, all four men were fathers, but the music of Steely Dan and The Eagles are what remind me of my father and my friends’ fathers. For you, maybe that’s Prince or Bowie or Adam Yauch or someone else altogether. And that’s cool, too.
Regardless of what your own personal dad rock is, the term now feels more melancholy and emotionally loaded than ever before. We love our dads. But like everyone else, dads die. And sometimes, they die way too early.