The King Of The World (As Far As I Know)

I came to love and appreciate Steely Dan over the course of my twenties. I did not enjoy them while I was growing up in New Jersey. I lacked the wisdom and experience required to truly absorb their music. I was like Jonathan Richman when asked to cover a Steely Dan song for the awful Me Myself & Irene soundtrack; I never could figure out what them fellas was singin’ about.

As I grew older, Steely Dan lyrics became clearer. The words were honest poetry, sometimes inscrutable, each syllable chosen for its sound and rhythm as well as its meaning. The music was simply too complex for me to grok as a teenage punk. I had to experience the proper amount of loss, beauty and hardship before I really “got” it.

I didn’t know what a “squonk” was, but I knew that somehow, the most incredible song ever written and performed used to play on the radio. You could hear this masterpiece for free.

I actually had the temerity to make fun of this in high school. This gleaming jewel of a pop/rock song. There is no earthly comparison.

That’s Donald Fagen on vocals and keyboards; you have the choice of him or the horn section, if you need to set your watch. You’ve never heard horn stabs like this elsewhere; no one has. Denny Dias and Skunk Baxter go head-to-head on electric guitar, with godly tone and timing. The vocal chorus is absolute ecstasy. Jim Hodder beats the drums with a jubilant marching beat.

Walter Becker is playing bass. Listen close, before and during the bridge. He’s the circulatory system of the song, effortlessly plucking counterpoint melodies and accompaniment. You might not have even noticed he was there until I pointed him out.

Listen to how crucial Becker is to the following track, which came from the Dan’s debut album and is the equal of “My Old School”. You know this one for certain.

That song is as old as I am. Fagen, Becker and company were laying down these grooves when I was being birthed. This music has accompanied me for my entire life.

How much importance can a bass player have? The utmost, if we’re talking about Walter Becker. Listen to his interplay with Fagen and Dias on this stellar opener from 1976’s The Royal Scam. 

I’ve played each classic Steely Dan album hundreds and hundreds of times. I was introduced to The Royal Scam by my friend George, with a cassette he’d copied from the elpee. The sound quality was not great, and we thought Fagen sang “you were Italian in their eyes” (it’s “champion”), but we played it over and over. Then in the late 90s, the whole Dan catalog was re-released, and we were astonished at the increase in quality. I’d never heard the album on CD before. A buddy played a 24K gold CD of Aja for me back in high school, and I learned then what this band could do in a studio.

I deliberately developed a strong emotional connection to Steely Dan, over the course of fifteen years. The music continues to reveal new knowledge to me, to this day. Fagen and Becker are philosopher kings in my mind, creators of aural divinity. When I used to play keyboard in my band, I idolized and identified with Donald. When I switched to bass guitar, I saw myself as Walter.

What’s the most beautiful song you’ve ever heard? It’s this, right? I bet it is.

That is a loving caress, performed by terpsichorean deities. There is no way to create something that gorgeous unless you truly love what you do. Fagen was the voice, Becker the heartbeat. It’s what people used to call “kismet”.

Kismet, and unrequited love. Unrequited love is that which you give and do not receive love in return. Steely Dan poured love into every song, even through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Today, they’re considered “niche”; an ambitious and profitable jazz-rock fusion combo. Maybe a bit dated, like girls who roller-skate. Kubrick’s Lolita. A bygone moment perfectly preserved in amber, from happier, better days.

I saw Becker and Fagen perform this song live around ten years ago. That concert is one of the high points of my existence on this planet. The voices were a little different, but the music was as gleaming as ever. I figured the people that created it would always be around. It was clear that they were superhuman.

Walter Becker was so much more than a man. He was, despite any shortcomings, the perfect bass player. He and his partner Donald Fagen brought out the very best in each other; the evidence is the recordings they made as a team. Don’t get me wrong, I love Fagen’s “Nightfly” material, but as amazing as it is, there’s just one thing missing.


If you come around
No more pain and no regrets
Watch the sun go brown
Smoking cobalt cigarettes
There’s no need to hide
Taking things the easy way
If I stay inside
I might live til Saturday

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