Don’t Take Me Alive: Walter Becker (1950-2017)

Walter Becker (1950-2017) as he will always look in my mind.

The great, sardonic, nimble-fingered, sarcastic, funny, clever, talented, weird and wise Walter Becker of Steely Dan has died, according to his official website.

Steely Dan were an iconic part of my life-long musical adventures, and I’ve probably listened to Walter play bass or guitar more than I’ve heard just about anybody else bend strings, ever.  A devastating loss to the world of music, and to my own musical world. I’m listening to what I consider to be the Dan’s magnum opus, Aja, as I type. It is timeless and sublime — but everything these guys ever put to vinyl or plastic is worthwhile and fine, so play ’em if you got ’em, and get ’em if you don’t.

Especially if you’re one of those types who use “Steely Dan” as shorthand for the types of music that the post-punk hipoisie should eschew. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were cooler before lunchtime every day than you will ever be, and they were doing it long before you even cared about being cool. And they made music that will be listened to decades, if not centuries from now. And I loved it all very much.

Back in the late ’90s, a Dan-loving friend (also RIP, alas) and I developed an interactive website called “WWDWD: What Would Don and Walt Do?” While it is no longer online, except as a broken version on the Wayback Machine, the site’s core idea riffed on the fact that the wisdom of Steely Dan was so sublime that one could get all of life’s answers from it. WWDWD devotees could visit the site, submit an inquiry, and receive a series of answers culled from Becker and Fagen’s lyrics, Magic Eight Ball, or Oblique Strategies, style. As noted, the website itself is broken and lost, but I do have the original text behind it, and I share it here with you as the best possible eulogy I can leave for a dude who made me look at music and life differently, and better, than I would have without him.




At a time when values education is a burning topic in school debate — even as math, science, English and (most especially) music are neglected, and in an era when corruption and lies are so widespread that the evening news itself has become mundane in its tawdriness, and as our young people are tempted daily by the shocking moral relativism and poor quality control of the entertainment industry . . . where can we all turn for answers?

In these increasingly complicated times, the answer can become increasingly simple for you . . . if you just remember five small letters, and the important message behind them: WWDWD!

These letters can have an immediate impact on those who ask the question behind them: “What Would Don and Walt Do?”


A lifestyle based on the answers gleaned from that one small question is a lifestyle well and truly enhanced. And if everyone lived that WWDWD lifestyle, then the core values underpinning the moral fabric of our society –integrity, generosity, fairness, truth, respect– would be strengthened and reinforced.

WWDWD boils life’s many complicated situations down to their clearest essence by contemplating what Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker would do if they found themselves in our own shoes, right here, right now.

And for over thirty years, Don and Walt have provided generous guidance and wise counsel, through their wonderful songs, albums and tours with Steely Dan. The Bards of Bard College have tapped that sweet, soulful and uplifting spot up on the hill where Bodhisatva meets the Brill Building, where Eastern mysticism lives here at the Western World, where “FM” gets AM airplay and where everyone plays a good clean game. You need a name for the winners in the world? How about trying “Don and Walt.”

A reflective, respectful WWDWD lifestyle stands in direct contrast to the “just do it” mentality of today’s advertisers, who encourage young people to embrace the mediocre and tear down boundaries between the good and the bad, justifying lowest-common-denominator passions and cheap-and-easy pleasures with situational ethics framed as freedom of choice.

Not so for those who live their lives in accordance with WWDWD! Because Don and Walt Have Always Been Smart and Cool!

By asking “What Would Don and Walt Do?” we invite ourselves to move into a new realm of understanding, one where the material world and its component elements are ordered, rational, professional, and of sparkling high quality, at all times. And by sharing the WWDWD message with others, we do our part to move the world ever closer to a thrilling and unprecedented revolution of taste, style, grace and dignity.

Revolution is ultimately all about emotional and intellectual change. True revolution always begins with a demand for a shift in belief systems, and with challenges to the pre-chewed ideas of the prevailing culture. Revolutions gain critical mass when the few early believers begin sharing their ideas with others. The movement grows and lives are touched. This is how the world changes. And this is our mission here at WWDWD World Headquarters.

We’re glad you’ve found us. We hope you’ll help us spread the good words and the wise deeds, just by asking yourself one simple question when confronted with all of life’s daily decisions . . . WHAT WOULD DON AND WALT DO?

Need words of wisdom right now from Don and Walt?

Then find a safe place, meditate on your problem, ask “What Would Don and Walt Do?” and click here for help . . .

[And here are the lists of Steely Dan lyrical quotes that would be returned to guide you, one at a time, queued up randomly, so you could just keep hitting refresh for more wisdom as long as you wanted . . .]

  • Act natural like you don’t care.
  • All I ask of you is make my wildest dreams come true.
  • Be glad if you can use what you borrow.
  • Be part of the brotherhood.
  • Be very very quiet.
  • Break away, just when it seems so clear that it’s over now.
  • Bring back the Boston Rag. Tell all your buddies that it ain’t no drag.
  • Bring your horn along and you can add to the pure confection, and if you can’t fly you’ll have to move in with the rhythm section.
  • Call in my reservation, so long, hey thanks my friend.
  • Call your doctor, call your shrink, western science she strictly rinkydink.
  • Careful what you carry ’cause the man is wise: you are still an outlaw in their eyes.
  • Check out the work itself: A mix of elegance and function.
  • Clean this mess up else we’ll all end up in jail.
  • Climb up the glacier, across bridges of light.
  • Clock everything you see.
  • Close your eyes and you’ll be there, it’s everything they say.
  • Come on, come on, soon it will be too late, bobbing for apples can wait.
  • Come on, come on, soon you will be eighteen, I think you know what I mean.
  • Come to old blue eyes, tell me: who do you love?
  • Dance on the bones till the girls say when.
  • Do you have a dark spot on your past? Leave it to my man he’ll fix it fast.
  • Doesn’t matter where you been or what you’ve done.
  • Don’t bother to understand.
  • Don’t lose that number, it’s the only one you own.
  • Don’t lose that number, you don’t wanna call nobody else.
  • Don’t question the little man.
  • Don’t stop, he’ll be callin’ out your name.
  • Don’t take me alive.
  • Don’t tell it to a poor man.
  • Don’t tell your mama, your daddy or mama, they’ll never know where you been.
  • Don’t think that I’m out of line for speaking out for what is mine.
  • Don’t you scream or make a shout. It’s nothing you can do about. It was there where you came out.
  • Dream deep my three times perfect ultrateen.
  • Drink your big black cow and get out of here.
  • Drive me to Harlem or somewhere the same.
  • Drive west on Sunset to the sea, turn that jungle music down, just until we’re out of town.
  • Drop me off in groovetime.
  • Feed her some hungry reggae, she’ll love you twice.
  • Find yourself somebody who can do the job for free.
  • Flash ahead to a yummy playback, just you and me in a room.
  • For one more time, let your madness run with mine.
  • Freddy, can we cut to the chase?
  • Get along.
  • Get rid off him.
  • Get tight every night, pass out on the barroom floor.
  • Get with it we’ll shake his hand.
  • Give her some funked up music, she treats you nice.
  • Give your room-mate Yvonne a ring.
  • Go buy a program and/or a hat, you don’t pass up a deal like that.
  • Go play with someone else.
  • Go bang-zoom to the moon on things unknown.
  • Grab a piece of something that you think is gonna last.
  • Grab Big Dog a blanket, angel of my heart.
  • Have you ever seen a squonk’s tears? Well, look at mine.
  • How about a kiss for your cousin Dupree?
  • I’ll teach you everything I know if you teach me how to do that dance.
  • Hush brother, we cross the square.
  • I can tell you all I know, the where to go, the what to do.
  • I’d like to see you do just fine.
  • If you listen you can hear it.
  • If you’re feeling lucky, you best not refuse.
  • I’ll scratch your back, you can scratch mine.
  • Imagine your face, there is his place, standing inside his brown shoes.
  • It’s last call, to do your shopping at the last mall.
  • Keep your eyes on the sky.
  • Kick off your high heel sneakers, it’s party time.
  • Kiss the check out girls goodbye.
  • Knock twice, rap with your cane.
  • Lay down the law and break it.
  • Lay down your Jackson and you will see the sweetness you’ve been cryin’ for.
  • Leave me or I’ll be just like the others you will meet.
  • Let’s admit the bastards beat us.
  • Let’s keep it light . . . we’ll do a fright night with blood and everything.
  • Let’s plan a weekend alone together.
  • Let’s say we spike it with Deludin, or else maybe tonight a hand of solitaire?
  • Light the candle, put the lock upon the door.
  • Listen to what I say.
  • Look at all the white men on the street.
  • Look at this chain of sorrows, stretching all the way from here and now to hell and gone.
  • Look in my eyes, can’t you see the core is frozen?
  • Love your mama, love your brother, love ’em till they run for cover.
  • My poison’s named, you know my brand, so please make mine a double, Sam.
  • Now come my friend I’ll take your hand and lead you home.
  • Now you gotta tell me everything you did, baby.
  • Nuke the itty bitty ones right where they lay.
  • Pack some things and head up into the light.
  • Pick up what’s left by daylight.
  • Please take me along when you slide on down.
  • Pull up the weeds before they’re too damn big.
  • Put a dollar in the kitty.
  • Rave on my sleek and soulful cyberqueen.
  • Ride the ramp to the freeway beneath the blood orange sky.
  • Roll out the bones and raise up your pitcher, raise up your glass to Good King John.
  • Roll your cart back up the aisle.
  • Scrape the wallboards the whole damn batch, catch the maggoty eggs before they hatch.
  • See the glory of the royal scam.
  • Send it off in a letter to yourself.
  • Shake the rubbish out on the patio floor.
  • Shine up the battle apple, we’ll shake ’em all down tonight.
  • Show me how it’s done.
  • Show me my rival.
  • Show me where you are.
  • Show the world our mighty hidey-ho face.
  • Slang me!
  • Sleep on the beach and make it.
  • So let’s switch off all the lights and light up all the Luckies, crankin’ up the afterglow.
  • Soak the timber with special spray.
  • Sooth me with the slang of ages.
  • Step on in and let me shake your hand.
  • Stir it up nice I’ll eat it right here.
  • Sue me if I play too long.
  • Take a good look it’s easy to see: what a shame about me.
  • Take it in your hand, all the sirens and the band get to bendin’ my ear.
  • Take the firemop, sweep it kissing clean.
  • Take your guns off if you’re willin’ and you know we’re on your side.
  • Talk about your major pain and suffering.
  • Tell me I’m the only one.
  • Tell me where are you driving, midnight cruiser?
  • There’s no need to hide, taking things the easy way.
  • Throw a kiss and say goodbye.
  • Throw back the little ones and pan-fry the big ones.
  • Throw down the jam till the girls say when.
  • Throw down your disguise. We’ll see behind those bright eyes, by and by.
  • Throw out the hardware, let’s do it right.
  • Throw out your gold teeth and see how they roll.
  • Try again tomorrow.
  • Turn slowly and comb your hair, don’t trouble the midnight air.
  • Turn the light off, keep your shirt on, cry a jag on me.
  • Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening.
  • Two against nature, stand alone.
  • Unhand that gun, begone, there’s no one to fire upon.
  • Use tact, poise and reason and gently squeeze them.
  • Use your knack darlin’. Take one step back darlin’.
  • Walk around collecting Turkish union dues.
  • We could rent a paranymphic glider.
  • We could sail ’til the bending end.
  • We could stay inside and play games.
  • We will spend a dizzy weekend smacked into a trance.
  • When the demon is at your door, in the morning it won’t be there no more.
  • Whip the bastards while they still green.
  • Why don’t we grab a cab to my hotel and make believe we’re back at our old school?
  • With the long weekend that’s comin’ up fast, let’s get busy, there’s just too much to do.
  • Won’t you sign in stranger?
  • Won’t you smile for the camera? I know I’ll love you better.
  • Won’t you tell her I love her so?
  • Won’t you turn that bebop down, I can’t hear my heart beat.
  • Worry the bottle Mamma, it’s grapefruit wine.
  • Would you take me by the hand?
  • Wrap your mind around this sound and let the goodness ripple down.
  • You and I will spend this day driving in my car through the ruins of Santa Fe.
  • You better be ready for love on this glory day.
  • You better run run run.
  • You better step back, son, give the man some whackin’ space.
  • You can choose the music, I’ll set up my gear; later on we’ll chill and watch the fireworks from here.
  • You can try to run but you can’t hide from what’s inside of you.
  • You don’t have to dance for me, I’ve seen your dance before.
  • You go back, Jack, do it again.
  • You got to come on man and take a piece of Mister Parker’s band.
  • You maybe got lucky for a few good years, but there’s no way back from there to here.
  • You must put them on the table.
  • You should know how all the pros play the game: You change your name.
  • You throw out your gold teeth. Do you see how they roll?
  • You turn that heartbeat over again.
  • You will be what you are just the same.
  • You zombie, be born again, my friend.
  • You’ll have to do it yourself when the going gets tough.

The Battle of Branxton Hollow

Those fellas in blue came marching
from out of the west, two by two,
they camped out at the edge of the forest,
made fires and played songs
while their sentries paced through the night
around my freshly plowed fields.

They looked hard, but they saw nothing:
their enemies, dressed in grey, struck at dawn,
sweeping down the hill behind my curing shed,
shooting and screaming as they ran into the camp,
the blue shirts scrambling to grab their boots,
dead before they’d gotten the laces unknotted.

It was quite the rout that day, right here,
the grey boys chased the surviving blue shirts
back into the west from whence they came.
I figured they’d be back eventually,
to bury the dead, to pillage the camp,
to do whatever else victorious soldiers did.

But that was two weeks ago Tuesday,
and I’m still alone here in my fields, digging,
undertaker to a fallen company of invaders,
folks I didn’t know from places I’ve never seen.
I didn’t kill ’em, no sir, but I’ll bury ’em,
seems to me like the right thing to do.

I wonder, as I’m shoveling, what the writers
will say about this battle, years from now.
Will they know this place is called Branxton Hollow?
And that my great grandfather, he settled it?
Will they know that I’d have been planting tobacco
had I not had to become a gravedigger instead?

I think I’ll make me a wooden sign some day,
like the ones I see out on the turnpike road,
“On this spot, once, there was quite the battle,
some folks lived and ran, and some folks died and stayed,
’cause someone made them do it, from very far away.”
And I guess, really, that’s all I’d have to say.

(Copyright 2004, J. Eric Smith)


How do we keep the fragile ones from doing foolish things,
like blindly trusting predators that stalk the ill and weak?
What can we do to keep them safe beyond our apron strings?
How do we keep the fragile ones from doing foolish things?
Can we make them see the danger that lack of caution brings?
No, we can’t, they’re on their own, with freedom to act and speak.
How do we keep the fragile ones from doing foolish things,
like blindly trusting predators that stalk the ill and weak?

How do we keep the predators from hunting fragile prey,
dragging it down before us while we, helpless, watch them feast?
What can we do to drive them off, to make them go away?
How do we keep the predators from hunting fragile prey?
Can we cage them, change them, build a fence, keeping them at bay?
No, we can’t, they’ve carnivores, that’s the nature of such beasts.
How do we keep the predators from hunting fragile prey,
dragging it down before us while we, helpless, watch them feast?

(Copyright 2004, JES)

New Facts (Finally) Emerge

Depending on how one categorizes their 1981 10″ vinyl Slates (and this apparently matters), New Facts Emerge is The Fall’s 31st or 32nd studio album, and their first full-length release since early 2015’s Sub-Lingual Tablet. In Fall Record Release Time, that’s a dog’s age between albums, and this particular hiatus has been notably defined by the departure of keyboardist Eleni Poulou, who has been the creative and personal partner of stalwart Fall mastermind Mark E. Smith for the past 15 years. Further potential red flags have been recently waved before Fall followers in the form of cancelled gigs and appearances, record release date slippages, a more-ill-looking-than-usual Smith struggling onstage during the occasional shows he has played in 2017, and drummer Keiron Melling suffering a savage and cowardly beating on a British train earlier this year. And that’s before we even mention the fact that The Fall are booked to appear in the United States later this year; their last two American tours each resulted in band-on-band carnage and chaos, so this is something approaching an apocalyptic sign in the venerable Northern English group’s long-running dramatic arc.

Despite the churn and concern, though, there have been stabilizing portents in sight as New Facts Emerge has worked its way toward release, most notably the steadfastness of the mercurial Smith’s current group (Melling, guitarist Peter Greenway and bassist David Spurr have supported their front man for over a decade now), the return of sure-handed engineer (and erstwhile bassist) Simon “Ding” Archer to the studio, and the continued support of Cherry Red Records, removing label uncertainty from the mix. While a new keyboardist has recently appeared onstage with the group, Greenway and Melling were credited with all of the keys (including Mellotron!) in pre-release press regarding New Facts Emerge, and Melling also received triple-duty kudos with a co-production credit (alongside Smith) — meaning that this whole disc was constructed by a compact, all-male (highly unusual for The Fall) crew, perhaps in circling-the-wagons mode, ready to blast through the perimeter at the various negative forces swirling about them, never admitting that they have something to prove, even though they probably do.

Did they get the job done? To these ears, yes: New Facts Emerge is a potent record that likely marks the start of a audibly distinctive new Fall phase, rather than marking the group standing pat as a keyboardless continuation of the Eleni Poulou era. Smith and Company step up the energy significantly here over recent releases, with a unique and defiantly odd blend of power riffage, strange song structures, creative studio trickery, weird production techniques, sounds bleating from disparate corners unexpectedly, tunes descending into chaos only to rebuild themselves as different tunes elsewhere, and a completely nutso sequencing that attaches weird little fragments to some songs, while other elements linger long beyond the point where studio sanity would seemingly dictate “cut.” The Fall have embraced weirdness and repetition and angularity and just being not quite right in pleasing ways over the years, and these new cuts are a part and piece of that tradition, as not a one of them is a straight-up, straight-through rocker with a clean arrangement; they’re all askew and unsettled in one way or another. If Melling’s co-credit as producer is correlated to all of that, then The Fall would be well-served let him fill that role for a long while going forward.

Mark E. Smith remains Mark E. Smith, of course, and if you haven’t liked his voice over the years, well, then this album isn’t the one that’s going to change your mind on that front. Enunciation is no longer his strong suit, and lyrical content (when discernible) isn’t necessarily up to what it once might have been a few million pints ago, but he uses his voice as a weapon of aural destruction here nonetheless, and he sounds enthusiastically engaged here in ways that give the record an over-arching malign warmth lacking in many other modern Fall discs. I suspect there’s a lads alone element to the change; one might feel freer to get all shouty when one’s missus is not about, and the boys have been banging on their kettles and pans all night long. I may not really know what Smith is shouting about anymore, but I’m glad he’s still doing it, at bottom line. He’s the elusive glue that holds the enterprise together, and his presence makes those around him shine more brightly.

Track highlights on New Facts Emerge include “Fol de Rol” (the straight-up best strutting Fall monster-riff rocker since 2005’s epic “Blindness”), “Couples vs Jobless Mid 30s” (a long carnival freak show frappe of styles and textures and noises and grooves), “Gibbus Gibson” (which could almost be a little pop gem, except that it falls apart in a wash of flutter and wow near its end), and “Second House Now” (which opens with an amusing honky-tonk feel before stripping its clutch in an awkward upshift to a great, propulsive guitar-strong groove). Notable oddities include the 30-second opening “Segue” (huh?), “O! ZZTRRK Man” (which might be a paean to legendary footballer George Best), and closer “Nine Out of Ten” (a very long Greenway-Smith guitar-voice duet, that ends with nearly five minutes of the string-bender strumming us into oblivion; of notable perversion is the fact that the song is solely credited to Smith).

All in all, New Facts Emerge is a pleasing new studio album from The Fall group, be it number 31 or number 32, be it packaged with the usual laughably crap cover art, be it a product of turmoil and/or lads’ nights out, be it the final Fall album (always a growing possibility) or yet another link hot-welded onto a long and clanking musical chain that stretches behind and before us. There’s American shows coming, kids, and if they’re going to result in disorder and disarray, then these are strong songs to soundtrack the conflagration.

(Click on the cover art below to purchase this and other recent Fall records via the group’s official website)

Dance of the Cobras

1. One of my favorite things to do while traveling abroad is to visit non-chain record stores and ask the clerks for recent music by local artists that I would not likely be able to find back in the States. I’ve had wonderful success in finding amazing music from the 12 Tonar store in Reykjavik (twice) and at Discos Revolver in Barcelona, to cite two examples, bringing home great music from those trips that still earns regular spins around our apartment. So while we were in Amsterdam last month, I blocked out an afternoon and identified four record stores that seemed promising based on the online reviews I had found. Unfortunately, here’s what I found in each store, with varying degrees of disarray in evidence:

The re-emergence of a vintage vinyl obsession among aging record nerds and wannabe hipsters seems to have forced up-and-coming artists to peddle their wares online and at shows, while moldering crap and arcana from decades ago fills up the available retail space in brick-and-mortar outlets. I saw the same thing in Florence, Italy last year . . . and it’s also endemic among most of the record stores in my home city of Chicago. That’s a real pity, I think. There’s value to a music scene in having your local record store serve as a point of focus for your music community, with knowledgeable clerks standing as great arbiters and champions for the regional specialties. While I suppose I could go to the Google Box and search for “best new music from Florence or Amsterdam,” that’s just going to return results based on how good the local musicians are at search engine optimization, not how good their actual music is.

2. We visited about a dozen museums and ancillary attractions in the Netherlands and Belgium, seeing some really great exhibitions there. One of the nice things about living in Chicago is knowing that the opportunity to do does not end with the last day of vacation, and Marcia and I enjoyed getting to see Takashi Murakami’s The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg at the wonderful Museum of Contemporary Art a mile or so from our apartment last week. It’s a big show in every sense of that word: a major artist, showing a lot of works, many of them physically massive, including breath-taking new pieces commissioned specifically for MCA Chicago as part of the exhibition. Well worth a peek if you’re in the City. Holla if you do, as I’ll be happy to go see it again. For a sense of scale, here’s a snap of Marcia with one of the featured works:

3. Two weeks from tomorrow, I will be headed to Washington, DC for my third (and the 25th Anniversary) STIHL Tour des Trees, joining ~70 other riders and support volunteers over seven days and 500+ miles on our bicycles, raising funds and awareness for arboriculture and urban forestry research and education. For those unfamiliar with the Tour, here are some action shots (courtesy Jeannette Martin) from last year’s event to give you a sense of what it’s all about:

We don’t just ride for the sake of riding, but also make numerous stops en route to spread the good word to audiences of all ages about the importance of research to sustaining our communities’ tree canopies around the country, while also ensuring that the dedicated professionals who work in the field have the best and most current information at their disposal. (And, yes, that’s me cutting the ribbon with a chainsaw!)

The fundraising deadline for Tour riders is July 24, and I would be honored and humbled if you’d be willing to support my campaign before then, by clicking here. 100% of funds pledged/paid to Tour riders go to research, either in the form of grants made in the following year, or (if donors so designate) by adding to our endowment to support research in perpetuity. As CEO of TREE Fund, I’ve made significant structural, operational, and fundraising changes over the past two years, resulting in record-setting levels of grants awarded in 2016 . . . but that, of course, means we also need record-setting levels of revenue to sustain that growth in the years ahead.

I appreciate your consideration of this request . . . and if you’re able and willing to share it with your own social networks, that would be wonderful! Feel free to shoot me a note if you have any questions about the Tour, my work with TREE Fund, or anything else on your mind! It’s always good to connect, even if via a blog post like this one.

Adventure Family in The Netherlands and Belgium

Katelin, Marcia and I returned Sunday after a week in the (European) Low Countries of The Netherlands and Belgium. Marcia and I had visited Amsterdam and Brussels as part of an earlier trip, but this was Katelin’s first time in that part of the world. We decided to overnight in Amsterdam for the duration of our time there, then to day-trip by train a couple of times to get some additional destinations on the agenda. One day, we used the domestic train lines to visit Den Haag (fave new city), Gouda, and Utrecht. Another day, we took the high speed Thalys line to Antwerp in Belgium. It was a great mix of new and familiar for Marcia and I, and it was wonderful to have a week abroad with Katelin since we haven’t been able to do that often in recent years. Click the picture below to see our photo album for the trip. It was a good one, filled with lots of walks (71.1 miles in six days according to my Fitbit), plentiful museums (ten over the course of the week), and a special bonus moment when Katelin got to meet her favorite/spirit animal up close and personal at Artis, the Royal Zoo in Amsterdam.