Revisiting a Classic - 11 Tracks of Whack
Sept. 3rd, 2017 was a solemn day for me, and for Steely Dan obsessives worldwide, as the news broke out of the passing of one of my all-time musical heroes, guitarist/songwriter, Walter Becker.
Walter, along with long-time musical partner Donald Fagen, were the creative driving forces behind Steely Dan, the iconic ‘70s group renowned for their slick, jazz-infused brand of original pop. When Donald and Walter ceased their musical partnership in 1980, Walter relocated to Hawaii, where he spent the remainder of the 80s as a record producer, working with Artists such as Rickie Lee Jones. In 1993, however, following a reunion with Fagen to record Kamakiriad, as well as to reboot the Steely Dan band, Becker began work on his first solo album; 1994s 11 Tracks of Whack.
I remember hearing of Walters death whilst I was out that afternoon, and immediately feeling like I had lost a member of my own family. Feeling the need to reflect, I decided to revisit 11 Tracks on the drive home.
The opening line to the first number, Down in the Bottom (“In case you’re wond’rin’ it’s alive and well”), had a bittersweet edge to it, and as this melancholy groove number rolled on, I couldn’t help having my feelings of solemnity amplified, particularly during Walters lyrical guitar solo as the track fades.
Bittersweetness is a common theme with many of these Tracks of Whack, perhaps at its most blatant in the second selection, Junkie Girl, a gritty, west coast-inspired eulogy for a prostitute the song’s antagonist loves deeply. Walters melancholy warble is punctuated by Dean Parks’ angular guitar solo, and Fima Ephrons occasional slap bass interjections come through at just the right time.
The brooding Surf And / Or Die seems to describe a friend who meets his demise when his hang glider crashes into the sea. Perhaps the albums most overtly dark track, its lyrical content (“now your voice on my machine is more alive than you are”) and harmonic sparsity never fail to leave the listener with chills. The track is once again underpinned by the flawless bass/drum work of Fima Ephron and Ben Perowsky, and is concluded with some Hawaiian folk chanting.
Possibly my favourite Track of Whack, Book of Liars is a slow-burning 12/8 lament about a man coming to terms with deceit by his former lover. Walters verses are interspersed with a wonderfully melodic tenor sax solo from Bob Sheppard, followed by a frantic keyboard solo from Donald Fagen.
The 12/8 feel continues with the ballsy, blues rock-infused Lucky Henry. Adam Rogers is featured throughout here, and his prowess is fully demonstrated in a wailing 16-bar solo.
Whilst Hard Up Case deals with another acrimonious parting, the straight-up blues rock Cringemaker is the confession of a man desperate to escape a college romance turned sour (“Whatever happened to my college belle? / When did she turn into the wife from Hell?”). Perowskys groove on this tune is infectious, and Dean Parks (who has co-writing credit for this track) decorates the song with bluesy twangs which wouldn’t sound out of place in a Delta blues bar.
Girlfriend is one mans cry for help after the loss of his significant other. The track seems to become more discordant as the protagonists mind unravels further still, culminating in Bob Sheppard conjuring Eric Dolphy with a screeching bass clarinet break.
The next track is a curious pseudo-reggae number, My Waterloo, before another subdued lament, This Moody Bastard. An almost tear-jerking reflection on love and loss (featuring a beautiful gentle clarinet solo from Sheppard), this track still manages to maintain a glimmer of hope with its uplifting chorus harmony.
Another favourite, and perhaps the most bizarre Track of Whack, Hat Too Flat is the confession of an immigrant fighting prejudice, using the analogy of an alien race from a distant star. Should you find yourself feeling low after ten tracks of cynicism, Fagens laugh-out-loud ridiculous synth solo will never fail to alter your mood. The chorus lyrics make for an amusing listen too (The hat stays too flat / My hat is way too flat / My English it is more better now, but my hat remains too flat).
The final (and curiously, twelfth) track is the short-and-sweet Little Kawai; Walters tribute to his miscreant son, whom he spoils rotten. It’s a feel-good ending, and a warming reminder that some things in life are still good.
As I arrived home, just as the album faded to a close, my mood was lighter; I felt assured that, even though Walter was no longer with us, his legacy would remain, not only in the Steely Dan back catalogue, but for those of us diehard fans, in all his solo gems. 11 Tracks was Walters first and, arguably, best solo statement, and it will always remain, for me, a true desert island disc.