The Major Dudes of Steely Dan
By Rob Hochschild
Beyond the cycle of classes, hours of study, and carefully orchestrated ceremonies, the daily unfolding drama of college life has a way of generating random circumstances that inevitably impact its actors for years to come. Look at Walter Becker and Donald Fagen '66. As undergraduates at a small liberal arts college in New York in the 1960s, a couple of smart teenagers equally obsessed with jazz, rock, and black humor, they sought out like-minded jam session buddies with whom to have some kicks between classes. What they wound up creating was a musical partnership known as Steely Dan that, decades later, still creates innovative music and, lately, wins Grammy Awards.
Many of Berklee's 639 graduating seniors who watched Fagen and Becker collect their honorary degrees last week will tell you that one of the reasons they enrolled at a college of contemporary music was to increase the chances that they might experience similar random meetings. And there's no doubt that some of them do. Berklee alumni Aimee Mann, Branford Marsalis, and Steve Vai, to name a few, all met other musicians here that became key collaborators.
But how far up the musical success ladder this newest class of graduates will climb with their former classmates remains to be seen. One thing they can be sure of, Becker said, is that each senior will do well only if each one stays true to his or her own vision.
"As you go into your musical careers, people will try to refocus you on their goals and their artistic aspirations," Becker said to graduates and their families after receiving his honorary doctor of music degree on May 12. "And it's always best to stay focused on your own (goals). It's the only shortcut that really is available."
Becker ought to know. He and Fagen have been focused on their artistic goals for more than 30 years, and have together created several revered albums and radio hits, including "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," "Reelin' in the Years," "Peg," and "Hey Nineteen." After releasing their first studio recording in 20 years, Two Against Nature, last year, Steely Dan has been spending a lot of time this year collecting honors for their recent and more historic accomplishments. In February, Two Against Nature won four Grammy awards, and in March, Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When asked how the Berklee honorary degrees measure up to the industry honors, Fagen didn't hesitate.
"This is the best by far," Fagen said during a conversation in the Berklee Media Center. "It's a music college and it's more who we are: musicians. I think we relate to this more directly than to more show-business-type stuff."
But you could argue that the Grammys and Hall of Fame people were also at a distinct disadvantage because they didn't have on hand 34 talented and well-rehearsed young Berklee musicians, who paid tribute to the pair in a two-hour concert. On commencement eve, graduating seniors and underclassman alike peformed 17 tunes penned by one or both of the men, ending the show with an 18-member chorus performing "I.G.Y.," from Fagen's Nightfly.
The two honorees clapped their hands and bobbed their heads throughout. According to Executive Vice President Gary Burton, who sat between Fagen and Becker during the show, both musicians were impressed by the quality of the student performances. "Donald Fagen said to Walter about one minute into the first song, 'Gee, they do it better than we do,'" Burton said this week. "On one of the more difficult pieces, Walter turned to me after a student soloed through a particularly difficult passage and said, 'Boy, he didn't have any trouble getting through that.'"
The concert began with several strong vocal performances, as the 14-piece Jazz-Rock Ensemble accompanied singers Jason Joseph, Jana Berman, and Chrissi Poland on "Two Against Nature," "Do It Again," and "Book of Liars," respectively.
Billboard Editor Timothy White provided a breather for the students early in the concert when he made his annual onstage appearance to award the 2001 Billboard Scholarship to Alisa Miles, who sang "Peg" later in the concert. White also addressed the student population at large in brief remarks, urging students to have the "courage . . . to stay lonely in their ideals."
Other highlights of the concert included an arrangement by Professor Richard Evans of Fagen's "Maxine," fronted by an all-male vocal quartet of Dave Quinones, Leonard Walston, Claude Kelly, and Jason Joseph; and "Cousin Dupree," a hilariously off-color new Steely Dan song that the charismatic Ben Ward delivered with a blend of humorous gesture and vocal power. Later, Brandi Williams and Eric Wainaina turned "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" into a classic soul duet. Standout instrumentalists included tenor saxophonist Gilad Ronen, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, and guitarist Michael Ruzitschka.
Twenty-three of the concert performers shook hands with Fagen and Becker the next day at the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center in Boston, as they became part of Berklee's largest-ever graduating class. After accepting his honorary degree, Fagen, who studied for a semester at Berklee in the summer of 1966, briefly stepped to the microphone. ''To the graduating class, I just want to say, from a blues verse from Mose Allison, `When you move up to the city, there's just one thing I hope/When you move up to the city, there's just one thing I hope/You don't take money from a woman and don't start messin' around with dope.'''
Commencement speaker Larry R. Linkin, former president and CEO of NAMM, gave a more conventional speech, stressing the positive effects of music on society and the importance of strengthening music education programs in U.S. schools. He also encouraged students to follow their own path in music.
"Take some risks. Be original and strive to do whatever you do the very best you can . . . (hockey player) Wayne Gretzky said you miss 100 percent of shots you don't take," said Linkin, who along with retiring Berklee Board of Trustees Chair William M. Davis, also accepted honorary doctor of music degrees.
Graduating senior Zack Ryan composed the ceremony's processional and recessional, "Fanfare and Processional." In the student commencement speech, Nick Yik-ngai Cheung called on his fellow graduates to do what they can to "make a difference."
"I am positive that some of us here today can eventually save the world one way or another though our creativity and power of music because we possess the right combination of human qualities to do so," said Cheung.