Whack (n.) 1. a blow, intermediate in intensity between a wallop and a smack 2. a first stab or crude attempt, eg “Let your little brother have a whack at the circular saw!” (v.) to deliver a whack, ambush, or attempt to wipe out a person. (adj.) jive or inauthentic or otherwise bogus, although somewhat diverting in a trashy and contingent sort of way.
Born in New York City in 1950. Mr. Becker makes his debut as a music lover while huddled in the back seat of his father’s cream and flesh colored Ford Fairlane. As it hurtles down the Henry Hudson Parkway, he watches the advertising billboards slide by and is hypnotized by the rhythmic swooshing of the wipers and the mottled half-light shining through the rain swept windshield. He begins to enjoy the bland but tuneful renderings playing on the dashboard radio. Later, he takes to staying up late for the Steve Allen Show, singing along with its famous musical theme, Gravy Waltz. Steve comes on and he’s playing some sort of weird harmonica with a keyboard–it’s a Melodica. Becker gets one and soon enough he’s playing along almost every night.
The Melodica was a bust but soon Becker’s interest in has moved on from the Steve Allen Show to Miles Davis records, and he is now aspiring to play tenor saxophone. He presents his case to his father who reluctantly accompanies him to Manny’s Music Store, where a used tenor is obtained, along with a box of reeds. Lessons are arranged, which prove to be tiresome, and anyway, one night Becker hears a Bob Dylan record on the radio. The saxophone is also a bust but Becker has saved enough money by Christmas of the next year to buy a small acoustic guitar. Braving the Long Island Railroad (the subways are on strike), he returns to Manny’s and gets himself a Martin guitar, a harmonica and a harmonica holder. Pretty soon he is strumming along with his favorite records, using the chords he copped from his friend Harold, a guitar owner in his own right. By the time he gets to college he can play all the important blues licks on the electric guitar and is working on the electric bass. Plus, he has written a couple of tunes for his high school blues band. This is when he hooks up with Donald Fagen, and the two begin plugging away in earnest .
Then Steely Dan. With two successful singles, namely Do It Again and Reelin’ In The Years, their first album, Can’t Buy A Thrill, quickly goes gold. The group goes on to record a total of seven commercially successful and critically acclaimed albums, including Pretzel Logic (1974), Aja (1977) and Gaucho (1979), as well as numerous hit singles, which are selling briskly and receiving substantial airplay to this day.
By 1980 or so Steely Dan is kaput and Becker is sorely in need of a change of pace. He moves to Hawaii, forswears the use of tobacco and strong drink and begins a process of physical and spiritual regeneration which, it is hoped, will carry him into his fourth decade and well beyond. At this time he meets his wife Elinor and they have a child together, a boy named Kawai, but only months before the child is born Becker relapses–not into drugs or drink or smoke, but back into The Music Business. Seeking easy work and quick gratification, he casts himself as a record producer, working first with a band called China Crisis and later with others, including Rickie Lee Jones, Lost Tribe, jazzers John Beasley, Bob Sheppard, Andy LaVerne, and others. Finally he co-produces Donald Fagen’s second solo album,Kamakiriad and, as he is doing so, he is feverishly scribbling down the demented lyrics for his own solo album, 11 Tracks Of Whack.
So why does a 40-year-old veteran of the recording business suddenly decide he wants to make his belated debut as a recording artist/vocalist? “Producing turned out to be a less than satisfying job, in most respects,” Becker recalls. “It’s impossible for the producer to be ultimately responsible for the overall esthetic of the album, because most of the important decisions are made by the artist–as well as the actual performances. So you end up sitting there, thinking that you should have done this or that differently, or not at all, or whatever… Plus you never quite get to experience the satisfaction of having conceived something from the very beginning, of making something from nothing, which you get from writing. At some point I decided that the artists I was producing were having all the fun, and that was the only way to continue was to become the artist myself. Whatever that would mean, in terms of what kind of record I might want to make–I wasn’t quite sure to begin with. But I decided to find out.”
Becker starts off with a series of instrumental pieces, just to get back into the swing of things. “My original concept involved a very stripped down sound, with strong emphasis on melody and bass line, and not too much in the way of chording. The idea was to get a kind of spacious feel, where the harmonies were more defined by melodies and roots than spelled out with static vertical comping-type chords.” As he became more proficient with his tools — mainly synths and computer sequencing programs — they became integral aspects of his compositional technique. “My first dilemma was, how do I go about writing by myself, that is, without Donald? In our collaboration he provided a lot of the harmonic direction and overall tonal framework, and his ability to develop great chord sequences, striking modulations, and so on, became an essential ingredient in our writing style. I decided to use a minimalist approach that would enable me to focus on the overall thrust of the song, rather that bogging down in harmonic complexities and ornaments that were perhaps irrelevant in the musical context of the day.”
As far as lyrics went, Becker was able to continue much in the vein of the Steely Dan songs, but with the added freedom of veering off into areas that might have been too personal or bizarre for even the duo’s eccentric territory. “When you’re collaborating, you often need to persuade your writing partner that an idea is interesting enough or strong enough to work with, and sometimes this is difficult or impossible to do. When you’re working alone, you get to follow your hunches a lot more. I also took advantage of events unfolding in my immediate environs as subject matter for songs in a way that was somewhat different from what we used to do… Generally speaking, I tried to suspend my critical perceptions of what I was doing, musically and lyrically, until I had completed something, so as to range out a bit into new areas. This experimental approach was helpful in maintaining a flow in my writing.”
When it comes time to begin the recording process, Becker calls on a rhythm section from the band Lost Tribe–that is, Adam Rogers on guitar, Ben Perowski on drums and Fima Ephron on bass, plus guitarist Dean Parks and keyboardist John Beasley. The band works for a couple of weeks, and three tracks wind up on the finished album. The rest of the tunes, Becker decides to base on his sequenced demos which he feels best capture to essence of the tunes. “I had to spend a good deal of time coming up with a vocal approach that I liked. Some tunes were more daunting than others. And in most cases, it seemed that singing over the track with which I had written the tune worked best.” After several months following the Summer ’93 Steely Dan Tour, Donald Fagen comes out to Hawaii to help Becker finish the record — a process which, as it turns out takes many more months. “I was driving myself nuts by the time Donald arrives. Luckily he was able to steer me in the right direction and take on the bulk of the production chores at a point when I was glad to be able to concentrate on other things, singing and so on.”
By July of ’94, 11 Tracks of Whack is a done deal. Becker is back in Hawaii, getting ready for another Steely Dan summer tour, during which he will perform a number of tunes from his new album for the first time, with the capable backing of Fagen and the rest of the Steely Dan touring band. Fagen is back in New York working on charts for the band. “Now that the thing is finished, I realize that writing words and music is the most enjoyable and satisfying part of the process, and something I was missing in my life. Now that I’m doing it again, I kind of feel like I have rediscovered some of the excitement in the beginning of my career, writing with Donald and later making those first few albums.”