Rock Vets Accept Honorary Degrees With Terse Wisdom
By David Abel
For commencement addresses, which often can induce drowsiness or produce a panoply of platitudes, the bloviation quotient was minimal.
Not surprising, perhaps, for the men behind Steely Dan, who have been recording albums filled with slick tunes and sly, dark lyrics for almost three decades. The Grammy Award-winners cut right to the chase in offering words of wisdom yesterday to the graduating class at the Berklee College of Music.
Wearing sunglasses indoors and a mushy mortarboard that looked more like a beret, Donald Fagen stepped to the microphone to accept his honorary degree, and this was all he said:
“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.’ ”
The line drew a standing ovation from the 600 graduating students and their friends and families at the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center at Roxbury Community College, where the commencement exercise was held.
Similarly curt and well received was Fagen’s partner in Steely Dan, Walter Becker. “If I had any advice based on my career so far that would be worth sharing with you, it would be two things: number one, as you go into your musical careers, people will try to refocus you on their goals and their artistic aspirations. And it’s always best to stay focused on your own. It’s the only shortcut that really is available.
“And number two, the blues. Playing the blues,” he said. “Play the blues — it works over everything.”
Becker, 51, and Fagen, 53, shared more of their musical legacy Friday night as they listened to Berklee students perform Steely Dan songs at the annual commencement concert. The show was a tribute to the two ’70s favorites, who sat at rapt attention.
Performing such songs as “Two Against Nature” and “Cousin Dupree” from the Grammy-winning album, as well as 1970s classics including “Do It Again” and “Peg,” the students belted out one rendition after the next.
After the concert, Fagen and Becker mingled on stage with the students, posing for photographs and signing autographs.
“It was great. It was awesome,” Becker said. “It was all so good. It’s just very nice to hear a bunch of people who have put in so much work.”
“The kids did a great job,” Fagen said. “They sounded better than we did.”
While enthusiastically received yesterday, Becker and Fagen weren’t even the keynote commencement speakers.
That honor was reserved for Larry Linkin, the president of the National Association of Music Merchants. Linkin’s oratory hewed to more traditional notes of inspiration drawn from figures as different as Michael Jordan and Barry Goldwater.
The thrust of Linkin’s speech was that musicians must stand up for the role that music plays in helping create peace in the world. “Believing in the benefits of music and actually doing something about it are really two very different things,” he told the students. “It’s up to all of us to make sure that everyone is an advocate of music making.”
In quoting Goldwater, the late Republican senator from Arizona, Linkin said, “We can’t depend on government! … Any government big enough to give you what you want is a government big enough to take everything you have.”
Therefore, he said, “We must all be proactive in local politics and school activities. There are 16,000 school districts in the United States. That’s where the majority of the action is and where the money gets spent. … Remember — music does make the difference.”