Thursday, November 1, 2018

“Walter Becker Way” Unveiled in Forest Hills

By Michael Perlman

Walter Becker Way unveiled, Photo by Michael Perlman
Walter Becker signed headshot offered at the ceremony, Photo by Annalisa
On October 28th, it was history-in-the-making for a couple hundred Steely Dan fans who attended the “Walter Becker Way” street co-naming ceremony on 72nd Drive at 112th Street. The event was not to be missed, as proven by fans ranging from Forest Hills to Europe. After a series of speeches by host Jim Kerr of the Q104.3 FM Rock & Roll Morning Show, Councilmember Karen Koslowitz who nominated Becker for this honor, and Matt Kerns, Howard Rodman, and Cindy Mizelle who shared personal memories and professional affiliations, the much-awaited street sign was uncovered. Throughout the event, items from Becker’s personal collection were distributed and prioritized for trivia buffs. The event took place outside The Balfour apartment building at 112-20 72nd Drive, which is where Becker was raised. 

"Before," Photo by Michael Perlman

"After," Photo by Michael Perlman
Walter Carl Becker (1950 – 2017) was a guitarist, bassist, and co-songwriter of the jazz-rock band “Steely Dan.” In 1967, he befriended Donald Fagen (born 1948), the band’s lead singer. Their first album “Can’t Buy A Thrill” was released in 1972 under the self-titled “Steely Dan,” and they toured the U.S. and Britain in 1973. “Two Against Nature” won four Grammys in 2001, and Becker and Fagen were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Some well-known hits are “Do It Again,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” and “Deacon Blues.” 

Ronnie Croce with Councilmember Koslowitz, Photo by Michael Perlman
Councilmember Karen Koslowitz referenced her role in “The Ramones Way” street co-naming at Forest Hills High School, as well as local musicians including Burt Bacharach. She said, “You know, Forest Hills is very famous. Today it’s my pleasure to be able to unveil the name of Walter Becker. He lived in The Balfour, so his name will live here forever.” 

Host Jim Kerr of Q104.3 FM, Photo by Michael Perlman
Jim Kerr asked, “What song on Circus Money did Walter sing to a woman who was gone perhaps even on a distance star?” A contestant named Lisa from Bristol guessed “Paging Audrey.” He responded, “What we have for you is the actual chart used by the tracking band when they recorded that song.” Among the other questions was “For many years, Becker used guitars and basses made by his favorite luthier. What was Becker’s favorite make of guitar and bass?” A contestant guessed “Sadowsky.” He continued, “Your prize is a guitar strap used by Walter.” He was given a choice and selected his on-stage strap over the one he used at home. Then he said, “You’re also going to get some very rare guitar picks.” 

Longtime fan Matt Kerns, Photo by Michael Perlman
Guest speaker Matt Kerns, co-creator of a database of Becker’s famous “Hey 19 Raps” said, “When I was first asked if I would speak, my instinct was to say no. It’s hard to say something about someone who so often expressed things better than anyone else.” He continued, “When Walter passed away on September 7th of last year, music magazines rushed on Walter as the silent partner of Steely Dan. The irony would not be lost on Walter. Anyone who knew him to any degree knows that Walter Becker was anything but silent. Walter spoke, and he spoke loudly with a voice unique in popular music”… “He was literate without being pretentious, sophisticated with a splash of sophomoric humor, was jazz and rock, mentor and learner, professor of infectious vibes, and student of rhythm and soul… “Walter inherently knew that if he didn’t try to write songs for everyone, he could write music that reached someone. Often in songs about less than savored characters, Walter managed to find the profound in the profane, all without resorting to troves or clichés. He told tales of the world both dark and real.” 

Howard Rodman, Longtime friend of Walter Becker, Photo by Michael Perlman
Another speaker was Becker’s closest longtime friend, Howard Rodman, who first knew him at age 10. “Like many of the friends and comrades with us, we went to PS 196, whose anthem I can still sing.” “We are left with glorious memories, and we’re left with the music which is indelible; music which was never quite in sync with its time, and because of that we’ll never grow old.” “They sold 40 million records, not by reverse engineering which an audience might like, but by being deeply and obsessively true to themselves. The success of Steely Dan was because and not in spite of the celebration of the marginal.” He later continued, “It took Walter Becker to look out at this suburban landscape of postwar 6-story housing, and recognizing it for what it was. Not a bedroom community, not a bridge or tunnel, or an E train away from Manhattan, but something grand and glorious in and of itself – ‘Forest Hills,’ a place he saw as the capital of the 20th century, and then made it be so.”

Singer Cindy Mizelle, Photo by Michael Perlman
Singer Cindy Mizelle, a guest speaker explained, “Walter is such a champion in my eyes. He always treated me with love and respect, as I did he and his family, and wow, it’s such a great honor to have a street named after him. It’s so cool to take a walk down Walter Becker Way… He took me under his wing and really showed me that I can relax in the person that I am to sing live and egging me along to do more, and invited me on his album, ‘Circus Money.’” 

Guitar tech Orick Salazar, Photo by Michael Perlman
In recent years, Orick Salazar was Becker’s guitar tech. He said, “Walter was more than just a music genius. He was very smart and an amazing human being that helped a lot of people. I am very grateful for his advice.” 

Walter Becker's childhood home at The Balfour, Photo by Michael Perlman
Attendee Ben Larah, a Balfour resident takes pride in being a huge Steely Dan fan since 15. He said, “Their music sounded so different to anything I heard before; an amazing blend of jazz, blues, pop and rock, with a focus on virtuosic musicianship and clever lyrics. Aja is one of my favorite albums of all time. Walter Becker apparently had a lifelong fondness and pride for Forest Hills, so having his old street corner named after him was a fitting honor.” 

London resident Darren Hirst holds a Steely Dan leather jacket, Photo by Michael Perlman
Darren Hirst traveled from London to document the ceremony, and ended up winning a round of trivia, walking away with Becker’s leather jacket. “Walter along with Donald Fagen have a unique view among writers of the period from the 1970s onwards. Their sardonic and skeptical take on modern society coupled with a cool jazz vibe leaves few who can be legitimately compared to their composing and performance skill. I bought their first album in the 1970s, but at that time they had ceased touring. I caught their show when they resumed in the 1990s, and have seen all their tours that have come to Europe and many in the U.S.”

Steely Dan and their music as soloists has been a soundtrack to his life. “I have always found their lyrics intellectually challenging and the musical rhythms and composition so innovative,” he said.

Laura Tommaso made the trek from Italy, and praised it for being a sincere, personalized, and informal ceremony. “Don and Walt are just some of the best music NYC experienced since the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. Steely Dan are part of that tradition that starts with Dion and goes on with Frankie Valli, Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkel, and Talking Heads; simply the heart and soul of the Big Apple popular music. They brought the passion for jazz, psychedelic music, Bob Dylan, and Ray Charles into a unique music outfit called Steely Dan, and there was nothing like it before or after.” She continued, “What made him memorable was being himself.”

Upon hearing the news of the ceremony, fans began to reminisce and think ahead. Richard Adler of Monroe, NY reminisced, “Walter attended Stuyvesant, but I knew Walter from Halsey. Walter, Randy California, and I had a band called Newport News when we were in high school. Walter was our lead singer and harmonica player, and we mostly played the blues. Randy and I helped Walter learn to play guitar.”

Middle Village resident Ira Nagel said, “At Halsey JHS 157, he was Valedictorian, and we would play music at his grandma’s home across from Yellowstone Park. I remember his horn rim glasses and Squire briefcase. Maybe we can recognize him at Halsey with a plaque, ceremony, and a musical tribute.”

A fan holds up "Can't Buy A Thrill," Photo by Michael Perlman

A similar version of this feature story has been published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column: 

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