What Steely Dan can teach us about "Negative Capability"—Requiescat in pace Walter Becker (1950-2017)

Walter Becker (photo by Arielinson)

Job 42:1-6

“Gaucho” by Walter Becker & Donald Fagan
from the 1980 LP of the same name

Just when I say
“Boy we can't miss
You are golden”
Then you do this
You say this guy is so cool
Snapping his fingers like a fool

One more expensive kiss-off
Who do you think I am?
Lord I know you’re a special friend
But you don’t seem to understand
We got heavy rollers
I think you should know
Try again tomorrow

Can’t you see they’re laughing at me?
Get rid off him
I don’t care what you do at home
Would you care to explain?

Who is the gaucho, amigo?
Why is he standing
In your spangled leather poncho
And your elevator shoes?
Bodacious cowboys
Such as your friend
Will never be welcome here
High in the Custerdome

What I tell you
Back down the line?
I’ll scratch your back
You can scratch mine
No he can’t sleep on the floor
What do you think I’m yelling for?

I’ll drop him near the freeway
Doesn’t he have a home?
Lord I know you’re a special friend
But you refuse to understand
You’re a nasty schoolboy
With no place to go
Try again tomorrow

Don’t tell me he’ll wait in the car
Look at you
Holding hands with the man from Rio
Would you care to explain?

Who is the gaucho, amigo?
Why is he standing
In your spangled leather poncho
With the studs that match your eyes?
Bodacious cowboys
Such as your friend
Will never be welcome here
High in the Custerdome

From “‘Gaucho’: The Sardonic Style of Steely Dan” by Stephen Holden — New York Times, January 18, 1981

[The LP] Gaucho’s satire is so oblique that the songs avoid sounding snidely hip in the manner of Frank Zappa, one of Steely Dan’s obvious influences. Their humor is compassionate, for they see the struggle to stay cool as noble in addition to farcical. Instead of delivering broadsides, they sidle up to the scenes they describe and pick out oddly telling details.

Their perspective is at once far-sighted and clinically fascinated. It’s also emotionally double-edged, for despite its coolness, the music is quite beautiful. With its crystalline keyboard textures and diaphanous group vocals, Gaucho contains the sweetest music Steely Dan has ever made.

From John Keats and ‘negative capability’ by Stephen Hebron
A British Library talk from May 2014

In December 1817 John Keats was returning from the Christmas pantomime with his friends Charles Wentworth Dilke and Charles Brown. On the walk home, he later told his brothers George and Tom, he got into a ‘disquisition’ with Dilke on a number of subjects:

several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.

It is a famous passage; and it is entirely characteristic of Keats that he should come up with one of his most telling phrases (‘Negative Capability’) in such an impromptu fashion, without preamble or lengthy explanation. His language is not immediately clear, but richly suggestive and idiosyncratic.
    What does Keats mean by ‘negative capability’? Clearly, he is using the word ‘negative’ not in a pejorative sense, but to convey the idea that a person’s potential can be defined by what he or she does not possess – in this case a need to be clever, a determination to work everything out. Essential to literary achievement, Keats argues, is a certain passivity, a willingness to let what is mysterious or doubtful remain just that. His fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he suggests, would do well to break off from his relentless search for knowledge, and instead contemplate something beautiful and true (‘a fine verisimilitude’) caught, as if by accident, from the most secret part (‘Penetralium’) of mystery. The experience and intuitive appreciation of the beautiful is, indeed, central to poetic talent, and renders irrelevant anything that is arrived at through reason. Keats ends his brief discussion of negative capability by concluding that ‘with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration’.

What Steely Dan can teach us about "Negative Capability"— Requiescat in pace Walter Becker (1950-2017)

To jazz and rock musicians of my generation, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, collectively known as “Steely Dan”, represent a unique pinnacle in the field of popular music. As my friend, band-mate, pianist and rock journalist Chris Ingham put it, “Only two people in the world understand how jazz licks, R&B rhythms, pulp novels, and Napoleonic history combine to make great pop music.”

As some of you may have heard, Walter Becker died last week and this inevitably sent me back his records. In between re-listening to them I was doing some reading around Keats’ idea of “negative capability” and this unusual juxtaposition meant I accidentally discovered, much to my surprise, that Becker and Fagen may well have been for me the people from whom I first began to learn how, on the one hand, to recognize and accept the negative capability found in the work of certain artists, writers and thinkers and, on the other hand, how personally to begin to cultivate it myself, at least as far as I was able. Because developing this capability helps a person see, better understand and live rather more humbly and creatively than we often do with our significant human, all too human limitations, I’ve increasingly come to think of negative capability as vital to all decent, human well-being and I couldn’t ignore this unexpected opportunity to offer you all a relatively accessible way to “get it” yourself via just one of Becker and Fagen’s many songs, “Gaucho”, from their 1980 LP of the same name which, the following year, aged just sixteen, I borrowed from Clacton Town’s Public Lending Library.

Although as a teenager and budding jazz and rock bass-player I found myself well able to connect with Becker and Fagen’s music, when it came to their lyrics the story was very different and I often found myself struggling to figure out what on earth they were singing about. They wrote in what was to me an alien, yet very attractive kind of surrealistic, American, street-wise, downer, hipster slang, using a vocabulary and set of cultural references that only partially overlapped with my own, for the most part, very English, ones. Even when I did feel I had some kind of grasp on the basic stories Becker and Fagan seemed to be telling me, I often remained acutely aware that I was utterly baffled by dozens of seemingly important details the songs contained. However, despite this problem — and at the time I did see it as a problem — I was so completely captivated by the sound of their music that I was able to rest content with what I still thought would turn out to be my half-knowledge about the meaning of their songs.

Before we go on let’s briefly remind ourselves of Keats’ own definition of negative capability so we have it in mind as we proceed: it is when any person “is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Firstly, please be aware that in using this phrase Keats was not wanting to dismiss or preclude all attempts to reach after fact and reason — that would be madness. After all, there are clearly many facts and reasons in this world that in both the natural science and the humanities could and, in my opinion, should strenuously and tenaciously be reached after. Our world would have been in the past, and will be in the future, all the poorer were we ever persuaded by the Donald Trumps and Michael Goves of this world to think otherwise. Bearing this in mind, when it came to the lyric of “Gaucho” it was, therefore, perfectly reasonable for my sixteen year old self to think that there were ways to reach after the song’s facts and reasons. Surely, I said to myself, it was in principle possible to look-up or learn about some, or even all, of the words and references the song contained and that this, in turn, would make the song comprehensible to me in a way it currently was not. This belief turned out to be true but, as you will see in a  bit, only very partially so.

However, as I mentioned, in the early (pre-internet) 80s I couldn’t look-up or ask anyone knowledgeable about these things and it was here that I began to learn the art of something closely related to negative capability, namely patience. Were I to continue to engage with Steely Dan’s work then I was simply going to have to say to myself something like: Look, I really like the sound of their songs and lyrics so I’m just going to have to trust Becker and Fagen as songwriters and learn to remain patiently content with which I thought was my current but temporary half-knowledge. I think I was able to resist becoming irritated by this situation because I understood clearly that, although I could make some educated guesses about the song's meaning, there and then, I had no way of finding out for sure what Becker and Fagen actually meant by “kiss-off”, “special friend”, “heavy rollers”, “bodacious” or “Custerdome.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary on my bedroom shelf didn’t include these terms and I could at be grateful that, thanks to a love of westerns, at least I knew a gaucho was a South American cowboy.

An important point to grasp at this point in my narrative, is that my remaining “content with half knowledge” was at the time only a provisional contentment. I was able to avoid engaging in any irritable reaching after fact and reason because I still thought that at some later point in time I’d be be in a position to figure out the full story behind what Becker and Fagen were singing about. “Have patience, dear boy” I said to myself.

Now fast forward twenty years to 2000 when my aforementioned friend Chris Ingham (who shared my passion for Steely Dan’s work) got the chance to interview Becker and Fagan in New York for Mojo magazine on the occasion of the release of their first Steely Dan record since “Gaucho”. Naturally, when he got back to the UK I quizzed Chris closely about the experience and, at one point in our conversation, the subject of their song-writing technique came up and I expressed to Chris my continued bafflement with so many of their lyrics. Of course, twenty more years of life as a professional bass-player hanging out with many American musicians had passed since I first heard “Gaucho” and this meant I’d learnt considerably more hipster slang than I knew when I was 16 and I had became reasonably confident that I knew what, in the context of this song anyway, “kiss-off”, “special friend”, “heavy rollers” and “bodacious” meant. “Custerdome”, however, remained a mystery but I’ll tell you about this word in a moment. But for all this so much about the song remained a puzzle and I realized I still wanted to know if there were a “real” story behind it? Chris, sensitive to my bafflement and much more knowledgeable about the band, kindly told me something about how they wrote their lyrics.

It seems that at various times they had admitted to enjoying bringing a listener into the middle of a real or imagined overheard conversation — perhaps in a noisy downtown bar or restaurant in LA or New York — whose beginnings, overall context and ending remain, definitively, out of reach — even for them. If the song “Gaucho” is taken to be one of those overheard conversations — and perhaps it is or perhaps it isn’t — then even Becker and Fagen don’t really know who is the gaucho, nor why on earth he was standing in some other unknown person’s spangled leather poncho and elevator shoes and, although they may feel inspired to make some guesses, neither do they really know what any of the other crazy things mentioned in the song were truly about. And the “Custerdome”? Well, it turns out that Becker and Fagen simply made that up and, in a rare moment of candidness — for they don’t really like talking about their own understandings of, or interpretations about, their own songs — Becker and Fagen let it slip that it “exists only in [their] collective imagination. In the Steely Dan lexicon it serves as an archetype of a building that houses great corporations.” If they hadn’t told us this we would never, could never, have known for sure. Perhaps, not surprisingly, it turns out that this willingness to invent things and terms is also part of their regular song-writing technique. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in July 2011 Becker admitted that both of them “love inventing slang. For example, in ‘Josie’, there’s a street gang using a weapon called the ‘battle apple’. It sounded better than any real weapon we could think of.” What exactly the Custerdome or a battle-apple might look like is then, inevitably, left entirely up to each individual’s imagination. (Personally I’d guess the Custerdome is something like Trump Tower and I can easily imagine the kind of “battle-apple” many people would like to be hurling at it on a daily basis.)

These vital snippets of information — certain facts and reasons I had, despite my best intentions, sometimes irritably reached after — helped me suddenly to understand that, as artists, Becker and Fagen were constantly employing their negative capability. From that day on I could see that their extraordinary potential as lyricists and musicians was more often than not defined by what they didn’t possess. Lyrically speaking they often didn’t possess at least half of this or that (real or imagined) overheard conversation, nor did they possess any full idea of what might lie behind their characters’ (real or imagined) odd turns of phrase, terminology or actions. Additionally, they were often quite happy to fill-in some of the gaps in their (real or imagined) stories with things that they didn’t possess because they didn’t exist in the first place, things such as Custerdomes, battle-apples and many more besides. Also, as composers of music, despite being themselves phenomenally gifted and knowledgeable musicians and improvisers themselves, they also understood that an important quality of their music was dependent on the sound and improvisational imagination and skills of other jazz and rock musicians — so, even as Becker and Fagen shaped their music with obsessive care their overall wonderful sound was not entirely theirs either. In short I suddenly began to see that everywhere in their work their negative capability was powerfully evident and I realized I was looking at two people who had reached the height of their creative powers by, as Stephen Hebron says, adopting at key moments in the compositional and recording process a “certain passivity, a willingness to let what is mysterious or doubtful remain just that.”

Now all the above is, of course, the basic lesson I learnt from them about how to recognise negative capability at work in another artist but what about the lesson I suggested I had learnt from them about cultivating this negative capability in myself?

Well, as I’ve grown older, and despite often having been tempted  to engage in much irritable reaching after fact and reason (especially in the domains of theology and philosophy), I’ve slowly but surely become aware that, not only must I continue patiently to accept my half-knowledge of so many things about which I could in principle know much, much more, but also to recognise, as did the scientist J. B. S. Haldane (1892–1964), that I must patiently come to accept that “the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose (Possible Worlds and Other Papers, 1927, p. 286, emphasis his). I realized only this week that all those hours and hours and years and years spent listening to and thinking about Becker and Fagan’s songs were far from wasted because they really were key in helping me come to terms, deep in my bones, that I will always only have, at best, half-knowledge about most things (including the meaning and existence, or not, of gauchos in spangled leather ponchos or gods in gilded heavenly realms) and that I must, therefore, learn that there are times when I must simply remain calm and quiet in the face of so many uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. It also means admitting, along with Job, that I have often been tempted to utter “what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” and to see I really should more often “repent in dust and ashes” for my painfully human, all too human tendencies to hubristical behaviour.

So, go well dear Mr Becker and, even though I so often didn't have a clue what you were writing about, I’ll miss your negative capability beyond measure.

The conversation immediately after the address and musical offering in the church this morning was very lively and one topic which came up was introduced by someone who was worried that my address could be read as a support of post-truth rhetoric. I demurred saying that I had tried to make it clear in the address that I (and Keats) saw there most certainly was a place in our culture for the rigorous seeking out of fact and reason in both the natural sciences and the humanities and that to loose this would be a tragedy. My concern in the address was, in part, to say that men and women cannot live by fact and reason alone and that good and beautiful rhetoric and story-telling (based on artists' negative capability) has a vital place in a well rounded culture and that this was something often forgotten by the liberal/leftist culture which often placed too much weight on the use of fact and reason to do everything that is required in a good society. In connection with this I pointed the congregation to an important pre-Second World War review by the English poet, literary critic and mathematician and mountaineer Michael Roberts (1902-1948). He wrote it in 1935 for The Listener about Leonard Woolf's book, Quack, Quack!, and it has been reprinted in Michael Roberts—selected poems and prose edited by Frederick Grubb (Carcanet Press, Manchester 1980, p. 109).

It strikes me that Roberts' words still speak powerfully to the liberal/left's continued failure in this country (and elsewhere) to provide a rhetorically strong, progressive and poetic vision for society in the face of the awful increasingly nationalist post-truth rhetoric and visions being offered up by those on the right of British and American politics and, of course, elsewhere such as in India under Narendra Modi.

MR WOOLF is a passionate champion of reason—too passionate and too bitter to be the perfect exponent of the quiet methods of discussion which he advocates. Civilisation, he says, is a precarious thing, imposed upon the community by a few people, mostly belonging to the comparatively wealthy class. But, he argues, most people remain savages at heart, and a time comes when, if continuity is to be preserved, the advantages of civilisation—the wealth as well as the orderly civilised habits—must be shared by all. At that time, many of the ruling group prefer to destroy their civilisation rather than to share it. Reason is then attacked as a degenerate weakness, and all that is primitive and savage in man is revived. The primitive fear of the stranger is encouraged, ‘national’ sentiment is fostered, the truth about political events is stifled, the individual is subjugated to the tribe, and each man, instead of thinking earnestly about the problems of his age, salutes a tribal leader whose oracular pronouncements are regarded with superstitious awe. Against all this, and against similar but less developed tendencies in England, Mr Woolf believes in the civilised patriotism of a Pericles, in reason, in government by free discussion, and in the gradual abolition of all class distinctions. These are chill ideas for most people, especially when treated unrhetorically: they call to the future, not the deeply rooted past, there is a greater appeal in the resonant claptrap of the new dictators. Mr Woolf is acute, bitter, and amusing: he quotes some fine nonsense from his enemies, and his exposure of the dangers which they offer to what most of us consider a civilised and decent life deserves to be widely read, but there is a deep pessimism about his writing, a sense of weariness and futility, spurred for a moment into protest. He knows that it is useless to demonstrate that Mussolini’s speeches are empty of constructive thought, yet he can think of no other approach to the problem. He gibes at the mummification of Lenin’s body, yet he ignores the practical achievements of Bolshevism and Fascismo. A fascist would call him the typical ‘anaemic’, ‘futile’, ‘degenerate’ pacifist intellectual whose liberalism has broken down before the overpowering confidence of Fascism and Communism. There is some truth in this, but Mr Woolf does not look for the flaw in himself and his own doctrines. He attacks Carlyle, Spengler, Bergson and Keyserling, for their varying betrayals of the intellectual-liberal position. He mocks at intuitions and absolute beliefs, they are all quackery, but he does not see the limitations of reason. Reason can show us how a thing can best be done, but it cannot modify or co-ordinate our basic inclinations, as religion and poetry attempt to do, and as the politician needs to do. We need some criteria of right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, as well as of truth and falsity, and we need to persuade others to accept those criteria. The problem is not to destroy all rhetoric but to teach people to distinguish between good rhetoric and bad, good poetry and bad. The liberal-rationalist assumes that he can get on without rhetoric or poetic use of language at all, and that every relation of power between individuals is bad: consequently he speaks only to people like himself, and the field is left to the quacks with their false rhetoric, their sentimental poetry and their bullying use of the power of personality.
          Mr Woolf prints some amusing comparative photographs of Mussolini, Hitler, and the Hawaiian War God, Kukailimoku. The similarities of expression are very striking, and there is certainly a case for arguing that the psychological effects of the faces are, and are intended to be, the same, but heaven help us all if this method of argument is to become general.