I won’t detail the impact that Steely Dan’s music has had on my life, our lives, the larger culture. There are fans and there are not-fans, and I don’t want to incite that discussion. What I do want to do: express the largest gratitude for the gifts Walter brought to my life. To say that I would not be who I am save his generous and sardonic influence would be an understatement.
When I was 10 our family — my mother and I — moved from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Forest Hills. (The schools were better, my mother was told.) And I found myself the “new kid,” among strangers, whose habits made little sense to me, and with odd geographies to master. I was not happy, nor was I particularly pleasant. I withdrew into my books. I gained 10 pounds. To borrow a phrase: I was lost.
Then I began to find companions. Comrades. Some of them are — and this is a blessing — still in my life today: Adam Duhan, Marc Levitt, Ken Lakritz, a few others. Who helped me navigate this new and unhappy land. And then there was Walter.
Even at 10 there was something older about him, and most certainly wiser. He had his aesthetic down cold, as if received. And was extravagant about letting the rest of us know what to listen to, what to read, what to watch. He gave me my first Borges, my first Nabokov, my first Burroughs. He told me what movies to see. He’d toss music my way — I remember, in particular now, Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity. And if I balked, or was unreceptive, he’d say, “You’re going to like this in a year or so, so why don’t you start now and save yourself some time.” While the rest of us were (awkwardly; clumsily) fashioning our personas, his seemed always to have been there. Part Terry Southern, part Lenny Bruce, but always — as was the case with him, and not yet with us — far more than the sum of his influences.
We’d drink Romilar and watch re-runs of The Million Dollar Movie. (Panic in Year Zero?) We’d take the E train to the Village on Friday nights. And always, always, when the music changed, Walter would be there first: he was our Saknussemm. We were, face it, tragically hip bridge-and-tunnel teenyboppers. But Walter, so wildly talented even then, embodied a deeper, more complex sensibility — and with it, the possibility of a certain dignity. Even as he taught a band of us how to become, to borrow again, gentlemen losers.
We got together a few times when he was at Bard and I was at Cornell — weekends of music and oblivion. Two years later I was living in basements and Walter’s band was on top of the charts. Yet he was never condescending, and tried to help me understand that there was little shame in the fact that I was still lost.
Over the years there were times we were in good touch. In late 1973 I got to watch Walter and Donald cutting (and re-cutting) the lacquer of Pretzel Logic. In 1990 Walter put together a crackerjack jazz band led by Marty Krystall for my wedding. But there were also stretches — decades — when we were not in touch at all.
We reconvened in 2009, corresponded as if little time had elapsed, got together when we found ourselves in the same city. There were some real conversations, the first in a long time, and it was the Walter I remembered best: cynical, literate, unsparing, hilarious. We talked about our lives without having to explain. It was one of the small gifts that getting older can sometimes offer up.
In 2011 Mary Beth and I went to see the band at the Greek, visited Walter briefly in the green room before the concert. This was the gig at which Walter, during the vamp in “Hey Nineteen,” stepped to the microphone and delivered up a droll and lengthy monologue about getting calamitously stoned with my mother back in the day, name-checking her in front of six thousand people. It was a moment of embarrassment, of pride, of mortification, of arrival. But mostly: Of recognition that our lives are long and strange and on a good night, not unwonderful.
That was the last time I saw him. Our correspondence broke down soon after, we lost touch (as we’d done before, and not infrequently). But I always assumed that we’d see each other again, or that I’d wake up one morning to an email from him telling me, once more, who to listen to, who to read. Who to be, really.
That will never happen now. And the loss of that possibility is more devastating than could have been anticipated, or can now be imagined. My debt to him is large and impossible. I’m 10 years old again, and sad, and lost.
Howard A. Rodman is president of the Writers Guild of America West. He wrote the films Joe Gould’s Secret, Savage Grace, and August, and the novel Destiny Express. He is professor and former chair of the writing division of USC's School of Cinematic Arts.