Writings about Music

Velvet Air

Walter Becker

My sense is that the song Aja was definitely inspired by Walter Becker’s love of special places in Maui he eventually called home, the title a poetic and deliberate obfuscation. There is something make-believe about Steely Dan’s music, as if they were eternal teenagers fantasizing about an ideal form of music containing all their favorite elements from the superlative reservoir of American musics and films. Not really rock, jazz or pop, but rather a distilled ideal semblance somewhere over the rainbow beyond previously known forms. (The artists I would say influenced Steely Dan the most would be Chicago, Stevie Wonder, Laura Nyro, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan.) At their best, there surely was “no static at all” and they achieved what they dreamed on a number of songs captured on recordings for eternity. My first personal experience of note with their music happened while housesitting for Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy in Los Angeles during the winter of 1997-1998, recognizing and relating to places and experiences they sang about in songs like Babylon Sisters, Bodhisattva and Deacon Blues. Here in Maui now, I feel Walter Becker’s spirit in confluence with the sunlit dancing waves. I once spied him sitting in the back room of a Lahaina restaurant, a truly inscrutable countenance.

Having mentioned that time I saw Walter Becker at Longhi's in Lahaina, I now wish I had approached to say hello because he was sitting with my friend, Gaylord Combash, an African American sculptor involved with the original Merry Pranksters led by Ken Kesey, who likely would have invited me to join them.

Curious to know if there was any documentation of Gaylord (who passed away too young some years ago) and Kesey, I was heartened to find this passage from Conversations with Ken Kesey edited by Scott F. Parker: I remember the scene there at Palo Alto. Late at night, like three or four in the morning, there was this girl named Bubbles. She began to dance, and this big black friend of ours called Gaylord - we didn't know him well at that time - he sat down at the drums. He didn't know how to drum and she didn't know how to dance. Pretty soon she was watching her shadow and moving to the shadow and he was drumming to her and everybody completely got into it and she was entirely unaware that she was being watched where she was and everybody just watched this thing happen. It was meaningful for both of them. She was dancing with this black shadow and he was playing to this little, nubile nymphet and it went on for about a half-hour to forty-five minutes. It was just so good. I realized, man, this was art in a true form.

Ken Kesey seated in center with Gaylord Combash just left of him.

Gaylord lived outdoors in a jungle-like, improvised wood studio. I played for him recordings of my very first meruvina compositions, including Velvet Air and Grey Wet Green, both pieces inspired by my first visit to Maui. Gaylord was encouraging, expressing enthusiasm for the intricacies and uniqueness of the music. He was also the first person to explain and show to me the elusive and subtle oceanic details of the area off the coast of Lahaina known as Shark Pit for the reef sharks that commonly swim there. Bob Longhi and Jac Holzman were two of Gaylord's myriad clients. He sculpted exquisite wooden bed frames for them in addition to the grandly fashioned upstairs wooden bar at Longhi's.



Lahaina Lanterns, the first part conceived uncharacteristically at a piano - I normally compose without the use of any musical instrument - is a more recent composition inspired by my life in Maui.




While my opportunity to meet Walter Becker wasn't fulfilled, I did get to meet a British musician at the same restaurant on another occasion.

- Michael Robinson, September 2017, Lahaina, Maui


© 2017 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, pianist and musicologist. His 199 albums include 152 albums for meruvina and 47 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University Long Beach and Dominguez Hills.