Tuesday, April 19, 2011

An Immortal Passes

The world of music has lost one of its most polished artists, an innovator whose work has stunned you over and over again without you knowing his name. If you own the Steely Dan album "Countdown to Ecstasy," you have seen the most memorable image of him:

Back of the "Countdown to Ecstasy" cover: left to right:
Jim Hodder, Walter Becker, Denny Dias, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter,
Donald Fagen, and . . .
 Click on that image to enlarge it, or look more closely and you will see a disembodied hand reaching up to manipulate the faders on the mixer.

That's Roger Nichols.

Roger (the Immortal) Nichols.

Roger Nichols engineered every Steely Dan track you have ever heard, as well as much of Donald Fagen's solo work ("The Nightfly; "Kamakiriad"). Engineered them to absolute sonic perfection. He won Grammies for four of them, and one for his work with John Denver.

He died on April 9 at 66 of pancreatic cancer, destitute from medical expenses.

If you are a Steely Dan lover -- oh, there are some out there who aren't, but they're probably vegans or wiccans or fish whisperers or something -- you will know that on those albums, you can hear every instrument, perfectly balanced, clear as a bell.  You can hear what the singer is singing.  The albums are quiet when they're supposed to be quiet. Ironic: One of the most distinctive sonic features of those Steely/Fagen albums is what you don't hear.

Having produced a CD, I am here to tell you that the contributions of the technicians are not merely technical -- they are unavoidably musical. Nichols's contribution was particularly vivid; he invented devices and techniques designed to produce a perfect beat on the drum tracks. But his greatest gift was to be as exacting and patient as the two most notoriously demanding artists in modern popular music, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.  He supposedly got his nickname -- which appeared in the credits on the Steely Dan albums -- from his ability to survive their epic grueling recording sessions, in one case brushing off an jolting encounter with some improperly grounded equipment.

Put on "Aja."  If you have it on vinyl, even better.  Cue up "Black Cow."  Be startled by those pellucid opening figures.  And breathe in deep for Roger Nichols.

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