Walter Becker, RIP

Walter Becker slipped away last year, causing barely a ripple in the media. He was half of the writing team of Steely Dan, along with the more forward Donald Fagen, since their days together at Bard College. Their music defined my 1970s,along with that of many of us who were more cerebral than, say, Eagles fans. It is said that they wrote the charts for every so-called solo that their “band” (which also needs to be put in quotes because they never were a band) played. This drove some of the better musicians associated with them, like Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, nuts, but he returned again and again. It was perhaps typical of the hipness and oddness of the Dan of steel that Baxter became a national security expert after 9-11, and was responsible for catching many terrorists, though he still looks like a California hippie and still plays occasionally with the big band, the current incarnation of Steely Dan.

Since Bard days, Steely Dan was really only two people, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, with the entire American jazz and pop songbook in their heads (listen to their arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “East St Louis Toodle-Doo”), and what some say was darkness in their hearts. Jay of Jay and The Americans, who used them as a backup band in days gone by, called them Manson and Starkweather. A critic at, I believe, Time, called them The Grateful Dead of Bad Vibes, showing an almost willful contempt for and ignorance about both the Dead and the Dan. But despite the fact that they were named after a dildo in a William S Burroughs novel and occasionally wrote about mass murderers and cheating gamblers, the most typical Dan hero was a failed romantic, a loser of some essential thing, a melancholic and a stoic, living as best he could. From the Midnight Cruiser on the first album (“I am another gentleman loser…”) through the fellow who until his ship comes in lives “Night by Night” to Deacon Blues, to besotted lovers pursuing pornstars, old men in love with unsuitably young women, the entire populace of Puerto Rico (The Royal Scam) and the fool begging Rikki not to lose his number in what must the beautiful song about a deluded lover ever written, all of Becker and Fagen’s heroes come at last to a worn door in an Asian (or universal? after all, “Klaus and the Rooster”, who sound like Euro- trash mercenaries, are also patrons) bar and whorehouse where they “knock twice, rap with their canes” to find a kind of false peace and security that may be the only kind that exists, here at the Western World.

Such realism is not usually the province of rock bands, nor such musicianship; nor, for that matter, so much submersion of the ego to the music. Walter Becker, the more self- effacing of the pair, died in Maui months ago, and I didn’t even find out until last week. That I am still playing their songbook almost weekly, when they closed entirely in 1980 but for rare big band tours doing “archival” material, is a tribute to the quality of the music they made.

With Baxter, recently

2 thoughts on “Walter Becker, RIP”

  1. Steve,
    That was actually a sad day when Walter Becker passed. Steely Dan played the twin cities three times between 1972 and 1995, and I was at two of the shows. The lineup changed, but, the music was always excellent.
    If you haven’t done so at this late date, do check out “11 Tracks of Whack” a Walter Becker solo effort, even farther out on the dark tangent that was The Dan. He is not remembered as a vocalist, but, this album would convince most that he should be.

  2. I was aware of Becker's passing, and wish now that I'd made the time to write an appreciation like yours then…

    As a kid growing up in the '70s, I initially hated Steely Dan; something about the nasal character of Donald Fagen's voice put me off, plus of course I hadn't yet learnt to appreciate jazz. By the time I was at university, I had become a minor jazz enthusiast and major Dan fan. (I was to discover that this arc—from disdain to rabid, even evangelical enthusiasm—was common among Steely Dan fans my age and younger.)

    Having already worked on what we would now call a classic-rock show with my friends Mikey and Keith, I did a jazz-fusion show ("Desperately Seeking Fusion") at WLUR-FM which prominently featured Becker and Fagen…and then quit after one semester, following a confrontation with the station's idiot jazz director, who stoutly maintained that "Steely Dan isn't jazz"—never mind that mine was specifically a fusion show, and never mind that two of the promotional carts for jazz programming at the station featured music from Fagen's first solo album, The Nightfly.

    And you're absolutely right, Steve, it wasn't just the well-informed and meticulous (okay, control-freakish) musicianship that set Becker and Fagen apart from their contemporaries, it was the writing. Like good novels or short stories, Steely Dan songs have memorable characters: I'll add the designer-drug wizard Kid Charlemagne ("just by chance you crossed the diamond with the pearl"), the un-named book-keeper's son turned desperado of "Don't Take Me Alive" ("I know you're out there, with rage in your eyes, and your megaphones"), and the pathetically enamoured Cousin Dupree to the list, though I suspect we could both go on for days.

    Becker and Fagen's lyrics also betray a taste for obscure cocktails, an odd obsession with footwear, and an eye for topics not generally considered staples of popular music—plenty of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, sure—I love the tongue-in-cheek self-referential "Show Biz Kids"—but also Paleolithic cave art ("The Caves of Altamira"); succession, political and otherwise ("Kings" and "Change of the Guard"); and the inconvenient collapse of civilisation ("King of the World", "Black Friday", and arguably many others from their catalogue.) And while they could indeed be dark, they also wrote "Any Major Dude", one of the loveliest "everything will be all right" ballads ever recorded. Plus, Becker/Fagen could turn an evocative phrase that would turn Lennon/McCartney green with envy: "Like a castle in his corner in a medieval game, I foresee terrible trouble, and I stay here just the same…"

    Farewell, Walter Becker, and long live Steely Dan.


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