Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted bassist-guitarist’s partnership with Donald Fagen yielded classic LPs like ‘Aja,’ ‘Katy Lied’ and ‘Pretzel Logic’
Walter Becker, guitarist, bassist and co-founder of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted band Steely Dan, died Sunday at the age of 67.
Becker’s official site announced the death; no cause of death or other details were provided.
“Walter Becker was my friend, my writing partner and my bandmate since we met as students at Bard College in 1967,” Donald Fagen wrote in a tribute to Becker. “He was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter. He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny.”
Becker missed Steely Dan’s Classic East and West concerts in July as he recovered from an unspecified ailment. “Walter’s recovering from a procedure and hopefully he’ll be fine very soon,” Fagen told Billboard at the time. Becker’s doctor advised the guitarist not to leave his Maui home for the performances.
Becker and Fagen first became collaborators when they were both students at New York’s Bard College. After working as songwriters (Barbra Streisand’s “I Mean to Shine”) and members of Jay and the Americans’ backing band, the duo moved to California in the early Seventies to form Steely Dan – named after a sex toy in William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch – alongside guitarists Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias, drummer Jim Hodder and singer David Palmer.
Following the release of their debut 1972 LP Can’t Buy a Thrill, the lineup would change again with Palmer’s exit; while Steely Dan would routinely rotate musicians, Becker and Fagen remained the group’s core members. Despite the ever-changing lineup, Steely Dan made their stamp on music with a string of pristine, sophisticated albums with “calculated and literary lyrics” that blurred the lines of jazz, pop, rock and soul.
“I’m not interested in a rock/jazz fusion,” Becker told Rolling Stone in 1974. “That kind of marriage has so far only come up with ponderous results. We play rock & roll, but we swing when we play. We want that ongoing flow, that lightness, that forward rush of jazz.”
The Washington Post
Walter Becker was the cynical one hiding behind the guitar
Steely Dan’s Walter Becker wasn’t a flashy guitarist or great singer. His genius came in his partnership with Donald Fagen, which began at Bard College in the late 1960s, stretched over seven albums from 1972 to 1980 and a pair of surprisingly strong late-period records after he and Fagen regrouped in 1993.
And with Becker’s death on Sunday, at 67, we also mourn the end of that partnership, what he and Fagen called a concept more than a rock group: Steely Dan.
Over an eight-year stretch, Steely Dan produced a catalogue like no other. They were as subversive as they were popular, and with songs such as “Peg,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Hey Nineteen,” they were very popular.
Like most partnerships, it’s hard to pin down the division of labor. Becker, in an excellent 2008 interview, danced around the question. “So whatever needs to be done, sometimes I’ve got something to start with, sometimes Donald’s got something to start with,” he said. “Sometimes we really work very closely, collaboratively on every little silly millimeter on the writing of the song and certainly of the records, and sometimes less so.”
The body of work doesn’t lie. Fagen, the group’s keyboardist and singer, and Becker, the bassist at first and later rhythm guitarist, were capable and always interesting as solo artists. But together they were special, with a gift for misdirection and an impeccable taste in music. Who else would cover a 1920s Duke Ellington tune, “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” at a time when Chicago, John Denver and Bad Company ruled the charts?
They started Steely Dan as a regular rock group, recording and touring throughout the early 1970s. Then Fagen and Becker decided they wanted off the road and, after a show in the summer of 1974, stopped touring. In the studio, they crafted their records by recruiting some of the best players of the day, including guitarist Larry Carlton, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and vibraphonist Victor Feldman. Steely Dan’s eventual demise, after 1980s “Gaucho,” came after conflicts with their record company and also with the mother of Becker’s ex-girlfriend. She died of an overdose, and Becker, addicted to drugs at the time, was sued for wrongful death, a case he eventually won. He eventually stopped using.
What made Steely Dan special — and it’s not an overused word in this case — came from the great paradox of making music often as smooth as the Doobie Brothers but as dark, twisted and unreliable as the work of their literary hero, Vladimir Nabokov. Speaking of the Doobies, for a time singer Michael McDonald bounced between both bands.
Postscript: Walter Becker, of Steely Dan
The New Yorker
Walter Becker, a guitarist, bassist, and co-founder of Steely Dan, passed away on Sunday morning. He was sixty-seven, and living in Maui. No official cause of death has been offered publicly, though earlier this year, after Becker skipped shows in New York and Los Angeles, Donald Fagen, his longtime partner in Steely Dan, told Billboard that Becker had been “recovering from a procedure.”
Becker was born in Queens, and he graduated from Stuyvesant, one of New York’s most selective public high schools, in 1968. He and Fagen met at Bard, a liberal-arts college in Annandale-on-Hudson, and started playing together as undergraduates. (At one point, they formed a group called the Leather Canary, which also featured the comedian Chevy Chase, on drums). Steely Dan coalesced in 1971, after Becker dropped out of Bard, and he and Fagen moved west, to California.
The band’s début LP, “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” was released in 1972, producing two charting singles, “Do It Again,” and “Reelin’ in the Years.” Becker was just twenty-two at the time, but—and I say this lovingly, admiringly—the band’s early hits are suffused with midlife yearning. It’s as if they instinctively took to a kind of premature, pansophical adulthood. “Reelin’ in the Years,” especially, is a wise and wistful accounting of how time goes by: “Your everlasting summer / You can see it fading fast / So you grab a piece of something / That you think is gonna last,” Fagen chastises. That these songs were written and sung convincingly by very young men on the loose in Los Angeles is extraordinary.
When Steely Dan first appeared on “American Bandstand,” in 1973, Dick Clark adopted a solemn, nearly professorial keen before describing the band as “thinking person’s music.” The implication was: if you want to party, keep moving along. Fagen and Becker had a reputation for being cerebral, meticulous, and high-minded. Their songs are terrifically complex, structurally—mapping one harmonically could take days. The transitions between phases are so expert as to feel invisible, yet the cumulative effect is nonetheless transporting: when a person reappears on the other side of a Steely Dan song, she feels as if she’s been floated somewhere different. It’s disorienting in the way that waking up to a new season is disorienting. It’s not uncommon to look back and think, Wait, what day is it?
Rickie Lee Jones’ Poignant Tribute to Steely Dan’s Walter Becker
Singer Rickie Lee Jones is a longtime Steely Dan fan who collaborated with the late Walter Becker on her 1989 album Flying Cowboys. In recent years, Jones was asked to serve as opener during Steely Dan’s Carnegie Hall residencies in New York, where she joined the band onstage during their set. Following Becker’s death September 3rd, Jones penned a tribute to her friend and producer, which you can read below:
I first heard Steely Dan back in Kansas City, Missouri, where I ended up living with my dad after running away from home a second summer in a row. It was 1970 and I was just 15 years old. “Do It Again” was playing on the radio that summer night. I had just dropped some acid and I was on my way to see Led Zeppelin for their KC concert on their first USA tour. My date was a fat guy I had just met – him driving by and said, “Hey you wanna go to a concert?” He had high hopes I guess, and I just wanted to get out of the house. What I remember more than Led Zeppelin though is “Do It Again” drumming through the twilight heat, and the joy of all that Victor Feldman percussion.
Sexy. Contained. Because what “the Dan” accomplished was this: They introduced a new idea into the musical conversation of the time. It was the idea that intelligent music was cool. In a year where drum solos lasted minutes, quarter hours even, and singers screamed – a lot. Steely Dan made it cool to be educated. It is safe to say that they are the beginning of college rock.
There, right there, that’s where that idea begins. Two homely guys who write with a fortitude that no one else processed. None of this emotional crap. They were all business. Which led to sophistication. Which is how they are categorized by punk rockers today. Which is kind of funny, because they loved the simplicity of the blues and 12 bar rock & roll. Yes, they were, more or less, responsible for the drum machine (built by their engineer Roger Nichols). But I like to think that was some kind of punishment for being so exacting from every player they worked with.
By the time I started college, 1973, “Reelin’ in the Years” had become a college anthem. And now with the release of Countdown to Ecstasy, kids were bringing the record just to stare at the cover. It was holy ground; it was biblical. It was also cynical and kind of… well… women-hating. They seemed to really be obsessed with women they did not really like. I would come to understand some of how that came about, personal information I am not prepared to share, even though Walter has died. Those heartaches go with him to his grave.