One-half of one of my favorite bands died over Labor Day weekend.
Walter Becker, founding member of Steely Dan, left the planet on Sept. 3, at the age of 67. No cause of death was given, but he had suffered from the Rock and Roller’s Disease earlier in life, and also had been seriously injured in an accident in his late 20s.
I wrote at length about Steely Dan a year ago, after checking off a bucket-list item by seeing Becker, long-time musical partner and Dan cofounder Donald Fagen and their touring band in Milwaukee. I opined at that time that Fagen was the more influential musician in the “band,” which for much of its existence was more of a studio project than a performing ensemble. But Becker was not an insignificant musical talent.
It was his talent on guitar that brought he and Fagen together initially, after the latter heard Becker playing the six-string in a campus cafe at Bard College in New York, where both were students. The duo played in several bands at school, one of which included fellow BC undergrad (and Saturday Night Live legend) Chevy Chase on drums.
Becker and Fagen moved to New York City in 1969, the former leaving Bard without graduating, to try their hands in the songwriting business. Their accomplishments there included working with Jay and the Americans (under assumed names) and writing the soundtrack for a 1971 Richard Pryor motion picture.
The duo then relocated to California and formed Steely Dan — showing their satirical edge right away, by taking their band's name from a sexual appliance in a William Burroughs novel. Steely Dan’s original lineup included guitarist Jeff Baxter, who would gain fame as a member of the Doobie Brothers.
Becker played mostly bass at that point, but by the group’s third album, Pretzel Logic, the use of a session bassist moved him back to guitar. But throughout Steely Dan’s successful run in the 1970s, he and Fagen shared writing credit on all the songs — with the exception of a Duke Ellington number on Pretzel, and the title tune on Gaucho, which borrowed too much from a Keith Jarrett composition, legal action resulting in the jazz artist getting co-credit and a piece of the royalties.
Gaucho turned out to be the last studio album of Steely Dan’s first stage, problems involved in its recording sessions being part of the reason for the dissolution of the Becker-Fagen partnership in 1981. But Becker also had had increasing personal problems in the years before the breakup, including drug addiction. The 1978 drug-overdose death of his girlfriend led to lawsuit; later that year, he was hit by a New York City taxi and seriously injured.
By the time of the Steely Dan breakup, Becker had started a family and cleaned up his act, and later moved to Hawaii, where he had an avocado farm. But he also remained involved in music, producing albums for a number of artists and groups, including Ricky Lee Jones and China Crisis (he was also a member of that U.K. New Wave band for a short time).
The work in production led to his reconnecting with Fagen, to work on the first album by singer-songwriter Rosie Vela. He and his Steely Dan partner wrote together several times over the next five years, although no recordings resulted, and Becker played with Fagen’s New York Rock and Soul Revue in 1991. They were getting the band back together again, formally reuniting to tour in 1993.
Becker produced Fagen’s second solo album, Kamakiriad, that year, Fagen returning the favor for Becker’s first solo project, 1994’s 11 Tracks of Whack. The reunion didn’t produce a new Steely Dan album, though, until 2000, when Two Against Nature came out. Becker shared in four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, for that work,
Becker had continued to work since then, Steely Dan touring regularly and putting out another studio album, Everything Must Go, in 2003. He also continued to produce and perform on other artists’ recordings, and released his second solo album, Circus Money, in 2008.
Again, I think that Fagen was the more influential half of the Steely Dan duo, part of the evidence being the the two artists’ solo albums. I have yet to hear Circus Money, but 11 Tracks isn’t as strong as either of Fagen’s LPs. And while I wouldn’t characterize his singing voice as Fagen’s strongest suit, the lone Becker lead vocal on a Steely Dan album (“Slang of Ages,” from Everything) and the vocals on 11 Tracks argue that the band was better when the former was doing the singing.
Becker was a pretty good guitarist, and he proved that when he stepped forward for a solo during the concert I attended a year ago.But part of the genius of Steely Dan was his and Fagen’s acknowledgment of their limitations, and that to accomplish what they wanted to do musically, they needed to bring in hired guns to play. Fagen was front and center on the keyboards at that Milwaukee concert, and Becker played six-string throughout, but they had an outstanding guitarist and keyboardist doing a lot of the heavy lifting.
Becker’s bigger contribution, no doubt, was to the songwriting, his sense of humor perhaps largely responsible for the erudite, gimlet-eyed satirical flair in Steely Dan’s lyrics. Fagen alluded to that in a memorial he wrote after his musical partner’s death, saying Becker “was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny,” while also praising his intelligence, musicianship and songwriting skills.
Anyway, The Music lost a significant talent Sept. 3. But Fagen says he intends to keep Steely Dan’s music alive, through which Walter Becker will continue to live, too.