Walter Becker (1950-2017)

“I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.”
–Donald Fagen, in a statement

When you read up on the pop era’s most memorable songwriting teams (Leiber-Stoller, Bacharach-David, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Goffin-King, John-Taupin), it usually emerges that each member was generally responsible for a particular element of the song. One guy does the music, the other the lyrics, maybe they both help arrange the song, but the division of labor is clear. Even Lennon and McCartney had moved away from their “eyeball to eyeball” writing sessions by the end, their shared credit just a gentlemen’s agreement.

The long and innovative collaboration of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen — whose music under the Steely Dan moniker is every bit the equal of those other songwriting teams — was, by all accounts, a genuine and inextricable partnership. It’s not possible to delineate with any assurance who contributed what to each song. Their mutual appreciation of jazz and of sci-fi/beat literature meant they were already in sync, musically and lyrically, when they started to write songs together on demand as Brill Building-type songwriters, and it continued when they created out of thin air a sound that to this day carries an aura and mystique that is unmistakably theirs.

Of course, each member brought his own sensibility to bear. Despite Fagen’s arranging genius (and I believe he is one), without Becker, Steely Dan would have been exactly what its critics always thought they were: antiseptic, vacuum-sealed, and bloodless. Becker brought the edge to Steely Dan (hard-earned, it turned out), an attitude that all the yacht rock successors who superficially imitated their sound could never match (I’m looking at you, Toto).

On this day of Walter Becker’s death, as I play the music from the nine Steely Dan albums and his two solo albums, it occurs to me that I didn’t really know much beyond Wikipedia-level surface details about a man whom I consider a cultural hero. In recent years, Fagen has put himself out there a little more (publishing an autobiography), but Becker was always more circumspect. Judging from Fagen’s statement, there was some long-lasting psychic shit he dealt with from the beginning, plus the more garden-variety rock star addictions and travails in the 1970s that he, through “sheer Bavarian willpower,” overcame.

Here’s what I know: He was not Steely Dan’s lead singer, but he was in every way 50% of the enterprise. His guitar playing was a model of crispness and economy. He was a first-rate lyricist, capable of telling a funny story, both cryptic and complete, in 4 minutes. He could very easily have been a novelist, so adroit was he with turns of phrase and character details.

At the age of 58, he released a pathetically under-heard album called Circus Money, which I genuinely believe is the best of the post-reunion (1993) Steely Dan/solo albums (though there are plenty of partisans who believe that honor belongs to Becker’s first solo album, 11 Tracks of Whack). Circus Money has that familiar, smooth sound being played by the usual stable of SD touring musicians while introducing a deep, in-the-pocket reggae groove (anchored by Becker on bass and the great Keith Carlock on drums). And it’s a goddamned lyrical bounty, each line sparkling with diamond-cut wit:

For the fun or for the money
For the fuck of it or just because
Listen friend, this is no damn picnic
But let’s imagine for a minute that it was
Who will feast on this buzzard’s banquet?
Who will render my heroic bust?
Who will choke on my lachrymose musings?
Who will eat my zero dust?
Who will wear this puke-streaked tunic?
Who shall gorge on this cup of spleen?
Who will sing about the good, bad, and ugly
And all and everything in between?

I think what I’ve admired about Becker and Fagen most of all was their songcraft, their ruthless devotion to making each tune sound its best, often at their own expense. If that meant not performing on their own records, so be it. If that meant surrounding themselves with superior musicians on their own stage, so be it again. Everything was in service to the songs. The Steely Dan name, and the Becker/Fagen songwriting credit that came with it, was an assurance to the listener, an aural handshake, that you were getting the absolute best they had to offer, no compromises allowed, no expense spared.

That polished approach is of course the opposite of what a rock-and-roll band is supposed to be, and it’s likely the main reason some people could never stand them, but what can I tell you, those people are wrong, small-hearted, and not to be trusted. The Steely Dan universe, with its cast of shady characters, flawless musicianship and sumptuous jazz chords, awaits you, o skeptical listener!

I will leave you with this excerpt from a Rolling Stone profile that appeared after their “comeback” album, Two Against Nature, was released in 2000. I was a nascent fan then, but this anecdote has stayed with me ever since, and is a fitting tribute to the enduring friendship of these two men who have given me untold hours of pleasurable listening and helped shape my personality in hard-to-define ways:
During the period when Becker was in retreat in Hawaii, Fagen lived in New York. Whenever he went to a club to hear jazz, he approached the musicians between sets and said that he owned records they had made or mentioned a song of theirs that he admired. Then he asked them to autograph a napkin for him, and to include the inscription “To Walter.” “They had no idea who I was,” he says. “They thought I was ‘Waiter.'” The autographs were a play on Fagen and Becker’s shared enthusiasms and on elements of their friendship.
“We used to go for walks in the city when we were writing songs,” Becker says, “and one day we went to York and Seventieth, which is a little out of the way, and we saw this club, a picture window with a doorway, and we started to amuse ourselves by saying, ‘Look, it’s the club where all the jazz greats who are dead still play. Ellington and Monk and Coltrane and Parker, and it’s the original music, and the old arrangements and the original styles, and there are beautiful waitresses and cheap beer.'”
Where he was sitting when he made these remarks was with Fagen in a room by the bar at the Carlyle Hotel, a room with a high ceiling and a carpet and a huge flower arrangement. We were having tea. There was a plate several tiers high of small sandwiches on our table. When I mentioned the autographed napkins, Fagen said that he used to put them in an envelope and send them to Becker and that he kept up the practice for several years.
“Just to keep him going,” Fagen said.
Becker, sitting beside him, made no reply. He appeared to be examining his hands in his lap. Fagen shrugged and looked away. “Or so I thought,” he said.
Raising his eyes, Becker said, “I didn’t die.”
Rest in peace, Walter, and thank you.

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