Walter Becker of Steely Dan (1950-2017): An Appreciation

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Like no other band, Steely Dan proved that jazz and rock could peacefully coexist. While artists such as Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock released pioneering fusion albums in the 1970s, Steely Dan propelled the genre to great crossover success.

Their off-kilter lyrics, Donald Fagen’s deadpan delivery and jazzy keyboards, and Walter Becker’s tasteful bass and guitar work distinguished the band from other rock groups, with their music sounding outside of its era. Classic albums such as Katy Lied (1975) and Aja (1977) remain timeless today, the production pristine and the lyrics addressing issues of romance, insecurity, and disenchantment in an often-humorous way.

Becker’s death invites a renewed appreciation of Steely Dan’s unique contributions to music. Their brand of fusion expanded the possibilities of what rock music could be: sophisticated but still “swinging,” as Becker once told Rolling Stone. “We play rock and roll, but we swing when we play. We want that ongoing flow, that lightness, that forward rush of jazz.”

Walter Becker first met Donald Fagen in 1967 when they were both students at New York’s Bard College, bonding over their mutual love of jazz, among other things. “We liked a lot of the same things: jazz (from the twenties through the mid-sixties), W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, science fiction, Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, and Robert Altman films come to mind. Also soul music and Chicago blues,” Fagen said in a touching tribute to Becker.

They formed Steely Dan (named after a sex toy in William Burrough’s Naked Lunch) in the early 1970s; while they eventually ended up playing with a rotating cast of top session musicians on each album, Becker and Fagen remained the core of the group. In addition to cowriting the song, Becker assumed the bass on their early albums Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972), Countdown to Ecstasy (1973), and Pretzel Logic (1974). After being taking an initial featured solo on the title track of the latter, Becker began to move forward on lead guitar more often – starting with Katy Lied, where he was showcased on both “Black Friday” and “Bad Sneakers.”

As Steely Dan’s fame grew, musicians as varied as Toto’s Jeff Porcaro, Michael McDonald, the Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmit, Jim Keltner, and jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter lined up to play on their albums. Walter Becker more than held his own, handling solo spotlights on “The Fez” from 1976’s The Royal Scam, the final three songs on Aja, the main theme of the 1978 film FM, and the title song on 1980’s Gaucho.

Steely Dan’s early hits such as “Do It Again,” “Reeling in the Years,” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” were immediately accessible with their rock feel, but with each album the duo increasingly challenged audiences with opaque lyrics, extended lengths, and even more jazz-influenced solos. The masterpiece Aja was their most ambitious yet, with a title track that became an eight-minute meditation on surrealism and jazz. “Chinese music under banyan trees / Here at the dude ranch above the sea,” Fagen sings, slight echoes of such music resounding through the song. Co-written by Becker and Fagen, “Aja” is Steely Dan’s version of a rock opera, a track enticing listeners to follow the song’s entire journey.

Outside his work with Steely Dan, Becker recorded two solo albums: 11 Tracks of Whack (1994) and Circus Money (2008). His best known solo tune remains “Book of Liars,” which was given wide exposure on Steely Dan’s 1993-94 reunion tour. The subsequent live album Alive in America features Becker’s vulnerable vocals on the song, a reflection on a doomed love affair. “I waited so long girl and I came so far / To find out you’re not always who you say you are,” he sings, resigned to the relationship’s end. In a calm manner, he proclaims that “there’s a star in the book of liars by your name,” bitterness and profound sadness permeating through his voice.

After reuniting in the early ’90s, Steely Dan released two more albums of original material: Two Against Nature (2000) and Everything Must Go (2003). The former saw Becker and Fagen picking up where they left off on Gaucho, reflecting on shattered dreams (“What a Shame About Me”), creepy and desperate attempts at regaining lost youth (“Janie Runaway”), and the similarities between drug addition and romance (“Negative Girl“). Winning the Grammy for album of the year, Becker and Fagen proved they were still at the top of their game lyrically and musically. While Fagen assumed all lead vocals, Becker employed his signature guitar playing style to punctuate the tracks with sarcasm and humor, most notably on “Cousin Dupree.”

The duo were still touring as Steely Dan when Becker fell ill earlier this summer. Fagen has vowed to uphold Steely Dan’s legacy, but Walter Becker’s absence will definitely be felt. They were indeed “two against nature” in that the duo fearlessly took on ambitious projects, dissolving the boundaries between rock and jazz, writing absurdist lyrics, and defying conventions of the typical length and construction of a Top 40 track.

Playing the guitar as Charlie Parker would a sax solo, while co-writing some of the era’s most mature and engaging music, Walter Becker changed the stereotype of the rock musician. In turn, he elevated the sophistication of the genre itself.

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Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Kit O'Toole
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