|How Walter Becker’s website announced the news of his death.|
The death has been announced of Steely Dan’s Walter Becker. Peter Jones pays tribute.
Walter Becker, who with Donald Fagen founded the jazz-influenced American rock band Steely Dan, has died aged 67.
The duo wrote and recorded a string of successful albums throughout the 1970s, culminating in 1977 with their masterpiece Aja, a collection of seven harmonically complex, moody jazz songs whose musical and lyrical sophistication far surpassed that of any other rock group. Despite its lack of immediacy on the ear, Aja proved internationally popular, selling five million copies and winning a Grammy. Among the world-class session musicians hired for the album were Wayne Shorter, Victor Feldman and Steve Gadd. Jazz players rapidly learned respect: in 1978, Woody Herman released an album of Steely Dan material – Chick, Donald, Walter and Woodrow.
Born on 20 February 1950 in the Forest Hills area of Queens, New York City, Becker endured what has been described as a ‘very rough’ childhood, the details of which have never emerged, even in Brian Sweet’s 1994 biography of the band, Reelin’ in the Years. In part, the humour, cynicism and erudition of Steely Dan’s lyrics seemed to be expressive both of Becker’s unhappy upbringing and of his wide reading, particularly in science fiction.
He was inspired early on to learn the saxophone and play like Charlie Parker, but soon gave up and learned guitar instead. By 1967, after he had enrolled at upstate Bard College, Annandale, his guitar playing caught the attention of Donald Fagen, and the pair quickly formed a personal and creative bond that lasted for the rest of Becker’s life. A mutual love of jazz formed a major part of their early relationship. It is significant that the only non-original tune they ever recorded was Duke Ellington’s East St Louis Toodle-oo, on the Pretzel Logic album.
Bad luck and trouble stalked Becker. His girlfriend Karen Stanley died of a drug overdose in his apartment. After the band’s final album of the decade, 1980’s Gaucho, Becker was hit by a cab in Central Park and retired hurt for the rest of the ’80s, the accident inspiring the title of Brian Sweet’s UK-based fanzine Metal Leg. A long sojourn in Hawaii followed, during which Becker made a serious effort to free himself from his drug dependency and fathered two children.
Straightened out, he re-emerged as a producer for the jazz labels Windham Hill and Triloka, and for the Liverpool band China Crisis for their 1985 album Flaunt the Imperfection. Fagen’s solo project The Nightfly (1982) was as good as any Steely Dan album, but nothing was heard from Becker until 11 Tracks Of Whack, Becker’s own 1994 album, which was received more coolly.
I was privileged to see Steely Dan twice – the first time in 1993, in Hartford, Connecticut, when they re-formed after a 19-year absence from the live stage. A friend and I flew from the UK to catch the gig, just in case that turned out to be the last one. In fact, it wasn’t – they toured several times after that, including some UK dates, and I saw them again at Wembley Arena a few years later. As a live act, they had their faults, particularly an over-reliance on ‘stunt’ guitar solos, and the quality of their later studio recordings was, frankly, poor compared to the early albums.
But they knew their music: my own Steely Dan jazz group, The Mü Orchestra, is named after a characteristic chord used by Becker and Fagen, the addition of a 2nd (or 9th) on a major triad, an attempt, according to Becker in a 2003 interview, to enrich the sound of the chord without making it too jazzy.
In my personal view, Donald Fagen will be devastated by the loss of his friend and professional partner. Walter always seemed the less prominent of the two, perhaps because his singing voice was thin, so that Donald took the vocals and hence the spotlight. But even at Becker’s lowest drug-addled ebb, no cross or bitchy word or hint of disagreement between the two ever emerged in public. They were a tight unit, working on each other’s solo projects: Becker produced Fagen’s second solo album Kamakiriad (1993), whilst Fagen produced 11 Tracks of Whack. In their Steely Dan writing, both music and lyrics were the result of collaboration.
“How do you resolve conflicts?” an interviewer once asked. “We agree,” replied Becker, for once offering a simple and heartfelt response.
The death of Walter Becker marks a very sad day for anyone who loves melodic, witty, intelligent music.