February 20, 1950 – September 03, 2017
Classic Rock bids a heartfelt goodbye, and thank you for the music, to Walter Becker, one half of Steely Dan… How to get Gene Simmons to visit your house ($50,000 is all it takes)… Welcome back H.e.a.t, Gentle Giant and Galactic Cowboys… Say hello to Lukas Nelson and Gold Key, say goodbye as well to Holger Czukay, Dave Hlubek, Grant Hart, Don Williams…
Walter Becker, the bassist, guitarist and co-founder of Steely Dan, has passed away due to as yet undisclosed causes. The 67-year-old was due to appear with Steely Dan at the upcoming BluesFest shows in the UK and Ireland. According to his Steely Dan partner Donald Fagen, Becker had been “recovering from a procedure” of an unspecified nature.
Back in the summer, having been advised by doctors not to leave his Maui home, Becker sat out the band’s concerts in New York and Los Angeles, where he was deputised by Larry Calton, the noted session guitarist who appeared on Steely Dan’s 1980 album, Gaucho, among others.
Soon after the loss of his colleague, Fagen said in a statement: “I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band”, confirming their spot at BluesFest, though as this issue of Classic Rock went to press Donald also cancelled the remainder of a tour with his other band, the Nightflyers, due to illness.
Becker and Fagen met in 1967 while studying at Bard College in New York. Together the pair forged an instant writing connection. Fagen recalls: “We liked a lot of the same things: jazz (from the 1920s through the mid-60s), WC Fields, the Marx Brothers, science fiction, Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, and Robert Altman films come to mind. Also soul music and Chicago blues.”
“They never came out of their room, they stayed up all night,” adds Terence Boylan, another musician based at Bard. “They looked like ghosts – black turtlenecks, and skin so white that it looked like yogurt. Absolutely no activity, chainsmoking Lucky Strikes and dope.”
Four years later the pair followed an associate called Gary Katz who had become a staff producer for ABC Records, relocating to California to become staff writers for the label, where they formed the nucleus of a revolving group of musicians known as Steely Dan, named after an oversized, steam-powered strap-on vibrator they’d read about in Naked Lunch, a novel by William S. Burroughs.
Having abandoned the notion of forming an actual band that at first included guitarists Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter and Denny Dias, drummer Jim Hodder and vocalist David Palmer, over the next decade Becker and Fagen drew in the cream of the musicians’ world to create their Steely Dan albums – often esoteric in nature but smooth as silk, and pieced together in the studio with levels of care and scrutiny that separated the men from the boys.
Says Fagen: “Walter had a very rough childhood – I’ll spare you the details. Luckily, 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. Like a lot of kids from fractured families, he had the knack of creative mimicry, reading people’s hidden psychology and transforming what he saw into bubbly, incisive art.”
From Can’t Buy A Thrill in 1972 to the aforementioned Gaucho, Steely Dan ruled the FM Radio airwaves, seducing their listeners with an erudite, often darkly humoured style of rock that drew from many other areas to produce something unique. Featuring the talents of almost 40 players including Michael McDonald on backing vocals, 1977s Aja, their first platinum-selling record, is widely considered a watermark for both the band and for the genre of jazz rock. As über-perfectionists, both themselves and the poor sods that they hired, touring was largely undertaken under sufferance. Quick witted and dry as the Sahara, together Becker and Fagen struck fear into interviewers, especially when grilled in union. When Classic Rock spoke to them during the promotion of their comeback disc Two
Against Nature, writer Philip Wilding began – not unreasonably – by asking why they had felt it necessary to take a 20-year break.
“I exploded sometime around 1980, I think, but they put all the pieces back together again,” responded Becker, known to have had a drug period during the time-frame concerned. “We didn’t really fall out or anything, I think we were just sick of each other. We’d been in the studio for twelve years, throughout the 1970s, and twelve years is a long time for any decade.”
In his story, Wilding would describe Becker
(“the one with the glasses”) and Fagen (“the one with the permanent scowl”) as “achingly droll – exasperating so at times”, while they in turn taunted him for the way he spoke. “Is this a bad line or have you got a thick accent? ” demanded Becker. “You’re Welsh? So it is your accent. Well, there’s nothing we can do about that, at this point…”
In rather more serious tones while talking to the Independent newspaper, Becker said of the breakup: “We had pursued an idea beyond the point where it was practical. That album [Gaucho] took about two years, and we were working on it all of that time. It was a very painful process.”
In the wake of Two Against Nature, which won four Grammy Awards including Album Of The Year, Steely Dan would make one further studio album, Everything Must Go, and tour whenever they felt in the mood or necessity called – which wasn’t often. It’s unknown whether Fagen will continue to make records under the Steely Dan umbrella without his partner, though we suspect not. Neither do we know whether Carlton will appear with Fagen at the Blues-Fest dates.
When Becker and Fagen were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2001 they spurned the traditional acceptance speech to thank all of the musicians that they’d worked with (“It’s a very long list”) and to take questions from the celebrityfilled audience, before Becker demanded of the gathering: “Who was the original drummer in the Mothers Of Invention? After all, this is the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame; some of you must know this information.”
Yes, Walter Becker was cranky. Besides that cantankerous disposition he demanded that musicians push themselves to the very limits, but the results of his lifetime’s work – not to mention sales of around 40 million copies – speak for themselves. He will be very much missed.
This month The Dirt was compiled by Lee Dorrian, Dave Everley, Ian Fortnam, Paul Henderson, Jamie Hibbard, Rob Hughes, Dave Ling, Will Simpson