The Dirt

Fe­bru­ary 20, 1950 – Septem­ber 03, 2017

Classic Rock - - Contents -

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

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