Five songs to remember Steely Dan’s Walter Becker
Steely Dan co-founder, guitarist and bassist Walter Becker died Sept. 3 at the age of 67, leaving behind an extensive catalog of memorable hits, such as “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” and “Deacon Blues.”
His official website announced his death with no further details.
Donald Fagen said in a statement that his Steely Dan bandmate was not only “an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter,” but also “smart as a whip,” “hysterically funny” and “cynical about human nature, including his own.”
Although Steely Dan had been touring recently, Becker had missed performances earlier in the summer in Los Angeles and New York. Fagen later told Billboard that Becker was recovering from a procedure.
A Queens native who started out playing the saxophone and eventually picked up the guitar, Becker met Fagen as students at Bard College in 1967 and founded the band in 1972 after moving to California.
‘We started writing nutty little tunes on an upright piano in a small sitting room in the lobby of Ward Manor, a mouldering old mansion on the Hudson River that the college used as a dorm,” Fagen recalled in his statement. “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.”
From 1972 to about 1980, the band enjoyed both critical and commercial successes with the releases of seven studio albums, including 1974’s Pretzel Logic and the seminal 1977 work Aja. The band broke up in 1981 after the release of Gaucho.
Becker had suffered some personal hardships during this time, including his girlfriend’s death by overdose and a resulting lawsuit, and an injury he sustained after being struck by a cab. When Steely Dan disbanded, Becker retreated to Maui and began growing avocados.
Becker eventually reunited with Fagen and, after a nearly 20 year hiatus, released two albums: Two Against Nature, which won four Grammys, including album of the year in 2001, and Everything Must Go.
They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
In memory of Becker, here are a few of the band’s most notable songs. Aja.
The classic midlife crisis ballad about a man in the suburbs with dreams of being a jazz saxophonist, this song was written by Fagen and Becker in Malibu, California. It became a hit single in early 1978.
“The protagonist in ‘Deacon Blues’ is a triple-L loser — an L-L-L Loser. It’s not so much about a guy who achieves his dream, but about a broken dream of a broken man living a broken life,” Becker said in a Wall Street Journal interview in 2015. ‘Deacon Blues’ was special for me.””
Probably one of Steely Dan’s more straightforward songs, and definitely the group’s biggest commercial hit — the song hit No. 4 on the Billboard Top 100 in 1974 — fans apparently still thought “send it off in a letter to yourself” was a coded reference to drugs.
Fagen and Becker wrote this song for the 1978 film FM from Chinatown cinematographer John A. Alonzo.
“There was a film called FM and we were asked to do the title song,” Fagen told American Songwriter in 2013. “And I said, ‘Does it have to have any specific words?’ And they said, ‘No, it just has to be about FM radio.’ It took a day or two to write.”
Aja. Apparently named after a Korean woman, the album’s title song “shows real growth in Becker’s and Fagen’s songwriting capabilities and departs from their previous work. It ... fragilely holds our attention with vaguely Oriental instrumental flourishes and lyric references interwoven with an opiated jazz flux,” Rolling Stone critic Michael Duffy wrote in 1977. Gaucho.
This is a mellow, jazz-rock skewering of quickly aging baby boomers and the younger generation, who, the song’s narrator bemoans, don’t know who Aretha Franklin is. “It’s hard times befallen the Soul Survivors,” Fagen sings.
In 1993, when Steely Dan got back together for a reunion tour after their 1981 breakup, Los Angeles Times writer Chris Willman wrote that, at that point, the generation gap was, “Obvious enough that you could update the lyrics of the group’s 1980 Top 10 hit, a tune about dating a girl too young to be familiar with Aretha Franklin, to apply to Steely Dan itself.”