Five songs to re­mem­ber Steely Dan’s Wal­ter Becker

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion -

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.””

Pret­zel Logic.

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.”

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