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Music

Walter Becker, the Cayenne in the Steely Dan Recipe

Photo: Danny Clinch (courtesy of WalterBecker.com)

Steely Dan's Becker and Fagen were storytellers who invented characters whose odd, off-putting circumstances commented on the world as incisively as any Bob Dylan lyrics.

A purposeful mismatch between slick jazz-pop-funk and arch stories of misfits, weirdos, shysters, idealists, and ruined souls.
Walter Becker, the co-mastermind of the “band" Steely Dan, died on Sunday at 67. Becker met his writing partner Donald Fagen at Bard College in the '60s where they discovered common interests, particularly in music. "We liked a lot of the same things: jazz (from the ‘20s through the mid-’60s), 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,” wrote Fagen, who intends to keep playing the music he and Becker wrote as “Steely Dan” in concerts.

Becker also made two solo albums during downtime from the Dan, 11 Tracks of Whack in 1994 and Circus Money in 2008. He also did lots of production work for other artists. His main impact was through the songwriting and production work he did with Fagen for Steely Dan.

Steely Dan Still Matters

Steely Dan’s run of seven studio albums from 1972 to 1980 is a formidable, astonish body of work. Love it or hate it, there's nothing else in pop music like Steely Dan -- a purposeful mismatch between slick jazz-pop-funk and arch stories of misfits, weirdos, shysters, idealists, and ruined souls. Folks hearing only the production values often lump the band into the “yacht rock” category, a pejorative for the smooth rock of ‘70s made by the later Doobie Brothers, Loggins and Messina, or Christopher Cross. Steely Dan lyrics, however, were more likely to be bizarre and adventurous, to the point of even mocking the smooth rock of that era with the line “Turn up the Eagles / The neighbors are listening” from “Everything You Did” (supposedly a reference to Becker’s better half and her music preferences).

Steely Dan was the kind of cultural phenomenon that seems unlikely to thrive today. Named after a sex toy from an experimental literary novel, lacing jazz harmonies to rock and soul rhythms, and using storytelling lyrics that were not afraid to reference opera singer Cathy Berberian or sunken Italian cruise ship the Andrea Doria, Steely Dan nevertheless became a hitmaker and household name. The Dan had nine tunes in the Billboard top 30 between 1973 and 1981. The music was famously slick and sophisticated, rich in saxophone solos by jazz greats such as Wayne Shorter and made with a studio perfectionism that fell out of fashion for a while.

To get a sense of how weirdly cool Becker and Fagen were in 1977, you should read the Cameron Crowe article in Rolling Stone that came out with Aja, their best album in most folks’ eyes. They come across like the smart-ass guys from your homeroom class -- not remotely as cool as the football players and very much glad about it. They address the knock that their records are too slick due to the use of studio musicians even as they admit that there is something difficult and “worm”-like about them. To get a sense of how self-conscious they already were about the uncoolness that had attached to them after their sound aged (and after the surface veneer of their music had been aped for over a decade by elevator-ready “smooth jazz”), dig this 1993 interview with Becker and Fagen from The Los Angeles Times.

In recent years, the hipster aversion to Steely Dan has started to fade, particularly as pop music learns to ease up on its obsession with personal authenticity. Becker and Fagen were storytellers who invented characters whose odd, off-putting circumstances commented on the world as incisively as any Dylan lyrics. Mark Ronson, the British producer behind Amy Winehouse’s Back in Black and the mega-hit “Uptown Funk” is professed Dan-iac. In 2015, Rolling Stone asked him "There's a Steely Dan vibe to some of [Uptown Special], especially in the lyrics novelist Michael Chabon wrote for you. How much did you have that band in mind?” His answer: "They're always the gold standard that you shoot for if you're trying to make lyrics about interesting characters and weird antiheroes. I feel like Steely Dan's presence has never been more felt in music that's considered hip and vital -- you've got the Daft Punk records, and I hear it in stuff like Ariel Pink.”

Perhaps more telling is the tweet in response to Becker’s death from John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, a band known for low-fi recording and folk-roots music that hardly seems Steely Dan-ish. "Steely Dan changed the way I understand music forever; I started writing songs under the name 'the Mountain Goats' the same month that I bought Katy Lied on tape and started obsessing over it. Safe travels along the cosmos to Walter Becker: you changed my life.” Indie-Alt-Folkies into Steely Dan? The times they are a-changin’.

Who Was Walter Becker?

Becker and Fagen were hard to tease apart. Unlike Lennon/McCartney, their writing really did appear seamless. Steely Dan fans don’t have lists of “Fagen songs” and “Becker songs”. But even so, most of us have some sense of the differences. They were both from the New York area, but Fagan was a suburban Jersey kid while Becker was mostly Queens and graduated from Stuyvesant High School. Becker’s childhood was rougher, apparently. He was the one whose drug problems broke up the duo for a while, and even once he moved to Maui in the ‘80s, he seemed like the darker of the pair.

Because Fagen became (quite by default) the lead vocalist and, therefore, was able to sell more records in his solo career, it’s tempting to cast him as the “Paul” and Becker as the “John” in the songwriting duo. In most interviews and appearances, however, you’d be hard-pressed to differentiate their sensibilities. In concert, Becker was more the raconteur and wise-guy, typically doing a long chat in middle of “Hey, Nineteen”, goofing on both the band and the audience and seeming almost purposefully off-key, like a parody of a show-biz tradition of chatting up the audience. To me, it was a gonzo moment in the concerts that was hiply uncomfortable. And because he was a guitar player, in contrast to Fagen seated behind a Fender Rhodes electric piano, he seemed more in tune with a sense of rock, a little edge.

In the early tributes to Becker, you can detect a sense that he was the cayenne in the Dan recipe. The great sci-fi writer William Gibson tweeted that he is “One of my favorite writers ever,” not mentioning Donald Fagen, which might seem surprising, given that Fagen is the one whose solo albums -- particularly Kamakiriad -- seem to be a set in a cyber-punkish near future.

But the only place where you can truly hear Becker on his own is in his guitar playing and on his solo records. Becker sang lead on only one Steely Dan song, “Slang of Ages” from Everything Must Go. His singing voice is deep and snarling, with a blues-bent attack to notes. Listen to “Cringemaker” from 11 Tracks and you can hear its appeal and its limits. He barks and growls and croons a bit too, usually with female background singers sanding down the edges.

The point, of course, is the songwriting. Becker, on his own, is still writing tales of losers and oddballs, junkies and dreamers, but some of them seem more personal. “Junkie Girl”, a yearning guitar groover full of feeling, likely about a temptation Becker wishes he had avoided. Several others on 11 Tracks seem plainly about the ruins left behind when a relationship simply explodes. What surprises is the tenderness in “Little Kawai”, about a daughter ("That's a mean song Eldon taught you / I no longer wish to hear / And where he says babies come from / This is not completely true”), and “This Moody Bastard”, with its brief clarinet solo and Becker’s quiet vocal performance.

That song and the great majority from Becker’s second solo record, Circus Money are animated by a lilting reggae groove that was not a Steely Dan staple. “Bob is Not Your Uncle Anymore” is a menacing and vague tale about returning to a home under shady circumstances -- and the reggae groove is spare and haunting. “Do You Remember the Name” sets Becker’s voice and a single female harmony in a cool wobble over a similar groove. Listening to this mature work particularly suggests that Becker may have been the subtler of the Dan’s songwriters. Songs like “Paging Audrey” are not without their tricky chords and odd interludes, but they have natural grooves, vamps that do not feel sterile or over-programmed.

Becker's guitar playing might be the more interesting individual feature. Steely Dan was not a vehicle for Becker as an instrumentalist. He famously said in an interview that he would be perfectly happy not performing at all on Steely Dan albums, which were vehicles for his writing and arrangement. In the early years, he was cast as the band’s bass player, but the music soon required bass players like Chuck Rainey and Tom Barney, who were masters of funk and groove. On the Steely Dan tours after 1993, the band carried virtuosos (most often Jon Herington) to play the ripping (and, from the records, famous) solos that highlighted tunes like “Reelin’ in the Years” and “My Old School”.

But Becker’s guitar playing was important nevertheless to the Steely Dan concept and to his solo records. In concert he played plenty, usually on one of his Sandowskys, ripping blues licks that were made tricky and interesting by a boppish rhythm attack. His two guitar solos on “Down on the Bottom” from 11 Tracks of Whack are understatedly perfect, clean-toned but sharp, in the tradition of the Chicago blues players. Becker hits the first note of each phrase like it was the only thing that mattered, placing it a smidge ahead of the beat, then stuttering the other notes with incredible swing, but stinging them all. And his harmonic vocabulary reflects decades of loving jazz players, except that he phrases more like B.B. King.

* * *

Steely Dan was two sensibilities in tandem, very much the same but somehow not the same when apart. And there might have been more music to come. Losing one of them, and maybe the more mysterious one, means that you’ve lost it all even as the band lives on somehow, ghostly now, a tribute to itself but incapable of writing anything new that will really be Steely Dan.

This hits hard because -- to quote Ricki Lee Jones from her day-of tribute to Becker -- Steely Dan consolidated the idea that intellectual, educated music could be cool. These were not the popular, good-looking guys, the football players. These were the nerds grown wise and hip. But still vulnerable. Jones paints a picture of Becker as a recovering addict who didn’t see himself as a rock star. It’s no exaggeration to say that he was the rare rock star who could probably walk into any record store, restaurant or club and never be recognized.

Becker and Fagen, then, were Lennon-McCartney or Jagger-Richards in talent but not in mythos or swagger. They were just a couple of guys. The “college rock” they made (Jones’ term) seemed naturally to come from this kind of friendship, a kinship of two people, shooting the shit and sharing their overlapping passions in a dorm room somewhere. Steely Dan is what comes from that kind of obsessive friendship, from the moment that another person affirms for you that your quirks are not barriers but bridges, and you then make something new from that joined passion.

I don’t have to belabor the point that, for many of us, that kind of friendship was our first real romance and the one that we keep trying to recreate in life. I feel like I'm looking for my Walter Becker in every new job I have, at any party I happen to attend. Where is the next friendship that might make me more than I am on my own?

It’s difficult to write seriously about an artist who so neatly deflated his own fame, writing a song that mocked “Show Biz Kids” for having "the shapely bods [and] the Steely Dan T-shirt”. It’s even harder bringing any grace to an appreciation when Walter Becker himself, barely more than a kid, already grasped the way the years slip away: "Your everlasting summer, you can see it fading fast / So you grab a piece of something that you think is gonna last / But you wouldn't know a diamond if you held it in your hand / The things you think are precious, I can't understand”.

Spending the last 12 hours -- and the last 45 years -- listening to the songs of Walter Becker, it is quite obvious there was something precious there.

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