When I read about it early on Sunday morning, I initially refused to believe it. ‘Sick joke,’ I thought. I stopped reading. I actually stopped breathing … for a moment. But I soon realized it was true. Walter Becker had passed away. I was filled with grief. I just felt hollow. My friends and family know just how fanatical I am about Steely Dan. God how I love this band. For me, there is no band, no singer, no songwriter, no musician, no record producer, no musical concept, of any genre or era, who holds a candle to Steely Dan. They are completely without peer. The musicianship. The lyrics. The intellect. The cool. They aren’t just musicians to me. They are companions on this journey called life. I really don’t remember the first time I heard Steely Dan. They were just always there. As a young kid. During high school, college. My affection only grew stronger during the time they officially disbanded — the Dark Ages. They opened my eyes, my ears, my mind. It’s not an exaggeration to say that they changed the trajectory of my life. Walter’s passing is a monumental loss.
On February 29, 2000 — yes, leap day — the unlikeliest of events occurred. Steely Dan released their first studio album in 20 years: Two Against Nature. I recall how ecstatic I was upon hearing it, especially the title cut. I distinctly remember thinking: “Aja on steroids.” It was challenging. It was just badass. The Dark Ages were over. And the timing was impeccable. I didn’t know it then, but many changes were headed my way: a new job, a move to Atlanta, the birth of my son, the death of my dad. There was something comforting to me about having Steely Dan around as a recording and touring entity during this time. And it only served to further interweave their music into the events of my life.
The Second Coming of the Dan generated quite a buzz among the fans and the “intelligentsia.” There were Grammys — much to the chagrin of the clueless. The Rock Hall took notice. (During his acceptance, Walter said, “We are persuaded it’s a great honor to be here tonight.” 🙂 ) There were several great essays written around this time, essays about the new album, the mystique of the band, or the obsessive fans. What was it about the Dan? In his piece entitled, “Sophisticated Skank,” Gary Kamiya, co-founder of Salon, proffers this:
“It wasn’t just about playing well — tons of rockers could do that — but an obsession with, almost amounting to a fetishizing of, musical sophistication. This obsession took two different but related forms: drop-dead, lapidary perfectionism in the recording studio and an unprecedented use of the idioms (and players) of jazz, which they seamlessly transformed into kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll.”
What was it that engendered such loyalty, such obsession, in the fans? In his essay “A World of My Own,” Robert Toth (Wall Street Journal) finds it common for die-hard fans to have come to Dan at an early age, drawn by the pop hooks. Check. Only later do they recognize the cynicism, the humor, the sense of genuineness, the craft. Check. Then comes — for the fortunate — the epiphany, the “eureka moment.” Checkmate. And there’s no turning back. Many cite Steely Dan as their gateway to jazz. Guilty as charged. At his most insightful, Toth describes fans love for Steely Dan as being not unlike that for a favorite teacher, but with a twist. Steely Dan won hearts by
… playing the professor while speaking the language of the smartass rolling his eyes during the lesson.
More than a few times, someone has stopped me in public to comment about my Steely Dan T-shirt. (Ok, so I have a few.) I might get something like, “Ooo, I love him too,” or “Did you see him in concert?” I always grin inside. The joke still works 45 years later. But perhaps the joke is on me. Steely Dan was indeed one guy — though not in the sense that the casual fan might think — one guy with two brains. Unlike most song-writing duos, it’s difficult to impossible to determine just who was responsible for what in a Steely Dan song. There’s a reason neither Don or Walt ever appeared on the cover of a Steely Dan studio album. William Gibson, the science-fiction writer known to pepper his novels with obscure Dan references, probably best expressed this idea in his essay “Any ‘Mount of World.”
Artistic collaboration is a profoundly strange business. Do it right up to the hilt, as it were, and you and your partner will generate a third party, some thoroughly Other, and often one capable of things neither you nor the very reasonable gentleman seated opposite would even begin to consider.
Don’t get me wrong. I dearly love their respective solo output. It can be more introspective, autobiographical. You might even hear a straight-ahead love song. I also cherish it for the window it gives to the contribution each brought to Dan. (Walter’s Circus Money is a particularly important album in this regard.) But together, Walter and Donald were otherworldly. So far above the down below. I’m always amused at the people who classify Steely Dan as mellow. They just aren’t listening.
Libations, sensations, that stagger the mind.
I update this several days after my original post, but I still can’t wrap my mind around the fact that Walter is gone. I have everything Dan has ever officially released … and then some. But the collection feels incomplete. Is the ninth album really the last? Must everything go? I count 13 times that I’ve seen them in concert: Atlanta, New Orleans, Nashville, Orange Beach. (Not counting 2 Dukes and 1 Don concert.) It’s quite extraordinary that the one-time studio hermits known for their disdain for the road became such a touring machine in the new millennium. I feel fortunate to have ever seen them live. Yet, there’s a sense of regret that I never made the pilgrimage to the Beacon Theatre in NYC.
The music will have to live on for me in the recordings. I never tire of it. It’s such a part of my life. And Donald says he will continue to keep the music alive with the Steely Dan band as long as he can. This is good, as it should be. (Thank God we still have Donald.) I’m sure Walter would have wanted no less from him. And I will be there. But I will desperately miss Walter. I will miss his tasty guitar licks. I will miss his “Hey Nineteen” rants. I will miss his humor.
One of the last times I saw Walter, I noticed that he had put on a bit of weight. Occasionally sitting on a stool, he found it difficult to stand for the duration of the concert. Honestly, I did worry a bit about his health, but I dismissed it. I have no idea if it had anything to do with the what ultimately took him from us. I do know that his humor was as sharp as ever. I recall he asked the audience, “Does this guitar make me look fat?” 🙂
I had held out hopes for a tenth Dan studio album, or a third Walter solo album, but now I know that can never be. I know now that I can never visit the Beacon and see them both. The world is a diminished place without Walter. But I’m so grateful for the gifts he gave us, the lifetime of joy. Walter Becker (1950-2017). Thank you sir. Rest in peace.
I know this super highway
This bright familiar sun
I guess that I’m the lucky one
Who wrote that tired sea song
Set on this peaceful shore
You think you’ve heard this one before
Well the danger on the rocks is surely past
Still I remain tied to the mast
Could it be that I have found my home at last
Home at last
Statement from Donald Fagen:
Walter Becker was my friend, my writing partner and my bandmate since we met as students at Bard College in 1967. 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.
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.
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. He used to write letters (never meant to be sent) in my wife Libby’s singular voice that made the three of us collapse with laughter.
His habits got the best of him by the end of the seventies, and we lost touch for a while. In the eighties, when I was putting together the NY Rock and Soul Review with Libby, we hooked up again, revived the Steely Dan concept and developed another terrific band.
I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.
September 3 2017
And from Donald’s Facebook page:
(posted by Donald and Libby Fagen)
DEAD OF WINTER
a song by mark oliver everett
standing in the dark outside the house
breathing in the cold and sterile air
well i was thinking how it must feel
to see that little light
and watch it as it disappears
and fades into
and fades into the night
so i know you’re going pretty soon
radiation sore throat got your tongue
magic markers tattoo you
and show it where to aim
and strangers break their promises
you won’t feel any
you won’t feel any pain
and the streets are jammed with cars
rockin’ their horns
to race to the wire
of the unfinished line
thought that i’d forget all about the past
but it doesn’t let me run too fast
and i just wanna stand outside
and know that this is right
and this is true
and i will not
fade into the night
standing here in the dark
A Daughter’s Tribute – Sayan Becker
Tribute to Walter Becker (Rickie Lee Jones, Rolling Stone)
We Shared the Important Events of Our Lives (Michael McDonald, Spin)
Remembering Walter Becker (1950–2017) (Howard Rodman, Los Angeles Review of Books)
Farewell, Walter Becker: Remembering the Elusive Genius of Steely Dan (Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone)
Walter Becker, Guitarist, Songwriter and Co-Founder of Steely Dan, Dies at 67 (John Pareles, New York Times)
Walter Becker Was A Master Of Musical Understatement (Tom Moon, NPR)
Walter Becker of Steely Dan Dies at 67 (Downbeat)
In Rememberance of Steely Dan’s Walter Becker (Paul Zollo, American Songwriter)
Walter Becker Is the Larry David of Steely Dan (Geoffrey Himes, Paste Magazine)
Remembering Walter Becker (Matthew Hooke, All About Jazz)
An interview with Steely Dan guitarists (Ron Hart, Billboard)
Stars Pay Tribute to Late Steely Dan Cofounder Walter Becker (Oliver Gettell, Entertainment Weekly)
Slash, Nile Rodgers, Ryan Adams and More Pay Tribute to Walter Becker (Rob Arcand, Spin)
Steely Dan’s Walter Becker Remembered by Mac DeMarco, Beck, Questlove, More (Michelle Kim, Pitchfork)
Farewell, Walter – Elliot Randall
Facebook comment – Boz Scaggs