This is less a eulogy than a offering to a man, who although he is far from a household word among music fans, was not only there at the inception of the emergence of a musical tour de force both inspirational and incomperable, but was half of the creative apparatus that sustained Steely Dan for close to 5 decades.
Walter Becker, age 67, born in Queens, NY, made his serotinal departure earlier today of undisclosed cause or causes at time of publication. Musical partner and friend, Donald Fagan, tells fans of his background with Becker in shorthand:
“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.”
At Bard College, Becker and Fagan were notable as misfits, even by the standards of that liberal arts college in Allendale-on-Hudson, NY.
For a time there they included fellow student and future comic great Chevy Chase in their band, the “Leather Canary” on drums.
Fagan also outlines in brief, the likes, loves and obsessions they shared.
While many musicians will recite the standard influences of Chicago blues and R&B music – both Becker and Fagan brought with them wider elements of their intellectual habitat, providing a limitless depth to both the lyrics and the music they assembled.
Fagan mentions Jazz, and that is inescapable to the listener – even when the conduit of that improvisation ethic is partially rock instrumentation. He told a reporter at the L.A. Times in 1993:
“It has to do with when we were born and how we grew up. Even though we were really too young to experience a lot of the golden age of jazz in the ’50s, nevertheless that’s what we were into, through recordings, although we saw live jazz as well at the tail end of that era. And we also had literary aspirations, I suppose.”
Jazz is strewn across the landscape of Steely Dan, with, for example, some key tracks from 1974’s Pretzel Logic – arguably their best overall recording, despite the popular acclaim of “Aja”.
There is a send up of Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle Oo” from 1927. Ellington’s lead trumpet player, Bubber Miley contributed the solo to the original song and Becker debuts his guitar playing for Steely by replacing Miley’s plunged trumpet with clever use of the “wah-wah” pedal.
But there are other gems that proclaim Becker and Fagan’s deep Jazz roots. There’s “Parker’s Band”, which features an admiring portrait of Saxophone legend, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. On “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” – unbeknownst to most who consider that track a favorite; Becker and Fagan, in their upright bass and piano intro, invoke Horace Silver and his Quintet’s classic, “Song For My Father”.
Quite a few other notable icons filter in and out of SD, including Charles Mingus. Legendary Swing band leader Woody Herman detected it and was a fan, recording several renditions of their music.
But Jazz was the key ingredient of the drink and rock and pop, only the mixer, throughout the Steely Dan oeuvre and the musicians featured on the recordings were always ones that were equally adept in both mediums and often simultaneously.
There were cats like, Wilton Felder, Victor Feldman, Larry Carlton and so many other soloists that are heard on only the top tier of studio sessions, such as Elliott Randall and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter – guitarist of another heavyweight hitmaker of the era, the Doobie Brothers.
On the lyrical side of things Walter and Donald used a diverse set of literary and comedy inspirations including but not limited to the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, science fiction writers like Robert Heinlein and Kurt Vonnegut and ‘Beat Generation’ writers like William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. They apparently shared an interest in Nabokov with Sting – yet another exceptional musician bitten by the Jazz bug.
But it really is principally the Jazz idiom, in terms of the lexicon of street speak and musician / underworld lingo that propels Becker and Fagan’s predilection to not only incorporate, but also to innovate the patois of slang – and the literary references that trained both of them to tell stories. And the stories are epic, a potent brew of the philosophical and satirical.
“With A Gun” describes a partnership between two drug dealers, before accounting discrepancies and an ambush broke up the partnership.
“Kid Charlemagne” deals with a similar arrangement, with one associate advising the “Kid” that the game is up and his sloppy habits are finally closing in – along with the authorities:
Clean this mess up else we’ll all end up in jail
Those test tubes and the scale
Just get them all out of here
“Is there gas in the car?”
“Yes, there’s gas in the car”
I think the people down the hall
Know who you are
Careful what you carry
‘Cause the man is wise
You are still an outlaw in their eyes
Becker and his partner spent years soaking up the lexicon of the streets and it emerged from their music like seedy pulp fiction – the likes of which were not seen previously in pop music. Steely Dan could be thought of as the first ‘hipster’ band.
The tropes they featured – drug kingpins, pimps, street hustlers, junkies, drunks, out of place drifters, the social underclass, tenement dwellers, tough guys, fugitives, spoiled youths and punks out for a laugh, demanded one’s full attention like only a few other songwriters (Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Johnny Cash, Jim Morrison) could.
One other incredible example (from so many), of the sort of cryptic and counter-intuitive manner in which both men approached their characters and that left, like much of the best art, much space for interpretation – is this swatch from the album track (from “Can’t Buy A Thrill”), “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again”:
We warned the corpse of William Wright
Not to cuss and drink all night
Ticket in hand I saw him laid to rest
But zombie see and zombie do
He’s here with me and you
Here, the identity of the “corpse of William Wright” is left to speculation – between a TV actor, an 18th Century Scottish poet and a 20th century writer of the same name. It is most likely the latter, due to his dalliance with the “True Crime” genre, Becker and Fagan seem so enamored with. The song also appears to be the first with a mention of a ‘zombie’ in the lyric.
There is a third point of distinction associated with Becker’s creative role in ‘the Dan’ – and that is the incredibly successful blend of so many seemingly diverse musical styles. With lesser songwriters and without the production skills of Becker, Fagan and longtime associate, Gary Katz – such music would be limited to the cultish tastes of fans of “prog rock” or “art rock”, perhaps even fusion – and consequentially, of limited commercial appeal.
Speaking to the reason, Steely Dan has so few groups that sought to emulate their formula (if it could be said there was one), Becker tells an interviewer:
“And it was just a quirk of Donald’s and my natures that we thought superimposing jazz harmonies on pop songs was subversive in a much subtler way. But I guess most people who are writing music and songs don’t really look at it that way . . . luckily for us!”
That Walter and Donald fused such disparate elements as country (pedal steel guitars), jazz (brass ensembles and sax solos), folk (acoustic guitar intros and interludes), generous amounts of chord changes and complex infusions of funk and Latin rhythms, also made it daunting, if not impossible to follow their lead. Not to mention, being a commercial gamble with bad odds.
Donald Fagan goes on to further describe Becker’s role in the uniqueness of Steely Dan:
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.
Fagan’s enduring tribute to Becker, will be to keep the band’s flame lit. “I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.”