Walter Becker of Steely Dan has died. He was 67. Maybe all that matters, in terms of marking his passing, is this tribute by his band-mate and songwriting colleague of nearly 50 years. Donald Fagen’s words surely matter the most. If not for anything else it speaks to the bubble these two created for themselves and their music – for themselves through their music.
Becker and Fagen met at college, in the early 70s they recorded the soundtrack to a Richard Pryor film, a year later they’d formed Steely Dan. A couple of years on they had fired the band, taking control of every aspect – they were songwriters first and foremost, producers second. They would have loyalty only to the song, bringing in the best players in the world for a single song. If they were good enough (at understanding what was required for another song – each one a mini-epic in and of itself) they might get the job and the bonus of being retained for a second or third song the same album. Here today, gone tomorrow, back next year. That was how the rotating cast of Steely Dan albums worked. And each of the five albums across a golden run from 1974 to 1980 featured the very best jazz, soul, funk, rock and pop musicians and deep, dark, sly, sardonic, sarcastic songs.
The music of course was no laughing matter.
The lyrics are some of the best you’ll ever find in songs that not only made it onto the radio but stayed there – seemingly forever.
There were two albums before that 74-80 run and two album that followed post 2000. There’s not a single bad Steely Dan album – but the five between 1974 and 1980 are the ones for me. Every single time.
Like most great cultural experiences, the lasting ones, the most meaningful, I can’t quite pinpoint how I found my way to Steely Dan, how the music found me. A combination of reading guitar and drum magazines, of listening widely, of falling under the spell of something subtly sinister, marvellous, magical…
And it clicked. Almost instantly. In the same way that listening to Randy Newman, reading Kinky Friedman, watching The Simpsons, devouring books and films by Woody Allen and tuning in for almost anything by Norman Lear clicked. Something special. Singular. A world within itself.
They took their name from the dildo in William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, they wrote songs about drug dealers and lascivious lotharios, they were lounge lizards with sharp tongues. And you never quite knew the songwriting/production split – Fagen did most of the singing. But was Becker behind those lyrics? They were brutal taskmasters as bandleaders and producers. They were utter perfectionists.
Their masterpiece is Aja. And just as I’m sure of that I’m also sure that my favourite Steely Dan album is whichever one I happen to be listening to.
Becker made a couple of solo albums too. There are hidden gems there. He produced one of Fagen’s solo albums also and played a few sessions. But it’s his work as one of the great songwriting guitarists for one of the best bands I’ve heard – and seen – in my life that matters most. His rhythm playing, his bass playing, his ability to play tasteful, funky, edgy solos was as profound as his ability to sit back and let a superstar session guy play the notes he wrote.
He had recently undergone surgery and was unable to tour. Fagen is currently on the road playing solo material and the Dan back catalogue. He’s already announced that he will continue to honour the music they made together, to serve it, preserve it, promote it. Work it. He’s no fool to do that dirty work. The Steely Dan songs are some of the best you could ever hear. And Walter Becker’s mischievousness and talent make him – and the work he co-authored – some of the most important music in my life. And in the lives of many of course.