I woke up in the middle of the night and turned on the computer. The first thing I saw on social media was the news that Walter Becker had died.
That first album of Steely Dan was really something for me. I was a long-haired high school student living in an inland town and it was the soundtrack of one whole golden summer at the ocean beach paradise that was Whangamata in those days. I had mates with cars and surfboards and though I couldn’t drive either one, I would hang out with them – drink and smoke and play my guitar.
Their early music seemed to strike a chord with nearly everyone – it was light and breezy yet had a depth and sophistication that was unique. And there were those guitar solos – Skunk Baxter and Denny Dias became my new heroes and there was Elliott Randall and his blistering playing on Reelin in the Years, Not in the rock-god sense of Hendrix or Page, they had none of that theatre, but in the pure ecstasy without ego – playing for the song.
Fagan and Becker’s lyrics were a huge part of the attraction too – so mysterious with their own inner logic. They took you to strange places in a new Americana and beyond. By the time Katy Lied came out in 1975 they had honed that literacy almost to the point of the great short novel writers like Hemmingway or Kafka. Side one of that album I literally wore out – playing it over and over. Then the murky hallways of the Royal Scam came along and with them Charlemagne, Altamira and Oregon – incredible imagery.
By the time of Aja and Gaucho I’d kind of moved on away from the jazz that they were heading into and I didn’t really appreciate those records till later on but the weight of the whole body of work certainly stamped its mark on me.
I finally got to see them live when they came to Wellington in 2011 and wasn’t disappointed. I was working on a big series of movies at the time and had the money. Steve Winwood, who I’d also always wanted to see, was the support act – it dosen’t get much better than that for a double bill. He was great but his drummer went on a bit.
Becker and Fagan had a big band with horns and singers and it was very impressive. Fagan was fantastic leading proceedings with his voice still just intact enough to deliver the words to all the songs I love. Jon Herington and Becker were the guitarists. I remember wondering beforehand how the hell were they going to pull off all those wonderful guitar solos from all the various players – Baxter, Randall, Carlton, Parks Kahn….but they did. Herington was amazing – Kid Chameleon but it was Walter Becker that really impressed me – so dignified and graceful peeling off his licks effortlessly. He seemed to love every minute, never one to hog the limelight he just played with a natural inner satisfaction and an aura about him. He even told a bad joke at one point.
I’m so glad I got to see him play.
A great man – a quiet genius