There are a ton of musicians who’ve played with Steely Dan (Michael McDonald, Skunk Baxter), but the two who made it Steely Dan were Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Becker played guitar, sometimes sang, but not often, and wrote the songs and produced the albums with Fagen.
I don’t mean this to sound like an insult, but Steely Dan was the original smooth jazz band. Its sound was distinctive, in that hipster cool, Southern Califonia via New Jersey and Queens vibe. I spent many hours mellowing out to “Aja,” “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” “Pretzel Logic,” “Countdown to Ecstasy,” “Katy Lied” and “Gaucho” back in the ’70s and ’80s. I’ve heard the albums from the 2000s were good, but I’m content with the classics.
Here’s a live performance in Charlotte:
Becker’s the older, bearded guy in glasses on guitar. Fagen had some nice things to say about him:
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.
But the thing about Steely Dan is the sound. And the Nerdwriter explains what that’s all about:
Walter Becker died yesterday at age 67.