Goodbye Walter

Those of you of a certain era will know that Walter Becker, a co-founder of Steely Dan, died Sunday. Steely Dan seems to be one of those bands you like — or you detest. I was a big fan.

Lke most people my age, the first Steely Dan music I heard was in late 1972-early 1973 when “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” hit the charts. Both came off the band’s first album and “Reelin’ in the Years” always makes me think of high school. Becker and Donald Fagen started the band and “Do It Again” hinted at what would come.

The fact the band was named after a dildo in William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (a fact confirmed on Steely Dan’s website) is a clue about the music. It wasn’t straightforward rock, it wasn’t jazz, it wasn’t blues. With Fagen singing and his piano prominent in the mix, the public viewed him somewhat as the leader of the band. Yet Becker’s subtle guitar playing was a crucial part of the sound, a sound with far more layers than almost any other group.

The band’s music was increasingly complex so that when it’s third album, Pretzel Logic, was released in early 1974 Steely Dan stopped touring. Instead, Becker and Fagen retreated to the studio where they could use technology and select musicians to produce what they heard — and what they heard wouldn’t be easy to replicate on stage. Regardless of how meticulous they were, each album fed the backlash that Steely Dan wasn’t really a band, just two guys amusing themselves in recording studios.

Hearing the results, my reaction was, “So what?” Their fourth album, 1975’s Katy Lied, is one of my two favorite Steely Dan tunes. The title alone reminds me of a dear friend who died far too young 25 years ago.  And my favorite tune on the album,  “Doctor Wu” (with a solo by jazz saxophonist Phil Woods), analogous to “Reelin’ in the Years,” always reminds me of college. In the video below, the band performs “Black Friday,” the opening cut on the album. There are few bands being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that would choose to play a song about a financial collapse from the perspective of a man who plans to stand outside and “catch the grey men when they dive from the fourteenth floor.”

But Steely Dan’s peak, sonically and musically, came with 1977’s Aja. I’ve previously written a full post about that album so suffice it to say that is almost perfectly layered and has pristine sound. It was followed by three years of commercial silence, during which Becker struggled with a variety of issues. Finally, Gaucho was released in late 1980. But Becker and Fagen split the next years, perhaps because their attention to detail had become obsessive. They reportedly spent four hours to mix a 50 second fade-out on the song “Babylon Sisters.”

In 1993 Steely Dan actually toured and in 1995 released a live recording, Alive in America. It was not until 2000, however, that the band would release a new studio album — and the album, Two Against Nature, would win four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. Becker had always been the quiet one in the partnership and that became even more true when he moved to Hawaii following the 1981 split. In recent years, Becker evidently had health problems. In fact, unspecified health problems were reported to be the reason he didn’t perform when Steely Dan appeared at the Classic West and Classic East concerns in July.

Fagen says he intends “to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.” Sorry, Donald, but without Walter Becker there is no Steely Dan.

You can try to run but you can’t hide from what’s inside of you

Steely Dan, “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” Katy Lied

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