Walter Becker: Steely Dan guitarist, songwriter and avocado farmer

Obituary: Becker made suavely subversive pop hits out of slippery jazz harmonies

Walter Becker: the Steely Dan songwriter at the Coachella festival in 2015. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty

Walter Becker: the Steely Dan songwriter at the Coachella festival in 2015. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty

 

Walter Becker
Born: February 20th, 1950
Died: September 3rd, 2017

Walter Becker, the guitarist and songwriter who made suavely subversive pop hits out of slippery jazz harmonies and verbal enigmas in Steely Dan, his partnership with Donald Fagen, died last Sunday, at the age of 67.

His death was announced on his official website, which gave no other details. He lived in Maui, in Hawaii.

Becker was unable to perform with Steely Dan this summer at Classic West and Classic East, two stadium-sized festivals of 1970s bands in Los Angeles and New York City. Last month Fagen told Billboard, “Walter’s recovering from a procedure, and hopefully he’ll be fine very soon.”

Steely Dan’s musical surfaces were polished through countless takes that earned Becker and Fagen a daunting reputation as studio perfectionists

As Steely Dan, Becker and Fagen changed the vocabulary of pop in the 1970s with songs like Do It Again, Reelin’ in the Years, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number and Peg. Becker and Fagen were close collaborators on every element of a song: words, music, arrangement. “We think very much the same musically. I can start songs and Walter can finish them,” Fagen said in a 1977 interview.

Steely Dan’s musical surfaces were sleek and understated, smooth enough to almost be mistaken for easy-listening pop, and polished through countless takes that earned Becker and Fagen a daunting reputation as studio perfectionists.

Their songs were catchy and insinuating enough to infiltrate pop radio in the 1970s. “That’s sort of what we wanted to do, conquer from the margins,” Becker told Time Out New York in 2011. “Find our place in the middle based on the fact that we were creatures of the margin and of alienation.”

Steely Dan’s lyrics were far from straightforward, depicting cryptic situations and sketching characters like addicts, suicidal fugitives and dirty old men. “You can infer certain things about the lives of people who would write these songs. This we cannot and do not deny,” Becker deadpanned in an online interview in 2000.

The music used harmonies rooted in Debussy, Ellington, Parker and Rollins, giving the songs a sophisticated core that would be widely influential across jazz and pop

Meanwhile, the music used richly ambiguous harmonies rooted in Debussy, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins, giving the songs a sophisticated core that would be widely influential across jazz and pop. Although Steely Dan arrived as a full band on their 1972 debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, they soon recast themselves as the Becker-Fagen songwriting team, backed by select session musicians. In their 1970s hitmaking heyday Steely Dan rarely toured, preferring to work in the studio.

The band – named after a dildo in the William Burroughs novel Naked Lunch – dissolved after their 1980 album, Gaucho, although Becker and Fagen stayed in contact.

Walter Becker: the Steely Dan songwriter with Donald Fagen in 1977. Photograph: Chris Walter/WireImage/Getty
Walter Becker: the Steely Dan songwriter with Donald Fagen in 1977. Photograph: Chris Walter/WireImage/Getty

In 1993 Becker and Fagen re-emerged as Steely Dan, leading a band that would tour frequently well into 2017. Steely Dan’s songwriting and recording process remained painstaking; they released only two more studio albums, Two Against Nature, in 2000 (which won the Grammy for album of the year), and Everything Must Go, in 2003. But unlike their 1970s incarnation, Steely Dan thrived onstage.

In a statement released on Sunday, Fagen wrote that Becker “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.”

“Nutty little tunes”

Walter Becker was born in Forest Hills, in the New York borough of Queens, on February 20th, 1950, and studied saxophone and guitar in his teens.

He met Fagen in 1967, when they were students at Bard College, a place they would sardonically recall in Steely Dan’s My Old School. “We started writing nutty little tunes on an upright piano in a small sitting room in the lobby of Ward Manor, a moldering old mansion on the Hudson River that the college used as a dorm,” Fagen wrote. With Fagen on keyboards and Becker on guitar or bass, they formed bands there and began to write songs together.

They assembled Steely Dan in Los Angeles with Fagen on keyboards and lead vocals, Becker on bass, Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter on guitars, Jim Hodder on drums and a second vocalist, David Palmer. Do It Again, from Steely Dan’s 1972 debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, reached the top 10.

It seemed like the more complex the music we were playing, the less able we were to guarantee its consistency

The group quickly recorded two more albums, Countdown to Ecstasy, in 1973, and Pretzel Logic, in 1974, which included their biggest top-10 hit, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. In mid-1974 Becker and Fagen decided that they no longer wanted to tour. “It seemed like the more complex the music we were playing, the less able we were to guarantee its consistency,” Becker recalled in a 1996 interview with the Toronto Star.

Steely Dan reached their pinnacle as a studio duo. The band’s lyrics took on ambitious themes: a stock-market crash in Black Friday, Puerto Rican immigration in The Royal Scam, the jazz life in Deacon Blues. And their music grew both more subtle and more magisterial, with intricate horn arrangements and pristine sound. On their 1977 album, Aja, Steely Dan brought in celebrated jazz musicians, including Wayne Shorter, who plays on the title track, along with studio musicians like the guitarist Larry Carlton, the drummer Steve Gadd and the keyboardist Victor Feldman. Aja became Steely Dan’s first certified million-seller in the United States and their bestselling album.

Early in 1980 Becker’s girlfriend died in his apartment of a drug overdose. Weeks later Becker was hit by a taxi, fracturing his leg

But the recording of its successor, Gaucho, was plagued by problems. Becker had become a heroin user. The master tape of an entire, nearly finished song, The Second Arrangement, was accidentally erased. Early in 1980 Becker’s girlfriend died in his apartment of a drug overdose. Weeks later Becker was hit by a taxi, fracturing his leg. “We were quantum criminals,” Becker told the Independent in 1994. “The car and I were attempting to occupy the same place at the same time.”

In 1981 Steely Dan quietly disbanded. According to Fagen’s statement, Becker’s “habits got the better of him by the end of the seventies, and we lost touch for a while”. Becker moved to Maui, where he detoxed and became an avocado farmer. In the second half of the 1980s he returned to music. He was a producer, and was credited as a band member, on Flaunt the Imperfection, by the Scottish band China Crisis, in 1985, and he went on to produce Rickie Lee Jones’s 1989 album, Flying Cowboys.