Postscript: Walter Becker, of Steely Dan

Walter Becker, the co-founder of the jazz-rock band Steely Dan, has died at the age of sixty-seven.

Photograph by Brian Rasic / Getty

Walter Becker, a guitarist, bassist, and co-founder of Steely Dan,
passed away on Sunday morning. He was sixty-seven, and living in Maui.
No official cause of death has been offered publicly, though earlier
this year, after Becker skipped shows in New York and Los Angeles,
Donald Fagen, his longtime partner in Steely Dan, told Billboard that
Becker had been “recovering from a procedure.”

Becker was born in Queens, and he graduated from Stuyvesant, one of New
York’s most selective public high schools, in 1968. He and Fagen met at
Bard, a liberal-arts college in Annandale-on-Hudson, and started playing
together as undergraduates. (At one point, they formed a group called
the Leather Canary, which also featured the comedian Chevy Chase, on
drums). Steely Dan coalesced in 1971, after Becker dropped out of Bard,
and he and Fagen moved west, to California.

The band’s début LP, “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” was released in 1972,
producing two charting singles, “Do It Again,” and “Reelin’ in the
Years.” Becker was just twenty-two at the time, but—and I say this
lovingly, admiringly—the band’s early hits are suffused with midlife
yearning. It’s as if they instinctively took to a kind of premature,
pansophical adulthood. “Reelin’ in the
Years,” especially, is a
wise and wistful accounting of how time goes by: “Your everlasting
summer / You can see it fading fast / So you grab a piece of something /
That you think is gonna last,” Fagen chastises. That these songs were
written and sung convincingly by very young men on the loose in Los
Angeles is extraordinary.

When Steely Dan first appeared on “American
Bandstand,” in 1973, Dick
Clark adopted a solemn, nearly professorial keen before describing the
band as “thinking person’s music.” The implication was: if you want to
party, keep moving along. Fagen and Becker had a reputation for being
cerebral, meticulous, and high-minded. Their songs are terrifically
complex, structurally—mapping one harmonically could take days. The
transitions between phases are so expert as to feel invisible, yet the
cumulative effect is nonetheless transporting: when a person reappears
on the other side of a Steely Dan song, she feels as if she’s been
floated somewhere different. It’s disorienting in the way that waking up
to a new season is disorienting. It’s not uncommon to look back and
think, Wait, what day is it?

Which is all to say that Clark wasn’t wrong in his characterization,
exactly. Along with a handful of other genres (R. & B., Chicago blues,
various strains of Latin music), Fagen and Becker incorporated elements
of jazz into their songwriting; for listeners who might’ve been
unfamiliar with the particulars of what this meant, especially in a
seventies-rock context, “elements of jazz” surely felt like pretentious
shorthand for “nerd stuff.” Mostly, Fagen and Becker were dissatisfied
by rock and roll’s more boorish, wrecking-ball tendencies, and thought
that they could do better (an early, winking iteration of the group was
called Bad Rock Band). The idea was simply to make something richer and
less rote—something more spiritually akin to the novels of Phillip Roth,
Terry Southern, or Kurt Vonnegut, less skronking and absurdist than
Frank Zappa but just as ambitious. Fagen and Becker admired musicians
like Sonny Rollins and Charles Mingus—determined, driving players who
blithely disregarded or subverted other people’s expectations of their

Of course, it is difficult to be extremely serious for long without also
being funny. From the start, Steely Dan lampooned itself, taking its
name from a masturbatory device (the imposing, strap-on rubber dildo in
William Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch”). Though critics will—and should—cite
and celebrate Becker and Fagen’s chops as musicians and arrangers, I’ve
always most admired their circuitous, clever lyrics. There are rambling,
playful songs about gamblers, financial markets, space aliens, and the
strange consolations of
the recently dumped (“I kinda like frying up / My sad cuisine / Getting
in bed / Curling up with a girlie magazine”). The band could be
poignant, too. “Dirty
Work,” from “Can’t Buy a
Thrill,” is a part-resigned, part-indignant ode to being used,
mercilessly, by someone you love. “Deacon
Blues,” from the band’s
1978 album, “Aja,” is sort of about college football and sort of about
jazz, but mostly about reckoning with your own failures:

I'll learn to work the saxophone

I play just what I feel

Drink Scotch whiskey all night long

And die behind the wheel

They got a name for the winners in the world

I want a name when I lose

They call Alabama the Crimson Tide

Call me Deacon Blues

The band went on hiatus from 1981 until 1993, when they reunited to tour
in support of “Kamakiriad,” Fagen’s second solo album, which Becker
produced. This led to more tours, and eventually, in 2000, a new album:
“Two Against Nature,” the band’s eighth record, and its first since
1980. In 2001, “Two Against Nature” won the Grammy for Album of the
Year, in a contentious upset, beating Beck’s “Midnite Vultures,” Paul
Simon’s “You’re the One,” Radiohead’s “Kid A,” and Eminem’s “The
Marshall Mathers LP,” a murderer’s row of significant releases.
(Newsweek, among other outlets, later called this one of “the most
Album of the Year pronouncements ever, which is probably true, though I
am oddly fond of the album’s particular slinkiness—the unapologetic way
it slithers into a room.)

I could spend all day trying to figure out how to describe my favorite
Steely Dan song—“Rikki Don’t Lose That
Number,” from “Pretzel
Logic,” the band’s third record—but it’s too wild and multitudinous to
heel to written characterizations. I can’t get there. When I close my
eyes and reach for metaphors, I see only Becker, his hair long and
shiny, wearing sunglasses and the spectacularly wide-collared shirt from
the band’s appearance on
the TV show “The Midnight Special,” wagging a finger at me. “Good luck,
friend,” is what I think he’s saying.