As fresh entries to Bard College in 1967, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen imagined a pulsing jam session on every dorm floor, a confluence of heady creativity enjoined by “those of my kind,” thriving in the current cultural renaissance.
Becker and Fagan, two peas in a pod sewn in the New York jazz scene since they were old enough to listen, were flatly disappointed when Bard students failed to live up to the hype. All the kids around them just wanted to loll around stoned, Fagan noted archly in his 2013 memoir, Eminent Hipsters.
So the two, together, went their own way artistically, and the music world for generations to follow, was forever grateful. They became Steely Dan, always a pair, no matter the rotating session and tour musicians who fleshed them out full measure.
Walter Becker’s death at the age of 67, announced on Sept. 3 after an illness only mentioned vaguely in news reports over the late summer, came like a hammer into the hearts of fans who know implicitly that Becker—the sotto voce half of the super-successful iconoclastic pair—had imparted much of the duo’s cynical edge and sly, introspective pathos.
In a devastating but brief homage to his friend and musical partner for 50 years, Fagen said Becker had “a very rough childhood – I’ll spare you the details.” He went on:
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.
The result, a canon of irreverent, surprising, sublime, sarcastic, opaque and always challenging songs that absolutely transcended the self-indulgent counter-culture of their time. So much that, when their peers like Jefferson Airplane/Starship went flying off-course and into the banality of the syntho-rock 80s, Becker and Fagen kept writing bad-ass music about the underdogs and degenerates, hopeful romantics, junkies, pitiable gray-flanneled men, vampish ladies and “luckless pedestrians” on the street of life. Much of what they sang about seemed so impenetrable but the fun was in decoding the cryptic and wrapping oneself in the beautifully meticulous (and altogether singular) symphony of jazz-rock-R&B. These men were aficionados of the spirit of the age, but they were also boys whose love of sci-fi and pulp fiction and love-hate relationship with the Post-War plastic New Frontier they grew up in was never far from their ironic, comical observations. They never surrendered to the narcissistic zeitgeist, nor to the conformity of non-conformity. They were anarchists of the realm.
They won a Best Album Grammy in 2000 for “Two Against Nature,” a Becker prize in that it shook off much of the snappy nostalgia that Fagen had strung through his nonetheless brilliant “Kamakiriad” in 1993, and went right for the jugular. Songs like “Gaslighting Abbie” and “Negative Girl” are as unsettling as they are infectious.
The pair were particularly averse to overt political commentary, but on “Jack of Speed,” it shows a bit, referring to “that right-wing hooey, sure stunk up the joint.” Later, in their post-9/11 “Everything Must Go,” the two seem to lament the end of empire and God, hinting the end of the American enterprise, and in usual fashion, comparing it to the shuttering of a supermarket.
Fagen’s readily distinguishable voice, successful solo career and striking pose most certainly became the de-facto face of this enigmatic band. Most people don’t realize there are only two members of Steely Dan and even fewer could call Becker out of a line-up. But die hard fans know better. Half of this strange and peerless alchemy has been extinguished for good, at least in this world. And it will never be the same.
Here is a little peek at how the magic was made:
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is managing editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC