Obituary: Walter Becker, musician who co-founded Steely Dan
A rock and roll fan with a penchant for harmony and obtuse references, Walter Becker, the guitarist, bassist and co-founder of the 1970s rock group Steely Dan, which sold more than 40 million albums and produced such hit singles as Reelin’ In the Years, Rikki Don’t Lose that Number and Deacon Blues, has died at the age of 67.
Donald Fagen said in a statement that his Steely Dan bandmate was not only “an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter” but also “smart as a whip,” “hysterically funny” and “cynical about human nature, including his own”.
“I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band,” Fagen wrote.
Although Steely Dan had been touring recently, Becker had missed performances earlier in the summer in Los Angeles and New York. Fagen later told Billboard that Becker was recovering from a procedure. Fagen said at the time he hoped that Becker would be fine soon.
Musicians were quick to mourn Becker on social media. Mark Ronson tweeted that Becker was “one half of the team I aspire to every time I sit down at a piano”.
Both Ryan Adams and the band The Mountain Goats tweeted that Becker changed their lives. Slash posted a photo of Becker on Instagram, writing “RIP WalterBecker”.
A Queens native who started out playing the saxophone and eventually picked up the guitar, Becker met Fagen as a student 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,” Fagen recalled in his statement.
“We liked a lot of the same things: jazz (from the twenties through the mid-sixties), WC Fields, the Marx Brothers, science fiction, (Vladimir) Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, and Robert Altman films come to mind. Also soul music and Chicago blues.”
They played with the 1960s pop group Jay and the Americans and penned the song I Mean to Shine, performed by Barbara Streisand in 1971 before moving to California and founding the band, which they named after a sex toy in William S Burroughs’ 1959 novel Naked Lunch.
“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,” Fagen recalled.
Their first album as Steely Dan, Can’t Buy Me a Thrill was released in 1972, and featured both Do It Again and Reelin’ In the Years. A lukewarm Rolling Stone review from the time said it contained “three top-level cuts and scattered moments of inspiration”.
The band continued producing albums throughout the 1970s, boasting songs penned by Fagen and Becker and music provided by some of the best session musicians in the business.
“It wouldn’t bother me at all,” Becker said in an interview, “not to play on my own album.”
In their music, Steely Dan offered an idiosyncratic combination of rock and jazz, backed with subversive and literary lyrics that neither expected many fans to understand – and which they themselves sometimes claimed to not understand. They scored a big hit with Rikki Don’t Lose that Number in 1974 before hitting a high point in 1977 with the album Aja.
“What underlies Steely Dan’s music – and may, with this album, be showing its limitations – is its extreme intellectual self-consciousness, both in music and lyrics,” wrote critic Michael Duffy of the album in Rolling Stone in 1977. “Given the nature of these times, this may be precisely the quality that makes Walter Becker and Donald Fagen the perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies.”
But it wasn’t quite enough to sustain Steely Dan past their next studio album, Gaucho. They broke up in 1981 after the album’s release.
Becker had suffered some personal hardships during this time, including addiction, his girlfriend’s death by overdose and a resulting lawsuit, and a serious injury he sustained after being struck by a cab. When Steely Dan disbanded, Becker retreated to Maui and began growing avocados, while Fagen attempted a solo career.
Becker eventually reunited with Fagen and, after a nearly 20-year hiatus, released two albums: Two Against Nature, which won four Grammys, including album of the year in 2001, and Everything Must Go. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
Ever sardonic, when they got back together and started touring again, Becker joked in an interview that they were going to be wearing defibrillator backpacks during their performances just in case something went wrong. When the interviewer asked about bands touring past their prime, Becker just said: “People were already thinking that about us in the ’70s. It would be a shame if they didn’t continue to think that.”