Walter Becker 1950-2017


Walter Becker and Donald Fagen may have been two against nature, but even Becker's lancet wit and Tele skills couldn't sidestep the Grim Reaper and he has passed away leaving behind a Cadillac-sized musical legacy and two sons. At the time of writing the cause of death is unspecified, but maybe we should have picked up the hint when gigs in July went ahead without him. Either way, in an age of loss, the passing of Becker remains oddly unbelievable: the great survivor who came through the death by drugs of his partner Kim Stanley, who struggled with and largely overcame his own drug demons, who fought off Stanley's would be litigious mother, who himself survived a serious car smash, and divorce from his wife Elinor; Becker the man behind Aja and Pretzel Logic and Gaucho has gone. Surely not, surely it's one of Becker's slick cynical jokes, he's gas-lighting us, driving us a little mad, taking his renowned reclusiveness – he made a home for himself for years off Hawaii when he and Fagen first parted ways – just one step further. He'll be back won't he?

If that sounds irreverent, well, Becker would probably approve: his was the ultimate über cool, never the sentimentalist, always the gimlet-eyed outsider that underwrote Steely Dan's panache. Some, Fagen among them, attributed this acerbic but precise as the surgeon's scalpel worldview to Becker's apparently tough, often distressing childhood. Getting attached to anyone was too risky, better to go for the wisecrack, the hyper-polished lyric and lithe melody. And if you can't control relationships, and age does wither you, then look for control through the studio: and this in a way was Becker's gift to music, to use the studio to nail down the most perfect sonic experience possible (whatever the cost in dollars and burnt out synapses).

In taking ultimate control of the sound he sought, Becker left many a guitarist on the cutting room floor (how's it hanging, Mr Knopfler?), so it's no surprise that the soul and proficiency of jazz artists appealed to Becker. Fagen once shared with this correspondent how they'd wanted more 'old school' jazz artists on board, recording sessions with the likes of Al Cohn, which Fagen described dryly as a 'learning curve' for all involved. It's interesting that Becker as a producer, once the Dan split, worked with the likes of Michael Franks and Ricky Lee Jones who also lived and worked in that hinterland between jazz and the singer-songwriter, artists who likewise employed a wry rhyme to hide the hurt.

The house of jazz has many rooms and it would be a parlous view of the jazz tradition that it couldn't include Steely Dan, especially in the golden years between 1972 to 1980. This isn't just because Becker and Fagen were lucky enough to meet at college in the heady days of the late 1960s when the boundaries between rock, jazz and folk came tumbling down; nor was it because they insisted on using the best of musicians, many of whom had impeccable jazz credentials, like Joe Sample, Victor Feldman (a Steely stalwart) and Wayne Shorter. The Steely jazz thing was that they loved the great traditions – the insight and wit of the Great American Songbook, the passion and prowess of bop (Horace Silver is embedded in the first song on their third album) – but never let them be their masters: Becker took all that material, Tin Pan Alley, rock's 'stick it to the man' attitude, jazz's cool and love of the unique and used it to express his own and our own humanity.

In a decade, the 1970s, which produced so many ground-breaking records, Becker helped craft albums and songs that were themselves, unforgettable; at once simple, yet complex, Becker's paradox was that he was deeply affectionate of a world that seemed limitlessly cruel, whose sanity he questioned even as he barely hung on to his own.

– Andy Robson

– Photo by Tim Dickeson