From left, Walter Becker, Donald Fagen, and Glenn Gould (who did not, to my knowledge, play with Steely Dan)
Earlier today, one of my favorite musicians died – Walter Becker, half of the creative team behind Steely Dan, a 70’s band whose music has been mislabeled so many times, I will not even attempt to say what genre they were. Think of them as rock musicians who knew and understood jazz harmony and arranging, and you’re in the ballpark. They tried very hard not to be successful – writing sophisticated harmonies and weird lyrics while refusing to tour for 20 years – and failed, selling over 40 million albums.
Becker and his partner, Donald Fagen, met at Bard College in the 60’s, and began playing together in different bands, one of which briefly included fellow student Chevy Chase. Fagen released a statement on Sunday about Becker’s passing, and said: “Walter had a very rough childhood – I’ll spare you the details. 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.” (You can read Fagen’s moving tribute in full here.)
Steely Dan wrote songs about drug dealers (“Kid Charlemagne” and “Glamour Profession”), Puerto Rican immigrants in NY (“The Royal Scam”), creepy guys (“Hey Nineteen”) and losers (“Deacon Blues”). Listen to any of these songs (or pretty much anything else they wrote), and you’ll hear the voice of the outsiders both Becker and Fagen felt themselves to be.
I imagine this feeling of not belonging was behind their lack of interest in touring when they were most popular. They remind me of another weirdo who disliked performing, Glenn Gould. Much like Becker and Fagen, Gould quit the stage at the height of his fame, preferring to work in the recording studio, where he could re-work his interpretations over and over until he was satisfied. Over the years, Becker and Fagen lost many great musicians who wanted to get out on the road and make more money, and at the height of their fame, Steely Dan became an exclusively studio band, with different personnel on every tune.
Years later, I finally got to see them in concert, and it was certainly fun, but I understood why they had been so reluctant to play live back in their heyday – simply put, the music just didn’t sound as good. Steely Dan’s albums are so beautiful sounding and atmospheric, it was hard to hear the songs without all the subtleties included on the recordings.
Many (if not most) artists feel themselves to be somewhat removed from society as a whole, and often do their best work while alone. I bet Becker and Fagen needed the quiet and space of the studio to do their best work, and the results speak for themselves. So lower your flag, tip your hat, raise your glass, whatever – here’s my all-time favorite tune of theirs, “The Caves of Altamira”.
Rest in Peace, Walter, and thanks for the music.