I wrote this over a year ago (actually while on a flight to New York), just after Walter Becker died, but I didn’t get around to publishing it. And then I intended to publish it on the anniversary of his death, but missed that too. So here it is…
Celebrities pass away every day – 2016 saw the Grim Reaper well employed – so why would I choose to write about one in particular? Walter Becker passed away on the 3rd of September 2017, and instead of a usual “oh, that’s sad” I felt genuine loss. I only saw Becker in the flesh once (I’ll come to that later) but I heard his music a million times (slight exaggeration, but maybe not by much).
Becker was not a household name to many, unless you were of a certain generation or really knew your music. Even within his well-known band, Steely Dan, Becker was elusive. A bass player, a virtuoso guitarist, a more-than-virtuoso song-writer… but a man who preferred to stay out of the spotlight. So much so that as Steely Dan’s career blossomed he was content to let session musicians play the bass and guitar parts, happy for them to turn his songs into the final polished (so very polished) masterpieces. Becker once told Rolling Stone magazine “It wouldn’t bother me at all not to play on my own album”. This never came true, but it was a close shave. Steely Dan became a nucleus of Becker and his song-writing partner (also singer and keyboard player) Donald Fagen, and they surrounded themselves with the industry’s best musicians. The hiring policy must have been something like this… “I’m one of the top five guitarists in the world” … “okay, come back when you’re in the top three”. Despite Becker being the band’s original bass player, after meeting Chuck Rainey* Becker said “I felt there really was no need for me to be bringing my bass guitar to the studio anymore”.
* Chuck Rainey played on many Steely Dan tracks – that’s him playing on Peg from the Aja album, so indeed, why wouldn’t you let Chuck play on your album?
I was introduced to Steely Dan by my older brother Steve when I was about 14 or 15 – Gaucho was the first Steely Dan album I owned myself. Over the years I’ve had many favourite bands, I’ve played their music to death and then tired of them… but there was always one band I would come back to. Steely Dan’s music was – is – timeless. It still sounds as fresh today as the first time I heard it, a testimony to the production, the incredible musicianship, and of course, the song-writing. As I grew older and understood the lyrics better, I appreciated the songs more.
In October 2016 I was taking an evening stroll through Manhattan when I saw a poster on a wall of Radio City… Steely Dan were playing in New York the next evening. I ran back to the hotel and got online, and there were some tickets still available. After quickly confirming that my work colleagues weren’t interested (their loss), I booked a ticket for myself. The next evening I stood outside the Beacon Theatre in the middle of a sort of ‘pinch myself to confirm this is real’ moment. I was about to see Steely Dan in New York. I don’t have a bucket list, but this would have been on it.
Their touring band played a musical intro, and then Becker and Fagen joined them. Becker was overweight and shuffled onto the stage. This was a man who was content to let other musicians play his music, but knowing of his talent even I was surprised by his guitar playing ability that evening – he took his fair share of the intricate solos along with touring band member John Herington. And Becker’s fabled love of guitars was on display – he had several lined up and changed guitar for every number.
A few songs in, Becker took the microphone and treated the audience to a two minute monologue about drugs. It was well-known that drugs were a favourite past-time of Becker’s in the late 70s. Was this a lecture on the dangers of drug-taking? Hell, no – Becker was a rock musician of the 70s who lived to tell the tale and was still at the top of his game. His message was, if you do drugs and enjoy them, carry on doing drugs. There was no façade and there never has been – I may not have agreed with the idea of endorsing drug-taking, but I admired Becker’s honesty. Drugs and crime were often a theme in their songs – Rikki Don’t Lose That Number referred to the phone number of a seedy Los Angeles dealer, Kid Charlemagne referred to another dealer – “on the hill the stuff was laced with kerosene, but yours was kitchen-clean” – and “tonight when I chase the dragon” from Time Out Of Mind refers to exactly what you think it does.
These excesses may have led to Becker’s untimely death at the age of 67 – the band had no plans to retire and were due to play in the UK later in 2016 (one date, sold out, and it will go ahead). Donald Fagen and his ridiculously talented band will continue to tour Steely Dan’s music. But there will never be another Steely Dan album. Maybe there wouldn’t have been anyway, and Becker leaves behind a musical legacy which really should be regarded as equal to that of Lennon and McCartney (who actually wrote very few songs together). The quiet man who stood just outside of the spotlight was an incredible musician, lyricist, and observer of the good and the bad of the music industry. A major dude, but not just any major dude.
Footnote: Maria and I have tickets to see Steely Dan at Wembley in 2019. Of course it’ll be a great evening, but I’m so glad I saw the band with Becker, and in New York… even if I did have to sit next to a woman who crunched her way through a large bag of pretzels (although thankfully she’d finished them by the time Steely Dan came on).