Maker of sleek but enigmatic pop

Guitarist-songwriter Walter Becker was one-half of Steely Dan, whose music influenced jazz and pop in their 1970s heyday

Walter Becker performing at Beacon Theatre in New York in 2011.
Walter Becker performing at Beacon Theatre in New York in 2011.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Walter Becker, the Steely Dan guitarist-songwriter who made suavely subversive pop hits out of slippery jazz harmonies and verbal enigmas in partnership with Donald Fagen, died on Sunday.

He was 67. His death was announced on his official website, which gave no other details.

He lived in Maui, Hawaii.

He was unable to perform with Steely Dan this summer at The Classic West and The Classic East in Los Angeles and New York, two stadium-sized festivals of 1970s bands.

Last month, Fagen told Billboard: "Walter's recovering from a procedure and, hopefully, he'll be fine very soon."

As Steely Dan, the duo changed the vocabulary of pop in the 1970s with songs such as Do It Again, Reelin' In The Years, Rikki Don't Lose That Number and Peg.

The band's musical surfaces were sleek and understated, smooth enough to almost be mistaken for easy-listening pop, and polished through countless takes that earned the duo a reputation as studio perfectionists.

Their songs were catchy enough to infiltrate pop radio in the 1970s.

"That's sort of what we wanted to do, conquer from the margins," Becker told Time Out New York in 2011. "Find our place in the middle based on the fact that we were creatures of... alienation."

Steely Dan's lyrics depicted cryptic situations and sketched characters such as addicts, suicidal fugitives and dirty old men.

"You can infer certain things about the lives of people who would write these songs. This we cannot and do not deny," Becker said.

The music used richly ambiguous harmonies rooted in Debussy, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins, giving the songs a sophisticated core that would be widely influential across jazz and pop.

Although Steely Dan arrived as a full band on their 1972 debut album Can't Buy A Thrill, they soon recast themselves as the Becker-Fagen songwriting team, backed by session musicians.

In their 1970s hit-making heyday, Steely Dan rarely toured, preferring to work in the studio.

Named after a dildo in William Burroughs' 1959 novel Naked Lunch, the band dissolved after their 1980 album Gaucho, though Becker and Fagen stayed in contact. In 1993, they re-emerged as Steely Dan, leading a band that would tour frequently well into this year.

The songwriting and recording process remained painstaking.

The group released only two more studio albums: Two Against Nature in 2000 (which won the Grammy for Album of the Year) and Everything Must Go in 2003.

Unlike their 1970s incarnation, Steely Dan thrived on stage.

Becker was born in Forest Hills, New York City, on Feb 20, 1950. He met Fagen in 1967 when they were students at Bard College in New York.

"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 wrote.

When he graduated in 1969, Becker dropped out. Both moved to New York, where they were noticed by Kenny Vance of Top 40 band Jay And The Americans.

They played in the touring band for Jay and wrote the soundtrack for a 1971 Richard Pryor movie, You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It.

Its producer, Gary Katz, got them jobs as songwriters for ABC Records, and Becker and Fagen moved to Los Angeles in 1971.

They assembled Steely Dan there, with Fagen on keyboards and lead vocals while Becker played bass. Do It Again from the 1972 debut album reached the Top 10.

The group recorded two more albums, Countdown To Ecstasy in 1973 and Pretzel Logic in 1974, which included their biggest Top 10 hit, Rikki Don't Lose That Number.

In mid-1974, the duo decided they no longer wanted to tour.

"It seemed like the more complex the music we were playing, the less able we were to guarantee its consistency," Becker said.

Steely Dan reached their pinnacle as a studio duo. Their lyrics took on ambitious themes: a stock-market crash in Black Friday, Puerto Rican immigration in The Royal Scam and the jazz life in Deacon Blues.

And their music grew more subtle and magisterial, with intricate horn arrangements and pristine sound.

On 1977 album Aja, the band brought in celebrated jazz musicians including Wayne Shorter.

But the recording of its successor, Gaucho, was plagued by problems.

Becker had become a heroin user. In 1980, his girlfriend died of a drug overdose. Weeks later, he was hit by a taxi, fracturing his leg.

In 1981, Steely Dan quietly disbanded. According to Fagen, Becker's "habits got the better of him by the end of the 1970s and we lost touch for a while".

Becker moved to Maui, where he detoxed and became an avocado farmer. In the second half of the 1980s, he returned to music.

In 1991, he began sitting in with Fagen's New York Rock And Soul Revue. The duo also produced solo albums for each other.

In 1993, Steely Dan decisively re-emerged as a touring band, settling in for long residencies at places such as Beacon Theatre in New York and performing entire albums from its catalogue.

As tributes poured in from fellow musicians, perhaps the most fitting came from Rickie Lee Jones, who said: "Walter knew what he was doing. He planted music. It grows all around us now."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2017, with the headline 'Maker of sleek but enigmatic pop'. Subscribe