Steely Dan's Quiet Hero: Inside Walter Becker's Troubled Life, Wry Genius

He was a brilliant perfectionist behind one of rock's most eccentric bands – even if he preferred life in the shadows

Friends and collaborators of the late Walter Becker discuss how his troubled life and musical genius fed into the dark sophistication of Steely Dan. Credit: Henry Diltz

For years, anyone who wanted to use the bathroom while visiting Walter Becker's studio in the countryside of Maui was directed outside. There, mounted on one of the walls of a white outhouse, they'd find a gold-record plaque for Steely Dan's Aja – which, over time, began oxidizing and tarnishing in the ocean air.

It was a prime example of the irreverence, unflashiness and dark humor that Becker, who died at 67 on September 3rd, displayed his whole life. There were few, if any, rock stars like him. He looked and acted like a droll college professor, and in conversation he could expound on Samuel Beckett's plays, delve into the details of the Manhattan Project or rattle off the names of sidemen on obscure jazz records.

Becker was as much an architect of Steely Dan's airtight sound and skewed sensibility as his friend, singer-keyboardist Donald Fagen. The two co-wrote the Dan's songs, oversaw their legendary persnickety recording sessions, and shared a love of Beat writing, sci-fi and other topics that resulted in the parade of freaks and geeks that inhabited their songs. (With his long hair, wispy beard, and diffident air, Becker even resembled one of those weirdos, especially in his youth.) A behind-the-scenes maestro, Becker often let others play his parts on record, and few fans knew the dramatic arc of his life – his painful childhood, and the addiction, seclusion and rebirth he endured as an adult. "His relationships were difficult, and his relationship with life was difficult," says a friend, American-born Hindu devotional singer Krishna Das. "But music was always there for him. It was the most dependable source of beauty he had in his life."

Becker had also been battling health issues for well over a decade, yet another sign of his low-key, private nature, and few of his friends knew how severe his situation was until recently. Only this summer, when he dropped out of Steely Dan's shows at the Classic West and East festivals in Los Angeles and New York, did the severity of his lingering health issues hit many who knew him, and many were shocked when news of his death was first announced on his website. "I understand Walter was ill," says Chevy Chase, who met Fagen and Becker during their Bard College days and remained in touch, "but I had no idea how sick." Even his death remains a mystery; at press time, no cause was announced, but sources close to the Dan camp say he struggled with hepatitis C and may have succumbed to cancer.

Born in New York in 1950, Becker was the archetypical product of a broken home. When his parents separated, his British mother moved back to England, and Becker was raised by his father (who dealt in paper-shredding equipment) and his father's mother. His father had a heart attack when Becker was 16 and then later died from another attack on a plane ride home from doing business in Germany. "I reacted badly to it in a number of ways," Becker told Rolling Stone in 2000, "and nothing captured my imagination again for a while." Becker once told Das he grew up believing his mother had died – but he later tracked her down in England. "His family situation was really rough early on," says Larry Klein, who befriended Becker in the 2000s and worked on his 2008 solo album Circus Money. "He lost his dad early and he had a troubled relationship with his mother, and that was a source of pain for him. That has a tendency to form a dark sense of humor. You're either going to laugh or cry all the time."

Thanks to a Queens neighbor – Randy California, later the lead guitarist of Spirit – Becker was introduced to guitar, and he took that interest with him when he enrolled in the liberal-arts-geared Bard. One day in 1967, he met Fagen at an on-campus music club. Fagen recalls hearing someone playing guitar with "an authentic blues touch and feel, and a convincing vibrato." The two students, who shared tastes in what Fagen recalled as "jazz, blues, all sorts of popular music, Nabokov, and … 'black humor,'" soon began writing goofy songs and jamming in bands, one of which included Chase, another Fagen classmate.

Fagen graduated from Bard, Becker dropped out, and the two tried to convince publishers to buy their songs. Starting on the top floor of the Brill Building and making their way down, Fagen and Becker knocked on each office door one day in 1969 to pitch their oddball material. Kenny Vance, of the pop group Jay and the Americans, finally let them into the band's office and listened to their tunes, which included an early version of "Charlie Freak," later on Pretzel Logic, about a homeless man who ODs. "Donald was very reserved and Walter was sort of the mouthpiece for the two of them," Vance recalls. "They came in and Walter stood next to Donald, who played piano and they played their songs. They had unusual references to Fifties jazz and William Burroughs and unusual chord changes. Nobody had ever combined those elements into a contemporary song. It was a different world." Vance signed them to a publishing deal and hired them as backup musicians for Jay and the Americans, where Becker went by Gustav Mahler (Fagen was Tristan Fabriani). "They had some sort of intellectual joke they shared that nobody else was privy to," says Vance. "Walter always had the ability to crack Donald up."

Becker and Fagen's lives changed irrevocably when they moved to L.A. in 1971 to become staff writers for ABC Records, and subsequently launched the band that would come Steely Dan. With each album, the Dan's music grew more sophisticated and lyrically subversive, and Becker and Fagen soon ditched the strict band approach and opted for studio pros; that approach allowed them to stop touring, which they disliked, and focus on record making. Fagen and Becker put musicians through grueling sessions, as Michael McDonald learned when he attempted to add backup vocals to "Doctor Wu" on 1975's Katy Lied. "I just could not get it," McDonald says. "And of course they made no bones about it. A lot of it was in jest, but Walter would say, 'Have you been to the doctor lately? This should be easy for you – what's the problem?' They were harsh task masters. Not harsh, but they set the bar high."

As an instrumentalist, Becker made invaluable contributions, whether playing bass on each of the band's first three albums or ripping spiky guitar solos on "FM (No Static at All)," "Bad Sneakers" and "Black Friday." But he was just as content to hire session pros to play his parts. "He was an unbelievable guitar player – all the notes that came out were so unusual," says engineer Elliot Scheiner. "But plenty of times he wouldn't play, and I never understood why." As Becker later explained to RS, "Donald and I had more of an idea that comes from an East Coast Brill Building tradition, of an almighty producer, when you had a Leiber and Stoller, or at its extreme a Phil Spector, who knew exactly what they wanted."

But by the time of 1980's Gaucho, Becker's life began unraveling. During the making of the album, Becker was hit by a taxi in New York and was confined to a wheelchair while making the album. The punishing Gaucho sessions strained his relationship with Fagen, and Becker succumbed to a growing drug habit, reportedly heroin. In January 1980 his girlfriend Karen Stanley overdosed in their New York apartment. Steely Dan broke up the following year. "His habits got the best of him by the end of the seventies," Fagen wrote, "and we lost touch for a while."

To refocus his life, Becker retreated to Hawaii, where Steely Dan had played in 1974. In 1981, Becker, who met and later married a local yoga teacher, Elinor Meadows, bought a farm on the secluded, hippie-friendly island of Maui that included apple and avocado trees. There, Becker immersed himself in surfing, tai chi, mountain biking and a healthy diet. "He really seemed to embrace the spirit of being in a place like Hawaii," says McDonald, who visited Becker there. "I remember feeling that Walter had found some peace there. He found a place to escape a lot of the tragic events of his recent past."

Gradually, Becker eased himself back into music; he invited guitarist Dean Parks, who played on Steely Dan sessions, to visit and jam. "We'd horse around on two guitars and play jazz standards," says Parks. "He was re-entering the world of playing." Becker produced albums by China Crisis and for the Windham Hill New Age label and in 1991 built his studio, Hyperbolic Sound, on his property.

In the late Eighties, Becker and Fagen reconnected by way of the all-star touring ensemble the New York Rock and Soul Revue, playing Dan favorites like "Chain Lightning" and "Josie" live, and Becker produced Fagen's 1993 solo album Kamakiriad. That same year, the two resurrected Steely Dan for their first tour in 19 years. On a new creative roll, Becker further cemented his role in the Dan with his first solo record, 1994's 11 Tracks of Whack. "If you listen close, you can hear Walter's contributions [to the Dan] – his sense of humor and choice of odd subject matter," says Parks. "I heard Walter's songs and said, 'It's not all Donald.'" One of the album's songs, "Girlfriend," hinted at Becker's early post-Dan life: "Alone in my cave/It's Corn Flakes and Camels/And the long restless shadows of my life."

When Becker and Fagen began work on Two Against Nature, Steely Dan's first album in 20 years, their collaborative relationship picked up where it had left off. "They were a real team, sitting side by side, and one guy would say something and the other would execute it on an instrument," says engineer Dave Russell, who ran Becker's studio. The fastidiousness also returned: "Gaslighting Abbie" took 26 straight eight-hour days to nail. Becker and Fagen would critique each other's parts on paper and clipboard. "There was some tension," Russell says. "Walter would wail on the drum kit while Donald dissected his parts. But Walter respected Donald. It was Steely Dan. It had to sound good."

To the shock of many, Two Against Nature scored a Grammy for Album of the Year, besting albums by Radiohead, Eminem, Beck and Paul Simon. According to Klein, who spent time with Becker that night, Becker was hardly effusive, but his pride was evident. "Walter was very, very understated about it," he says. "Any kind of desire for validation or worldly applause was so well-hidden, if it was there at all. But that award was really important to him. He had a bright look in his eye."

In the years just before and after Steely Dan's comeback, Becker's life went through another period of tumult. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1997. (He and Elinor had a son, Kawai, and adopted a daughter, Sayan.) Becker relocated to New York to be with his new girlfriend. Although he would return to Hawaii to recharge, he closed down his studio in 2005. "His personality was changing, and he was reverting back to the Seventies Walter Becker," says Russell. "He was a bit more cynical. The New York accent was coming back." Visiting a Maui bar one day, Russell was surprised to see Becker drinking beer.

Thanks to improved sound systems, Becker relished live performance more than he had in the Seventies, and Steely Dan toured regularly for over a decade. "He didn't like being the center of attention, and once they got a big band, Donald would be in the spotlight and Walter could just sit back and take a few solos," Das says. "It was this big organic machine that he really enjoyed." The group made one more album, 2003's Everything Must Go, but there were no plans to make another in the years that followed. Becker opted to express himself again on the reggae-influenced 2008 solo LP Circus Money. "The process of making a Steely Dan record had become something that was very tough for him to deal with," says Klein. "He found it kind of agonizing. He was craving to make a record where you could hear the blood in it."

Far more pressing was Becker's health, perhaps exacerbated by his earlier lifestyle. Around the time of Circus Money, Becker developed liver issues. "That was always looming," says Klein. "If we went out to dinner, he couldn't order a glass of wine. He had to have a real clean liver." "The last time I saw him, he was going to try another round of treatments for hep C," says Das, who was told Becker was using interferon to battle his illness. At New York's Beacon Theatre in 2013, Becker walked offstage midway through the show; Fagen announced his departure was attributed to a "fever." According to McDonald, Becker took time off for an undisclosed medical procedure before a New Orleans Steely Dan show in 2016. By then, friends and colleagues like Klein, Das and Russell hadn't heard from Becker in years.

Earlier this year, Becker was in a good mood backstage at a Dan show in California, but his health soon went downhill, and Steely Dan began playing shows without him. A week before his death, Fagen visited his partner in the hospital to cheer him up – an experience he described to his friend Pete Fogel the night before Becker died, backstage at a Fagen solo show in Austin. "I could sense he knew that might have been the last time he would see Walter," Fogel says. "He reminisced about their long personal and musical relationship they had since their early college years. It was heartbreaking and very sad, to say the least."

For now, Steely Dan will continue; the band will return to touring on October 13th. Becker's legacy, the way he and Fagen subverted pop norms, will also endure; unexpected fans include Mark Ronson and Beck. "People can sort of listen to it at whatever level," Becker once said of the Dan's records. "It's been universally agreed that our music is the best possible Muzak – rock Muzak – to play in the supermarket." 

In honor of the late Walter Becker, we look back at 10 of Steely Dan's greatest songs. Watch here.