Walter Becker once explained Steely Dan’s most affectionate satire, “Deacon Blues.” “The protagonist is not a musician. He just sort of imagines that would be one of the mythic forms of loserdom to which he might aspire. And you know, who’s to say that he’s not right?”
Mythic loserdom was the turf Steely Dan chronicled like no other rock & roll band. They dwelled in Raymond Chandler’s L.A., not Brian Wilson’s or Jackson Browne’s. (Although they shared plenty with Wilson and Browne as well.) And Walter Becker was the more elusive half of this most elusive of duos – the invisible genius of Seventies rock, rarely photographed, never speaking a word in public. Long hair parted in the middle, about two-fifths of a beard, glasses designed to hide behind. If you can find a 1970s photo where this guy isn’t sneering at you, I’ll shake your hand.
So Becker probably would have been amused by how deeply the world mourned the news of his death on Sunday, at 67. He was the rock & roll equivalent of a wise guy in an L.A. noir – like the loanshark in The Killing or the cigar-chomping boxing promoter in Kiss Me Deadly or the twitchy bookie in The Asphalt Jungle (“money makes me sweat”) – one of those guys who gets one scene, maybe just one line, then vanishes into the shadows of some royal scam and makes you wonder what the rest of his story could possibly be.
It makes cosmic sense that he slipped away the same day as our country’s greatest living writer, the poet John Ashbery, another American original who struck people as perversely abstract and inscrutable. “All things are secretly bored,” Ashbery declared in 1975’s The Vermont Notebook, an American credo that could have been a Steely Dan line. In Three Poems, Ashbery describes a way of working that applies equally well to the Dan: “I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.”
Steely Dan approached rock & roll that way. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were two hard unsmiling men doing a dirty job that seemed to give them no pleasure except the checks, which (as they made no effort to hide) were massive. They wanted all the perks of stardom – money, sex, drugs, more money – without making any concessions to the fame game, no touring or glad-handing. Fagen was the grumpiest of frontmen, but compared to Becker, Fagen was Peter Frampton – at least we knew what his voice sounded like. Becker lurked so far in the background, nobody knew he was writing half the lyrics as well as music – in fact, nobody was sure what he did. He liked it that way. As he told Rolling Stone’s Cameron Crowe in 1977, “It wouldn’t bother me at all not to play on my own album.”
Most fans heard him talk for the first time in the 1999 VH1 Classic Albums doc about the making of Aja – a TV moment every bit as classic as Aja. It changed the public perception of Steely Dan as drastically as Beyond The Lighted Stage changed the perception of Rush, introducing Becker as the mischievously wry professor that live audiences would come to cherish over the years. For longtime fans who grew up seeing Fagen and Becker as silent recluses, it was a shock to hear them trade banter worthy of Statler and Waldorf. In the studio, they play back the “Peg” guitar solos just to heckle them. (“Hawaiian.” “Yeah, that’s kind of, uh, Polynesian.”) They isolate Michael McDonald’s backup vocals just to snicker at him: “Sorry, Mike.” (McDonald was so declassé in 1999 that his voice was the punch line at the end of the South Park movie.) Fagen mocks his own “Deacon Blues” vocal: “Those days when I was singing like Jerry Lewis. Remember that?” Becker nods. “Yeah, that was a very fertile period for you.”
Countdown to Ecstasy will always be my favorite Steely Dan record – so cold-eyed, from the spooky lilt of “Razor Boy” to the menace of “The Boston Rag” to the snide wit of “My Old School.” The trilogy of Countdown, Pretzel Logic and Katy Lied is for me a Seventies L.A. noir on the level of Chinatown or California Split. They filled the records with mysteries for fans to argue over – were the “Show Biz Kids” soul girls chanting “you go to Las Vegas” or “you roll your lost wages”? Was the Annandale in “My Old School” the one in Virginia (near William & Mary) or the one in the Hudson valley (near Bard)? Who were Katy or Dr. Wu or Gino or Daddy G? Were they kidding with that “Razor Boy” vibraphone solo or did they sincerely think vibraphones sounded cool?
By all accounts, Becker was the more acerbic of the pair. “Walter and Donald are one person with two brains,” original Dan guitarist Denny Dias told Rolling Stone in 2000. “Lyrically, Walter’s got that biting edge. Donald’s not nearly as sarcastic.” But amazingly, the weirder they got, the bigger they got. When they stopped playing semi-comprehensible pop songs about existential despair, and started playing semi-endless jazz songs about drug dealers, America just wanted more. “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” was a Number Four hit in 1974, a radio staple ever since, though it’s the song of an L.A. hustler operating his own sex-or-drugs-or-whatever den of sin, saying goodbye to this dumb sad kid who’s new in town and who still seriously believes he or she can ever go back home and fit into nice clean society again. The cheeriest part is the boom-boom drum hook into the chorus, played by a top-dollar L.A. session guy who’s spent the past few decades incarcerated for murdering his mother. Fagen’s “that’s okaaay” feels as dark as Elliott Gould’s “it’s all right with me” in The Long Goodbye. And the word “games” has never sounded so sinister.
Fagen and Becker always kept their working methods private. (As Becker told Hank Shteamer in a revealing 2008 Time Out New York interview, “Sometimes we really work very closely, collaboratively on every little silly millimeter on the writing of the song and certainly of the records, and sometimes less so.”) As they boast in the hilarious liner notes to their 1999 reissue series, they weren’t into Sixties utopian ideals – they preferred “the unenlightened despotism of our autocratic aesthetic regime.” They soon gave up the pretense of having other people in the band, hiring and discarding sidemen at will. “‘Studio musician’ – to us, there were no grander words in the English language than these (‘ripe breast,’ ‘chiba-chiba’ and ‘flavorstraw’ were close runners-up).” But they gave none of their secrets away. As Fagen told Crowe in 1977, “We’re just sitting out the Seventies, waiting for better times.”
The better times didn’t come. Becker crashed out, drifted away during the making of Gaucho, lost touch with Fagen, retreated to Hawaii to deal with his addictions, or as he called them, “social ills.” They went years without seeing each other. Back in New York, Fagen would go to jazz clubs, ask the musicians to autograph napkins “To Walter” and drop them in the mail to his long-lost friend. “Just to keep him going. Or so I thought.” They made solo albums where they got direct – sentimental, even – in ways they couldn’t together. Becker’s wonderfully sardonic 1994 album 11 Tracks of Whack had a confession called “This Moody Bastard” (“needs some kind of friend now and then”). When they revived Steely Dan, they found their audience more passionate than ever – and they couldn’t quite hide their delighted (if bemused) surprise that the audience was there.
Since so many fans spent Sunday mourning Ashbery and Becker at the same time – for me that meant reading The Double Dream of Spring with a stack of Steely Dan LPs – it’s fitting to let Ashbery take the last word, from his prose elegy Three Poems: “There was no longer anyone to care in the old sense of caring. There were new people watching and waiting, conjugating in this way the distance and emptiness, transforming the scarcely noticeable bleakness into something both intimate and noble.” Becker knew that bleakness – and made a lifetime’s worth of unforgettable music out of it. He always knew how to make loserdom sound mythic. Rest in peace, Walter Becker – we know you’re smoking, wherever you are.