Steely Dan‘s concert at Greenwich, Connecticut’s Roger Sherman Baldwin Park on May 27th didn’t seem like a momentous event when it was happening. It was merely the final gig of their U.S. spring tour prior to a two-month break. Things didn’t seem amiss until the tour resumed at Dodger Stadium for Classic West on July 15th and suddenly guitarist Larry Carlton was playing lead and Walter Becker was nowhere on stage. “He took ill shortly before he was to come to California,” Donald Fagen told the audience. “We wish him a speedy recovery.”
Becker had missed shows before and most fans didn’t make much of his absence, but two weeks later when Classic East hit New York’s Citi Field he was also not there. “Walter’s recovering from a procedure,” Fagen told Billboard. “Hopefully he’ll be fine very soon.” Tragically, everyone’s worst fears came true on September 3rd when Becker’s official website posted that he’d died of unknown causes. “He was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter,” Fagen wrote in a moving tribute. “He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny.”
His death means the May 27th, 2017 show in Connecticut marked the final time that Becker performed in public. Fortunately, a determined fan captured the entire thing on camera and posted it to YouTube in pretty great quality. Like nearly all their gigs since their reunion in 1993 its heavy on classic songs like “Hey Nineteen,” “Black Cow,” “My Old School” and “Reelin’ in the Years.”
The group went off the road in 1975 to focus all their energy on recording music, but when the economics of the music industry changed in the 2000s, they changed along with it and became touring machines, playing upwards of 60 gigs a year. For a while, they toured every other year, but beginning in 2013, they went out every summer without fail.
Five years ago, Fagen explained to Rolling Stone why the group was so focused on road work. “I need to tour to make a living,” he said. “I get maybe eight percent of the royalty money I used to get…With the amount of free downloading the business is no longer a business, really. Also, you have to understand that our songs are not covered very often. They’re very personal and, generally speaking, we came from a kind of ironic standpoint where pop singers really don’t do them. We don’t get that kind of coverage.” (Later that day, Becker got on the phone for one of the most amazingly combative interviews I’ve ever conducted. Read the whole interview here.)
On the fateful final show in Connecticut earlier this year, Fagen handles nearly all the live vocals, but jump ahead to 40:33 to see Becker take lead over the mic on “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More.” They end the show on the title track to 1974’s Pretzel Logic, though the band played Nelson Riddle’s “The Untouchables” as Fagan and Becker walked off opposite sides of the stage, having no idea it marked the end of their incredible five decade partnership.
Watch below: In honor of the late Walter Becker, we look back at 10 of Steely Dan’s greatest songs.