Walter Becker, one half of the heart of classic rock band Steely Dan, has died at the age of 67 (on September 3rd), with no details being shared to the public as to cause. He was living in Maui, Hawaii at the time. Known for their subtle innuendo filled lyrics, Steely Dan – who’s band was named after a dildo in “Naked Lunch” by William S. Burroughs – went on to become one of the defining bands of their generation, with such hits as ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ and ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ that filled car radio speakers everywhere in the ‘70s and still do to this day.
Much has been said over the years on the songwriting duo that was Becker and Donald Fagen, fans and casual listeners and industry staples all quite agree on the finesse of the lyrics – though often dealing with drugs, love affairs, gambling, crime, and politics, their sarcasm shone through in a way that was honest. Ricki Lee Jones (singer, who’s fourth album ‘Flying Cowboys’ was produced by Becker) has said in an essay since receiving news of his death on the music of the band, “I was brought up, you might say, on writing thick with imagery and subtle implication and I loved it. I loved the innuendo, the humor, the sting. The genius was as much in the part we filled in, the lines they didn’t write. That was where the sticky stuff of memory made their music a part of our own personal history.”
Applauded not only for their lyrical genius, the jazz rock band has constantly been heralded by musicians for their recording techniques, with Mark Ronson stating, “I discover new things every time I put a Steely Dan record on. I’m still discovering songs for the first time.” Becker and Fagen met at Bard College in New York in 1967 and would start writing and playing together after Fagen overheard Becker playing the guitar. There first break was made when they joined the touring band for Jay And The Americans who are responsible for the hit ‘Come A Little Bit Closer’ that’s recently found a resurgence in sales after being featured in the soundtrack for “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” this past year. From there, they joined with guitarists Denny Dias, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, drummer Jim Hodder and singer David Palmer to record their debut album ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’. Released in 1972 it spawned the hits ‘Do It Again’ and the aforementioned ‘Reelin’ In The Years’. Members came and went, with the band becoming a revolving door for musicians who’d go on to form other bands or become solo artists in their own right: Rick Derringer, Jeff Porcaro and David Paich (Toto), Michael McDonald (The Doobie Brothers). A band known for their reluctance to tour, after a twelve year breakup from 1981 to 1993 – in which Becker went on to produce a great many albums – the band reunited and would become a staple on the gig circuit, touring as often as possible, with their last concert together happening in April of this year.
On the death of his musical partner, Fagen said, “smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter… He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny.” Try and keep that hysterical cynicism alive by listening to some of Steely Dan’s hits down below.