By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)
“Living hard will take its toll” sang the backup vocalists on Steely Dan’s Glamour Profession on the group’s (first) farewell album Gaucho. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker knew this all too well; as the Glimmer Twins’ nerdy, jazzy alter egos, the duo’s profligacy ran rampant across the 1970s before impelling the group into dissolution in 1981. After several reformations and breakups over the next three decades and an undeniably storied career, it was announced on September 3rd that Walter Becker had passed away. And though Becker’s website refrains from listing the cause of death, one can only imagine that his past addictions played a hand in his untimely passing.
Fronting a revolving door of accomplished musicians, Fagen and Becker were long recognized as the two-headed chieftain behind Steely Dan’s inimitable sound. But with Becker relegated primarily to bass guitar and background vocals, it’s easy to dismiss him as the Art Garfunkel of ‘70s jazz rock.
On the contrary, Walter Becker was just as instrumental in the Steelies’ musical identity as Fagen, co-penning lyrics that both limned drugged-out low-lives as persecuted heroes and created the occasional inroads to the beau monde. More aloof onstage than his lead vocalist counterpart, Becker never had to vie for the spotlight, as his role in the band was always well understood. And as Dan’s career progressed, his presence became increasingly salient, as evidenced by his indispensable guitar work on the following songs.
- Pretzel Logic– Pretzel Logic (1974)
Becker’s first documented solo in the group, his musicianship seems deceptively tentative on those first couple bars. Initially slow and unassuming, it’s clear this is not the work of lead guitarist Jeff Baxter. But as the song swells to accommodate Becker’s bluesy noodling, his prowess becomes indisputable. Featuring one sour note on the song’s outro, Pretzel Logic is a document of perhaps the band’s only mistake in the studio, but it remains one of Steely Dan’s most memorable solos.
- Black Friday– Katy Lied (1975)
Cutting through the sheen of the rest of the band’s polished production, Becker’s fuzzed-out guitar-god riffing immediately takes command of the song upon its first appearance. Languid, confident, and absolutely electric, the song stands out as one of the group’s most engaging blues indulgences, due in no small part to Walter Becker’s nonpareil guitar sound.
- Bad Sneakers– Katy Lied (1975)
In spite of a chorus featuring an almost Zappa-esque lyrical phrasing that all but alters its time signature, Bad Sneakers’s warm R&B piano on its verses and the lugubrious Michael McDonald vocals on the second pre-chorus establishes the song as a work of sympathy rather than cynicism. Over the bridge’s two-chord progression, Becker exhibits a stentorian sound that not only complements the pathos of the song, but also documents Becker at his jazziest.
- The Fez– The Royal Scam (1976)
The Royal Scam introduced funk into Steely Dan’s palette when it was released in 1976. And on The Fez, the band’s PSA for safe sex (which starkly contrasted the lifestyle Fagen and Becker led at the time), Becker yet again showcases his predilection for guitar distortion while creating a sound consistent with the rest of his bandmates. He seems to be dueling with the keyboard that appears intermittently during this solo, yet by the time the song’s main riff reemerges, the entire ensemble yields to Becker and his sleek/jagged guitar enigma.
- Josie– Aja (1977)
Boasting what is perhaps the Steelies’ sexiest riff, Josie is one of the band’s most memorable album closers. With its laser-precision funk rhythm guitar, an ethereal synth that instantly merges with the song’s brass section, and lyrics that indefatigably praise its titular heroine, Josie proves a quintessential Steely Dan song. Becker’s guitar solo on the track begins with a repetition of Fagen’s vocal melody, but soon careens into far more beguiling territory that effectively distills his love of blues, rock, and jazz into one shimmering gestalt.
There isn’t anything outwardly cool about Steely Dan, despite their dark sunglasses and super rad long hair. Even in the ‘70s as stadium rock dominated the zeitgeist, the jazz-rock ensemble avoided anything resembling youth culture and effectively alienated themselves from the most voracious (and profitable) consumer demographic. It’s telling that John Mulaney’s and Nick Kroll’s Oh, Hello Broadway show about two curmudgeonly septuagenarian New Yorkers constantly reiterates the fact that its stars are huge Dan fans. Steely Dan’s music was mature, it was opaque, and thanks to the presence of Walter Becker, it was completely electrifying.