07 September 2017

R.I.P. Walter Becker, Musician and Noir Author

by Brian Thornton

A giant passed last Sunday.
Walter Becker (1950-2017)

Quietly.

On the island of Maui.

Walter Becker, one half of the duo known to the musical world as Steely Dan, died at his home after a long illness. He was 67.

Responsible for some of the most subversively slick pop hits of the 1970s, Becker and his partner Donald Fagen were jazz lovers who met while undergraduates at Bard College, toured as part of Jay and the Americans, then parlayed jobs as staff writers for ABC records (where they wrote, among other songs, "I Mean to Shine," later recorded by Barbra Streisand) into a recording deal with the type of creative control most artists only dream of.

The result was a string of jazz albums masquerading as pop-rock albums, possessed of sterling production values, sharp, enigmatic lyrics and chops executed by some of the best studio players ever to record. Starting in 1972 with Can't Buy a Thrill and running through 1980's Gaucho, Becker and Fagen wrote cynical, often wry lyrics which owed a considerable debt to the tropes of noir fiction.
Becker (right) playing bass on the "Can't Buy a Thrill" tour in 1972
Here, for example, are the lyrics of "Don't Take Me Alive," from their 1976 album The Royal Scam:

Agents of the law
Luckless pedestrian
I know you're out there
With rage in your eyes and your megaphones
Saying all is forgiven
Mad Dog surrender
How can I answer
A man of my mind can do anything

[Chorus:]
I'm a bookkeeper's son
I don't want to shoot no one
Well I crossed my old man back in Oregon
Don't take me alive
Got a case of dynamite
I could hold out here all night
Yes I crossed my old man back in Oregon
Don't take me alive

Jazz guitarist Larry Carlton featured heavily on The Royal Scam.
Can you hear the evil crowd
The lies and the laughter
I hear my inside
The mechanized hum of another world
Where no sun is shining
No red light flashing
Here in this darkness
I know what I've done
I know all at once who I am

(You can hear a live version of the song here.)

Can't you just hear Jimmy Cagney telling this story before going out in a blaze of glory in White Heat?

Pretty noir.

The album has other moments that play like odes to crime fiction, especially "Kid Charlemagne," based in part on the life of Owsley Stanley, the first drug chef to whip up LSD and sell it in mass quantities (which featured a blistering guitar part laid down by jazz legend Larry Carlton- you can hear a recent live version, recorded in May of this year with Carlton guesting on lead guitar.).

Other albums feature equally bleak moments, especially their 1977 masterpiece Aja, which featured songs like "Deacon Blues", the epic title track, and, of course, "Black Cow" ("I can't cry anymore while you run around...").

By the time of the band's release of 1980's Gaucho, Becker was battling a heroin addiction exacerbated by injuries sustained when he was hit by a taxi cab. He abruptly chucked music (and drugs), moving to Maui and taking up avocado ranching.

Although Steely Dan went on to reform in the 1990s and continues to tour relentlessly to this day, Becker would be plagued by health problems resulting from his drug addiction for much of the rest of his life.

Last Sunday they got the better of him.

Donald Fagen has already pledged to continue playing Steely Dan's music for as long as he has left. That's wonderful news. But Becker will be missed. He was the man who arranged their stuff and ensured that it made sense to the listener. He possessed a wonderful ear, and the band will be the poorer for his absence.

I've often said that the music of Steely Dan would lend itself to a themed anthology of the type recently collected by Joe Clifford and centered around the music of Johnny Cash. I've even worked up my own short story based on "Show Biz Kids," from their Katy Lied album.

I'm positive I'm not the only one so influenced by these masters of the bleak, jazz-tinged pop hook.

What say you all? Anyone else written something Steely Dan-inspired?

And lastly, adios, Walter. And vaya con dios.



4 comments:

janice law said...

A fine tribute!

Steve Liskow said...

Great tribute, Brian.

The band stopped touring at some point because the "group" became Becker and Fagen and a varying group of session aces who assembled the songs track by track. I know Rick Derringer and Jeff Baxter were among them, along with Larry Carlton. And didn't Wayne Shorter play on Aja?

I had all the Steely Dan LPs. I also had songbooks for their music and discovered it was light years more complex than their contemporaries. I never mastered some of their standard chords because nobody else used them and they were probably easier to play on piano than guitar.

But, as you point out, people notice the WORDS. Yes, dark, often cynical, but a lot of them are funny, too.

An anthology based on their songs sounds like a great idea. I can already think of several songs that would work.

Call it Deacon Blues. Or Black Friday. Or...

Thanks for posting this.

Art Taylor said...

Terrific post, Brian -- I've known so many Steely Dan songs over the years, of course, but I've never actually listened to an album of theirs start to finish or listened as closely to the lyrics as it seems now I should've. Count me among those people (in this case) who find new appreciation (sadly) for artists only at their passing, when tributes like this make it clear how much they accomplished, how much they meant. Thanks for sharing.

DoolinDalton said...

Thanks, Janice, Steve and Art, for chiming in.

And Steve you are absolutely correct. Shorter played sax on the title track, "Aja," and he wasn't the only all-star featured on SD's work. On the track "Aja" alone you had Timothy B. Schmidt of the Eagles and Poco on backing vocals, Michael Omartian on piano, Joe Sample on electric piano, Larry Carlton on guitar, the great Victor Feldman on percussion, and Steve Gadd(!?!) fresh from a stint in rehab killing that drum track, including the solo at the end. Cut it in a single take, too.

And that's just on one song!

Great musicians were lining up to play on Steely Dan's stuff.

And as Steve rightly points out, most of their stuff seemed better suited to piano, and that was intentional. Becker once said that all he used to teach himself guitar was a book of jazz piano chords he got as a kid.