On the Beat

Walter Becker, reeling in the years to the end

Walter Becker onstage with Steely Dan at Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek on Aug. 6, 2015. Staff photo by Scott Sharpe ssharpe@newsobserver.com
Walter Becker onstage with Steely Dan at Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek on Aug. 6, 2015. Staff photo by Scott Sharpe ssharpe@newsobserver.com

It seems fitting that the initial news of Walter Becker’s passing was the essence of brevity. Sunday morning, an announcement of sorts appeared on the Steely Dan co-founder’s website consisting of pictures of him as a child and an adult, with beginning and end dates (Feb. 20, 1950-Sept. 3, 2017).

No other details were announced, including cause of death. Earlier this summer, the 67-year-old Becker missed two Steely Dan shows for unspecified reasons. Steely Dan co-leader Donald Fagen subsequently told Billboard magazine that his partner was “recovering from a procedure and hopefully he’ll be very fine soon” without elaborating further.

Throughout Steely Dan’s nearly half-century of on-again, off-again existence, Becker seemed content to stay in the background. Out front, the group’s most recognizable feature was Fagen’s wise-guy croon, the perfect vehicle for conveying crushed cynicism.

As to subject matter, Steely Dan was the ultimate in dark humor with mysterious lyrical aphorisms that all seemed to be about The End – of innocence, romance, civilization and very possibly humanity itself. Late-period Steely Dan albums like 1977’s “Aja” felt like epic murder mysteries turned into cool-jazz noir-musicals with lyrics in the form of Zen koans.

Even though Becker mostly stayed in the background, his guitar, bass, arranging, co-writing and studio savvy were all key parts of Steely Dan’s immaculate sonic settings. Pairing ugly sentiments with polished sounds was a Steely Dan trademark, and the group’s 1970s-vintage catalog up through “Aja” remains as solid a stretch of mainstream rock as anyone put out in the eight-track era.

On rare occasions, Becker would take the spotlight himself. The last time I saw him onstage was two years ago, when Steely Dan shared a bill with Elvis Costello, of all people. The only words Becker uttered on-microphone that night was an odd spiel promising the crowd that it would be “rode hard and put up wet.”

Then there was the one time I interviewed Becker in 1994, when he had just put out a solo album so dark that it sounded like the very soul of late-night despair. But he was funny, even though I’m not sure I got a straight answer out of him the whole time. It was like trying to converse with a Steely Dan song brought to life, which probably wasn’t too far off from the truth.

Below is that interview in its entirety; and a review from Steely Dan’s much-ballyhooed first reunion tour back in 1993, which didn’t come to the Triangle but did play Charlotte.

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The perfectionists

By David Menconi, News & Observer

Aug. 26, 1994

Steely Dan’s Walter Becker didn’t go to the first Woodstock and didn’t go to the second one, either. But his 9-year-old son, Kawai, did (accompanied, Becker says, by his governess).

Becker reports that his son had a fine time at Woodstock. In fact, Becker adds, Kawai has even begun offering opinions about the first Woodstock -- even though it happened 16 years before he was born.

“Obviously, he has no firsthand information on the first Woodstock,” Becker says, speaking by phone from New York. “But the way he related it to me -- deduced from God only knows where -- was, ‘All the hippies ruined the first one.’”

Then Becker gives a wicked cackle. Like father, like son.

Even though Steely Dan is back in operation these days (they play in Raleigh on Tuesday), the band wasn’t invited to play Woodstock ’94. Neither Becker or his Steely Dan partner Donald Fagen have ever been part of the “Woodstock Nation.” For that matter, Steely Dan was never really part of anything, even when they were one of the biggest acts on the planet.

They were much too weird for that. The ultimate “post” band -- post-’60s, post-revolution, post-counterculture and (yes) post-hippie -- Steely Dan served as the disloyal opposition during the years between Watergate and Ronald Reagan. Musically, they invented the ’70s simply by fleeing the ’60s.

Deeply cynical and icily perfect, Steely Dan specialized in what Frank Zappa called “downer surrealism.” They never toured during their heyday, instead spending endless hours, days, months and years in recording studios with a revolving cast of session pros.

Steely Dan melded Fagen’s jazz-by-way-of-Henry-Mancini keyboards with Becker’s rock guitar. They were also one of the first mainstream rock bands to use Third World beats and rhythms (an innovation they’re seldom credited for) on a series of epic miniatures of betrayal. From 1972’s “Do It Again” through 1980’s “Hey Nineteen,” all their hits still sound as sharp now as they did in their prime.

Best of all, Becker and Fagen knew exactly when it was time to go (which, as everyone knows, is the secret to a long life). Steely Dan released its final album “Gaucho” in November 1980, the month Ronald Reagan was elected president -- a development that would require oppositional music of a different sort.

Their work done, Becker and Fagen went their separate ways. Fagen made a wonderful 1982 solo album, “The Nightfly,” and then disappeared for the rest of the ’80s, a victim of writer’s block. Becker did some production and moved to Hawaii to become (according to his record company biography) “a gentleman avocado rancher.”

“I chose avocados because there’s minimal herding involved,” he quips.

Then last year, Steely Dan unexpectedly reappeared as an actual touring band and hit the road for their first tour since 1974. Wonder of wonders, the current trek makes it two years in a row. Becker and Fagen were notoriously reclusive during the ’70s, but Becker says they’re starting to enjoy playing live.

“The way things were presented last summer was so different from the ’70s,” says Becker. “It really gave us a whole new perspective on touring. It’s much easier now, and you can get results that are much more consistent and satisfying. There’s better routing, better planning, better transportation. Plus we had a better band.”

Becker and Fagen have also resumed working together in the studio. Becker was called in to help produce Fagen’s 1993 solo album “Kamakiriad,” and Fagen returned the favor by co-producing and playing keyboards on Becker’s upcoming solo album “11 Tracks of Whack” (Giant Records, due Sept. 27).

But nobody should jump to the conclusion that there will be any albums released under the Steely Dan name.

“We’ve talked about all possible continuations,” Becker says cryptically. “No conclusions yet, it’s too soon for that. They’re just kind of all within the realm of possibility at this point. We’ll see.”

The next step is probably contingent on what kind of reception “11 Tracks of Whack” gets. The album should surprise people. Where Steely Dan and Fagen solo records glisten with polished perfection, “Whack” is sketchy and almost raw-sounding.

Using sequencers for the rhythm tracks, Becker played most of the instruments himself, including all the bass and all the guitar solos except one. The album also marks Becker’s debut as a lead vocalist.

Early in the recording process, Becker also cut some jazz instrumentals. But none of those made the final cut. In fact, the album’s few overt Steely Dan-sounding flourishes -- primarily the jazz-flavored chromatic interludes in some songs’ instrumental breaks -- seem almost out of place.

“While making the record, I had an evolution in my thinking toward this current configuration,” Becker says. “I thought the time had come to get off that highly layered, overdetermined kinda thing and come on strong with a more hard-grooving but lean instrumental approach.

“But I just put it all together and figured that it wouldn’t matter one way or the other if it sounded like Steely Dan. That was not a concern, although there are some things on the album that sound like Steely Dan, sure.”

Lyrically, “11 Tracks of Whack” is more in character in that it’s corrosively bitter, although without the arcane edge of Steely Dan. Becker comes across as cranky and out of sorts, with a lineup of ravaged songs that sound like they belong on a Tom Waits album: “Down at the Bottom,” “Surf and/or Die,” “My Waterloo,” “This Moody Bastard.”

“Some of these songs are quite autobiographical,” Becker admits. “Even the ones that aren’t literally true, I tried to make them so that they have some experiential kind of truth to them in terms of things I’ve actually felt or been through.”

If that’s the case, Becker has had a rough time the past decade or so. “Cringemaker” opens with, “Whatever happened to my college girl? When did she turn into the wife from hell?” Then there’s the chorus of “Junkie Girl”: “No foolin’, it’s a (expletive) up world/So be cool, my little junkie girl.”

“The label just released the radio sample from the album, and it does have that song -- they just put in a pause and left out the word,” Becker says, laughing. Then he breaks into song.

“’No foolin’, it’s a ... world.’ That would be a strange thing to hear on the radio.”

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Concert review: Steely Dan - Deja vu from days at the U

By David Menconi, News & Observer

Sept. 21, 1993

CHARLOTTE -- Steely Dan is a band that has both no context at all, and all the context in the world.

For the most part, Steely Dan didn’t exist outside the studio during their ’70s heyday. They never played live except for a few brief tours in 1973 and ’74. Instead, Steely Dan’s presence came from their rite-of-passage omnipresence in collegiate circles. If you went to college between 1975 and 1984, chances are good that Steely Dan was a big part of your personal soundtrack.

This combination of universality and individual poignancy made Steely Dan the ultimate ’70s band. It also gives their first concert tour in 19 years (which made its only North Carolina stop at Charlotte’s Blockbuster Pavilion Sunday night) a strange resonance.

Being in the audience was akin to taking part in a group flashback, because much of the show got over on the sheer volume of individual music-induced memories. I kept expecting to wake up and find myself back in a University of Texas dorm room with headphones on. But no, that really was Donald Fagen and Walter Becker playing their sleek fuzak on an actual stage in front of 13,500 people.

The evening got under way with a 10-minute instrumental medley of “The Royal Scam,” “Bad Sneakers” and “Aja,” played by the backing band. Then Becker and Fagen walked out from opposite sides of the stage, shook hands in the middle and settled in behind their instruments for “Green Earrings.”

Singer/keyboard man Fagen looked like your aging hipster Uncle Mort, smirking behind vampire shades and swaying stiffly to the beat during each song’s copious solos. It would have been perfect if Fagen had strapped on an accordion (a portable keyboard was as close as he got), but he was still the epitome of ironic, simulated cool.

By contrast, guitarist Becker looked strangely out of place -- like a dentist indulging a weekend hobby that has gotten out of hand. Becker plays an important collaborative role in the studio (he produced Fagen’s current solo album, “Kamakiriad”), but his presence onstage seemed largely superfluous. He only sang two songs from his upcoming solo album and played few guitar solos, leaving most of the guitar work in the capable hands of the flashy Drew Zingg.

Several songs had inventive rearrangements, with saxophones doubling the guitar hooks on “Bodhisattva” and “Josie.” The most radically altered song was “Reeling in the Years,” in an almost unrecognizable world-beat version.

Generous as the show was at close to two-and-a-half hours, some of Steely Dan’s best-known songs were missing, including “Do It Again” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” But Fagen hinted that this tour might not be a one-time thing when he told the crowd, “We’ll see you next time.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

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