No Static at All: The Great Walter Becker and One Final Sublimely Ruined Dinner Party

Walter Becker & Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, 1978
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan pose for a portrait in April 1978.

Walter Becker hopefully would have appreciated the explanation of the significance of Countdown to Ecstasy’s back LP cover I spun Saturday night at an otherwise-interesting houseparty, and he no doubt would have snorted at the snide remarks I handed to the “Donald Fagen wrote 90 percent of their stuff” insistence I heard from a Hawaiian Shirt at Monday’s solo Fagen concert. The good stuff here is the spectre of Steely Dan, a titan of a performance collective run by Becker and his equal partner of lo those many years in Fagen.

Becker died on Sunday, at around the same hour that I politely left the party I’d soured. You do a lot of that, as a Steely Dan fan, pining for self-awareness after emerging out of junior high with a large collection of SST tapes. A tumble through high school didn’t prepare me to learn that college’s Freshman Year Syndrome can last a lifetime, and that Steely Dan is driving this all-too-mobile home.

Campus is where Becker met Fagen, the wayward leader of bands. Beyond his intelligence and wit, Becker crouched in for service as the skittery blues player with the strong high, male voice – two talents Fagen favors above all. The pre-Dan demos the pair left the bootleg bins with are fascinating and sharp-edged; not unlike cave drawings, which they weirdly wrote rock songs about.

A clear student of gestalt theory, Becker switched to bass once Steely was sprung – it wouldn’t bother him at all, he once said, to not play on his own albums. Mindful of his resemblance to Hot Tuna bassist Jack Casady, Becker grew a beard and helped make legends out of the Steely Scene itself, somehow making the Working Process as soulful and unnerving as the (hit!) tunes themselves.

By the light of their bedroom TVs the duo spied the drummer from Sonny and Cher’s show – Jeff Porcaro, the twister behind Toto and Thriller – who brought along Michael McDonald (then living in an LA garage apartment) to sing backup. Obsessed with an audible squirt that marred a millisecond on 1975's Katy Lied LP, Becker flew with star engineer Roger Nichols to the 3M factory in Minnesota just to discover that the burp in some song about junkie love or Hitler was marred by an actual blot of dried mustard that fell from factory lunch room to spinning Steely reel of tape, somehow missing that Leo Sayer spool.

Fearful that the LA players had forever turned their mis’ry and/or blues into sounds made by the sort of cat that skatters, the Dan relocated to New York for 1976's thunderous Royal Scam, an unrelenting album driven mercilessly by drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie and reformed jazz dork Larry Carlton. By then, Becker and Fagen were playing Strat-o-Matic with whatever ever names kept springing up with italicized stats, on the back of the few recent albums that they actually liked. The results, after two decades of incessant listening, still leave me on the side of the road. Don and Walt’s obsession, if matched, reveals itself in tell-the-wife anecdotes. I’m seriously talking about the mix on a ride cymbal.

They diagnose these things now, but not before it gave us both Aja and follow-up Gaucho, prior to the inevitable 1980s breakup. The obsession with something that swung past perfection cost Fagen most of the '80s and did the same for Walter, but only after Becker got clean. Only after he’d half-penned “Time Out of Mind,” the Yachtiest of all Dan tunes, a love letter to clean heroin written a few months before Becker’s girlfriend OD’d. Her mother sued Becker following her daughter’s death, and the Gaucho album was partially mixed bedside after Walter’s leg was crushed when a cab hit him outside of his Dakota residence in 1980.

Around the same time, the Eagles were delayed by, I don’t know… Bowl Season?

Becker, Fagen and producer Gary Katz made sure the Dan lunchtable remained kitchen-clean. Session players offering show-offy jock jams were asked to take a lap. Becker and Fagen’s madness mandated that amalgamation wouldn’t do, that Steely Dan hisself stalk its slithery stride to the side of the clutches of jazz, R&B, and rock.

This was a good time. Dorks, but not dweebs, Becker and Fagen still needed help with the actual noting of music to paper, with putting their ridiculous ideas (a tape spindle run-round the entire studio building for one drum loop, for a radio single that included the F-word!) into action. Everything was a challenge to their new studio friends, and when it clicked (like on the clincher “Green Earrings,” a song Becker and Fagen didn’t even play on), the result remains uncategorizable.

At the height of the slicked out, Humbucker-smoove El Lay studio session era, Becker played his Aja guitar solos on a “rusty-stringed” Fender Duo-Sonic, “most likely through some freshly released piece of outboard equipment,” a setup that subconsciously aped David Byrne’s guitar rig from another coast. Becker’s lines unravel like a camera surprising someone about to make a point, right before the expression slows as the subject elaborates the depth of his calculation, each note so effectively earned. 

The lyrics, written in tandem, sound like the work of two eager, young men that spent the whole of the 1970s behind prescription sunglasses. Malibu’s really bright when you have a bit to hide: Walter’s father died young, crushingly just after he and his son began to pal around his father’s Manhattan workspace following a few years of teenaged distance. For the bulk of Steely Dan’s first go-round, the silent partner acted as if the decade was Becker’s to burn.

“Sheer Bavarian willpower,” Fagen’s term, brought Becker to the light after the breakup. The unexpected new act, that of a swinging, summertime shed artist on the classic rock touring circuit, didn’t dull any edges – though Becker infuriatingly left his best Internet interaction to the desert of the fin de siècle: Walt’s seedless 1996 tour diaries and rants against Rudy Giuliani and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame outpace anything you’ve ever re-tweeted.

Solo debut 11 Tracks of Whack is the set you’d expect, a decade’s worth of wisecracks to burn from one of pop’s great put-down artists, alongside a love song to his son, "Kawai," a joyous and driving tune that would leave the steeliest looking to shove a bassinet in the guest room. "Circus Money" is the stunner, though, ranking alongside Steely Dan’s best works in a sentence I’d mouthed many years before it stood revealed as a wild swansong.

For someone who made his monster on the parts plucked from the back of LPs, Becker sure abhorred obvious credits. For someone who spoke in a language so uniquely his and Donald’s, their particular mechanized hum of a lyrical leer remains impenetrable. Don’t try and figure out who did what. Not when you can focus on the business Chuck Rainey is giving that bass.

Steely Dan doesn’t snort without Walter, the guy that abandoned the seat at the bass rig for Rainey. Content to watch a session hero work his way around a groove about Sci-Fi from behind the glass, darkly, alongside the walking quadrant confusion known as “Donald Fagen.” Two against nature, love this gig.