Of the many musicians who have passed through Steely Dan‘s ranks and worked with the late Walter Becker, Michael McDonald is among the most celebrated. He joined the Steely Dan touring group during 1974 on keyboards and both lead and backing vocals, and he recorded on the albums Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, Aja and Gaucho.
McDonald, of course, went on to his own fame with the Doobie Brothers and then as a solo artist, but his connection to Steely Dan continued, as part of the Dukes of September with Donald Fagen, and also on tour with Steely Dan in 2006, opening the shows and joining his old mates onstage during their set.
Reached at his home in California, McDonald offered these memories about Becker, who passed away Sept. 3.
I was fairly shocked, ’cause although I knew that he was having health issues, they were kind of ongoing for the last couple of years. I really had no idea that he was as ill. I remember hearing that for some reason he had left some of the dates on the Steely Dan tour, and that worried me.
There’s not enough I can say about the guys. The greatest loss here is an amazingly talented man, but he was a kind and honest man, and I don’t know how many people that I can use that description on that I know in this world. I never saw the guy not be kind to someone, no matter how insignificant they might be in his life. He was always a kind person, and for as intelligent as he was, and even as cynical as he could be about the world — and his sense of humor was biting, to say the least, and it was hilarious, his take on things — he seemed to value every human being he ever met. And I think that says a lot about a person.
His intellectual critique of the world around us which was, like I say, so many times hilarious, and he just had that great gift of sense of humor, that very intelligent sense of humor. You’d expect a person like that to almost be snobby, but he wasn’t. His take on things and critique of the world around us could be very biting at times; he didn’t suffer fascists or bullshitters much. But in a one-on-one I never saw him be aloof. He was one of those people that was always ready with a smile and a kind word to whoever he was talking to. A very personable guy, very down to earth in that respect. I always admired that about him. When I think of Walter, that’s probably the first thing I think of.
He was my friend over the years, and we shared some adventures together early on. We shared the important events of our lives, with kids. When he moved to Maui, the few times we talked, I said I always fantasized living over there. He said, “You should do it,” and for him he found some solace there. He found some kind of escape from his own personal demons there, and wound up having a family, having children and all those things I don’t know I ever would’ve expected Walter to do — being he was such a Manhattan kind of guy, New York City kind of guy, and such a career-oriented person.
I just never pictured Walter getting married and having kids. And I don’t think I pictured myself that way most of my life. It was kind of incongruous to the two people we knew before, and we shared that experience together. I remember we took the kids horseback riding in Maui when we were over there and they were little, and those are great memories because it was another side of Walter, another part of Walter that I got to know that I hadn’t really known in all the years we’d known each other. It was something we got to share.
Walter was the kind of guy too, that every record I ever did, he was genuinely interested in hearing it. He was such a lover of music, and if you had just recorded an album and he knew you, he was that one person that would sit there and listen to that whole thing with you, with great interest as to what you were up to. And that was always a wonderful kind of experience for me, because he was someone who I admired so much, his talent and everything. To think that we’d be sitting in my living room in Maui or some place listening to a record, and I was getting his opinion on the tracks and the production and stuff.
The last time I saw Walter was at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, should be two years ago now. It seems like yesterday… we just kind of always picked it up right where we left off, and it was always good to see him for me, and I always felt the same thing from him. He’d always make a point to come over and say hi to me backstage, and we’d kind of catch up.
I regretted that I didn’t pick up the phone and call and see how he was, ’cause Walter and I had been friends for all these years. Both of those guys are kind of mentors to me over the years, although they’re both kind of private people, and so with this kind of thing, it’s like — you always kind of wonder, do they want to get a bunch of phone calls? Walter wouldn’t be the guy who’d probably want to field a lot of phone calls concerning his health, and so I just waited to hear something forward. And the next thing I heard is he passed away.
His life really meant something — not just to friends and family who knew him personally, but his farthest-flung fan out there has been touched by this guy’s thoughts and his talent. I think that’s the one thing we all hope for in this life is we leave something of a legacy, that’s meaningful to someone else, when we leave here. He was a great guy, and we all miss him already.