Virtually unnoticed and certainly not harassed, Walter Becker and his partner in the rock band Steely Dan, Donald Fagen, sat in a booth having lunch in a crowded restaurant near the airport in Maui toward the end of tourist season in 1997.
You couldn’t imagine Mick Jagger doing the same thing. Or David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon or any other peer. Becker, who died at age 67 on Sunday (Sept. 3), and Fagen had the gift of relative anonymity in a field where celebrity can do incalculable damage.
Yet anyone who listened to FM rock radio in the 1970s and early 1980s knew their work well. “Deacon Blues,” ″Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” ″Peg,” ″Reelin’ in the Years,” ″Hey Nineteen” ″Do it Again,” ″Black Friday” — it was a formidable canon in a relatively short time.
They even wrote a song about the medium: “FM,” with its memorable line “no static at all.”
The music was airtight and erudite, informed by jazz and the senses of humor the two men shared since the day Fagen, hearing Becker playing blues guitar in a student lounge in upstate New York’s Bard College (“My Old School”) decided he had to introduce himself. They famously “borrowed” their band’s name from a sex toy in William S. Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch.
Becker and Fagen weren’t deterred from their musical vision even during an era, the late 1970s, when youthful rebellion made people who couldn’t play instruments very well fashionable.
“On the one hand, their music is warm and beautiful,” Moby said as he inducted Steely Dan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. “On the other hand, their music is quite foreign. And that’s what makes them so wonderful and so unsettling.”
Becker’s fluid guitar runs snaked around Fagen’s vocals when Steely Dan performed “Black Friday” at that induction ceremony. While he wrote the songs with Fagen, Becker rarely sang. He wasn’t a frontman.
Fellow musicians certainly appreciated the work. Artists as diverse as Bette Midler, Questlove, Rickie Lee Jones, Ryan Adams and Bootsy Collins offered tributes on social media following Becker’s death.
“Hey, kids, spin ‘Pretzel Logic’ by Steely Dan in his honor if you don’t know it,” pianist and songwriter Ben Folds wrote on Twitter.
“I was once in a band that played only Steely Dan songs,” songwriter Jason Isbell posted. “It was hard and lots of fun.”
During Steely Dan’s creative peak, you couldn’t hear Becker and Fagen perform their songs live. Fed up with being the opening act to heavy metal bands, they swore off concert performances following a July 4, 1974, show to concentrate on the studio. They weren’t heard from again onstage until 1993.
“Basically, we were traveling around in close company with people who were really having a good time and partying and we weren’t,” Becker said in a 2000 interview with The Associated Press. “It was also a total drain from the creative process of writing songs and making records, which we needed to keep going at a certain pace just to have enough money to live.”
When Becker and Fagen resumed their partnership after more than a decade apart in the early 1990s, it was less as a creative force than a performing unit with the two men and the best musicians they could hire. While the 2000 album Two Against Nature unexpectedly won a Grammy Award for album of the year, a 2003 follow-up was the last collection of original music they released.
So while the world is deprived of any new Steely Dan music with Becker’s input, it’s not certain there would have been any anyway. Their old music will live on, though. If the Eagles can push on as a touring unit without Glenn Frey, certainly Steely Dan can do the same without Becker. It already did so this summer for concerts in New York and Los Angeles, where Fagen explained his old friend was recovering from a procedure. He promised in the wake of Becker’s death to continue.
“I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band,” Fagen wrote at the end of a tribute to Becker.