Walter Becker, who died of undisclosed causes on September 3, 2017, was forever seen as attached to the hip to Donald Fagen, his friend and partner in Steely Dan. The pair met when they were students at Bard College in the late ’60s, working their way through several cover bands before deciding their best bet at a musical career was to be professional songwriters toiling away in the Brill Building. At the dawn of the ’70s, such prefabricated tunes were falling out of fashion, swept aside by the idiosyncratic, individualistic pop that surfaced in the wake of rock & roll. And there would be few bands as idiosyncratic or individual as Steely Dan.
Modern listeners associate Steely Dan with the slick sounds of southern California and for good reason. Becker and Fagen relied on the same studio musicians that played on countless soft rock records, pushing these session players to deliver precise performances. Behind the boards, the duo and producer Gary Katz were determined to create an exquisite recording, relying on expensive equipment to deliver albums that were deliberately state of the art. Aja, the duo’s 1977 blockbuster, is where the trio — who had been working together since Steely Dan’s 1972 debut, Can’t Buy A Thrill — perfected this formula and it stands as perhaps the pinnacle of rock as recorded art: every element is crafted and put in its right place.
Reducing Steely Dan to a caricature may be easy — the satirical comedy troupe Yacht Rock did just that in 2005 — but it also does a disservice to Becker and Fagen, who were as sardonic and strange as they were smooth. Taking their cues from beatniks, bebop and the Bard — not their alma mater, but Bob Dylan — Becker and Fagen created the distinctively sarcastic voice of Steely Dan, happily embracing the idea that they knew much, much more than their audience. Fagen may have been the band’s lead singer, but there was no doubt that he and Becker shared the same sensibility. Often, the pair seemed to share the same brain, a reflection of how Steely Dan — at both their best and worst — could seem the world’s grandest in-joke, a band designed to please nobody but Becker and Fagen themselves.
Steely Dan dodged solipsism because they drew such enormous enjoyment from the art of others, whether it was the jazz, R&B, pulp fiction and beat poetry that fueled their initial collaboration or the studio musicians they’d put through their paces. Witness the pair describe the contributions of drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie to Aja: the duo’s admiration for how Purdie deepened their music is evident, undercutting the popular perception that Becker and Fagen were tyrannical dictators in the studio. Critics and fans may have thrilled at stories of guitarists playing a single solo for hours on end but Becker and Fagen didn’t get their kicks from torture; they got off on the groove, an unexpected twist in an instrumental, turning a laugh into a lyric.
Back in the ’70s, when the duo wrote and recorded the bulk of the music upon which their legacy lies, there was a certain mystique derived from the fact that Becker and Fagen decided to follow the Beatles’ path and retire to the studio. Their exactitude is what made Steely Dan — a duo that prized polish — rock & roll, and the press played along. Cameron Crowe likened the pair to “delinquents taking an oral exam in detention” in a lengthy 1977 profile for Rolling Stone, and within the article the duo verbally volley in a fashion that suggests they didn’t have much time for either the journalist or the audience if they didn’t happen to get their shared jokes.
This shared vernacular was created back when Becker and Fagen were students at Bard and they spoke it over the next half century. Even during a two decade span when there was no new Steely Dan music, the two collaborated often, highlighted by Becker’s production of Fagen’s 1993 LP Kamakiriad and Fagen’s horn and rhythm arrangements for Becker’s long-awaited 1994 solo debut, 11 Tracks Of Whack.
Solo projects inevitably pull a band member’s individual contributions into perspective and that was the case with 11 Tracks Of Whack. Becker, who never sang in Steely Dan, revealed that he possessed a warm, wry voice that suited his barbed stories of liars, junkies and his Hawaiian home. Becker relocated to Maui after Steely Dan’s 1980 split, a move that helped him get clean and, perhaps inevitably, mellowed him. His mean streak never disappeared — it was in full flower on Two Against Nature, the 2000 comeback that won the Grammy for Album Of The Year in a 2001 upset — but it softened in the 21st Century, when Becker and Fagen improbably shook off the studio to become gentlemen road warriors.
As Steely Dan became a dependable live attraction, their public persona gradually shifted from terminal collegiates to genial professors. Both Becker and Fagen embraced being the wise old men of weisenheimers, bestowing approval on the Yacht Rock satirists who sent up the Dan’s smoothness, while posting open letters to Wes Anderson and Luke Wilson — heirs to the hyperliterate, over-educated pop culture throne — on their website. Once standoffish with press, Steely Dan became reliably gracious interview subjects, a move that when paired with their cornball stage patter, helped warm a once notoriously chilly band.
This friendlier final act also accentuated a few truths about Becker and Fagen that often remained hidden during their ’70s prime and quiet ’80s and ’90s: By transitioning to a working live band, Steely Dan wound up emphasizing how they had always been a “feel” band grounded in R&B; they loved chops but it was always at the service to the groove. By touring so often, they proved that music that supposed was solely a studio creation could thrive onstage. And by relying on old music, sometimes performing shows devoted to individual albums, Steely Dan proved how proved how deep and enduring their catalog is.
In a statement released after Becker’s death, Fagen declared “I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band,” and while there’s a measure of sadness that Becker will no longer be there to perform with his life long friend, it also a reflection of the greatest truth about the duo: Steely Dan was bigger than the both of them.