Walter Becker

Started by Chris L, Sep 04, 2017, 03:03 AM

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Chris L

I suspect only a few people here know who Walter Becker, who passed away on Monday, was, but you might recognize the name Steely Dan, the rock group that he formed in the early 1970s with college pal Donald Fagen. Anyone who's known me for a while knows that Becker and Fagen are my favorite singer-songwriters and the word "rock group" is far too limited a term to describe what they did. Their recordings, nine studio albums and one live concert album, fused jazz, blues, rock, pop and an indefinable musical style that I've never heard from any other singer-songwriters, including Bob Dylan, though Joni Mitchell, at her best, came close. (Mitchell is still alive, so the past tense is unfair, but after her stroke a couple of years ago, I doubt we'll see new work from her.)

Donald Fagen was the front man for the band and his solo albums made him famous as a solo act, but I think Becker deserved far greater recognition than he got. I'll repeat here what I said about him on Facebook.

"I guess I can stop hoping for that last Steely Dan album. Becker often got short shrift from fans of SD's music because Fagen's solo albums were more successful, but if you listen to Becker's own solo albums you hear an edgy, eclectic mix that was exactly what Fagen needed to turn his own smooth jazz sensibilities into something barbed and caustic. In Steely Dan concerts Becker has, in recent years, tended to take a backseat to Fagen, standing back from the front and inconspicuously playing guitar, looking a bit like a stuffed corpse until "Hey, Nineteen" came on, when he would give his extended, hilarious and possibly extemporaneous speech on Cuervo Gold, which could often go on for ten minutes or more. There can be no Steely Dan without Becker; his skewed, deeply intelligent sensibility was too much a part of their style. The title of their last album, "Everything Must Go," implied that even their best trunk songs were out there now. Sic transit gloria mundi."

Here are some samples of his solo work from YouTube. Though performed at a Steely Dan concert, "Book of Liars" is purely Becker and I think it's the best of his non-Steely-Dan songs. The imagery is stunning and his ability to describe unbearable heartbreak in terms of a particle physics experiment ("Here's one left stranded at the zero crossing/With the whole of his half-life left to carry on") leaves me breathless.

For sheer edginess it's hard to beat "Surf and/or Die," about the effect of a fatal hang-glider accident on the victim's friends. ("Now your voice on my machine is more alive than you are")

For all his edginess, Becker had a sentimental side and "Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore," from his 2003 album Circus Money, captures the sweet sadness of lost innocence and the transition to adulthood through the idiom of reggae in a way that resonates with me on a level I don't even fully understand.

The songs make me cry now, but I think they always did. Becker was only 44 days older than I am and his cultural touchstones were the same as mine. He, and Steely Dan, will be missed.
But us, old friend,
What's to discuss, old friend?


For Chris L, and anybody else who's interested, in memory of Walter Becker: