Walter Becker died today

Oh dear, the rock icons are dropping all over the place: a sure sign that I’m getting old. (As one of my friends says, “We’re moving up to the front lines.”) But this one is especially sad, as it’s Walter Becker, co-founder and lead guitarist of one of my favorite groups, Steely Dan. As Rolling Stone reports, Becker was only 67—my age—and the cause of death hasn’t been announced.

Walter Becker, guitarist, bassist and co-founder of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted band Steely Dan, died Sunday at the age of 67.

Becker’s official site announced the death; no cause of death or other details were provided.

. . . Becker missed Steely Dan’s Classic East and West concerts in July as he recovered from an unspecified ailment. “Walter’s recovering from a procedure and hopefully he’ll be fine very soon,” Fagen told Billboard at the time. Becker’s doctor advised the guitarist not to leave his Maui home for the performances.

Here’s all that’s on Becker’s page:

Rolling Stone also published Donald Fagen’s tribute to his collaborator:

Walter Becker was my friend, my writing partner and my bandmate since we met as students at Bard College in 1967. We started writing nutty little tunes on an upright piano in a small sitting room in the lobby of Ward Manor, a mouldering old mansion on the Hudson River that the college used as a dorm.

We liked a lot of the same things: jazz (from the twenties through the mid-sixties), W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, science fiction, Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, and Robert Altman films come to mind. Also soul music and Chicago blues.

Walter had a very rough childhood – I’ll spare you the details. Luckily, he was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter. He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny. Like a lot of kids from fractured families, he had the knack of creative mimicry, reading people’s hidden psychology and transforming what he saw into bubbly, incisive art. He used to write letters (never meant to be sent) in my wife Libby’s singular voice that made the three of us collapse with laughter.

His habits got the best of him by the end of the seventies, and we lost touch for a while. In the eighties, when I was putting together the NY Rock and Soul Review with Libby, we hooked up again, revived the Steely Dan concept and developed another terrific band.

I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.

To me, Steely Dan sounded like no other band (like “The Band” itself). I’ll post just one of my many favorites, “Bad Sneakers” (cowritten by Becker and Fagen) from their 1975 Katy Lied album, which has a terrific guitar solo by Becker from 1:55 to 2:26. I’ve listened to this song dozens of times, and like many of the Dan’s songs, I still don’t have the slightest idea what it means. (I’m absolutely sure, though, that it does have a meaning.) It may be enigmatic, but it’s rock of the highest quality.

h/t: Randy

46 Comments

  1. dabertini
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    RIP Walter Becker. Steely Dan was a truly iconic band of my youth. Thanks for the memories.

  2. Posted September 3, 2017 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    What a shock. Only yesterday I was listening to my old copy of Can’t Buy a Thrill and lamenting that I’d never managed to see the Dan.

  3. Posted September 3, 2017 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    I adored the wonderful jazzy piano harmonies and frills, often delicate little tones in the background.

  4. Randy schenck
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    67 is way too young and I can say that because I’m the same.

  5. Greg Mills
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    My brother was three years older and played clarinet in the marching band(!)so you know that he was always up on what was cool. In 1973 he told me about this new band Steely Dan, and within a few weeks I caught them on American Bandstand “playing” My Old School and Bodhisattva.

    A fan every since. In peace Walter Becker.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted September 3, 2017 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      Side two, track two of Countdown to Ecstasy, my favorite cut on the album.

      I wonder if our host knows whether there’s some story behind the story of the line about his alma mater, “William & Mary won’t do”?

      • Keithola
        Posted September 3, 2017 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

        One of the commenters at the following website seems to have a reasonable explanation based on a few sources. It’s the first comment you see in the list.

        http://songmeanings.com/songs/view/103344/

        Just goes to show how witty and cryptic most Steely Dan lyrics are. Even when I don’t know what the hell they’re really talking about, the songs always seem to tell an interesting, colorful story.

    • rickflick
      Posted September 3, 2017 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      The lyrics here caught my ear.
      “California, tumbles into the sea
      That’ll be the day I go back to Annandale”

      The reference is to Annandale-on-Hudson, the home of Bard College where Fagen and Becker met and started writing songs together(see passage from Fagen on the OP). The school is just a half hour up river from me and specializes in “serious” music. The place turns out a lot of talented orchestral and concert performers and composers. So, I can imagine these two finding their voices in a place like that – as a kind of rebellion from the main campus culture.

      • Diane G.
        Posted September 4, 2017 at 12:41 am | Permalink

        And do read the link in Keithola’s post above. The first couple of comments there are relevant…

        • rickflick
          Posted September 4, 2017 at 6:37 am | Permalink

          Yes, interesting detail. My wife and I attend concerts at Bard quite regularly. It’s a wonderful community resource.
          In an interview on Piano Jazz, the two explained why many of their lyrics are so obscure. Primarily, the instrumentation takes precedence and often the lyrics have to be distorted to fit – thus, the original narrative is lost.

    • Paul Matthews
      Posted September 3, 2017 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      I love that you put quotes around playing. Horns are very prominent in My Old School and yet there isn’t a horn player among the musicians in the group in this “performance”. Sigh. Surely Fagen and Becker hated this.

      • BJ
        Posted September 3, 2017 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

        Oh man, I’m sure they had many witty, acerbic, and very nasty things to say about the experience. Maybe it’s even cryptically woven into one of their songs, with none of us the wiser.

        • Greg Mills
          Posted September 3, 2017 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

          I give:

  6. Carl S
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    😦
    One of my all time favorite groups.

  7. Liz
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    “Reelin’ in the Years” by an a capella group at UPenn circa 1996-1998 is one of my favorite songs. I somehow got my hands on a miscellaneous, unlabeled tape through my sister. We were still in high school. I believe it was UPenn. No idea what group. Those were the days of random a capella college tapes.

    • Liz
      Posted September 3, 2017 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

      The song posted is so relaxing.

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Best band to come out of the Seventies, The Dan was, hands down. Been a huge fan since Can’t Buy a Thrill. Had me from the first mu major chord.

    This one really stings.

    • BJ
      Posted September 3, 2017 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      Did you get to see them in the last few years? I saw them seven times in the last five. They were still awesome to see in concert, mostly because, like their studio days, they only brought the best musicians with them.

  9. KD33
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Damn.

    Steely Dan/Walter Becker. Huge topic, and here comes the Dan’s legion of afficionados (e.g., this one).

    BTW, Becker recorded very few of the famous Dan guitar solos. Those were nearly always composed and performed by other virtuosos: Larry Carlton, Denny Dias, Jeff Baxter, Dean Parks, Jay Graydon …

    But one of my favorite solos was performed by Becker himself, on Josie. Angular and interesting, I’m trying to learn it now. Over the years, Becker played more bass than guitar.

    A great deep dive into Steely Dan and Becker is the Classic Album video, available on YT in part, on the making of Aja. Sample part here, with Becker interviews:

    Gives a hint of the sophistication of their composition and music, the contributions of the finest musicians in rock and jazz (Wayne Shorter, Steve Gadd, …), and the deep influences of jazz ands R&B that they brought to rock in a manner unmatched by anyone else.

    Again, damn.

    • BJ
      Posted September 3, 2017 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      Damn, not available in my country 😦 If you don’t mind saying, in what country do you reside? I can use a proxy if I know what to pick.

      • KD33
        Posted September 3, 2017 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

        BJ – I’m in the U.S.

        The whole vid can also be viewed here:
        http://www.veoh.com/watch/v242044pCWxESzH

        (Not sure that helps where you are …)

        Good luck!

        • BJ
          Posted September 4, 2017 at 9:38 am | Permalink

          That’s so weird, as I live in the US as well. Regardless, your other link works perfectly. Thanks 🙂

  10. Posted September 3, 2017 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    “Becker was only 67—my age—”

    Actually roughly a month and a half younger than you and about 3 months younger than me.

    It’s depressing when someone like that dies of a medical problem, particularly someone who presumably could afford the best health care.

    • Greg Mills
      Posted September 3, 2017 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      You know what they say: “It’s not the age it’s the mileage.”

      From: http://partyka.tripod.com/gaucho.html

      In January 1980, Walter Becker’s girlfriend died of a drugs overdose. Already remote and unreliable due to his own heroin habit, he withdrew even further…

      • Paul
        Posted September 3, 2017 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

        Around the same time, he was also hit by a car while walking in New York. It was nearly fatal.

      • aljones909
        Posted September 3, 2017 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

        and Keith Richards is 73. I suspect he’s entered into some unearthly pact.

  11. Mark R.
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    There will never be another Steely Dan, and they left their indelible mark on Rock and Roll history. R.I.P. Walter Becker.

  12. Keithola
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for posting about this, Jerry. I’ve noticed from many of your blog posts you have great taste in music.
    I couldn’t believe the timing of the news this morning. Just last night, I watched Donald Fagen and the Nightflyers absolutely tear down the house here in Austin. The show was incredible. Donald was in top form, and his band of young guns were tight as can be. It was a killer setlist of Dan hits and Fagen solo material, and they even covered the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street.” The Donald was extremely jovial and seemed to be really losing himself in the music, in that way that only the “white Ray Charles” can! So glad he could have a night of joy performing the fruits of his and Becker’s labor of love before hearing the sad news about his friend.
    I see they just cancelled tonight’s show in San Antonio. I was considering driving there to see the show again. And I was looking forward to the Steely Dan tour that was supposed to happen this fall. But alas! I was lucky enough to see them twice before, so I’ll have to relish the memory.

    • BJ
      Posted September 3, 2017 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

      I would kill to see them play Shakedown Street.

      No, really. I would kill someone.

  13. Posted September 3, 2017 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    According to my friend who was with Fagen last night, Walter succombed to cancer. Great memories from a fantastic songwriter and guitar player

  14. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Embarrassed to admit this is first pop music obit I’ve read at WEIT where I didn’t immediately place the name. But of course I enjoyed the music of SD.

  15. Michael
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    He and Donald Fagen created a legacy of great songs which, I hope, will be treasured by future generations.

    Thanks for the music Walter.

  16. Paul Matthews
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Oh no.

    I was a Dan fan from the very beginning, listening to Can’t Buy a Thrill and Countdown to Ecstacy countless times when they first came out when I was a teenager and in the years since. The shift to a jazzier sound was a shock. I didn’t take to it at first as I didn’t like jazz but over the years I developed much more of an appreciation. If pressed, I would say Steely Dan is my favourite “group” (as Dan fans know, they were really a duo who used studio musicians after the first three albums).

    Coincidentally I was just indulging in a bit of a Steely Dan fest (listening to the Dan, Fagen, and Becker albuns and reading Fagen’s Eminent Hipsters) when this sad news came out.

    RIP Walter Becker.

  17. Marou
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Saw them at Colston Hall. Bristol on 74 and Wembley 97 – brilliant, just brilliant. A significant loss

  18. rickflick
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    NPR has an interview(with music) up from a 2014 episode of Piano Jazz.

    http://www.npr.org/2014/04/18/304552322/steely-dan-on-piano-jazz

    • rickflick
      Posted September 3, 2017 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      Piano Jazz session was originally recorded in 2002 not 2014.

  19. BJ
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    It’s great to see just how many Steely Dan fans there are on this site alone. One of my favorite bands of all time.

    OK, discussion question: Where does Can’t Buy a Thrill rank in the discography? I’ve never been a big fan of the album. I find it lacking in the complexity, layering, and musicianship of many albums after. Everythin from Countdown to Ecstasy through Aja is miles ahead, and an argument could be made for Gaucho as well.

  20. BJ
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    Oh, and I’d like to second what Jerry said: there has never been another band like Steely Dan. No band has ever successfully caught their sounds or rhythms. It’s a remarkable achievement to be legendary and singular.

  21. aljones909
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    They sounded like no one else. “Ricky Don’t Lose That Number” is superlative and it’s my favourite Steely Dan song.

  22. Posted September 3, 2017 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    And they wandered in from the city of St. John without a dime…

    I love The Royal Scam. And don’t forget The Fez, another great one from that album.

  23. David Coxill
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Also a fan,but only heard a few of their songs .
    The Scottish group Deacon Blue took the name from one of their songs.

  24. Sabine
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    Had the great fortune to see them my first and only time this past April at Humphrey’s in San Diego. Amazing show. Great musicians. Played in the rain. Rest In Peace Walter.😔

  25. jaxkayaker
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Very sorry to hear of Walter Becker’s dezth. Hopefully there was a minimum of suffering. I was fortunate enough to see them live 3 times.

    • jaxkayaker
      Posted September 3, 2017 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

      *death

  26. Diane G.
    Posted September 4, 2017 at 1:10 am | Permalink

    Will this era ever quit ending?!

  27. Posted September 4, 2017 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Nerdwriter on YouTube did a really good piece on “Deacon Blues” that you might like.

    I’m 10 years younger but love Steely Dan as well.


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