Becker formed Steely Dan with Fagen in 1971 after meeting him in 1967
Obituary: Walter Becker will be remembered as much for his dry wit and intellect as his music
“Walter’s recovering from a procedure and hopefully he’ll be fine very soon”, Walter Becker’s Steely Dan bandmate Donald Fagen told Billboard earlier this month, but Becker passed away on Sunday, September 3, aged 67. The cause and circumstances of his death have yet to be announced.
According to Rolling Stone, the guitarist had been advised not to leave his home in Maui, Hawaii, to perform with Steely Dan. The 40 million album-selling band had been on tour in the United States in July without him when Becker took ill.
The band’s best-known hits - all co-written by Becker and Fagen in the 1970’s - include Do It Again, Reelin’ In The Years and Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. These songs demonstrated a finesse and refined musicality that was rare in the world of rock, and which Steely Dan would continue to fine-tune.
Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, rapper Talib Kweli and the record producer Mark Ronson were among the first musicians to pay tribute to Becker on social media, while actor Rob Lowe tweeted “Thank you Walter Becker. You brightened my world".
For all Becker’s musical achievements, he will also be remembered for his dry wit and intellect. “Your wife is an experimental psychologist. Is that what attracted you to her?”, Mojo’s Mat Snow asked the guitarist in 2008. “All our wives are experimental psychologists”, deadpanned Becker in reply.
Similarly, when I interviewed Becker and Fagen in Santa Monica in 2003 while they were promoting Everything Must Go, the second of two Steely Dan ‘comeback’ albums after a 20-year lay-off, they functioned like a playful double act, lounging on a huge white sofa and slurping noisily on raspberry sorbets.
“We’re basically reporting on our associates in the music business," said Becker. “Many of them are psychologically troubled, you see.”
“We figure it will help them to hear our analysis of their various personality disorders”, chipped-in Fagen, “but we don’t actually do psychoanalysis professionally.”
Becker and Fagen recognised that some of the tedium of promotional activities could be relieved by approaching them like a game. And Becker was particularly good at that game.
Born Walter Carl Becker in Queens, New York in 1950, Becker formed Steely Dan with Fagen in 1971 after meeting him in 1967 while the pair were studying at Bard College, Annadale-on-Hudson.
One of their pre-Steely Dan incarnations, Leather Canary, featured comedian Chevy Chase on drums, but Steely Dan would become renowned for their meticulous and time-consuming approach to recording, which yielded slick, spellbinding results.
Circa the making of their classic 1977 album Aja, Becker was addicted to narcotics, and in 1978 his then-girlfriend Karen Robert Stanley died of a drug overdose.
Steely Dan’s 20-year hiatus began after 1980’s Gaucho, and in 1981 Becker moved to Maui, gave up drugs, and began a new life as “a gentleman avocado rancher and self-styled critic of the contemporary scene".
Prior to returning to Steely Dan and Fagen for 2000’s Two Against Nature, an album which won four Grammy Awards, Becker had kept his hand in producing and/or writing with artists such as UK new wave band China Crisis and model turned singer-songwriter, Rosie Vela. He also produced Fagen’s 1993 solo album Kamakiriad, after which Fagen returned the favour, producing Becker’s 1994 solo debut 11 Tracks Of Whack.
“Walter was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter," Fagen wrote on Sunday of his friend’s passing. “He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny. I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan Band.”
Becker is survived by his ex-wife Elinor, their son Kawai, and their adopted daughter, Sa.