Friday, January 5, 2018

In Memoriam: Walter Becker

Steely Dan: Don’t Take Me Alive


By most reckonings, Walter Becker was one half of Steely Dan. The other half was Donald Fagen. I have written before how I consider Steely Dan at its peak to have been a trio, adding producer Gary Katz. However, it is Walter Becker whom we lost in 2017, at age 67. Donald Fagen is probably the man most people would think of when discussing Steely Dan. Fagen was the lead singer, so that made it his band in the minds of some. But you have only to compare the Steely Dan album The Royal Scam with Fagen’s solo album The Nightfly to understand Walter Becker’s importance. Both albums feature Fagen’s writing and Katz as producer. Both feature the shimmering pop-jazz surfaces that Steely Dan became known for. But, on his own, Fagen creates a set of songs that is sweetly nostalgic, although laced with sly irony at times. Don’t get me wrong, The Nightfly is a great album. But The Royal Scam has a bite that The Nightfly is missing. You can hear it in the razor sharp guitar solo Becker played on Don’t Take Me Alive, but this is also a lyric that Fagen would never have written. Becker gives us the story of a desperate man. A crowd urges, “Mad dog, surrender,” but it is the mad dog’s point of view that interested Becker. Becker gives us this man’s story, and makes him a human being without making him any less fearsome. It is this quality of desperation that interests Becker. You find it in the story arc of Kid Charlemagne, and from a woman’s point of view in Haitian Divorce. Even on the album Aja, in the song Josie, which seems to be more a Fagen kind of character portrait, the title character is “a raw flame, a live wire…”, descriptions that come from Becker’s need to work out his personal demons.

It was those personal demons that eventually broke up Steely Dan. Becker would descend into the depths of drug addiction, and he became unable to devote himself to the meticulous process of shaping the music that had also become a hallmark of Steely Dan. It would be thirteen years before Becker and Fagen would work together again, and twenty years before Steely Dan released a new studio album. There were musical high points in this later Steely Dan output, and in Becker’s solo albums, but they would never again capture the spark that made the classic run of Steely Dan so great. In part, this was because Becker had finally put some of his demons to rest. I am glad he lived long enough to experience a happy marriage. I am glad that he and Fagen were able to renew both their friendship and their musical partnership. But it the music of those tortured years that Becker will be best remembered for.

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