Appreciation: Walter Becker approached everything with irreverence — except Steely Dan’s music
Walter Becker wasn’t easily impressed.
Addressing a crowd of show-business luminaries in 2001 as his band, Steely Dan, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he took a typically sly — and typically subtle — dig at the institution’s inflated self-regard by declaring, “We’re persuaded it’s a great honor to be here tonight.”
And when Steely Dan played the Hollywood Bowl with an orchestra last year, the guitarist and bassist fake-apologized for having dressed in a T-shirt and windbreaker: He’d just assumed the group had been booked at a bowling alley, he said in his signature deadpan.
But if Becker, who died Sunday at age 67 of an undisclosed cause, approached the musical establishment with an essential irreverence, this legendary perfectionist couldn’t have taken music itself more seriously.
Or treated it with more love: Though he and longtime bandmate, singer and keyboardist Donald Fagen are often thought of as cold-blooded smart alecks — the result of lyrics like those in the band’s “Reelin’ in the Years,” which mock the boomer nostalgia its title promises — you don’t have to listen to much Steely Dan to hear the attention they lavished on their elaborately conceived jazz-rock tunes.
In other words, they didn’t make fun of something like the Rock Hall because of its grandiose ideas about achievement; they made fun of it because it had let in too many dummies who weren’t trying as hard as they were.
Think about the group’s debut album, “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” which came out in late 1972, after Becker and Fagen left New York (where they’d worked briefly as professional songwriters) and resettled in Los Angeles (where they’d soon burn through every session player in town).
This was the year of “Exile on Main St.,” the famously dissolute Rolling Stones record that helped valorize the notion of the wasted rock star in songs like “Tumbling Dice” and “Torn and Frayed.”
Yet there was nothing torn or frayed about “Do It Again,” the tidy, precision-geared lite-funk jam that opens “Can’t Buy a Thrill.” Here, Becker and Fagen were lodging a kind of implicit protest against rock’s Dionysian myth; the orderly music suggests that true ecstasy isn’t to be had from indulgence but from recognizing the pattern of impulses that drive people to excess.
Which didn’t mean Becker was above indulgence. “His habits got the best of him by the end of the ’70s,” Fagen said of his bandmate in a statement released Sunday, explaining why Steely Dan broke up after 1980’s “Gaucho.” (The group re-formed in the early ’90s and returned to record-making with 2000’s “Two Against Nature,” which won a Grammy Award for album of the year.)
But even when the music was touching on wild experiences Becker may have lived — as in “Deacon Blues,” about a guy longing to guzzle scotch whiskey all night long, or “Hey Nineteen,” about a May-December romance — the meticulousness of his arrangements established a kind of critical distance from the action.
It’s not right to say, as many have, that that remove was unfeeling or dispassionate in nature; “Deacon Blues,” from Steely Dan’s 1977 masterpiece, “Aja,” is one of the most beautiful pop songs of the last 40 years.
Rather, it’s as though the band were stepping back to get a better vantage on what it was describing — a vision more kaleidoscopic than the total immersion the Stones were giving you on “Exile on Main St.”
And if that wider view led Becker to characteristic disappointment in what he saw? Well, duh. But the musical goal was always more sensation, not less.
Perhaps that’s why Steely Dan’s records have aged so well. Hip-hop acts have been sampling them for years, from De La Soul to Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz to Kanye West, the last of whom borrowed a sizable chunk of “Kid Charlemagne” for his 2007 track “Champion.”
And more recently, a generation of fussy indie rockers has embraced the group, so much so that Steely Dan snagged a high-profile appearance at the taste-making Coachella festival in 2015.
On Twitter, DJ and producer Mark Ronson wrote Sunday that Becker was “half of the team I aspire to every time I sit down at a piano” — just one of many shout-outs from young musicians who seem to identify with Steely Dan’s Internet-before-it-existed vibe.
It was hard to know, of course, how much this rediscovery meant to Becker. On one hand, he showed up for that Coachella gig knowing the audience largely consisted of kids in their 20s (and he did so dressed slightly more nattily than for the Hollywood Bowl).
On the other hand, he referred to the festival crowd at one point as “guys out there sucking pacifiers.”
No one had quite convinced him that it was a great honor to be there that night.
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