Image by © Neal Preston/Corbis
It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I fell for Steely Dan. It took one of my oldest friends to make me a tape mix of the “highlights” of their storied 70s discography for me to finally get it. I picked up the famous Steely Dan Gold best of at a used CD store in 1995 and I was off and running. The hits brought me in, but “FM” kept me coming back. “No static at all”.
I think what it was that I didn’t like about Steely Dan growing up was the exact thing that I loved about them once I was all in. There was this almost muzak-like vibe to their songs that as a uninformed teenager I found boring and safe. It sounded like leashed-up jazz, meaning jazz that wasn’t able to run wild and explore. But once I found my way to albums like The Royal Scam, Pretzel Logic, and Countdown To Ecstasy the easy listening vibe I realized was just a front for some of the most subversive, slyly dark and humorous music the 70s spit out at us. Those two Bard jazz and sci fi loving dorks named Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were writing breezy, jazzy odes to drug dealers, outlaws, prostitutes, and safe sex(“ain’t gonna do it without your Fez on, oh no”), as well as plenty of beatnik and science fiction references to fill a couple notebooks. They slid these dark and seedy worlds inside groovy and funky three minute tunes that would get stuck in your head, whether you wanted it to or not.
For the longest time Donald Fagen was the face of Steely Dan to me. He was the voice. He was the slinky ghoul behind the electric piano that told these tales of degradation and seemed to be the puppet master to a handful of studio wizards. But while Fagen may have been the narrator, Walter Becker was just as prominently helping to build the worlds within those Steely Dan albums. Fagen was the glitz, while Becker added the greasy grime. He made those tunes dirtier with his bass playing, and on Pretzel Logic he made tracks like “Pretzel Logic”, “Night By Night”, and “Monkey In Your Soul” down and dirty with his excellent guitar playing. You see, Walter Becker came into the Dan songs with the grit of a Chicago blues guitarist and the mind of some trans-dimensional traveler from some other plane of existence. Fagen brought things back to earth once Becker took us out into far reaches of reality. His guitar work on “The Fez” was also exceptional in its funk and groove delivery. Whether Becker was playing the parts or not he was meticulously writing them for guys like Larry Carlton, Denny Dias, and Elliot Randall to perform on album. He was a player, but he was also a master curator, along with Fagen.
Walter Becker died yesterday, September 3rd, 2017. He left behind some seriously great records. Can’t Buy A Thrill, Countdown To Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, Aja, Gaucho, Two Against Nature, and Everything Must Go are all class act SD albums. Doesn’t matter which one you pick, cause each one has some magic.
RIP, Charlie Freak.