The Secret Soul of Steely Dan: Walter Becker

Remembering the lesser-known half of Becker & Fagen

Steely Dan was a band formed around a songwriting collaboration, that of Becker & Fagen – Walter Becker & Donald Fagen. It started as a regular band with permanent members, but morphed quickly into a shifting ensemble of amazing musicians which revolved around the nucleus: Becker & Fagen. 

Videos by American Songwriter

It was always about their brilliance, their friendship, and their singular mission of merging soul and rock with jazz in compelling, sardonic and remarkable songs. 

Now Steely Dan goes on, though Walter Becker is gone. Since Fagen was the singer, for him to carry on without Walter next to him as Steely Dan makes sense; he is keeping this beloved music alive and as powerful in real-time shows as ever. And the idea that Walter is gone completely isn’t really true, as his soulful spirit lives in every song and immaculately tight and funky arrangement. 

Yet even when he was alive, he wasn’t someone people knew well, which is how he liked it. He was a rock star but didn’t have to play one constantly in public. His move to Maui with his family reflected this attitude; he wanted a respite from the rush, a peaceful life far from his urban past, a place to work unhindered by the masses, and even enjoy life.

Because Becker & Fagen’s song spirits were forever linked, as people they were different. Walter was a genial, funny and intellectual guy. He produced Rickie Lee Jone’s great Flying Cowboys, one of many non-Steely projects which distinguish the Becker sensibility. Like his own solo albums, it’s got a looser, funkier vibe, more bluesy and acoustic than electric jazzy, and with a gentle, crystalline focus of purity on each song. 

Asked how to describe him, Rickie Lee said, “Well, you know he is way smarter than the other humans.” 

It’s true. As Dan fans know well already. As soulfully funky, precise, fluid and expansive were their songs and records, it is the sheer brilliance of their accomplishment – their ability to wed the complex harmonies of jazz with the groove and funk of rock and R&B, combined with lyrics of richly dimensional, often sardonic humor – that distinguishes the Dan forever.

While other bands famously fused jazz and rock into “fusion,” none ever came close to doing it without sacrificing the visceral fire and funk of rock. None except Steely Dan, who in more than four decades of making music never put out an inferior album.

And this applies to Becker’s two great solo albums as well. These guys didn’t believe in putting out filler. From their debut Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972) and its follow-up Countdown to Ecstasy (1973) through successive masterpieces such as Pretzel Logic (1974), The Royal Scam (1976) and Aja (1977) through Two Against Nature (2000) and their final album Everything Must Go (2003), Steely Dan never lost their footing, made a false step, or became disengaged. If it took them years to finish an album, as it did with their big comeback Two Against Nature in 1999, they would take years to achieve that level.

And it wasn’t only the music that distinguished the Dan, it was the words as well. Inspired by the expansive brilliance of Dylan as well as by countless science fiction authors and other writers, Becker & Fagen recognized early on that there was no content too dark, strange or cumbersome for song, as long as it was singable. And so we got, remarkably, songs about subjects previously unexplored in popular songs, such as one about a legendary drug dealer (“Kid Charlemagne”), or the false lure of America to immigrants (“The Royal Scam”), or a mythic scene straight from Homer’s Odyssey (“Home At Last”), or the crazy life of a touring musician (“Pretzel Logic”).

Since they first met at Bard College, and then went onto play as touring musicians in the band Jay & The Americans, Becker and Fagen forged a songwriting partnership dedicated to writing uniquely compelling songs. At first they were basing themselves not on any band, but on traditional and successful songwriting duos like Bacharach & David and Goffin & King, who wrote songs for other artists.

Demos of their early songs, such as “Stone Piano,” still exist, and always include both songwriters singing. Their first songwriting success was when Barbra Streisand recorded their song “I Mean To Shine” in 1971. They were in good company to launch their songwriting career; also on that album, Barbra Joan Streisand, were songs by those considered to be the brightest songwriting stars of the day, including Laura Nyro, Carole King, Bacharach & David, and even John Lennon.

But early on they recognized that writing songs for others required some attempt to write normal songs – musically and lyrically normal – so as to be coverable. And they knew this just wasn’t their strength. So by forming their own band, they could do what Dylan did and write about anything at all, knowing it would be recorded, because they were the artists.

On the debut Steely Dan album, Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972), Fagen did not sing all the lead vocals, as his voice was deemed too nasal and whining for pop music. But they soon came to understand that Donald’s voice was perfectly suited to the kind of harmonically complex and lyrically sardonic songs they loved to write.

Like Randy Newman, who felt his voice was wrong for heroic, pop anthems and so turned to lyrics of dark irony instead, Becker and Fagen embraced a sound and attitude in their songs and records entirely their own. Though many attempted to duplicate it somehow, none ever reached the Dan level, anymore than Beatle imitators ever equaled the greatness of the lads.

Though Becker and Fagen often were depicted as one single unit, in fact they were individuals. Walter was actually a warm, amiable, gentle guy, and not at all as press-shy or antagonistic as he was often portrayed. True, when in a public event with Fagen, he could play the role of arrogant rock star behind shades. But it wasn’t who he really was. Walter was gregarious and always passionate about music itself and songwriting. Sure, his intelligence was vast and vital, and his humor dark and even biting. But more than anything his genuine passion for music and and deep dedication to the art and craft of songwriting came across, more than any inclination to be difficult.

As I wrote in 1999, “In person Becker & Fagen project opposing personalities. Becker seems quite comfortable in his skin; bearded and beatific, he’s happy to expound on any subject posed to him with a warmly gentle and somewhat professorial countenance. Fagen, who fidgets in his chair and distractedly pages through a book of photography on the desk before him, seems ready to ankle at any moment, but gets noticeably calmer as soon as the subject turns to music.”

But unlike other musical duos who famously tired of each other after decades of collaboration, it was obvious that Walter and Donald genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. Rather than tune out when the other spoke, they seemed as close as brothers — hanging on their partner’s every word, finishing each other’s sentences, even laughing at each other’s jokes.

What they shared most of all was a pure dedication to taking as long as necessary both to write their songs, and then to produce them. Steely Dan, as their fans know, achieved a musical tightness in the studio, fusing precision, soul and jazz, unlike anything which came before.

A perfect example of their songwriting tenacity came in discussion of their song “West of Hollywood,” which they wrote and recorded for Two Against Nature. Like Leonard Cohen and few others, Becker and Fagen would write endless revisions of songs, constantly changing the lyrics by coming up with new options. And like Leonard, they saved all of these revisions, which Walter was happy to share with me a few weeks after our interview.

“One trick of writing,” he said, “is to use the mechanics of typing things over and over again as a way of exercising and developing an idea.” To illustrate this technique, he shared these variations, all of which started with the line, “I’m way deep into nothing special …

…coming from a place of power just west of Hollywood.
…with a base of support located just west of Hollywood.
…in a matrix with its nexus just west of Hollywood.
…situated as I am in the crescent just west of Hollywood.
…having as my target the citizens just west of Hollywood.
…in a cluster franchise operation just west of Hollywood.
…and business is booming in the triangle just west of Hollywood.

The ultimate choice was the line “riding the crest of a wave breaking just west of Hollywood.”

It was back in 1989 that Walter produced Rickie Lee Jones’ poignantly spectral and spiritual Flying Cowboys.

So happy was he in helping her achieve all she wanted and more, it inspired him to make the first of two solo albums, 11 Tracks of Whacks, a delight from start to finish which shines a lot of light into the Becker persona. Songs like “Junkie Girl” and “Book of Liars” sing with his singular spirit, forever merging light and darkness, humor and sorrow, and soul, jazz, rock and melodicism into an intoxicating brew.

The greatly fun Circus Money came in 2008, with its heady mix of reggae, funk and rock, remarkable songwriting and Walter’s own visceral guitar solos.

These two solo albums go far in delineating Becker’s musical spirit from Fagen’s. Although as sophisticated as the Dan, these records have a direct and bluesy rawness in sound and message, as well as sweetly sentimental moments of pure parental tenderness and love, as in the lovely “Little Kawai,” written for his daughter and reflecting the familial bliss they found in Hawaii, where he lived for years.

After reporting on assorted complaints about her that he received, he sings directly to her:

But they don’t love you
Little Kawai
Not the way that I do
Not the way that I do

Asked to describe how he and Fagen achieved their singular blend of tightness and soul, Walter explained it was because their aim was unique from the start.

“We are shooting for a different end result,” he said, “than what a lot of people are. In general, when people are making rock and roll records, they want a big, powerful, sort of massive sound. And we’re thinking more in terms of being able to clearly hear the details. We’re more influenced by good sounding jazz recordings of the late fifties and sixties and some subsequent things as well.”

But although Walter and Donald went to crazy lengths to ensure greatness, never did they suggest achieving their standards was easy, or shy away from the task, regardless of the magnitude of time and effort required. When unable to realize a track fully in the studio, they would sometimes replace the entire band – each player – and start afresh with all new musicians. This willingness to do whatever necessary resulted in a chain of timeless, extraordinary albums which have already stood the test of time. But never was it easy.

In fact, as both explained in a typically fun and frenzied interchange, the process grew more laborious and taxing as they grew older and less physically capable of meeting the challenge. The song “Two Against Nature,” they said, specifically crystallizes this ongoing battle into what they perceived as an elemental struggle against nature itself:

Donald Fagen: We made it the title cut because we thought it was descriptive of our condition at the present time. Because when you start to get older, you really are fighting nature all the time. Musically you’re fighting nature, trying to organize atoms of sound. You’re trying to manipulate or overcome obstacles in nature.

Walter Becker: You’re fighting to tame the forces and bend them to your will.

Fagen: Right. You’re fighting lethargy. You’re fighting –

Becker: Chaos.

Fagen: And laziness. You’re fighting-

Becker: The ordinary.

Fagen: And other people, even if they’re on your side. You’re fighting your own sloppiness, or lack of patience.

Becker: Your own internal economy of time, energy, money, ideas, patience-

Fagen: Trying to balance your musical life with other parts of your life. It’s essentially a classic struggle.

Becker: Think of the Two Against Nature album as akin to the building of the Hoover Dam.

Although no humans lost their lives during the making of the album as they did building the big dam, its lengthy and laborious creation contrasted sharply with their own ever-changing physical landscape, as a smiling Walter recalled:

“We’d been working on the album for about five months,” he said, “and we looked out the window and noticed that they were starting to build a large high-rise 40-story apartment house on the corner across from the studio. And we actually went back in the studio a couple of days ago to add a part to the album, and we noticed that the building was finished. And people were living in it already! And here we were still putting parts on the album!”

But making an album quickly, or following anybody else’s rules, was never part of the Becker & Fagen songbook. Quite the opposite. Rather than even use the conventional tools of the trade, the fundamental chord changes of blues which are the seeds of rock and roll and all that followed, Becker and Fagen were drawn to pre-rock & roll influences and literary allusions never before combined. Their ongoing embrace of musical individualism led them even to create their own vocabulary of chords, including what they once called the “Mu chord,” (which, by avoiding the third of the chord, was neither major or minor.)

Their singular focus and creative courage has resulted in work unparalleled in American popular music. Rather than ever follow any musical trends, as is the tradition, the Dan always intentionally swam against their current, eventually creating their own ocean entirely. Precisely because their work never fit comfortably into any one bin, it has transcended notions of fashion and trend with timeless aim and excellence.

When I interviewed them in the winter of 1999, just weeks before the new millennium was to commence, I asked if they felt their work was well-suited to the 21st century. “Well,” Walter answered, “we’re still confused about how our music applies to the current century.”

Fagen loved that answer, and laughed more openly than ever, as his partner continued.

“We have been fortunate enough to do something that has always been out of the mainstream,” Walter said, “and yet have an audience for what we do. And I hope that continues to be true. I don’t think what we are doing fits neatly into the context of what’s happening now anymore than it did in the early seventies when we started doing it. We were fortunate at that time that radio was as wide open as it was that people doing something like what we were doing could sneak in there.”

Donald agreed. “We snuck in a window of a couple of years,” he said “when radio was willing to play something that didn’t sound like something that had been played for the last forty years.”

I mentioned that Steely Dan was one of the only bands never to have been influenced by any trends.  “That’s because we’re influenced by music from the last century,” said Donald.

Walter concurred. “We’re influenced by trends,” he said, “but they are only trends that we know about. They’re secret trends.”

When asked, back at the end of 1999, if there would be more Steely Dan albums, Becker & Fagen had different answers. Donald said, “That depends on sales.”

Walter’s answer, though, was a tad more existential. “There could be,” he said. “That depends on how long we live.”

After our first interview, I mentioned Rickie Lee Jones’s statement that he was simply smarter than most humans. He laughed, and said that was very flattering.

“But is it true?” I asked.

“That’s up to mankind to decide,” he said, smiling.

“Now the danger on the rocks is surely past
Still I remain tied to the mast
Could it be that I have found my home at last?
Home at last.”

From “Home at Last”
By Becker & Fagen

Dropkick Murphys “Streaming Outta Fenway” With Special Guest Bruce Springsteen