Walter Becker has passed away at 67. That’s sad – it seems young these days. He played his share of rock-n-roll and made some bad decisions along the way, but his friends stuck with him. By the time Steely Dan started touring again my infatuation with their seven masterpiece albums had mostly been diverted into other pursuits. On Saturday evening, though, I saw some folks on my Instagram posting photos of Fagen playing at ACL Live, and I thought to myself, “I should make an effort to see those guys.”
But by Sunday morning it was already too late.
I have a few thoughts about the work that Steely Dan created, and a couple of favorite songs. Mostly thoughts.
Thought one: Steely Dan was a piano band and a guitar band. Many bands of that era, and even now, have one or the other as a focus. “Bennie and the Jets” is a fantastic piano song with some great guitar work; “Rebel Rebel” is a guitar jam, with some enjoyable piano. But for most cases, Steely Dan songs are as memorable for the guitar parts as they are for the keyboard parts, and in fact, suffer in the absence of the other in subtle ways.
There is a lot of discussion amongst theory-inclined Dan fans of the Mu Major Chord that anchors a lot of the band’s harmonic choices over the years. (It’s very similar to the greatest guitar chord, btw). The thing is, this chord wasn’t just a splash on the keys, or hit on the horns, it was a harmonic underpinning through all of the instruments. The beginning of “Deacon Blues” is all ate up with Major Mu.
Thought two: Those guitars, though. My older brother took up the guitar a few years back and one of his major songs (as was mine at one time) is “Reelin’ in the Years.” After you have a little facility, maybe a surf tune like “Pipeline” or a bluegrass tune like “Soldier’s Joy” under your fingers, the main riff from “Reelin'” suddenly leaps out through the years and literally says “yes, you can play me now – and next week, you can play the harmony!”
A few years back I listened to every Steely Dan guitar solo to try and determine which one was best. Of course, I can’t remember which I decided, but I do remember a: Elliot Randall is a Mother Fucker, and b: Walter Becker knows what he’s doing. Here’s an early live clip – Becker is on bass at this point because you still have Skunk Baxter and Denny Diaz in the band. (Elliot Randall played the leads on the studio version, btw).
Thought three: My first car had an eight-track player in it, and one of the only 8-tracks I could find was Gaucho. So as my adolescent mind was flying around East Texas chasing whatever dreams lay ahead, I would find myself imagining playing guitar like Larry Carlton on “Third World Man.”
Thought four: Even though these examples are showing off some of the super A-list talent that Becker and Fagen had at their disposal, I thought we would wrap this up with a tune that featured Becker’s prowess. You all know the song, like all of these, and can probably sing along with every note of this nearly perfect solo.
That whole minute-fifty to 2-minute range is sublime.
Thought five: The band that could be your life, my favorite band for much of my life, Minutemen, covered “Doctor Wu” on Double Nickels on the Dime.
I’m not much of a scholar of the band, but I sure do appreciate everything they put out, so it is a sad day indeed. For a personal take, Rickie Lee Jones memorial for Walter Becker was beautiful and lyrical and amazing.
If you like guitar theatrics and well-composed and produced tracks, Check out Boo by Baby Got Bacteria.