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Becker brought cool to outcasts and made mythic loserdom OK

Write to the Point


September 7, 2017

Walter Becker passed away last Sunday, Sept. 3.

Most people reading that probably think “That’s sad, but who’s Walter Becker?”

Those of us in the know, well, we know. Our response would be “Have you heard of the rock band, Steely Dan?”

That would likely bring an “Oh, yes, I love” such and such a song, usually something off their 1977 platinum selling — over five million copies — classic “Aja,” or maybe their biggest hit, 1974’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” Someone a bit more into music might add in tunes like “Reeling in the Years,” or the hypnotic “Show Biz Kids.”

There are many tributes to Becker out there, one of which is a more poetic literary one by Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield. But little mention was made in the mainstream press of the guitarist/bassist who, together with Steely Dan co-founder Donald Fagen on vocals, piano and keyboards, turned out some of the best, most iconic music of the 1970s.

After a 20-year separation, they reprised that with a reunification album “Two Against Nature” in 2000 that won four Grammy awards including Album of the Year.

You can read about Becker and Fagen elsewhere. Briefly, the duo began their collaboration as students at New York’s Bard College in 1967, then moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s to form Steely Dan.

The best description of their music on a short-term basis comes from the Rolling Stones piece announcing Becker’s passing as a band that “made their stamp on music with a string of pristine, sophisticated albums with ‘calculated and literary lyrics’ that blurred the lines of jazz, pop, rock and soul.”

As a teenager struggling to create his own identity, battling to fit and be somewhat popular with any high school group I could fit in with in small-town Wilbur, Steely Dan provided something I could latch on to. As I was discovering rock and roll — embracing it hook, line and sinker the more I understood how much my parents hated it — Becker and Fagen presented something different than what everyone else I knew was listening to.

Popular music in the 1970s was somewhat a hangover from the tumult of the 1960s, with rock and roll becoming more hard-edged and defiant, psychedelic in some cases, while at the same time racing headlong towards the “let’s just party” dancing destruction that was disco. Becker and Fagen’s music provided an alternative, an opportunity to really sit back, listen and analyze music rather than be overwhelmed or whipped into a frenzy.

Sophisticated? Yes, much. Becker and Fagen distained touring and never did, which made each release of a new Steely Dan album an event because that was all we got for a year or more until the next one.

Pristine? Absolutely. Their writing and musicianship, surrounded by other skilled craftsman such as guitarists Jeff “Skunk” Baxter” (think Doobie Brothers), Denny Diaz and Jeff Porcaro (eventually of Toto) was as close to perfection as one could come: pure and clean.

Early on, Becker was more in the background on bass and rhythm guitar, letting virtuosos deliver the scintillating solos like Diaz does on “Reeling in the Years.” But as Becker began to take on more of the lead guitar duties in later albums, I came to appreciate his considerable abilities and approach — which was often sparse but tasty, such as his call-and-response work to Fagen’s vocals on The Royal Scam’s “Don’t Take Me Alive” illustrates.

In his tribute, Sheffield wrote that Becker and Fagen made “mythic loserdom” cool with their music. And they were perfectly happy with that fact.

Some of us who appreciated their music felt more outcasts than losers, straining to fit in, but who cared one way or the other. Becker and Fagen provided an avenue to belonging, without conforming. A way of being cool.

Thank you Walter. Your music was, and still is, transformative and timeless.

John McCallum can be reached at


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