Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The many sides of Walter Becker

Having just contributed to a podcast in memory of Steely Dan's Walter Becker, who passed away this week, I've compiled some examples of his work that casual listeners and readers may not be so familiar with.

The partnership between Becker and Donald Fagen was such that it is often difficult to know where an idea has stemmed from. They were so well-matched in terms of intellect and musical knowledge, they were in the habit of finishing each other's sentences. Nonetheless, it is fairly well accepted that Becker, with his rather more chequered background, contributed the darker, more surreal ideas to The Dan's music.

And there were plenty of them. The new identity fixer in Sign In Stranger; the 'man of science' mixing up his psychedelics in Kid Charlemagne; the ode to "the Cuervo Gold, the fine Colombian" in Hey Nineteen and perhaps most personal of all, Any World (That I'm Welcome To).

"Whenever I recorded with Walter and Donald, right before the engineer pushed the red button, Walt would shimmy over to me and in a stage whisper, would say: 
“Just play the blues Elliott… just play the blues”.
- Elliott Randall, session guitarist on Steely Dan's albums 
and most famous for his soloing on Reelin' In The Years

We don't know too much about Becker's early years, apart from the fact his parents separated, but we do know he had his demons and, as Fagen noted, his "habits". The song 'Time Out Of Mind' from Gaucho would have been very close to home at that point in his life. The heroin halted his friendship with Fagen at the end of the 1970s and Becker retreated to Hawaii to recover from his addiction.

He re-emerged in the 80s handling production for the band China Crisis (the story of how he was attracted to the British band because he'd misheard their name as Vagina Crisis seems fitting somehow). He produced their album 'Flaunt The Imperfection', which contains the track 'You Did Cut Me', released as a single in 1985. It could easily be a Steely Dan song.

In 1989, he met up with Rickie Lee Jones and the two collaborated on her fourth album 'Flying Cowboys', which contained a lovely song 'The Horses'. Co-written with Becker, a cover version of the song by Daryl Braithwaite made No 1 in Australia.

and this song, Satellites, which shows traces of Becker's influence
Rickie Lee Jones wrote a touching tribute to Walter this week for Rolling Stone magazine. She said Steely Dan made it OK to be educated: "It was the idea that intelligent music was cool".

"I was brought up, you might say, on writing thick with imagery and subtle implication and I loved it. I loved the innuendo, the humor, the sting. The genius was as much in the part we filled in, the lines they didn't write. That was where the sticky stuff of memory made their music a part of our own personal history."

Of Becker, she wrote, "I have often said that so much of what we write seems to be prophetic. Walter lost too many people to drugs. He found too many people laying on the floor. The bed. Too many heartbreaks."

Becker and Fagen were able to move forward with their unique musical partnership in the 1990s, initially working together on Fagen's second solo album Kamakiriad, where Becker was the co-producer, and co-writer of the song Snowbound. He is listed as the bassist/guitarist on the album too.

In 1994, the year after the Steely Dan reunion tour, Walter produced his first solo album '11 Tracks of Whack', which was well received but not as commercially successful as his partner's solo records. Becker's sound was less polished and without the rounded melodies of The Nightfly or Kamakiriad. But it did contain some great compositions, demonstrating Becker's vivid imagination and a lyricism few could match.

This, for example, from the track Surf and/or Die, about a friend of his who died in a hang-glider accident:

Earthbound to Johnny boy just picked up your message
‘Bout those Balinese ikats you thought I might buy
Now your voice on my machine is more alive than what you are
Since your daredevil hang glider fell out of the sky
Now Armand’s looked all over but he can’t find your car keys
Were they under the tire? Were they under the seat?
Because as it stands now your beloved white Aires
Is fair game for the vandals up on Makapuu Street
And your grandmother’s number, we know it’s here somewhere
But Suze can’t seem to find it, now she’s losing control
And so what about her, and little Eldon and Layla
And that hypothetical spectre, your gilt-edged soul
Which defied many perils, in the face of all reason
And in so many settings and for all your young years
Insisting on pure freedom for its too-short season
Riding high on its ration of enchantment and fear
Over the hill and into the next meadow and on and on and on
In a near random universe there are still certain combinations
Picked out from all other possible ones
Which, when given some time and the just-right circumstances
Not too far from the earth or too close to the sun
They will dance and they’ll spin in the embrace of the trade winds
Playing havoc with the hearts and the upturned faces down below
Until the laws of curved spacetime, suspended without warning
Kick back in with a vengeance for the last act of the show
Going too far too fast in that final wing over
As your glider comes tumbling out of the clouds
And you clutch at your chest but the chute never opens
And they find you there tangled in that white nylon shroud
When we get Grandma’s number I think I’ll just say to her
Your Johnny’s home for Christmas, it was a hell of a ride
And I know that some day you’ll be showing me those blankets
All covered in glory on the hereafter side, saying
There was never any question, it was always all or nothing
Surf and/or die

"My inner Steely Dan geek was extremely anxious to get answers to the many questions I had since the age of 14. What guitar did you use on the solo (perhaps my favorite of his) on “Pretzel Logic”? Answer: an old Epiphone solid body. What is a “squonk”? (now, of course, you can wiki it). Who were some of the others on the legendarily large list of guitarists who took a stab at the solo to “Peg”? (He told me that Robben Ford had recorded an especially awesome solo.)"
- Drew Zingg, lead guitarist on the reunion tour, and heard to best effect on Third World Man from the 'Alive in America' album

Becker didn't produce his second solo album, 'Circus Money' until 2008 and many Dan fans are probably unfamiliar with it, as it received no promotion and virtually no airplay. But it has better production values than the first album and hangs together as a good collection of songs.

In the last 10 years, he also collaborated on a couple of albums with Madeleine Peyroux, notably on the 2009 album Bare Bones. One of the co-writes on the album is the song 'You Can't Do Me' which has an undeniable Becker stamp on it.

To round off this review of Walter Becker's musical legacy, if you want to enjoy more of the man's writing and his sense of humour, check out the stories and tour notes he wrote for the Steely Dan website. The site was set up when they first started touring again and many of the early stories are still up on the site - - here's one random example. All this stuff is made up, it's just him riffing on an idea:

And while they took songwriting to another place, and made it OK to be intelligent in popular music, Becker and Fagen never took themselves too seriously. As here, where they cruise around New York, picking up seemingly random girls to discuss their music: 

Not that you'd know it from that clip, but Walter was the quiet one of the two, and would have been a rather intimidating presence at times I'm sure, as the wittiest and most urbane guy in the room oft times. But his wit and intellect added much of the spice within the complex flavours of Steely Dan. He was a one off, and he's left a wonderful musical legacy.

Here's what his daughter had to say in memory of her dad:

RIP Walt.

Further reading and listening:
New York Times: Listen to 13 Essential Walker Becker Songs
Pitchfork: 8 Songs That Show Walter Becker's Brilliance
Washington Post: Walter Becker was the cynical one, hiding behind the guitar

If you're looking for a thoughtful and perhaps unusual Steely Dan playlist, may I suggest this one?

And someone has thoughtfully packaged the out-takes from the Gaucho Sessions into a 'lost' album compilation:

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