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Walter Becker’s Death: Farewell to Steely Dan

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Walter Becker (left) and Donald Fagen at the 2001 Grammy Awards (Reuters photo: Sam Micovich)

With Walter Becker’s death on Sunday, jazz-rock’s unlikeliest superstars are no more. They will be missed.

Kyle Smith writes: ‘Polished through countless takes,” wrote the New York Times’s Jon Pareles in his weekend obituary of Walter Becker, “Steely Dan’s musical surfaces were sleek and understated, smooth enough to almost be mistaken for easy-listening pop.”

Ouch. No one since about 1965 has wanted to take up, or be assigned, residence in the easy-listening bin. And yet Steely Dan, in essence a two-man jazz-rock partnership between Becker and Donald Fagen, filled out with various backing members, certainly wasn’t difficult listening. To rock’s rough edges Becker and Fagen brought a belt sander, and to jazz’s dreamy meanderings they brought a field sobriety test. Leave it to other bands to churn up generational anthems. Steely Dan preferred to go with mordant pen portraits of colorful Runyonesque lowlifes, fare like “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Kid Charlemagne.” If anything was hard about listening to these songs, it was maintaining attention lest they fade into pleasant background music as you chatted intently in your dorm.

The craftsmanship was sublime, but tightly controlled. Becker, who died Sunday of undisclosed causes at age 67, was “a master of musical understatement,” as NPR put it. A running joke in the comic Broadway show (and now Netflix special) Oh, Hello has it that two crotchety old Upper West Side pals who fancy themselves hip are inveterate, impassioned Steely Dan fans. Reckless abandonment was not what you loved this band for, even if on their most fully achieved album, 1977’s Aja, they did allow themselves to jam out a bit.

Becker and Fagen forsook touring for most of their prime years in the 1970s, preferring to make music exclusively in meticulous, heavily produced studio sessions. Some 42 musicians participated in the making of Gaucho, the 1980 album that proved to be the band’s unmaking, at least until Becker and Fagen reunited for a tour in 1993. “There is a level of perfection, polish, sophistication, and abundance of detail and structural stuff that [Fagen] wants to hear in his music that I sort of ran out of patience to do,” Becker told Time Out New York in 2008.

Yet if it’s the wreckage of authentic suffering you crave in a rock (or jazz) outfit, Steely Dan’s discography has that, thanks to Becker. Fagen, upon his friend’s passing … (read more)

via National Review

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