Walter Becker, one-half of transcendent jazz-rock, soft-rock, rock-rock, and so-rock-they-weren’t-rock-at-all duo Steely Dan, died Sunday at 67. An appropriately terse announcement was posted on his official website; no other details were given. I need you to watch this.
There is no purer fount of both joy and life-affirming grouchiness than this clip of Becker and partner Donald Fagen breaking down the making of “Peg,” a fizzy and fussy highlight from the band’s 1977 album, Aja. Steely Dan made nine full-length records, from 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill to 2003’s Everything Must Go, but never quite settled on a backing band, relying on an inflexibility that required maximum flexibility. Not for nothing did they title their 2000 comeback album Two Against Nature. (That’s the one that beat out Kid A and The Marshall Mathers LP for the Album of the Year Grammy.) In the clip, from a British documentary series called Classic Albums, we observe why so many musicians wanted to work with Steely Dan, and nobody stuck around for long.
At first we meet a few “Peg” supporting players: Drummer Rick Marotta calls it “one of the best tracks I ever played on,” and bassist Chuck Rainey describes how he hid behind a partition so Becker and Fagan wouldn’t realize he was playing slap bass. (They didn’t want him to because slap bass was too popular at the time.) But then we get Fagen and Becker (that’s him on the right) behind a studio board, ethering rejected guitar solos with impunity.
Fagen: “We hired a couple guitar players to play the solo, and it wasn’t quite what we were looking for, till we got through three or four—five—players.”
Becker: “Six or seven.”
Fagen: “Six, seven, eight players.”
They cue up one of the rejects and fall quiet, listening. The looks on their faces are still the most rock ’n’ roll thing I’ve ever seen: total authority, total disdain. You half expect them both to throw up.
“There you go,” Fagen finally says. “In other words …”
“Speaks for itself, really,” Becker adds grimly.
They cue up another one, which they plainly regard as even worse. “What is that, some kind of envelope-filter thing he’s got going there on his guitar?” Becker asks, incredulous. Then they get to the actual, final-product solo from Jay Graydon, and listen contentedly, though they both still look crabby as hell.
Steely Dan’s classic-album run in the ’70s and ’80s is unbeatable, or at least irreplicable, full of fractured jazz, plastic soul, and other erudite oddities. I am partial to 1973’s Countdown to Ecstasy, because my dad loved “My Old School” and when I was a kid, at least, the band photo on the back cover was the scariest collection of men I’d ever seen in my life. (That’s Becker in the shades; these were not exactly telegenic guys, as this classic Achewood cartoon attests.) But maybe you go for Aja’s black-humored anthemia, or 1980’s Gaucho, which features the gentle Aging Creep battle hymn “Hey Nineteen.” Whatever the decade, whoever they brought into the studio, Fagen and Becker made very intricate and insidiously tuneful music that sounded feather-light but hit like a garbage truck.
Do not confuse softness for gentleness. Here are the boys accepting Steely Dan’s nomination into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, which takes them less than 90 seconds. Becker asks for audience questions, which he then refuses to answer; his closing line is “We’re, uh, persuaded it’s a great honor to be here tonight. Thank you.”
Fagen was the band’s usual lead vocalist, and sought the occasional extramusical spotlight with, for example, his delightfully crabby 2013 memoir Eminent Hipsters. But both made the occasional solo album, and Becker’s 1994 effort, 11 Tracks of Whack, is worth it for the title alone, featuring such delicately thorny jams as “This Moody Bastard” and “Surf and/or Die.”
“He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny,” Fagen wrote in a statement released shortly after Becker’s death. “Like a lot of kids from fractured families, he had the knack of creative mimicry, reading people’s hidden psychology and transforming what he saw into bubbly, incisive art.”
That bubbly, incisive art was always communal, if two people counts as communal. Steely Dan were always at their best, their crabbiest, their most imperial together. The best part of that “Peg” making-of video is when it gets to backing vocalist Michael McDonald, whose exquisitely stacked harmonies have thrilled dad-rock scholars for decades. That all took forever to record, apparently; Fagen and Becker were quite exacting. “I’d worked with them enough to kind of know what I was in for,” McDonald concedes, with a slight smile. You had to love ‘em, and doubly so since you knew they probably didn’t love you back.