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Farewell to Walter Becker, Weirdo Prince of Smart Rock

Sarcastic and borderline dickish, the Steely Dan co-founder remained one of the all-time greats to the very last

Mark Oppenheimer
September 05, 2017
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

Walter Becker, co-founder of Steely Dan, passed away this week at 67. To honor the great musician who saw himself as “a creature of the margins and of alienation,” here’s Mark Oppenheimer’s appreciation, written last year after seeing Becker and Donald Fagen rock Connecticut:

There are times when a journalist has to use his “editor at large” status at the universe’s leading Jewish publication to reel in some free rock-concert tickets. If an editor at large doesn’t score himself some free tix now and again, he begins to wonder just how large he is. And nobody respects an editor at small—not the editor’s wife, not his daughters, not his dogs, least of all himself.

So when your editor at large saw that the grooviest half-Jewish band in history was playing a one-night stand at the Toyota Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford. Connecticut—the class lost to it by “Toyota” is more than recouped by the Anglo-spelling on “Theatre”—he had to throw his yarmulke in the ring for a pair of tickets. And since half-Jewish is, in America today, the new Jewish, Steely Dan is the new Simon and Garfunkel. Plus, Tablet has written about Donald Fagen before (it seems his partner, Walter Becker, is non-chosen; dissenting readers can weigh in). One might say that no Jewish publication has covered Steely Dan so assiduously. The band obviously knows as much, since their manager came through with two tickets. Not the cheap seats, either.

So the editor at large and pal Holahan—half-Jewish, the right half—zipped up I-91 last night in said editor’s Prius (an all-Jewish car: smart, short, economy-minded) to see if the Dan could still deliver. The short answer is that they are as much the super-group as ever. Of course, as a young Cameron Crowe (not a Jew, but kind of is) wrote in Rolling Stone in 1977, “They are the unlikeliest super-group—perhaps because there is no group. Two blurry characters named Walter Becker and Donald Fagen write and construct the songs, then hire highly skilled studio musicians to execute the parts.” They never toured much, and at one point didn’t tour for something like a decade. If being a tight, seasoned, unified touring act makes a super-group, as the ’70s-era auteur theory of rockdom would have it, then no, Steely Dan isn’t very super.

But it was one of the best concerts the editor at large had ever seen, and not just because a dozen super-skilled touring musicians may in fact better be better than four or five semi-skilled hacks who tattooed each other’s names on their inner thighs back in high school. The horn section was boss, bassist Freddie Washington was low-down and funky, guitarist Jon Herington out-skunked the original Steely Dan guitar great, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and he is less likely to hang up his axe and become a right-wing defense consultant. At this point, some of these touring musicians have toured with the band so long—Herington and backup soprano Carolyn Leonhart since the 2000 tour, monster drummer Keith Carlock since ’03—that they constitute a lot of badass bandness.

In his onstage demeanor and brief, cynical comments, Walter Becker is as sarcastic and borderline dickish as he was back in ’77, to judge from the Crowe profile. Condescending to his gray-haired audience—editor at large and pal, in their mid-forties, respectively, may have been the youngest ones there—as he promised them only the hits they craved, Becker has not aged, or matured, one whit. Donald Fagen (Jewish half) sings as badly, and as brilliantly as ever. There is a special pleasure to watching the gulping and emesis of Fagen’s singing, especially with three astonishingly talented backup singers behind him, filling in the notes and syllables he doesn’t even bother with. When his voice fades out, and theirs come in, one sees the radical difference between virtuosity and genius. The man can’t sing, but he wrote the perfect lyrics for his non-singing, and nobody does it better. In this respect, he is as much a stellar lead vocalist as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, or Morrissey.

Meanwhile, the jazzy aspect of Steely Dan’s songbook is powerfully evident in how well the songs, like the best jazz numbers, grow onstage. Although they were always known as perfectionist studio rats, Becker and Fagen wrote music with lots of space in between for solos, individual flourishes, and odd, soulful tics. In this respect, their music is like David Bowie’s: you didn’t know how soulful “Young Americans” was until you saw it performed that way, and then—well, duh. Same with Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne,” which really has to be seen live to be properly rocked out to. Or “Do It Again”: this old TV footage gave the editor at large his one regret of last night, which was that Steely Dan is touring sans bongos.

The editor at large has seen too little rock and roll so far in year 5776, and has resolved, in the year’s waning months, not to let his people down. What’s next? The Jayhawks are touring again, and their bassist has an auspicious name: Marc Perlman. Howard Jones is on the road, but, alas, while he is a Howard, he is also a Jones. Lyle Lovett is once again out with his racially diverse “Large Band”—but in its largeness, does it merit a visit from the editor at large? The Prius, the Cuervo Gold, the fine Colombian—they are waiting.

Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.