One of my all-time favorite composing partnerships came to an end with the recent death of Walter Becker at the age of 67.
Along with Donald Fagen, Becker made up the core of Steely Dan. Their writing style produced songs that were described by The New York Times as “suavely subversive pop hits” incorporating “slippery jazz harmonies and verbal enigmas.”
I started following The Dan after I saw the band open for Chicago in Tampa Stadium in 1973. They took the stage wearing baseball uniforms with “Steely Dan” emblazoned across the front of the jerseys and started batting fluorescent tennis balls into the audience.
That was different.
But it was the music that really impressed me. At that time the pop song “Reeling in the Years” was playing on the radio and it was a cool tune but, with the exception of Elliot Randall’s great lead guitar, it really didn’t stand out that much from the other hits streaming out of the A.M. radio speaker.
However, when I heard Fagen belting out the high notes that October afternoon on “Do it Again” above his organ riffs it got my full attention. The sophisticated, and syncopated, guitar licks also clued me into the fact that these guys were something special.
Soon afterward I bought the “Can’t Buy a Thrill” record album and spun it into submission.
As I continued to add to my Steely Dan collection it became clear that Becker and Fagen were the center of this “group.” (I even rescued several discounted copies of “Katie Lied” from a record store reject bin during college because I couldn't stand to see the duo’s work disrespected like that. These were handed out to my friends so they too could discover and enjoy the brilliance of “The Dan.”
In the late 70s I tortured my band mates, who were more used to playing three-chord rock n’ roll, with an insistence that we learn to play “Kid Charlemagne” from “The Royal Scam” album.
While some co-writers like John Lennon and Paul McCartney essentially wrote their songs separately and just agreed to share credits, and others split up the songwriting duty with one writing the lyrics and the other the music, Becker and Fagen reportedly collaborated on every part of the songs.
“We think very much the same musically,” Fagen noted in a 1977 interview. “I can start songs and Walter can finish them.”
“Basically we sat there and we wrote all these songs and made these records together,” Becker told writer Dave DiMartino. “And one of the things that made it work was the fact that Donald and I were very attuned to aesthetic objectives and stylistic reference points, and the fact that we had a very organic give and take with who did what. If someone came up with an idea, it wasn’t a big thing of ‘Well, it’s my idea versus your idea,’ or ‘This is my song, so it’s up to me to say.’ Somebody did an interview with Donald and I after Kamakiriad (a solo Fagen album) came out, and I remember this particular writer asked the two of us who wrote a particular line in a song. We thought about it, neither of could remember, and one of us said, ‘We both did’.”
It’s hard for me to imagine that kind of cooperative creativity. Maybe some day I’ll find someone I can intuitively click with like that. But I doubt it. What Becker and Fagan had was certainly a rare and wonderful thing.