The guitarist, bassist, and cofounder of the pioneering jazz-rock band Steely Dan died Sept. 3 at age 67. Below, the Mountain Goats mastermind and novelist John Darnielle reflects on Becker’s profound influence in an exclusive essay.
In 1988 I moved to Norwalk, California, to work at Metropolitan State Hospital. Employee housing, on the actual grounds of the hospital, was available for cheap, so I moved into a single-occupancy room in a very old building with black-and-white checkered tile on the bathroom floor and steam heat coming from a big iron radiator in the main room. I was drawing a decent paycheck and had very few financial responsibilities, so I drove around looking for record stores on my days off. There was one place down Norwalk Boulevard a ways that had a big wall of tapes, and it was from this wall that I grabbed Steely Dan’s Katy Lied one day on a whim. The following week I grabbed the Aja/Gaucho twofer, also $4.99.
I spent much of the following year scrutinizing these albums as a jeweler might inspect a rare gem. I copied out lyrics onto large sheets of paper and taped them to the walls; I rewound the tape and played “Rose Darling” over and over, parsing phrases for nuance. It was harder then to learn things about bands, but I found references to Walter Becker as the “sadist” of the band, the darker foil to cofounder Donald Fagen’s nostalgic leanings. Fagen’s solo record, The Nightfly, seemed to support this theory of the partnership; it was sweet and warm, even when it went noir. Steely Dan were neither sweet nor warm. They were sharp and cutting.
Over the years I heard more things that Becker had a hand in — his production on Rickie Lee Jones and China Crisis records in particular — that suggested there was more to him than the thumbnail sketch available to information-starved Steely Dan fans in the pre-internet age. More warmth, more scale. But for me, a clip from the Aja episode of the Classic Albums documentary series will always be the moment where Becker’s subtlety and wit are most evident. Becker and Fagen are listening to multiple rejected takes of the guitar solo from “Peg”; the first one they call up doesn’t fit the song at all. “Speaks for itself, really,” Becker says, not cracking a smile as the take plays on. It does speak for itself, and so did Becker, quietly sculpting music of such broad scope that its like will probably not be seen again in this world.