Most bands from the 1970s focused on live performances — but not Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, musicians who kept an air of mystery around their band by focusing more on studio albums than live music.
Becker, guitarist, songwriter and co-founder of Steely Dan, unfortunately died Saturday at his home in Maui, Hawaii, at age 67, according to his official website.
Becker, who was born in Queens, New York, met Fagen met in the late ’60s at Bard College; they were both interested in jazz, pop, and rock ‘n’ roll. What made them different was their obsession with perfect sound. Even from the very first tracks they produced, everything their band went on to record was uniquely pristine.
The group tried touring after their second album in 1973, “Countdown to Ecstasy,” but it was a bust. They weren’t interested in creating hit singles — but their thematic albums left audiences wonderfully confused. Their third album, “Pretzel Logic,” produced some hit singles, thanks perhaps to the work of background singer (and later Doobie Brothers front man) Michael McDonald.
Their best-selling album came out in 1977 –– “Aja.” A tour-de-force of recording technology excellence, it still stands as one of the very best albums for its serious audiophile enjoyment. It was no surprise it won a Grammy Award for Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording.
A few years later, the men were ready to move on — Becker and Fagen announced they were going their separate ways in 1980, to the great disappointment of their fans. Like too many musicians, Becker had become drawn to the darker side of the profession and fell into drug addiction. And in January 1980 his girlfriend, Karen Stanley, died of a drug overdose — a huge wake-up call for Becker.
The musician moved to Hawaii and went off the grid completely for almost 20 years. He spent time recovering both from his addiction and from being hit by a taxi in New York City, during which his leg was fractured. When he returned to the music scene, he did something that few rock musicians ever accomplish: He rid himself of his addiction and returned to the productive and creative work that originally made him famous.
Talk about uncommon. Rock musicians can certainly share plenty of excuses or justifications for becoming addicts, ranging from wealth to youth, environment to peer pressure to perhaps the greatest cause –– life on the road. Even musicians such as Sting, Macklemore, Gerard Way, James Taylor, and Brian Wilson have all admitted they long fought battles with drugs during their careers.
Others have managed to kick the addiction — like Walter Becker. Also on that small list are Elton John, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, David Bowie, and Tom Waits, all of whom hit the proverbial wall and realized they needed to stop and rebuild their lives.
When Becker returned to the industry, he wasn’t recording his own material. His audio perfectionist traits led him to be a sought-after producer, and he worked closely with the popular Windham Hill and Triloka jazz labels. Albums he produced during that era include Michael Franks’ “Blue Pacific,” Rickie Lee Jones’ “Flying Cowboys,” and “Flaunt the Imperfection” by China Crisis.
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In late 1993 Becker and Fagen got back together for a tour –– their first in 19 years. All their performances sold out, and their work was lauded as one of the best concert tours of the year. They had so much fun during the tour that they immediately planned a 1994 follow-up, which included a two-week run in Japan. In 2001, Becker and Fagen were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; they continued to tour until just a few months ago, when Becker had to cancel his appearances due to health issues.
To quote from their song “Black Friday,” “When Black Friday comes, I’ll collect everything I’m owed, and before my friends find out, I’ll be on the road.”
We know you’re on that road, Walter Becker. Thanks for all the music over so many years.