Walter Becker Subverted And Enriched Rock At The Same Time

Every great Rock band or artist in history created their own unique sound, that’s what made them great. But there’s a special singularity to the music created by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan that set them apart from everyone else. Over the years there have been band after band that tried to sound like The Beatles, or Dylan, or the Stones, or the Kinks, or Stevie Wonder, or U2, or Nirvana, or somebody else. But nobody has ever really tried to sound like Steely Dan, although ambitious bands will borrow elements here and there. The truth is that it is virtually impossible to reproduce the bizarre musical and lyrical concoction that is Steely Dan music, and that speaks to the unconventional brilliance of these two men.

They say that timing is everything, and just as the Beatles were a perfect fit for the zeitgeist of the Sixties, Steely Dan was the right band at the right time when they debuted in 1972. By that year it had already become painfully clear that people all over the world were not about to link arms in a celebration of peace and love as the Rockers of the Sixties had prescribed. Sunny optimism was slowly but surely giving way to alienation and disillusionment, and Becker and Fagen were the perfect guys to carry the flag for the new attitude.

Walter Becker came to his alienation honestly. His parents divorced when he was young, and as Fagen noted in his tribute to Becker, young Walter had “a very rough childhood”. Blessed with a formidable intellect, it was surely not a surprise that he became an awkward, bookish jazz geek in college. How lucky he was, and how lucky we all were, that while he was there he managed to connect with Fagen, another awkward bookish jazz geek who had only marginally better social skills than he. The co-alienated duo discovered they had a knack for writing songs together.

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Acknowledging that they didn’t have the chops to dive full on into jazz, the two decided to make Rock music, but differently than everyone else did it. They both shared a deep-seated disdain for the established tropes of Rock, all that bombast and posturing and mawkish sentimentality. They wanted to poke holes in all of it while telling their stories of alienation because they were, in Becker’s words, “creatures of the margin”, misfits in every sense of the word, playing Rock but subverting it from within.

Fagen said that Walter Becker “was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny. 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.” He created a rogue’s gallery of alienated characters to populate Steely Dan songs: misfits and losers, small-time hustlers and schemers, little guys with oversize egos, down-on-their-luck schmucks who didn’t quite get the girl. Plus enough drug references to alert the local authorities in every state. Becker’s lyrics almost always delivered perfect meter and rhyme scheme, and each song was almost always good for a laugh or two. Steely Dan lyrics had a lot going on.

You would think that combining them with the complexity of the band’s melodies, harmonies and instrumentation would have created an esoteric hot mess, but that’s the amazing about Steely Dan. They defied Rock’s conventions at every turn and challenged listeners with subversive lyrics and strange, often jarring jazz chord progressions, and they were still massively popular. This again speaks to their brilliance, but it also shows what can happen when you don’t underestimate your audience.

Although they looked to jazz for a certain kind of chord progression and melody, and although they used some of the best jazz session men in the business on their records, they were really thumbing their nose at the conventions of jazz too. It was always about the feel of the music, not about some artificial label slapped onto it. In 1974 Becker told the New York Times that “I’m not interested in a rock/jazz fusion. That kind of marriage has so far only come up with ponderous results. We play rock & roll, but we swing when we play. We want that ongoing flow, that lightness, that forward rush of jazz.”

The flow, the lightness, the forward rush — it was all there. And in the final analysis not even their ever-present cynicism and alienation could drag down Steely Dan’s distinct lightness and flow and humor. Life is complicated, and in today’s day and age you really need healthy amounts of both cynicism and optimism in order to simply carry on. Becker himself told Time Out in 2008 that “perhaps being fatalistic about things or being cynical about them in a way expresses the deepest kind of optimism: that you’re still disappointed that things are the way they are.”

Thanks to Walter Becker for showing us how alienation can lead the way to some beautiful and wonderful things. He will be deeply missed.

Photo: By Arielinson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

One comment to “Walter Becker Subverted And Enriched Rock At The Same Time”
  1. Why is Walter Becker not in the picture that accompanies this article about Walter Becker? It’s a photo of Donald Fagen and some keyboard player. The guitar player (who may or may not be Walter Becker) seems cropped out. Am I missing something?

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