As confirmed in a post on his official website, founding Steely Dan guitarist Walter Becker has died. Earlier this year, Becker underwent a procedure of some kind of that left him unable to tour with Steely Dan bandmate Donald Fagen—as noted in a Billboard interview—but since no cause or other details about his death have been released, it’s unclear if this operation contributed in some way. Becker was 67.
Born in New York in 1950, Becker learned how to play blues guitar at a young age, and he met Fagen while they were both in college. Becker didn’t stay and finish his degree, though, choosing instead to move to Brooklyn with Fagen and become a songwriting duo. In 1971, they moved to California and formed Steely Dan—with the name coming from William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. In 1972, the band released its debut album, Can’t Buy A Thrill, and over the course of that decade Fagen and Becker went on to release five more albums, including the critically acclaimed Aja in 1977.
A few years before the release of Aja, Steely Dan stopped touring and became a studio-only band. Becker struggled with drug addiction while recording the band’s 1980 album Gaucho, and in 1981 he and Fagen broke up their partnership. Becker stopped doing drugs after that and began working as a record producer, occasionally working with Fagen on some of his solo work, but the two of them didn’t properly reunite until they started touring again in 1993. They recorded a new album in 2000, the Grammy-winning Two Against Nature, and then a follow-up in 2003.
Fagen has written a tribute to his longtime friend and collaborator, which you can read in full below (via Rolling Stone):
Walter Becker was my friend, my writing partner, and my bandmate since we met as students at Bard College in 1967. We started writing nutty little tunes on an upright piano in a small sitting room in the lobby of Ward Manor, a mouldering old mansion on the Hudson River that the college used as a dorm.
We liked a lot of the same things: jazz (from the twenties through the mid-sixties), W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, science fiction, Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, and Robert Altman films come to mind. Also soul music and Chicago blues.
Walter had a very rough childhood—I’ll spare you the details. Luckily, he was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter. He 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 used to write letters (never meant to be sent) in my wife Libby’s singular voice that made the three of us collapse with laughter.
His habits got the best of him by the end of the seventies, and we lost touch for a while. In the eighties, when I was putting together the NY Rock and Soul Review with Libby, we hooked up again, revived the Steely Dan concept and developed another terrific band.
I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.
September 3 2017