Walter Becker, a bassist whose eclectic tastes
from jazz to reggae helped create the intricate
bohemian rock sound of Steely Dan, died
Sunday. He was 67.
His death was announced in a brief notice on
his official website, with no further details
Becker in July missed The Classic East and The
Classic West — twin festivals in Los Angeles
and New York featuring rock veterans
including Steely Dan — with his bandmate
Donald Fagen saying Becker was recovering
from an unspecified ailment.
A New York native, Becker met Fagen while
studying north of the city at Bard College. The
pair moved to California where they gained
both mainstream and underground recognition
for their artistic brand of rock.
Steely Dan — named for a phallic toy from Beat
novelist William S. Burroughs’ classic novel
“Naked Lunch” — shared elements of jazz by
enlisting a revolving cast of musicians and
jamming out in winding tunes that gave ample
space for solos even while keeping pop
Mourning his co-songwriter, Fagen said in a
statement that Becker had a “very rough
childhood” which he overcame with wit and
singular talent. “He was cynical about human
nature, including his own, and hysterically
funny,” Fagen said.
“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,” said
Fagen, who promised to keep performing
Steely Dan’s music.
With Fagen on vocals, Steely Dan created songs
with literate and often cryptic lyricism.
“Do It Again (at the Record Plant),” one of the
band’s best-known songs, describes a character
named Jack who attacks a man who stole his
water but goes unpunished.
Rock by way of jazz and reggae
Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll
Hall of Fame in 2001 but never reached number
one on the US charts, reaching a height of
number four with the 1974 song “Rikki Don’t
Lose that Number.”
Becker, who eventually also took up guitar,
said he grew up listening to jazz greats
including Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny
While resisting the “jazz fusion” label, Becker
acknowledged that jazz informed Steely Dan’s
way of recording — smooth and polished.
“It was our perception that if you were going
to use jazz harmonies, it had to sound tight,
professional; nothing sounds worse (and)
sloppy than kids playing jazz,” he told Time
Out New York in 2008.
As Steely Dan gained fame, Becker’s life turned
turbulent as he wrestled with drug use. He
faced legal action after his girlfriend died of a
drug overdose in his apartment in New York,
where soon afterward he was hit by a taxi and
Becker moved to Hawaii where he set up a
studio and started a second career as a
producer, notably for China Crisis, a pop group
from Britain where Steely Dan enjoyed a
particularly sizable following.
A reformed Steely Dan won the prestigious
Grammy for Album of the Year for its 2000
album “Two Against Nature.” Becker released
his second album, “Circus Money,” in 2008, in
which the bassist experimented with his love
In an interview for “Circus Money” with the
blog No More Big Wheels, Becker described his
fascination both with the rhythms of reggae
and with Jamaican culture and said reggae had
always been part of the mix for Steely Dan.
“I used to describe what we did as disco-jazz-
space-funk-muzak with a little bit of reggae. It
is a sort of a polyglot thing.”