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‘A hui hu’ to Major Dude, Walter Becker

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‘A hui hu’ to Major Dude, Walter Becker (AP file photo)

Becker and Fagan: two words synonymous with quality, hilarity, eclecticism, meticulousness and smart-aleck-ism of the highest order. 

Sadly, we’re left with just one, now that Walter Becker - co-founder, bassist, guitarist, co-writer and co-creator of the catalog of riches known as Steely Dan - has left the planet for that big avocado farm in the sky.

Becker, 67, died unexpectedly on Sept. 3 of an undisclosed illness following a medical procedure.

Rumors ran rampant when he missed Steely Dan’s “Classic West” and “Classic East” festival performances this past July, though the speculation was tempered somewhat when tickets for several planned fall dates went on sale as recently as three weeks ago.

During their first life, Steely Dan - popular music’s all-time, undisputed sovereign love child of rock and jazz - crafted seven near-perfect discs, each a testament to its creators’ boundless desire for sublimity.

To put it more simply: they sounded like nobody else.

“Well that’s a load of odiferous journalistic tripe masquerading as a career requiem,” Becker might have said under the nom de plume “Michael Phalen” – the “journalist” who penned a set of outrageous liner notes to accompany Steely Dan’s 1977 magnum opus “Aja” as well as the two-disc career-roundup “Showbiz Kids” in 2000.

Phalen was, in reality, Becker and Fagan having some innocent fun at the expense of themselves and a few Dan-insiders. 

Walter Becker and Donald Fagan met as college students in 1967 and played in various groups and configurations through the early 1970s, working for a time at The Brill Building, the legendary songwriting incubator in New York City.

They became staff songwriters at ABC/Dunhill Records and joined the touring band for ‘60s hit-makers Jay and the Americans, adopting early pseudonyms Tristan Fabriani (Fagan) and Gustav Mahler (Becker).

Signed to a deal they would come to regret (ABC/Dunhill’s contracts were notoriously brutal for most of their roster), they released six albums for the label, beginning with 1972’s “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” which included the hits “Do It Again,” “Reelin’ in the Years” and “Dirty Work.”

FM rock radio was an important component in the group’s success during the ‘70s, especially when Steely Dan stopped touring in 1974.

The increased expense of mounting a tour with little label support was partially to blame, added to the fact that most of the band’s venues to that point had been cavernous booming sheds, unconducive to accurately delivering the dynamic interplay heard on Steely Dan’s fastidiously-recorded albums.

Every Steely Dan record included future classics – “My Old School” and “Show Biz Kids” on “Countdown to Ectasy” (1973), “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” (a #4 hit) and “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” on “Pretzel Logic” (1974), “Bad Sneakers,” “Doctor Wu” and “Chain Lightning” from “Katy Lied” (1975), and “Kid Charlemagne,” “The Fez” and “Haitian Divorce” on “The Royal Scam” (1976).

Becker and Fagan had led a studio-only Steely Dan for three years when they issued their biggest success with 1977’s “Aja” – among the most perfect rock albums ever recorded. Still a staple test-record for audiophile systems, “Aja” has sold an estimated six million copies to date (in reality, probably closer to 10 million when you take into account ABC’s infamously creative accounting in that era).

Legal issues kept Steely Dan quiet for two years following “Aja.” When they returned with 1980’s “Gaucho” (and the hits “Hey 19” and “Time Out of Mind”), they were on a new label (MCA had acquired ABC) and Becker was in a wheelchair, having been hit by a car while walking in New York City. His relationship with Fagan strained by years joined at the hip in the studio and by Becker’s increasing chemical dependency, the duo split in 1981.

Fagan set about recording his solo debut “The Nightfly” (1982) while Becker retreated to Maui to grow avocados in the island sun.

In the early ‘90s, Becker and Fagan rekindled their friendship and tested the waters as part of the New York Rock and Soul Revue with friends Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald.

Nineteen years after their last concert as Steely Dan, Becker and Fagan hit the road with an 11-piece version of the band in 1993, overseeing every aspect of the show. Finally, they were pleased not only with the acoustics but also the financial reward.

In 1994, Becker released the solo album “11 Tracks of Whack,” produced by Fagan.

In 2000, Dan-fans celebrated news of a new album. “Two Against Nature” became the first Steely Dan album in two decades, and went on to win three Grammy Awards – including Album of the Year.

A follow-up album in 2003 - “Everything Must Go” - had more of a stripped-down live sound and was met with mixed reviews.

Steely Dan continued to tour whenever Becker and Fagan felt like it, sometimes playing classic Steely Dan albums in their entirety during a concert and even allowing fans input into song selection using online suggestions.

The band’s August 29, 2014 appearance at Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor (from the “Jamalot Ever After” tour) was superb. From the set-list to the sound quality of the expertly mixed performance, it was a dream show.

Earlier this year, fan reports from Steely Dan shows cited a decline in Becker’s performances. Some of his guitar solos were singled out as being meandering or strangely out-of-sync with the rest of the band. Some of his between-song comments and stage announcements were uncharacteristically mocking of the audience or venue.

“What’s up with Walter?” some fans wondered.

And then came reports that Becker was too ill to perform in July. An August message from Fagan referenced a “procedure” as he wished his friend the best.

Steely Dan was scheduled to perform seven shows this October.

“I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band,” Fagan wrote in a statement, issued very quickly after the news of Becker’s death broke.

Walter Becker’s cause of death had not been disclosed at press time.

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