I was away last week and read about Walter Becker’s passing in the New York Times. They gave him a full-page obituary – indicative, I thought at first, of the band’s higher profile in the US compared to here, until I opened up the BBC News app on my phone and saw that his death was a top story there, too.
I’m no different from any other pop fan, and can’t keep the music and the artist entirely separate. It requires a particular cast of mind to do that, and I don’t have it. My thoughts about the character of the musicians whose work I admire (none of whom I know) feed into my understanding of that work.
But with Walter Becker, I had to make an attempt to consider the music as separate from the man, as he was always something of an enigma. His partner Donald Fagen made a somewhat autobiographical solo album (The Nightfly) in the 1980s, and published a book a few years ago detailing his teenage art-cultural obsessions. Moreover, he was the singer, and it’s hard not to hear the words being sung as a reflection of the singer, even when you know that he didn’t write all of them.
Reticent though Fagen is next to his rock’n’roll peers, Becker was even less forthcoming. Photographs of him suggest a stern character, or perhaps a supercilious one (his friend Rickie Lee Jones said in her tribute to Becker that he hated to be photographed, which may explain why he could look off-putting in photos). His work suggests a bottomless sarcasm and cynicism. In the Classic Albums documentary on Aja, he’s gimlet-eyed and brutally dismissive about the faults he hears in recordings and performances that appear faultless to we ordinary mortals. Yet those who knew him speak of a gentle, patient man, generous with his time, but shy and affected by a difficult childhood and some troubled adult relationships.
What we know for sure is what we know from his work. Like Fagen, he was a studio perfectionist. He was egoless in pursuit of the best record possible, handing over tracks to trusted players whenever he thought someone else would do a better job than he could – despite being a crackerjack guitarist himself. For years, I didn’t know that he played one of my favourite ever guitar solos (the one on Aja‘s Home at Last), simply because he so rarely allowed himself the luxury of taking a solo when Denny Dias, Larry Carlton, Jay Graydon, Elliott Randall, Rick Derringer and Mark Knopfler were a phone call away. Think about that: a guitarist working in rock music who was self-effacing to the point where he was willing to not play on songs off the last two albums at all (songs that he wrote) in pursuit of the best possible records.
That kind of musical humility deserves applause. But really, everything he did as part of Steely Dan deserves applause.