Walter Becker: A true artist

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Influential jazz/rock musician Walter Becker has died of undisclosed causes, aged 67.

A true artist, Becker is best known as the co-founder, bassist and lead guitarist of the 70s super group Steely Dan.

He was born Walter Carl Becker on 20 February 1950 in Queens, New York to an accountant father and a mother who sang professionally before her marriage. While attending high school in Manhattan, Becker took up the saxophone but later switched to guitar, learning blues techniques from a neighbour.

At Bard College in New York, Becker met Steely Dan co-founder and long time musical collaborator Donald Fagen.

Fagen remembers:

'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.'

The pair also befriended the future actor and comedian Chevy Chase, who played drums in their first band, a short-lived act called the Leather Canary.

A musician classmate, Terence Boylan, says Becker and Fagen readily adopted the lifestyle of beatnik musicians:

'"They never came out of their room, they stayed up all night," recalls Boylan. "They looked like ghosts - black turtlenecks and skin so white that it looked like yogurt. Absolutely no activity, chain-smoking Lucky Strikes and dope."'

After leaving college in 1969 before completing his degree, Becker moved to Brooklyn with Fagen and formed a successful song writing duo. They briefly joined Jay and the Americans under pseudonyms and wrote a soundtrack for the forgettable Richard Pryor film, You've Got To Walk It Like You Talk It Or You'll Lose That Beat.

The pair moved to California in 1971 and soon made their mark on the burgeoning 70s music scene with Steely Dan, a complex jazz/rock outfit comprising Becker, Fagen, and a revolving cast of studio musicians. They took their name from a large, strap-on dildo that was mentioned in Beat writer William Burroughs' novel, The Naked Lunch.

Their complicated, jazz-influenced structures and harmonies were coupled with sophisticated lyrics that were often cynical and sarcastic. Described as "cerebral, wry and eccentric", Steely Dan songs covered controversial territory ranging from recreational drug use through to crime and gambling.

One of their best-known tracks was the drug-soaked 'Do It Again', released in 1972. It appeared on their debut album, Can't Buy A Thrill.

Reaching six on the Billboard charts, 'Do It Again' soon became a staple track on the mature, adult-orientated album stations that flourished in the 1970s. It was soon followed by 'Reeling in the Years', which also received much airplay.

The 1974 classic 'Rikki Don't Lose That Number' was yet another track that captured the quintessential California sound Steely Dan became renowned for.

In addition to writing extremely complex songs, Becker and Fagen were known for being obsessive perfectionists in the recording studio. Over the year they took to record the 1980 album Gaucho, which only featured seven songs, Becker and Fagen hired at least 42 studio musicians and 11 engineers.

One of the standout tracks of Steely Dan's final years was the controversial 'Hey Nineteen' (1981), which was about a 32-year-old man dating a 19-year-old girl.

Despite Steely Dan's success, the later years were not kind to Becker. He became addicted to narcotics and had a wrongful death lawsuit filed against him when his girlfriend, Karen Roberta Stanley, died of a drug overdose in 1978. In the same year, Becker was hit by a New York taxi while crossing the street, forcing him to walk on crutches.

However, Becker renounced drugs after Steely Dan broke up in 1981 and moved to Hawaii, where he became an avocado rancher and famed music producer. One of his big successes in the 1980s was the UK band China Crisis. Becker produced two of their albums and was credited as being one of the five members of the group.

Becker reunited with Fagen in 1993 and reformed Steely Dan, which soon found steady work touring on the nostalgia circuit. Their 2000 album, Two Against Nature, won four Grammy awards, including Album of the Year. In 2001, Becker and Fagen were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received honorary Doctor of Music degrees from the Berklee College of Music.

No details were released about the cause of Becker's death, which prompted a flood of tributes.

Rolling Stone writer David Wild said:

'Becker opened up my mind musically and made being a wiseass a brave act of Pretzel Logic.'

Bandmate Donald Fagen described Becker as "smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter."

Fagen says, "He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny."

He continued, "Walter had a very rough childhood - I’ll spare you the details. 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."

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