It’s tough to imagine a world without Walter Becker. He lived on Maui for many years and was known to many on our island. Very unassuming and the antithesis of the “rock star,” Walter was blessed with a dry wit which he would sometimes display in letters to The Maui News. Here now is selections from an old interview I conducted with Walter in his Maui home studio talking about the resurrection of Steely Dan.
It took almost 20 years to team Walter Becker with Donald Fagen again on stage as Steely Dan. The famous duo who had crafted some of the hippest jazz-inflected rock had abandoned touring in 1974 to concentrate on song writing and recording. Following their demise in 1981, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that the musicians agreed to hit the road on one of the most eagerly anticipated reunion tours of the ‘90s.
“For the most part the fans who bought our records had never seen us play live,” says Walter. “A lot of the stuff we had never played live. People were very enthusiastic and it was very uplifting generally. The combination of the terror of being on stage in front of all those people and their enthusiasm was very inspiring.”
The musicians had decided to revive Steely Dan after the successful New York Rock and Soul Revue tour which had teamed Fagen with friends such as Boz Scaggs, Michael McDonald and Phoebe Snow. At a couple of Revue club dates Becker had been persuaded to join in.
“I had come to see the show and one of the people in the band saw me and shamed me into going on stage and playing a couple of numbers,” Walter explains. “I saw it could be fun and it was very popular with the crowd. Donald had been telling me for some time that when he did Steely Dan songs he’d get a really big response, so we figured what the heck let’s go out and try it.”
“Back in the early ‘70s we were all kids and the shows were very uneven for a variety of reasons. There were many occasions where shows went really badly, either because somebody wasn’t able to perform that night due to having too much to drink or whatever, or because we didn’t have a fair chance to set up. It was the habit in those days for headliners to use up the entire available time in the afternoon doing their sound check and you wouldn’t have any sound check. They wanted to sound their best and they didn’t want to be embarrassed by some upstart rock and rollers from L.A. You’d get on stage and nobody could hear anybody, or the audience couldn’t hear you. There were a number of shows after which Donald and I would discuss the quickest ways of getting the hell out of there, get a cab to the airport and call it quits.”
Besides creating an innovative blend of rock, jazz and funk, Steely Dan were known for crafting smart, often oblique lyrics. “We were trying to do something a little different and trying to find ways to give our songs a certain amount of depth, not cave into the temptation to just write trivial stuff,” says Walter. “It’s hard with songs because there are so few words. So there are many case where there is embedded in some of these songs a narrative of sort, but because it’s just a couple of lines it has to be a sketch or impressionistic thing. Novels can flesh things out, delineate and articulate over many pages, while short story writers learn to depend on an impressionistic thing to create a mood or ambiance. We were in an even more condensed format, so a lot of times things we were doing seemed a little obscure. I still have no objection to that, I think it’s valid, it’s not important that the rational meaning be right on the surface.”
Their songs were also distinguished by wry humor. “Both of us were very focused on humor and different ways of using humor in song writing,” he continues. “The trick is not to be too funny, there’s a line you don’t want to cross and early on we crossed it many times. It was a similar balancing act to the one we had to employ vis-à-vis jazz harmonies and elements from jazz. We learned that jazz being the ever unpopular musical form in America that it is, once people pegged that what you were doing was jazz, they didn’t like it anymore. They tended to dismiss what you were doing as no longer appropriate to the musical milieu of the ‘70s. We had to use the humor elements and some of the pop music and jazz harmonies very sparingly.”
When the Steely Dan retrospective box set was released in 1993 some were disappointed that it didn’t contain any previously unreleased gems from the vaults. “The truth was we never worked very long on things that we didn’t like,” Walter explains. “We would have had to go back in the studio to work on something that we had not liked enough to finish in the first place. We spent a lot of time to get really optimal versions of songs that we knew were going to work. I don’t know how many tracking dates we did for the song “Peg” for example, there must have been five different bands that tried to play “Peg.” Because of that we didn’t spend a lot of time in the studio doing songs that didn’t eventually come out. “Third World Man” was a track left over from the “Aja” sessions. When we got down to the end of “Gaucho” and phase one of our fine super careers which were kind of finished at the same time, we were short of a track.”
The musicians needed another tune for their last studio album because of a terrible mishap. “Tragically the master tape for the song “Second Arrangement” was erased by a second engineer at the studio where we were working,” he reveals. “It was an almost completed track and we had spent a tremendous amount of time on it. We finally had a track we liked and the guy erased the only copy all the way through into the fade. As was the custom at the time there was no safety master, so it was gone.”
Having abandoned Steely Dan in 1981, Becker and Fagen retreated to individual projects, and then attempted to re-team in the late ‘80s. “We got together here (on Maui) in ‘88 for about a year working on songs,” says Walter. “We finished a couple of songs and started many, but we didn’t really succeed in what we had intended to do which was to write a bunch of songs and make an album. It wasn’t in the cards at that moment. But it was good to work with each other, it was a lot of fun. A couple of years after that Donald was ready to work on “Kamakiriad”.
After producing Fagen’s 1993 solo album as well as contributing bass and lead guitar, Becker released his first solo album “11 Tracks of Whack,” where he debuted his voice and solo compositions.
“It was exhilarating as an advanced exercise in self reliance for me to do as much as I did by myself as far as a writing and singing,” he says. “Singing was the biggest challenge, it was not something that I wanted to do. For a while I thought I’d just do some instrumental stuff, or maybe I’ll be lucky in some way.
“Donald never wanted to be the singer either. We always had this idea that we were going to find some singer but we never did. I realized it was very unlikely that someone was going to materialize in my little work room and do it, so I should stop being coy about the whole thing and for better or worse find out what it would be like. So I did it and that was hard, and hard to be doing so much stuff yourself. It was a big help when Donald came out and helped. I’m happy that I did and I’m happy with songs. It was a very long project for me, in terms of gearing up to writing and learning how to use computers and write songs on keyboards and building my studio.”
Having enjoyed touring together and working on each other’s albums, Becker and Fagen are now ready to work on a new Steely Dan album.
“We’re going to start very soon,” says Walter. “It’s very fulfilling that people are still interested enough in something that we might do. It’s like 25 years since we started this and in pop music a lot of things don’t last that long.”
As to any expected completion date we’re just going to have to be patient. “Back in the ‘70s we worked all the time and that’s what we wanted to do, now circumstances have changed, there’s families involved and other aspects of life,” he says. “We’re not the total workaholics that we used to be, so time frames get stretched out. Our estimate of how long it would take to do “Kamakiriad” was wildly off the mark. “11 Tracks of Whack” didn’t come in early either, so there would be no reason to think were in any position to predict how long it would take to do anything. We have to write all the songs and we’re not going to just whip them out. I’m looking forward to it.”
On quitting touring in 1974 – “The big reason we quit touring was when Donald and I were touring we weren’t recording. We’d go out play all these gigs, come back and everybody would be trashed and we had no new songs. Nerves were frayed and we were in worse shape. We just decided writing songs and making records was more important, and it more or less worked out.”
Record company pressure – “They told us in no uncertain terms that we could either tour or forget about having a recording career. In those days touring was great kind of promotion that you couldn’t get any other way. The first single was ‘Do it Again’ and it was long and had very impossible thing going against it, but it did catch on. Because we were out touring we could keep it alive, until it became a national hit and got us on the map. We stopped at a point where we were successful enough that nobody could absolutely, say you have to go and do it anymore. The band quit so there was nothing anybody could say.”
Living on Maui – “Hawaii is just a great place to live and those of us who are lucky enough and discerning enough to have enough the sense to live here its very well appreciated. Almost very time you walk out of your door your lucky at some beautiful site. Even more than that there’s a feeling of being in Hawaii, the minute you step of the plane you get it and it’s pretty much incomparable. I’m never not grateful to be arriving back home here. This is one of the treasures. There’s something about Hawaii that after you’ve lived here you never feel; quite as relaxed any place else.”