When Steely Dan performs at the Embassy Theatre on October 4, it will be without the band’s cofounder, Walter Becker.
Becker died a year ago of esophageal cancer at the age of 67.
Donald Fagen, who met Becker in college in 1967 and has been creatively linked with him ever since, was on tour with the latest incarnation of the band that accompanies his solo career when he got word that Becker had entered his final days.
“When I heard he was really ill,” he said on Rolling Stone’s Music Now podcast, “I was on the road in, I think, Salina, Kansas, and I flew back. I had a day off and he was in his apartment in New York. And I was really glad that I went. I could see he was really struggling. When I put a chair next to the bed, he grabbed my hand. It was something he had never done ever before. And we had a great talk and, you know, he was listening to hard bop. His wife had put on Dexter Gordon records. He was very weak but he was still very funny. I’m really glad I had those hours.”
Fagen is quoted on the Jambase website as saying that Becker had been sick for years, but had chosen to continue touring and making music.
“Walter was pretty ill for, maybe, at least five years,” he said. “He was dealing with some serious health problems, which he was valiantly fighting. But it caught up with him after a while. He was really hurting the last couple of years — especially the last year — but he soldiered on. All he wanted to do was play. That was his life. It’s great that he could do it.”
There didn’t seem to be much question about retiring the Becker-less band. Fagen forged ahead. For a time (and perhaps still), Fagen was embroiled in a legal row with Becker’s estate over the postmortem nature of his partner’s ownership stake in the band.
Fagen said it was strange, at first, not to have Becker nearby.
“During the soundcheck, we used to consult on the setlist every night,” he said. “And now, I feel really unprepared. I’m just trying to figure it out myself. I’ll ask some of the other players in the band, but he had a certain way of looking at it that I really miss.”
Steely Dan is one of the more unlikely duos ever to grace the Billboard charts: two idiosyncratic and enigmatic perfectionists crafting insanely meticulous, jazz-inflected pop to the delight of millions.
The success of the band probably could only have happened when it did, Fagen told Wax Poetics.
“We always had an art-for-art’s-sake attitude toward the whole thing,” he said. “Luckily, there was a time when our vision of what music we liked seemed to mesh with a lot of what people in the population also liked. But that’s no longer true.”
Fagen’s voice is so closely identified with the band’s sound that it may surprise some fans to learn that neither man wanted to be the lead singer initially.
“Walter and I wanted a real singer for the band,” Fagen told Tablet Magazine. “We already had a band and a record contract, but neither of us wanted to sing. Jeff Baxter, who was in the band, said he knew this guy David Palmer from Boston and he said, ‘Hey, he looks like Roger Daltrey.’
“So, he came out to California and rehearsed with him,” he said. “But after a few songs, we realized that he didn’t have the attitude. We didn’t like him that much anyway. We didn’t like the sound of his voice that much. Walter and I really just wanted to play.”
Fagen reluctantly stepped up to the microphone, but his lack of experience and confidence kept the band off the road at first.
“Neither Walter nor I considered ourselves to be good singers. But when I started doing it — although I got better at it after some years — I took some coaching,” he said. “At that time, I didn’t know how to sing in a proper way. And my voice would give out after two weeks on the road. And that, in turn, would give me anxiety and stage fright.”
Fagen admitted to Reuters that the duo didn’t really expect to have much success in the music business.
“We had fall-back plans,” he said. “We used to joke that if it didn’t work out we’d end up working in bookstores in Manhattan, both of us being quasi-literary types. I thought if worse came to worse I’d go get a teaching degree. Luckily I didn’t have to do that.”
Even today, Fagen still has moments when he wonders what he’s going to be when he grows up.
“I still haven’t figured out that I’m not just fooling around, really,” he told The Interrobang. “I’m waiting for that moment, when I say I’m doing that for life. Although, I feel better than I used to. A couple of years ago, I had a kind of epiphany where I said, ‘Oh, wow. I’m a musician, and I guess this is my career.’ But there’s still some — I don’t think I’ll ever be that sure of anything, really.”