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Walter Becker: The mathematical wizard of the scoresheet

Last updated on: September 29, 2017 17:37 IST

The fandom of Walter Becker was rather obscure, but his death has left a huge void in the music industry.

On any other day, I would have welcomed the sounds and aroma emerging from the kitchen.

But on one rainy day somewhere in the mid-1980s, when I was still in college, it was as if they were interfering with my limited ability to decipher what exactly Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were delivering on the 33 rpm vinyl playing in the living room.

 

It wasn’t my first tryst, if you will, with Steely Dan’s magic on 10 or 12 tracks that make up their compilation of Greatest Hits.

The song playing was Josie, an iconic narrative about a hippie or roadie who ends up on the wrong side of the law and probably gets shot or jailed. At least that was how my fertile imagination interpreted it.

While I’m less than an amateur musician, I can guarantee that even a much more seasoned one would have a tough time trying to get a grip on the intricate chord work and arrangement of brass, keyboard, string and skin in several Dan tracks.

But it was the lead that Becker played on Josie that captured my imagination.

No complicated runs, no hammer technique on the fret board. Just simple, clear and neat notes emanating from his Sadowsky.

Replicating that sound and feel on any other set of strings, however, was another matter altogether.

I’ve been to rock shows galore in different parts of India, but save for one band in Pune, none other that I know of dared to play that and several other Steely Dan songs.

The track’s core structure, in which his contribution was as large as if not bigger than Fagen’s, was like a Persian carpet set in dolby, adorned with diminished and augmented chords and fret combinations few other guitarists would have dared to experiment with.

If you’ve ever laid your hands on a guitar or have played the keyboards, you’ll know what I mean.

Yes, yes, I know Becker didn’t actually do the chord work on the track, it was Larry Carlton and Dean Parks -- but the fact remains that composition was his and Fagen’s.

Josie was the first track that came to my mind, more likely so because I am partial to it, when Becker’s death on September 3 at age 67 hit the wires.

But there were others too, such as Bad Sneakers, where once again, the notes were clearly defined and the guitar solo was astonishingly simple and bereft of any snazzy riffs when you listened to it. Replicating it with the same kind of feel, of course, was a project. Likewise with Pretzel Logic, another of my Dan favourites.

He could get extravagant, though, and deliver the kind of riffs his predecessors on lead did, while he was still playing bass for Dan. You can, for instance, catch shades of Denny Dias on the Black Friday lead piece.

Becker, who churned out some of the most “'mathematically perfect' pieces of music to have hit the 1970s and ’80s, was surprisingly content to play second fiddle to more in-the-face members of the band such as Jeff Baxter, Denny Dias and Donald Fagen.

Indeed, he was quite happy delivering bass line-ups in a number of songs, while Dias and Baxter grabbed centrestage with their startling lead riffs, and Fagen became the face of the music that they had composed together. Often times, even the session musicians Steely Dan hired acquired more prominence than Becker himself.

Perhaps it was this reticence on Becker’s part that cost him a more prominent place in the history of 20th and 21st century popular music.

Becker was, for instance, never ever listed in the Rolling Stones magazine’s compilation of top 100 guitarists. You aren’t likely to find him anywhere in any of the top 5, 10 or any other numbered list of influential guitarists, composers or song-writers on the plethora of entries posted on YouTube.

But what really hurt was that I could not find a single obituary on the man -- not even the basic news of his passing away -- on the two mainstream English newspaper I get at home. And I am not sure whether other English mainliners in the country carried anything about him at all. Sad.

That Walter Becker’s passing away has created a huge void in the music world would be an understatement. As far as I am concerned, his band, Steely Dan, which I would often refer to as the “last word on the mathematics of sound” in conversations with friends and music lovers, has been a top favourite with me for the past 30 years at least.

That’s a long time for anyone to be so attached to one group. Any rock fan will tell you that.

IMAGE: Guitarist Walter Becker of Steely Dan performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photograph: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Namit Gupta
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