When Walter Becker died in early September, I wasn't feeling so hot myself, and I didn’t really deal with the feelings his death conjured in me.
Now that I'm beginning to mend, I've been thinking about the Steely Dan co-founder, recalling the many times I'd been lucky enough to see him perform, and pondering the fact that I've been listening to Becker's music since my older cousin first played 11-year-old me "Deacon Blues." That would've been 1979.
When you spend decades with someone's artistic creations, you get to know some version of them. More often than not, that version does not resemble the actual person – the one who walks the dog, picks up the newspaper off the stoop, balances his checkbook, wakes in the middle of the night to deal with his demons, struggles to hold a family together. The person you "know" is the idealized version, perfected through their art, unblemished, never weak or particularly human.
When I read a biography of writer Donald Bathelme a few years back, both the subject and the book's title – "Hiding Man" – made me think of Becker. By that time, I'd learned enough about the guy to realize that he'd suffered, succumbed to his demons, and perhaps employed the sardonic stance of Steely Dan's songs as a distancing maneuver, a form of self-protection. Becker was, like Barthelme, a "Hiding Man."
A New York Times review of Tracy Daugherty's Barthelme bio describes Barthelme in language that could just as easily be applied to Becker's work. "The best of (Barthelme's) stories have an exquisite, shimmering beauty. They take immense risks with tone and content; they bathe the known world in the waters of irony, rhythmic energy and exuberant formal trickiness," wrote reviewer Colm Toibin, going on to compare Barthelme's finest writing to "the deadpan radiant perfection in the sentences of Don DeLillo."
Deadpan radiant perfection. Man, that sure sounds like Steely Dan to me.
Becker and his songwriting partner Donald Fagen are known to their haters as purveyors of overtly slick, sophisticated pop music devoid of rough edges, but these haters are, as ever, clueless. What Becker and Fagen were always writing was jazz, with lyrics that read like brilliant screenplay treatments, equal parts Raymond Chandler, William Burroughs and Norman Mailer.
They were from the beginning anti-singer/songwriter types, non-confessional in the main, conjurers of deeply flawed characters cut loose to recount their exploits atop uber-hip jazz chord progressions and funky grooves. Take the anti-hero of "Deacon Blues," for instance. His assertion of free will takes the form of proclaiming his right to "drink scotch whiskey all night long/and die behind the wheel." This is surely deadpan radiant perfection. But does it really tell us anything about Becker and Fagen's personal lives?
I always doubted it. But I'm not so sure, these days. When Steely Dan became mega-platinum stars despite refusing to tour – and employing seasoned studio cats and jazz musicians to play the parts they'd written, despite being excellent players themselves – Becker reacted by forming a heroin habit that almost killed him. He didn’t "die behind the wheel" like Deacon Blues, but he did cause Steely Dan to break up for many years while he sought to gain control of his rapidly unraveling life. Maybe he'd been guardedly calling out for help through the Dan's songs all along.
Fagen announced that the Steely Dan show would indeed go on shortly after his partner's death, and it made sense, for Becker seemed to prefer to exist solely through the music he co-composed, showing a certain antipathy for the spotlight that, for hardcore Dan fans like me, smacked of an admirable integrity. When Steely Dan plays Shea's on Oct. 17, you won’t see Becker, but he'll be there, nonetheless - the Hiding Man, now totally subsumed by the music that was his life's work.
And something about this feels poetic and proper.