The first time I saw Steely Dan was September 17, 2011, “Rarities Night” at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. It was on a whim; my friend Matthew and I had been Steely Dan fans for years and thought, well, we need to buy tickets. We were up in the balcony, left side. Whatever we see tonight, we tell ourselves, will be life-altering magic.
As the assembled players began to play “Dizzy’s Bidness,” a man with a goatee and a guitar ambled out of the curtain and towards the front of the stage. He perched on a stool. “That’s cute, they let the backup singers’ dad play with the band,” I joked to Matthew. It wasn’t until Donald Fagen took the stage from the right side and they kicked into “Your Gold Teeth” that I realized, holy crow, this unassuming gentleman was, in fact, the legendary Walter Becker himself.
They followed with “Aja” and then into “Hey Nineteen,” and when they reached the bridge, Becker wandered a little closer to the mic and began talking. He welcomed everyone who was there with “their best girl” or, barring that, “their second best girl.” He rambled on about taking her back to the hotel, looking at the New York skyline and searching the mini bar to make her a drink. And what did you need for that drink? “The Cuervo Gold,” the girls cooed. “The fine Columbian…make tonight a wonderful thing…”
This became known, at least to us, as “The Ramble,” and he has done it at every Steely Dan show we have ever seen, each one different, each one location-specific, (calling Atlantic City “the seventh circle of hell” or “a toga toga toga party” in Saratoga). It was always one of the highlights, a meandering story that gave Walt a chance to be in the spotlight, to put his full weird charm on display. And he was charming, like a favorite professor or a goofy uncle at a family reunion, full of warmth and wildness.
Fagen played “Hey Nineteen” at the Capitol Theatre during the August 3rd opening show of his run with The Nightflyers. But it didn’t feel the same without The Ramble, and a month later, The Ramble was, officially, no more. Becker, 67, died this past Sunday, September 3rd of an undisclosed condition. We’ve lost a lot of legendary musicians over the last few years—Bowie and Prince in 2016, Chris Cornell and Chuck Berry in 2017—but none hit me as hard as Becker’s passing. It feels as though a small fraction of my hearing has gone. I can still make out the melody, but I know something is muted. Not quite missing, just not as clear as it used to be.
There is a game that Matthew and I play, where we try to guess which songs are more Fagen and which are more Becker. It’s a literary analysis of sort, taking cues from solo outputs and interviews. To see the Fagen influence is a beautiful melancholy, to see the Becker influence is a crackling darkness. Combined, they create an epic body of work that is musically unexpected and lyrically alternating snarky, lovelorn, cosmopolitan and cheeky, but always insatiably clever. “Daddy can’t get no fine cigars / but we know you’re smokin’ wherever you are” is a Becker lyric for sure, biting and caustic but brilliant; perhaps this is why he chooses this as his solo during live shows.
The truth is, we’ll never know who inspired what song and we don’t particularly care. It’s a puzzle we never actually plan on finishing.
I saw Steely Dan three times on 2016’s The Dan Who Knew Too Much tour. On my birthday, April 30th, Matthew and sat on the bleachers at the Borgata Casino in Atlantic City. They don’t play much from their newer albums, which is a shame, but Becker and Fagen, melodic in hand, moved to the center stage and busted out “Two Against Nature.” To me, there is no song more purely Becker/Fagen than this one, the lyrics a code only they understand.
It was an oddly pure moment, as though the band wasn’t there, as though the audience wasn’t there, as if it was only the two of them on stage. We were witnessing magic, in a way. We were witnessing two friends recreating some goofy beatnik scene from a Bard College dorm room 50 years previous, before the studios and the stage lights, the Grammy awards and the praise. Maybe most of the audience didn’t get it. Maybe they just wanted to hear the hits. But Becker and Fagen didn’t care. This moment was for the two of them.
Two Against Nature indeed.
In all, I saw Steely Dan six times; five of those with Matthew. I always went because I knew one day, there would be no more Steely Dan concerts to attend. I just didn’t expect that it would be so soon, so final.
Fagen has announced that he plans to continue touring as The Steely Dan band as a means of “keeping the music we wrote together alive.” To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about that. Even hearing “Hey Nineteen” and “Peg” and “Reelin’ in the Years” during The Nightflyers show sounded wrong somehow, like seeing a Steely Dan tribute act fronted by someone who looks and sounds an awful lot like Donald Fagen. Because I know what that stage looks like, and in my mind there can only be an empty spotlight where Becker once stood. There will be no “Jack of Speed” or “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More.” There will be no more Ramble.
But I’m not ready to say goodbye yet either. How does “Deacon Blues” go? “I cried when I wrote this song / sue me if I play too long.”
Walter Becker’s song was cut far too short, his absence keenly felt in these recent days. But he left us with a body of music that will outlive us all, like Parker’s band, the cave paintings at Altamira.
For you and me, we understood.