The tragic death of Steely Dan's Walter Becker

Writing his obituary, the Associated Press reported that Steely Dan's Walter Becker "had the gift of relative anonymity in a field where celebrity can do incalculable damage." Together with Donald Fagen, Becker founded Steely Dan out of a college meeting — Fagen heard Becker playing blues guitar in the student lounge at Bard College in upstate New York, where they were schoolmates with Chevy Chase, and just had to introduce himself. The band name? That came from a sex toy mentioned in the novel Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.

Becker and Fagen wrote together and recorded together. Fagen's vocals provided a counterpoint to Becker's guitar work. Rolling Stone called Becker "a behind-the-scenes maestro," moving to Los Angeles with Fagen in 1971 to work as staff writers for ABC Records. Once they were recording their own music, their standards were legendary — for their height. (The word "persnickety" has been used.) Michael McDonald, later (and more famously) of The Doobie Brothers, was working with Steely Dan in the mid-1970s, as keyboardist and vocalist. "They were harsh task masters. Not harsh, but they set the bar high."

'Aggressive' esophageal cancer

He was struck by a taxi in 1979 and was confined to a wheelchair for a time, while falling prey to drug addiction. Steely Dan broke up and Becker retired to a farm in Hawaii, where eventually he built a recording studio of his own. Becker beat the addiction and slowly reentered the world of music. Becker re-teamed with Fagen for the album Two Against Nature, released in 2000, which took the Grammy award for Album of the Year.

Health issues began to interfere with the music — some report he was suffering from Hepatitis C. The final illness arose suddenly. In a statement, Becker's widow, Delia, explained that Becker's death came "in the course of being treated for an extremely aggressive form of esophageal cancer," says Vanity Fair. "(B)etween the cancer's aggressiveness and the overwhelming toxicity resulting from the chemotherapy treatments, Walter died less than four months after the cancer was detected," September 3, 2017, she said. He was 67 years old.

Perhaps with age he achieved some sense of perspective. Rolling Stone's obituary quotes him this way: "People can sort of listen to (Steely Dan) at whatever level. It's been universally agreed that our music is the best possible Muzak — rock Muzak — to play in the supermarket."