Opinion | Matthew Bernstein

Remembering Walter Becker, mascot of the alienated

Walter Becker performs with Steely Dan at Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts in 1993.
Joey Lin/Boston Globe
Walter Becker performs with Steely Dan at Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts in 1993.

For a teenager growing up in the 1970s, Steely Dan was more than a rock band. The strange figures of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were some kind of validation of your own personal cool — the kind that no one else recognized, especially not the golden boys and girls whose circles you stood outside of.

As the singer, Fagen was the voice of the songs, so, as is the case with most rock vocalists, he assumed a frontman role. But to the misfit teens who revered the band, Steely Dan was, and always will be, Becker and Fagen, even after Becker’s death, Sunday, at 67.

Becker and Fagen — perhaps it was something about Walter Becker’s intimidatingly still pose on the album photos that had you putting his name first. Just the very look of him — the long stringy hair, the rodential whiskers, the somehow mockingly serious expression on his bespectacled face. He could have been the kid who helped the AP chemistry teacher put the supplies away after class, only to lift a beaker and hose to craft a homemade water pipe, for smoking a bowl later in the woods by the high school track.


Being a Steely Dan fan was the refuge, if not the revenge, of the nerds. And though we could thrill to do our best imitation of a snarling Fagen vocal, it was Becker who stood, maybe without our even knowing it, as our mascot. After Becker died, an interview with Time Out New York resurfaced in which he said, “That’s sort of what we wanted to do, conquer from the margins, sort of find our place in the middle based on the fact that we were creatures of the margin and of alienation.”

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And the songs he and Fagen have left behind? Inscrutable, perverse (“Everyone’s Gone to the Movies”), political (“The Royal Scam”), empathetic toward the darkest human impulses (“Don’t Take Me Alive”), and, just when you think they could happily suffocate in a cloak of irony, Becker and Fagen could deliver something as straight-up poignant as “Pearl of the Quarter” or “Doctor Wu.”

Did I say inscrutable? My favorite song of all time is “Your Gold Teeth II,” off of “Katy Lied” (my favorite album of all time). More than 40 years later, I still couldn’t tell you what it means.

The not-knowing was another element, if not the element, of Steely Dan’s music. I studied with an acting teacher years ago who instructed us in the art of what she called privacy in public. As I understood it, it was a way of preserving the mystery of your most honest expression of performance, a way of being deeply generous to your audience while withholding just a little, but just enough.

In a tribute to Becker published over the weekend, Fagen wrote, “Walter had a very rough childhood — I’ll spare you the details.” Their partnership was so tight, so insular, that a fan couldn’t just tease out one strand of musical DNA and assign it to one artist or the other. (They were Becker and Fagen in ways that “Lennon and McCartney” were never Lennon and McCartney.) But certainly there were clues left behind. I could be completely wrong, but maybe this is one, from “Any World (That I’m Welcome To)”:

I think I’ll go to the park

Watch the children playing

Perhaps I’ll find in my head

What my heart is saying

A vision of a child returning

A kingdom where the sky is burning

Honey I will be there

Yes I’ll be there.

Matthew Bernstein is the Globe’s letters editor. He can be reached at matthew.bernstein@globe.com and on Twitter at @GlobeBernstein.