Steely Dan is now just Donald Fagen. Co-founding Walter Becker died last year. Fagen and Becker’s widow are locked in a legal battle over the future of the band. Maybe I should say the brand. Steely Dan, even without Becker, is still worth a lot of money as a touring band, merchandise and a back catalog.
Aside from money, the legacy of Steely Dan is at stake. Fagen had booked an upcoming tour using the Steely Dan name. At dispute is the is a partnership agreement that Fagen says addresses the band ownership should one of the partners dies. The court will likely settle the issue.
In the beginning, Steely Dan was Fagen and Becker, who gathered a group of supporting musicians and produced a set of albums that not only sold millions of copies but contained some smart-crafted lyrics and music that rocked with jazz stylings and intricate chord structures. Steely Dan lyrics beg the listener to investigate further, to understand the references, the locales and who these characters were. Good luck. Initially, another vocalist sang the songs, but soon Fagan found his voice, the voice of Steely Dan.
Steely Dan stopped touring and holed up in the studio for lengthy, and expensive, periods of time to work on their music. Some would say to perfect their music, as musicians rotated in and out of the studio until Fagen and Becker were convinced they had achieved their vision.
Fagen and Becker never really broke up, they just went for a period of time apart, working on their own and other projects. The regrouped in 1991, as Becker produced a solo album by Fagen, and the two hit the road in support of it. They released a live album, Alive in America. In 2000, they released a new album, Two Against Nature, which won a Grammy for Album of the Year. It was followed in 2003 by Everything Must Go, which turned out to be the last Steely Dan album. They continued to record solo albums and tour as Steely Dan.
In decades before, Steely Dan stayed off the road but this new version of the group became a regular concert attraction, but forsaking the greatest hits type focus, instead, carefully choosing their set and re-imagining both hits and deeper album tracks. Occasionally, they performed entire albums in concert, including The Royal Scam, and included guitarist Larry Carlton, who recorded the original solos.
I never saw Steely Dan live during their classic years so I have nothing to compare the show I saw in 2013. Sitting front row, and directly in front of Fagen, it was a magical night. It was not a greatest hits concert. Missing were some of their best known songs, and those on the set list, were new versions. It was an evening of soulful, almost gospel like renditions, more R&B than rock, but the jazz tones were very evident. Fagen directed the songs but Becker led the between song commentary. The show was finely crafted, the songs opened up compared to their recorded versions, but every note appeared to have been practiced until velvety smooth.
Fagen and Becker cut their teeth in various bands while working together to write songs. They were hired as staff writers for ABC Records. Eventually, they formed their band to focus on recording and performing their own songs. Band members changed, Skunk Baxter and Michael McDonald being two of the musicians who briefly passed through, on their way to the Doobie Brothers.
Steely Dan was always Fagen and Becker, augmented by whatever musicians could frame their musical ideas. Like the Beatles after 1966, Fagen and Becker were about songwriting construction and building songs in the studio. After the reformation of Steely Dan, Fagen and Becker continued to record new music, but their world began to shift toward touring, the now more lucrative part of the Steely Dan business, and the music business in general.
Becker’s illness and death ended the business partnership, but it also ended a unique songwriting voice. Fagen and Becker always surrounded themselves with top-notch supporting musicians, who not only realized the potential of their songs in the studio, but brought them to live in front of audiences. Fagen can continue to tour with musicians and even replace Becker’s instrumental parts. Will Becker be missed onstage, absolutely. We will also miss any new songs that he and Fagen might have constructed together.
Fagen may win his battle over the Steely Dan brand and continue touring with the group name. The music of Steely Dan will live on, whether there is any new music or if Fagen performs with a group of musicians; but without Becker, it just isn’t the same. It just isn’t Steely Dan. In this case, they can’t do it again.