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Great rock collaboration comes to end with death of Walter Becker

September 4, 2017 GMT

There came a moment in every latter-day Steely Dan show when Walter Becker — usually the mysterious one at stage left — would take the mic to give the crowd some wisdom.

When the band played the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion three summers ago, it happened during “Hey Nineteen,” when he started telling a story based on the song’s risque lyric.

“You know where I’m going with this,” he deadpanned.

“It’s a hit song, you’ve heard it a million times” — and then played one of his fluid guitar solos instead. That was always Steely Dan, too coolly cynical and impeccably hip to play the nostalgia card straight-up.

With the death of Walter Becker on Saturday night at age 67, one of rock’s great collaborations has come to an end.

He and Bard College classmate Donald Fagen began working together in 1968, pitching songs wherever they could; for a time they even joined the ’60s pop band Jay & the Americans.

But their music proved too idiosyncratic for anyone but themselves, and by 1971 they had the first version of their band, named Steely Dan in a naughty nod to William Burroughs.

Their work embodied jazz sophistication like no rock band before — and no self-respecting college dorm from the mid-’70s onward would be without a Steely Dan album.

Though they started with a regular lineup, ultimately it was Becker, Fagen and whatever top-rank players they brought along. Their collaboration was so seamless that it was never clear who did what: Fagen sang and played keys and Becker moved from bass to guitar, but the writing and arrangements always evinced their chemistry.

They made a handful of separate albums — Becker’s heady reggae album “Circus Money” being one of the stronger ones — but it only sounded like Steely Dan when both were present.

The band was always steeped in mystique: During their heyday they abruptly stopped touring, preferring to spend years at a time getting the perfect sound in the studio — the liner notes on their classic “Aja” album even made a joke of this.

So it was a mild shock to see them becoming a fixture on the summer-shed circuit over the past two decades. But they did it their own creative way, hiring a band of jazz heavyweights who could throw fresh spins on the vintage songs.

Becker was lately having unspecified health problems, and fans feared the worst when he didn’t appear at the last two Steely Dan shows, supporting the reunited Eagles at the Classic East and West festivals — Fagen announced only that he was ill and recovering. Fagen intends to continue touring with Steely Dan, but one can’t imagine it being the same without that inscrutable mastermind on guitar.