Steely Dan on the Letterman show, with a five year gap.
It’s funny, but Steely Dan is famous for featuring a string of guitar heroes on their records. Regular folks know who Skunk Baxter is. Jazz devotees know who Larry Carlton is. People familiar with LA studio musicians know who Dean Parks is. People familiar with the original Dan know who Denny Dias is. There’s a cavalcade of other heavy hitters sprinkled over their records and live shows. They’re all sorta the best guitarist in the world. Walter Becker was better than all of them.
He’s playing guitar front and center here, but that wasn’t always the case. If you watch ancient iterations of the band, he’s playing the bass of all things. He’s quite pedestrian at it. He knows the role the instrument is supposed to play, and doesn’t try to show off, ever, by playing the guitar on the bass, like most (all) bass players who wish they were guitarists. He probably played bass because no one else would do it, and it needed doing. Paul McCartney was like that. There are just too many guitar players already. Here, play this thing.
The guitar hero that Steely Dan sorta settled on after a long while, at least for live shows, Jon Herington, is about as cool a customer as the band ever had. He doesn’t play like anyone. He plays like everyone, all in one package. He’s what you’d get when every someone remembers every music lesson they ever had, and they had one every day, forever.
I don’t know what Walter Becker was, or what he knew to get that way. Junkie, I gather. A hard life, and not all self-inflicted wounds, either, unlike most rock tragedies. He looked like lots of guys did back in the seventies. Owlish. Long, greasy hair. They liked pornography and digital watches and modding calculators to do funny stuff. Not nerds, exactly. Much smarter than the nerds, just not interested in making the honor roll. Certainly not cool, either. Becker’s famous for songwriting, if he’s famous at all. Since Fagen is the voice for Steely Dan vocals, Fagen became the public face of the band, the Moe. Becker was the Larry Fine, I guess. A cipher. Curly was an amalgam of all those other guys they hired, frantically running around musically trying to stay hired.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more fluid and inventive guitar player than Walter Becker, and that includes three dozen of the most fluid and inventive guitar players in the world that they had in their band at one time or another. He never does anything whatsoever to show off. He just endlessly invents musical stuff, seemingly on the fly, and never hesitates, or sticks too long in one place, or goes ernie, ernie, ernie high up the neck because he ran out of ideas and the solo’s not supposed to be over yet.
And Fagen? There’s five years between those two performances. He seems to have spent the interregnum at Dr. Seward’s place. He was always amusingly weird, but that second performance, with his shop class eyeglasses, a keytar straitjacket, and his fangs sharpened, pushed him into the front rank at the Hall of Fame of Strange for me, god bless him.
He went full Renfield. You never go full Renfield.