Remembering Walter Becker (1950–2017)

In 1990 Walter put together a crackerjack jazz band led by Marty Krystall for my wedding. Then I began to find companions. Rodman   is president of the Writers Guild of America West. (The schools were better, my mother was told.) And I found myself the “new kid,” among strangers, whose habits made little sense to me, and with odd geographies to master. We talked about our lives without having to explain. It was a moment of embarrassment, of pride, of mortification, of arrival. In late 1973 I got to watch Walter and Donald cutting (and re-cutting) the lacquer of Pretzel Logic. Even as he taught a band of us how to become, to borrow again, gentlemen losers. But there were also stretches — decades — when we were not in touch at all. And always, always, when the music changed, Walter would be there first: he was our Saknussemm. And the loss of that possibility is more devastating than could have been anticipated, or can now be imagined. He is professor and former chair of the writing division of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. The loss seems unfathomable. He wrote the films   Joe Gould’s Secret,   Savage Grace, and   August, and the novel   Destiny Express. To say that I would not be who I am save his generous and sardonic influence would be an understatement. But mostly: Of recognition that our lives are long and strange and on a good night, not unwonderful. Part Terry Southern, part Lenny Bruce, but always — as was the case with him, and not yet with us — far more than the sum of his influences. We were, face it, tragically hip bridge-and-tunnel teenyboppers. We’d drink Romilar and watch re-runs of The Million Dollar Movie. That was the last time I saw him. Yet he was never condescending, and tried to help me understand that there was little shame in the fact that I was still lost. Our correspondence broke down soon after, we lost touch (as we’d done before, and not infrequently). I’m 10 years old again, and sad, and lost. And was extravagant about letting the rest of us know what to listen to, what to read, what to watch. It was one of the small gifts that getting older can sometimes offer up. That will never happen now. But I always assumed that we’d see each other again, or that I’d wake up one morning to an email from him telling me, once more, who to listen to, who to read. We reconvened in 2009, corresponded as if little time had elapsed, got together when we found ourselves in the same city. When I was 10 our family — my mother and I   — moved from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Forest Hills. This was the gig at which Walter, during the vamp in “Hey Nineteen,” stepped to the microphone and delivered up a droll and lengthy monologue about getting calamitously stoned with my mother back in the day, name-checking her in front of six thousand people. To borrow a phrase: I was lost. I woke up Sunday morning to learn that Walter Becker has died. There were some real conversations, the first in a long time, and it was the Walter I remembered best: cynical, literate, unsparing, hilarious. I won’t detail the impact that Steely Dan’s music has had on my life, our lives, the larger culture. I was not happy, nor was I particularly pleasant. My debt to him is large and impossible. He’d toss music my way — I remember, in particular now, Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity. Even at 10 there was something older about him, and most certainly wiser. But Walter, so wildly talented even then, embodied a deeper, more complex sensibility — and with it, the possibility of a certain dignity. Who helped me navigate this new and unhappy land. He told me what movies to see. Who to be, really. And then there was Walter. I gained 10 pounds. SEPTEMBER 7, 2017

NO DEATHS ARE EASY; some deaths are especially hard. He had his aesthetic down cold, as if received. Comrades. Over the years there were times we were in good touch. (Panic in Year Zero?) We’d take the E train to the Village on Friday nights. In 2011 Mary Beth and I went to see the band at the Greek, visited Walter briefly in the green room before the concert. Some of them are — and this is a blessing — still in my life today: Adam Duhan, Marc Levitt, Ken Lakritz, a few others. We got together a few times when he was at Bard and I was at Cornell — weekends of music and oblivion. There are fans and there are not-fans, and I don’t want to incite that discussion. ¤
Howard A. He gave me my first Borges, my first Nabokov, my first Burroughs. What I do want to do: express the largest gratitude for the gifts Walter brought to my life. Two years later I was living in basements and Walter’s band was on top of the charts. And if I balked, or was unreceptive, he’d say, “You’re going to like this in a year or so, so why don’t you start now and save yourself some time.” While the rest of us were (awkwardly; clumsily) fashioning our personas, his seemed always to have been there. I withdrew into my books.