Wednesday, 17 May 2017
My brother and I don't agree about certain things in life, but when it comes to Donald Fagen's 1982 classic we're both in accord. Without doubt, it's the best solo album every recorded by a white Jewish member of a recording duo with an passion for jazz and black music.
By 1982, Steely Dan's time was up. And then there were two had become and then there were none. Two years before, the duo of Fagen and Walter Becker had released Gaucho, almost my favourite of the albums they'd released thus far during the course of roughly a decade. it sold well enough, but reviews were mixed and it seemed that Steely Dan were a spent force. Donald Fagen then went on to demonstrate that he could do it just as well (if not better) as one by writing similarly impenetrable catchy songs and hiring the best session musicians to play them.
No. In fact, the eight songs on the album are actually rather more penetrable than Steely Dan's customary obtuse, enigmatic affairs. There's a remarkably transparent note from the author on the inner sleeve that 'the songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build'. And it's appropriate that Fagen chose to resurrect a gorgeous Lieber and Stoller song for the Drifters about yearning for a probably unobtainable member of the opposite sex. 'Ruby Ruby when will you be mine?'
He does the jaunty original thorough justice and his own songs, 'Green Flower Street', 'Maxine', 'New Frontier' and 'Walk Between the Raindrops', speak of similar amorous concerns, but with the hindsight of adult maturity. Fagen always had a great way with an image and both songs are full of little gems like 'While the world is sleeping/We meet at Lincoln Mall', 'There where neon bends in daylight sky/ In that sunny room she soothes me/Cools me with her fan' and ''That happy day we'll find each other on that Florida shore/ You'll open your umbrella/And we'll walk between the raindrops back to your door'.
'New Frontier' opens the second side and it's a particular favourite for the intensity of the future songwriter's cherche for la femme. I recognise the awkward ardour of his come-on lines: 'Have you got a steady boyfriend/ Cause honey I've been watching you/I hear you're mad about Brubeck/I like your eyes I like him too'. And I revel in the couplet, 'Introduce me to that big blonde/She's got a touch of Tuesday Weld...' I was too young at the time to be in love with teen America's sweetheart, but have always loved the name (even if it wasn't her real one). Reputedly, Stanley Kubrick wanted her for the lead in Lolita, but Tuesday turned it down by suggesting, 'I didn't have to play it. I was Lolita'.
I can't speak for Sunken Condos, his fourth and possibly even final solo album, but perhaps one of the reasons why The Nightfly works better than the otherwise worthy successors, Kamakiriad and Morph The Cat, is this unity of theme and concept. It's easy to grasp and nicely captured by a great cover: Fagen posing as 'Lester the Nightfly' talking to his nocturnal listeners from 'an independent station... with jazz and conversation/From the foot of Mt. Belzoni'. There's a Sonny Rollins album cover sitting artfully with the ashtray and the open pack of Chesterfields by the retro microphone and the old-fashioned turntable. It was a time of Fagen's young life, apparently, when he would take a bus to Manhattan from the New Jersey suburbs to see Rollins and other jazz giants of the time. The lucky man got to see the holy trinity of Miles, Mingus and Monk.
Two of the other numbers on The Nightfly appear to set the time of Donald Fagen's youth in a wider social and global context. 'The Goodbye Look' seems to be about the change of regime in Cuba (where 'tonight they're arranging a small reception just for me/Behind the big casino by the sea'). The horn section on the opening 'I.G.Y.' exemplifies the kind of musical class on show throughout the album: the Brecker Brothers plus George Benson and Eddie Palmieri's go-to baritone saxophonist, Ronnie Cuber, and Carla Bley's trusty trombonist, Dave Bargeron. Fagen helpfully explains that 'I.G.Y.' stands for International Geophysical Year, and the song is all about a blithely absurd late '50s vision of the future. A world where travel takes 'ninety minutes from New York to Paris', with 'perfect weather for a streamlined world where 'we'll be eternally free yes and eternally young'. Ah, yes... 'What a beautiful world this'll be/What a glorious time to be free'. Indeed.
Recording The Nightfly seems to have been a sunny affair and by all accounts much less fraught and protracted than Gaucho. There's a lovely happy, lively quality that makes the first Fagen such an unqualified and lasting success. I doubt whether before or since, whether with or without Walter Becker, Donald Fagen achieved what was in his complex mind with such apparent ease and joie de vivre. I've kept my treasured copy in its cellophane wrapper.