When it came to writing songs for his first solo album after leaving Steely Dan, Donald Fagen heeded that timeless advice to authors, write about what you know.
The record was The Nightfly and the year was 1982, though you wouldn’t know it from the cover. Fagen is photographed in a Peter Gunn era radio studio, turntable and cigarettes close at hand, morosely addressing a vintage microphone in a dead-of-night drawl laced with coffee and stale tobacco. It is dark and downbeat, the air close but pierced with loneliness. Who is listening? Certainly not the residents of the suburban houses pictured on the back of the sleeve. All is darkness and restless dreams, while Lester the Nightfly spins jazz and raps to insomniacs.
None of this is hidden in either the songs or the musician’s declaration in the notes:
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.
Opener “I.G.Y (International Geophysical Year)” (and a single from the LP) is full of jazzy bounce and 80s optimism, until you are mugged by the steely irony just around the corner. “A just machine to make big decisions, Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision”. That’s the future we got, right? Similarly, “Green Flower Street” (a personal favourite) is the kind of mid-tempo shuffle Steely Dan specialised in, with a deliciously catchy chorus:
Where the nights are bright
And joy is complete
Keep my squeeze on Green Flower Street
Except the verses bely the love. It’s murder out in the street; there’s trouble most every night; Lou Chang’s brother is burning with rage. More mean streets than flowers. But here’s the brilliance of Donal Fagen, between the melodious chorus and the darker verses there’s a fabulous bridge that could be straight out of West Side Story. Irrespective of era, we’re in the presence of a master craftsman.
Next comes the one cover on the record, a swingin’ version of Leiber and Stoller’s “Ruby Baby”, contrasting sweetly with Fagen’s poignant “Maxine”. Then the writer’s dry wit returns like a desert wind with “New Frontier”, a magnetic song set in the nuclear dug-out the protagonist’s father has built in their back yard, where our hero gushes about how brilliant the future will be.
The future. When we catch up with it, it’s never quite what we imagined.
In 1993 Donald Fagen envisioned “the future, near the millennium” for his second solo outing, Kamakiriad. It’s a clever bit of posturing, that title, referring to a futuristic road trip the protagonist takes in his new steam-powered eco-car, “a custom-tooled Kamakiri”.
Departing on the “Trans-Island Skyway”, we’re in for a smooth, grooving journey dotted with neat jazz lay-bys along the fusion freeways. Former Dan partner Walter Becker produced and played on the album (our tribute to Walter is here), which also featured jazz-rock luminaries such as Randy Brecker and highly regarded session players like Paul Griffin and Lou Marini.
The slick production has been criticised by some as being simply too clean, but I think that misses the point. This is Fagen’s view of the digital future where the first impression is cool, shiny efficiency but with a dark heart.
Let’s stay in today
Wake me up
When the wolves come out to play
Highlights—and there are plenty—include the sophisticated bounce of “Tomorrow’s Girls” and the brilliant horn parts in “Florida Room”. I also love the cinematic languor of “On The Dunes” and the slinky beat-gen epilogue, “Teahouse On The Tracks”.
Kamakiriad may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s more to enjoy in this teahouse than Earl Grey and a biscuit, especially if you are a fan of the literate, jazz-infused sounds of Steely Dan’s latter work.
Talking of epilogues, Fagen’s hero may not have driven his way to a dazzling sunrise, but the journey produced one splendid result in addition to this highly accomplished album. Donald and Walter enjoyed working together again and decided to reform Steely Dan for, initially, a tour (more on that here) and ultimately further albums. So a most worthwhile journey, at least for Dan devotees.