THE FUTURE’S SO BRIGHT

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.

Donald Fagan Nightfly MoFi

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.

IMG_7755

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. 

Snowbound

Let’s stay in today

Wake me up

When the wolves come out to play

Donald Fagan Kamakiriad

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.

26 comments

  1. As a Dan man of some repute, I am with you all the way. I’m a bigger fan of ‘Nightfly’ than ‘Kamakiriad’ but dig both. Agreed about ‘Ruby Baby.’ Great feel. Also love the swing of ‘Walk Between Raindrops.’ Gotta now go listen to ‘Kamakiriad,’ favorite ‘Springtime.’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great, Jim. I agree — The Nightfly is very special — but also glad to hear that I’m not alone in enjoying the often-overlooked Kamakiriad. I dug Sunken Condos too.

      Like

      1. Yeah, he has two more albums post- “Kamakiriad” and I don’t know them. Gotta check ’em out, even if only a few gems on them.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yep. ‘Morph the Cat’ is the other one. It is a bit patchy, but a couple of ripper Fagen songs. I’d probably rate ‘Sunken Condos’ above Morph, but it’s a bit arbitrary with an artist like Mr Fagen, whose groove is predictable but artistry unquestioned.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. A couple days’ listening coming up. I think I’ll start with ‘Nightfly,’ work my way up. Thanks.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve never heard Kamakiriad – sounds like I should sometime. The Nightfly is excellent – a very good rebound after what sounded like a tough time recording Gaucho.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure any of the subsequent three solo albums are quite in the same class as Nightfly, Graham, but all are definitely worth a listen. I love the concept/conceit of Kamakiriad but as mentioned to Jim S, ‘Sunken Condos’ is pretty solid too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Nightfly is one of my favourites of all time. Aside from the excellent songs it sounds magnificent. While awaiting my new turntable I was wondering what album to play on it first and Nightfly was the winner.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Right on. I’ve used Nightfly for auditioning hi-fi gear for years. Just a magnificent sounding recording.

      Like

  4. These look like a must for me, thanks Bruce – inspired again.
    (And dare I mention that I Intend is to listen after I land in München next week?)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fantastisch! Gute Reise, lieber Cousin

      Like

  5. I always thought Nightfly was one of the coolest album covers. I can’t recall if you’ve featured it in some of your previous posts on covers, Bruce. If not, shame on you. 🙂 Great post; who can’t love Donald Fagen? – Marty

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! I thought I had, Marty. In the Walter Becker Tribute (“I got the news”, where I appropriated Lester the Nightfly)… but apparently not. Shame indeed. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    2. It may have influenced Glenn Frey’s The Allnighter.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I like the LP covers. And your world weary line about the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great piece, I’m definitely with you right down the line here. One caveat though: ‘Green Flower Street’ a ‘mid-tempo shuffle’? Would have to disagree with that – it’s not a shuffle (but ‘Ruby Baby’ is), and seems pretty sprightly to these ears…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think perhaps I was feeling shuffley rather than sprightly at the time of writing. That would explain it. 😉

      Like

  8. So I listened to both ‘Nightfly’ and ‘Kamikiriad.’ No surprises on the former. I’ve listened to it so many times I know every twist and turn. I was almost reluctant to start there as I felt I knew it too well. But it was fun to breeze through the whole album (twice in fact) and listen to the variety of styles portrayed.

    Alas, ‘Kamikiriad’ is an album that while I somewhat liked, either my memory was different or it just hasn’t held up for me. In their later years, starting with ‘Gaucho,’ the Dan really started stripping off the hard edges and veered dangerously close to smooth jazz or what they now call yacht rock. With few exceptions, ‘Kamikiriad’ treads this ground. There is precious little variety and much of it, for me, falls into the realm of ‘the neighbors are coming over. Get the white wine and brie out. And put on that smooth conversational album.’ Sorry. Just not making it for me. I found much of it boring. If the subsequent two are like this, I’ll run through them quickly and find the ‘Springtimes’ and move on.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Good stuff Bruce. Love Fagan’s vocals, lyrics, music and all those other things you said. Yeah these two albums are in my pile. Just working on a ‘Katy Lied’ take. Love this guy and his partner Walter. I ate up all that early stuff which set the table for ‘The Nightfly’. Music Enthusiast sent me over to your piece.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers, CB. It can be wonderful to stroll down the Fagen/Becker banquet table!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So much there for CB to feast on. (Man can I pick up your lead and go with the obvious comebacks)

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Nightfly is a true gem. I feel as though I’ve posted a comment somewhere on VC in the not too distant past about I.G.Y.; is that possible? At the risk of repeating myself, I was always strangely reassured by the lines, “What a beautiful world this will be/What a glorious time to be free”, as well as intrigued by the concept of going undersea by rail (which of course one can do now). Absolutely LOVE Larry Carlton’s guitar line during the bridge of Green Flower Street!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your memory-feeling is entirely correct, JDB. You joined in the commentary for the VC Walter Becker tribute ‘I Got The News’ back in 2017.
      I wonder whether you are still reassured by those perky lines. Hope so. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I really love the cover of The Nightfly. Everything about it tells me that it’s for me… and your writing obviously helps sell it, too.

    I’ll check out both and see how I get on, but The Nightfly is definitely the one I would like to own!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is the pick of the Donald set, so hope you enjoy, J. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ll report back, Bruce.

        Liked by 1 person

Comments and responses welcome for all posts: present or past. Please join in!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: