Thursday, January 10, 2008

Donald Fagen

Donald Fagen, perhaps better known to the public as one-half of Steely Dan (Walter Becker, his musical collaborator since 1968, represents the other half of the most musically formidable American band of the last 40 years), turned 60 today. Other than Paul McCartney, no one comes close to this remarkable composer, pianist and singer for mastery of the post-1960 popular songwriting craft. McCartney is certainly the gold standard of pop songwriters; but Fagen took everything that made McCartney so distinctive -- harmonic sophistication, melodic imagination, marvelous and memorable hooks and off-center chord progressions that sound perfectly natural -- and incorporated jazz and more overt rhythm and blues elements to create songs that sound like no other composer. Fagen's signature style is augmented by his distinctive voice -- a raspy, soul-inflected and filled-with-irony -- that brings the characters he writes about to life. His voice, like McCartney and Sting's -- is also perfectly pitched to the music he writes. No one can make his songs sound as good as he can. Fagen, whether on his own or with Steely Dan -- has always found the best musicians available to play his compositions. Like Duke Ellington, Fagen writes with specific musicians in mind. A saxophone solo is written for just any tenor sax player; it's written for Wayne Shorter or Chris Potter. A guitar solo is written for Jon Harrington or Larry Carlton. A drum part left open for Bernard Purdie, Steve Gadd or, now, Keith Carlock to complete. And what does it say that any popular or jazz musician will drop what they're doing to play on a Steely Dan or Fagen record.

Fagen's 60th birthday comes right around the same time as the 25th anniversary of his first solo album, "The Nightfly." That album was released in late fall 1982, the first semester of senior year in college, and, all these years later, stands the test of time as one of the most remarkable records ever released in popular music. The record offers Fagen, then 35, at his best: gorgeous compositions that cross an array of musical styles, from brass-inflected pop to calypso to swing jazz to lush harmonies that would make Gershwin stand up and take notice. The playing is, of course, superb and inventive. What makes "The Nightfly" such a stunning recording, though, is the storytelling that links the songs together. In the record liner notes, Fagen admits to the record being autobiographical -- "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 (South Passaic, New Jersey) during the late fifties and early sixties., i.e., one of my general height, weight and build." On the back, you can a light on in an upstairs bedroom in modest, post-World War II bungalow. Fagen has said in interviews that the person in that bedroom was him, listening to jazz radio stations beaming in from New York, intrigued by boppers and the Blue Note recordings of that period. Thelonious Monk was his E.T., reaching into his window (and ears) and showing him that something more was out there than the conventional "white music" he heard on the pop stations.

Donald Fagen assumed that role for me and a couple of my friends in our early adolescence. My musical tastes were, at that point, largely derivative of what my parents exposed me to and what I might hear from a friend's big brother or sister. Blues-inflected rock like Hendrix, Cream, the Allmans, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and others were dominating the turntables in our neighborhood's basements. At the time, that stuff really wasn't for me, although I would later jump on board the Allmans and Zep trains. In one night, my musical tastes changed forever when I heard "Do It Again" by Steely Dan, "Long Distance Runaround," by Yes and "Living in the Past" by Jethro Tull right in a row on WXQI 94.1 FM. Becker and Fagen became my Thelonious Monk (Yes would soon become an obsession, as I had never heard a rock band play music arranged like that before; but that is a separate post . . .), showing me a whole new world of music that existed in the popular song form. I mean, who other than the Beatles could make the electric sitar sound perfectly natural in a rock context?

Listening to Steely Dan began my long backwards migration into jazz. I remember listening to "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" one day, and my father pointing out how the introduction bore a marked similarity to "Song For My Father" by Horace Silver. There were music homages to Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins and Grant Green and lyrical references to the "new saxophone sensation" signed by "Savoy Record." The "sensation," of course, was Charlie Parker. How many rock musicians knew that Charlie Parker was recorded by Savoy Records? Then there was -- and remains -- the dark underside of Steely Dan's lyrics -- the prostitutes, street low-life, failed hipsters, corporate criminals, pick-up artists, shifty women, drug dealers to the stars that have and continue to star in all their records from "Can't Buy a Thrill" through "Everything Must Go" -- that offered a jarring contrast to their smooth-as-silk tunes. For me, everything great about Steely Dan comes together on "Deacon Blues," a song about a white, suburban wannabe jazz musician and hipster who doesn't quite get there sung and played so beautifully that you would never know it is a song about loss, failure and isolation all too familiar to anyone who has ever dreamed of something more than putting on a suit and going to work.

"The Nightfly" plays on my iHome as I sit in bed, the clock pushing midnight, writing this on my laptop. All the familiar characters from the early 60s come back to life -- the World's Fair optimism of "I.G.Y," complete with a "future that looks bright . . . powered by the sun, perfect weather for a streamlined world, spandex jackets one for everyone." . . . the dark streets uncovered by a suburban boy in New York on "Greenflower Street," the first-love romance of "Maxine," a song I danced on the roof to in college with the girl I then loved, Beth Callaway, on more than one late Saturday night/early Sunday morning, dreaming about her being "my seniorita, in jeans and pearls," . . . the early 60s optimism of the "New Frontier," the coming of talk radio with "The Nightfly" ("you say there's a race of men in the trees/You're for tough legislation/Thanks for calling/I wait all night for calls like these"), the failed clandestine effort to shake up a Latin American country in "The Goodbye Look," and the shimmering, cinematic ending of "Walk Between the Raindrops," with a lyric ("When we kissed we could hear the sound of thunder/As we watched the regulars rush the big hotels/We kissed again as the showers swept the Florida shore/You opened your umbrella/But we walked between the raindrops back to your door") that brought to life my first "vacation kiss" with someone I met on a family trip to Miami Beach in the 7th grade. An album released in 1982 sounds so natural today, even though the music and lyrics are rooted in the late 1950s and 1960s. Fagen's genius will never get the popular recognition of McCartney, Sting, Stevie Wonder or Paul Simon because of the jazz dissonance and lyrical adventurism of his music. But I will continue to leave the reading light on by my bedroom window, a signal to this giant of modern music that he is always welcome to reach in and show me the possibilities of sweetness, sorrow, cynicism, loss, nostalgia and optimism that exist in the popular song form.

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