Retro Review: Donald Fagan’s “The Nightfly”
As of this writing, we’re approaching the 40th anniversary of this outstanding 1982 album, but we’re also about to see the release of The Nightfly Live by Donald Fagan and his current line-up of Steely Dan personnel. So, after inexcusably putting this off for too long, here’s an assessment of what is arguably Fagan’s solo masterpiece.
To put things in some historical perspective, the legendary duo of Steely Dan (Fagan and the late Walter Becker) who composed and arranged their stellar output with the enlisted aid of many of the finest jazz (and some rock) musicians in the business. The duo ended their collaboration — for a while — after their 1980 release, Gaucho.
Their compositions throughout the 1970s, while almost always consisting of gorgeous melodies and often obtuse lyrics, ingeniously blended rock and jazz, leading to such classic albums as Countdown to Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, and, of course, Aja. Their finest, but no necessarily best-known compositions boasted beautiful music (“Pearl of the Quarter,” “Any Major Dude,” “The Caves of Altamira” just about every song on Aja, and most on Gaucho). But, with the 1970s being what they were, many Steely Dan songs focused on drug use, and the shady, unappealing characters who inhabit that world. A haunting melody could be coupled with lyrics about a dying drug addict (“Charlie Freak”), a mysterious dealer (“Doctor Wu”), someone looking forward to getting his fix that night (“Time Out Of Mind”), or a meth lab operator trying to stay one step ahead of the law (“Kid Charlamagne”).
So, with the dissolution of the Fagen-Becker partnership in 1980, what were we to expect from Fagan’s first solo album? Nothing less than a 180-degree turn from Steely Dan in both theme and mood, i.e. an optimistic, wholesome, family-friendly trip down his own particular Memory Lane — albeit with some Cold War clouds looming overhead — while maintaining an almost impossibly high standard of song composition, arrangement, and musicianship. As he writes with tongue-in-cheek on the inside sleeve of the original LP (ask your parents about them, kids): “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 gerneral height, weight and build.”
He explained the motivation behind the album in a 1982 interview with The New York Times: ‘’I actually tried to write these new songs with as little irony as possible. I guess Walter’s lyrics tend to have a little more bite than mine, to be more detached. I wanted this album to be a little brighter and a little lighter than a Steely Dan record; I wanted it to be more fun to listen to…”
The eight-song album, produced by longtime Steely Dan producer Gary Katz, opens with “I.G.Y (International Geo-physical Year)” a jaunty song taking place in the early days of the Space Race (the I.G.Y. of 1957-’58, was an ambitious project in which 67 countries took part in an exchange of scientific ideas) as protagonist Fagen eagerly envisions all of the technological and cultural marvels that surely await his generation in the future. “You’ve got to admit it, at this point in time that it’s clear — the future looks bright…Ninety minutes from New York to Paris/well by ’76 we’ll be a-o.k…” He later imagines a world with “just machines to make big decisions/programmed by fellas with compassion and vision…”
“I.G.Y.” is followed by “Green Flower Street,” with a somewhat edgier feel, as he laments the decline of his city neighborhood which, even as it turns rough and violent, still triggers fond memories from days gone by.
“Ruby Baby” is a Leiber & Stollar song recorded by such groups as The Drifters and Dion and the Belmonts, is fairly standard r&b stuff, i.e. the longing (more like obsession) for a girl the singer is determined to win over.
This is followed by Fagan’s achingly beautiful “Maxine,” arguably the most outstanding song on the album — certainly the most poignant — sung by a multi-tracked Fagan to emulate the vocal harmonies of such fifties groups as The Four Freshman and the Hi-Lo’s. Here, the young male hero shares an intimate moment with his girl, telling her of the future he fantasizes for them together (“We’ll move up to Manhattan, and fill the place with friends”),despite how the adults in their lives don’t take their romance seriously. The tone is hushed and even a little mournful, with the line “We’ve got to hold out till graduation/try to hang on, Maxine” reveals a hint of desperation in his hopes and dreams for their uncertain future.
For those of you still with an LP sensibility firmly ingrained in your DNA, “Maxine” closes side 1 of the album, with side 2 opening with the upbeat “New Frontier,” which takes us to a party in a backyard bomb shelter, with plenty of Fagan’s black humor dispersed throughout the lyrics (“It’s just a dugout that my dad built — in case the Reds decide to push the button down”). While the chosen venue was built to attempt survival of a nuclear war, this doesn’t deter him from making moves on his girl of interest (“Let’s pretend that it’s the real thing, and stay together all night long/And when I really get to know you, we’ll open up the doors and climb into the dawn”).
Next comes the album’s namesake tune, “The Nightfly,” narrated by the fictional Lester the Nightfly, an overnight radio host at WJAZ, inviting listeners to join him for jazz and conversation in the wee hours. Reflecting on his own memories of listening to such personalities to lessen his boredom growing up in the New Jersey suburbs Passaic and Fair Lawn (my hometown), Fagan paints a vivid aural picture — inspiring the album cover photo — of the lone DJ in his radio studio. The song even includes the station’s I.D. jingle serving as the chorus, along with commercials, and even a confession of his broken heart, all blending seamlessly together.
In “The Goodbye Look,” we find ourselves at a resort in a banana republic, tucked away somewhere in the Caribbean. The music invites us in with the always-welcome sound of a marimba, aided by light strains of acoustic guitars, setting the scene within mere seconds. This fun adventure is full of imagery that just pops out and envelopes the listener (I remember a line of women all in white/the laughter and the steel bands at night”), but the guests are rudely informed that a military coup is taking place, and that they are to depart in all due haste (“Wake up darling/the colonel’s standing in the sun/with the stupid face, the glasses, and the gun”).
The album ends with the delightful “Walk Between Raindrops,” another piece of good old-fashioned light swing with charmingly corny lyrics, set against the backdrop of Miami’s colossal resorts of the early ‘60s.
If you wish to “cheat” and listen each song on the album, you can do so on YouTube (I included the above clips as mere representations of the album as a whole).
The Nightfly album received nearly unanimous critical acclaim upon its release, and was nominated for seven Grammys, including Album of the Year, and Song of the Year for “I.G.Y.” (alas, it was inexplicably shut out).
Fagen and Becker reunited as studio musicians for the Rosie Vela album Zazu in 1986, and Fagen continued his solo career with the release of Kamakiriad in 1993 (produced by Becker). The erstwhile partners finally reunited as Steely Dan for the 2000 album Two Against Nature. They continued their renewed partnership — which included legendary concert tours (accessible on YouTube), with other solo projects interspersed, until Becker’s death from cancer-related complications in 2017.
The list of Steely Dan’s creative accomplishments is long, as is Fagen’s solo work, but The Nightfly will always hold a special place in the hearts, and ears, of his fans, and deservedly so. This makes the new live release that much more welcome.
Until next time…
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