Donald Fagen : The Nightfly – Walking between raindrops

‘During the final mix down of the album, I started to feel kind of funny and that feeling turned into an even weirder feeling that had to do with work and love and the past and morality and so forth.

I wouldn’t complete another CD until 1993. So I’m glad I made The Nightfly before a lot of the kid-ness was beat the hell out of me, as happens to us all’ (Donald Fagen)

‘You’ll walk between the raindrops, between the raindrops,
Walk between the raindrops back to your door’ (Donald Fagen)

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Hip, Hep, Cool.

Qualities that are hard to define. Yet most of us will recognise and admire (grudgingly or otherwise) those who are authentically hip, hep and cool.

Cultural insiders who are ahead of the curve and opening up new territory before the masses come to settle on the old.

In the 1970s, as co-leader of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen was a veritable tenured Professor of Cool.

His partnership with Walter Becker in the peerless Steely Dan had illuminated the 1970s music scene with astonishing lightning bolts of twisted, subversive, hyper intelligence, lyrical misdirection, mystery and musical sophistication.

They had pop smarts, jazzbo chops and rock clout all in one sleek package. Lauded with critical garlands each of their 70s albums also featured solid commercial hits.

But, as the 1980s dawned the golden days were dimming fast for Steely Dan. With Walter Becker hors de combat Donald Fagen set to work on a solo record.

He was then in his early 30s and aware that the tides of time were inescapably moving him into a new phase of life. Of course, like the tides there were powerful attractions both to the push towards the future and the alluring pull of the past.

And, standing on the shore gazing at the inherently mysterious immensity of those seas it was natural for him to reflect with amazement, affection and no little rueful wonder at the times he had lived through and the evolution of the naive young man he had been into the puzzled, grizzled veteran who was kept awake by the questions we all have to face – sooner or later.

Where have I been?

What was all that about?

How did I end up like this?

Who am I

What do I do now?

The Nightfly is his attempt to answer all those questions. It’s a record that shows us an artist brilliantly finding the means to come to terms with the challenges of perspective.

Fagen’s triumph is the way the individual songs and the architecture of the album as a whole honour and celebrate the hopes and dreams of the youth he was while allowing his older self to offer, without spite or scorn, insightful and sometimes painful illuminations of how easily those tender hopes and dreams could be wrecked upon the rocks.

And, the diligent listener to The Nightfly will find themselves glancingly educated (which is often the very best way to be educated) about the moral, social, commercial, political and cultural history of the United States at the hinge of the 1950s and 1960s.

Oh, and you’ll also find this all lovingly wrapped in cannily composed, superlatively played music produced with technical assurance. The lyrics, sung with cool deliberation and swing, have both immediate attraction and depths to be studied.

And, you can listen to it all the way through at any time of the day or night!

That’s what I call a classic!

So let’s kick off as the album does with the glorious, ‘I. G. Y.’

I. G. Y. stands for International Geophysical Year. The reference books tell me this took place between July 1957 to December 1958 when Donald Fagen was not yet a teenager.

Yet, you can be sure a whip smart, newspaper reading, TV watching, cinema going, obsessive radio listener like young Donald would have, by a process of osmosis, been saturated in the optimism of the age.

So we have American technology promising a glittering future where New York to Paris will take a mere ninety minutes and the city will be lit up by solar power. What a glorious time to be free!

Artists will have tons of leisure time to create their masterpieces while fellows with compassion and vision will make wise decisions with the aid of just machines.

What a beautiful world.

What white 10 year old looking around the picket fenced suburbs in Ike’s America wouldn’t have felt this way?

There’s a swelling uplift in the music amplified by the characteristically elegant orchestration of the instrumental palette of sound to signal the dazzle of the road ahead to the future.

There is something deeply touching and poignant with dramatic irony about the boy’s faith in that scientifically led future and in the fellows who will bring this Utopia to shining life.

A theremin shimmer, redolent of so many science fiction movies, part thrilling, part terrifying, permeates the whole song.

It’s the increasingly plangent tone of the vocal and subtle signifiers like, ‘The fix is in’ and, ‘ by Seventy-Six we’ll be A.O.K’ that darken the brilliant blue skies. Maybe that game in the sky won’t be just a game? Maybe spandex jackets won’t be quite as wonderfully satisfying as imagined.

The future sure looks bright but maybe there are storms brewing which will sweep in from near and far to upset this vision. Looking back it is possible to celebrate what was a glorious time and still shiver as you contemplate terrible events just around the bend.

Next we turn to, the swooning, sensually charged, ‘New Frontier’.

The locus for this swooning celebration/recollection of the endless promise of the New Frontier is not the wide open spaces of America but an underground fallout shelter where the young man (who happens to be about Donald Fagen’s height and weight) fortified with provisions and lots of beer imagines that the big blonde with the touch of Tuesday Weld will fall prey to his charm, ‘ I hear you’re mad about Brubeck – I like your eyes, I like him too’.

The real Donald was, of course, more mad about Miles, Monk and Sonny Rollins than Dave. Yet, breathes there a young man who hasn’t, ‘adjusted’ his taste to curry favour with a fragrant beauty with a French twist who loves to limbo?

The young man’s boast that soon he will soon be moving from Squaresville to the city prior studying design overseas is delightfully juvenile. Yet, he genuinely believes it and beyond his priapic ardour does want to climb into the dawn and share secrets as well as passion before the Reds push the button down.

The mature man must shake his head recalling the callowness of the youth he used to be while secretly wishing he could stand in those shoes again, just once.

There are no wingdings quite like the teenage wingdings of yore. It’s quite a trick to make both the youth and the man he grew to be credible.

The musicianship demonstrated here is stellar. Ed Green’s drums beat out the just can’t stand it any more passion while Larry Carlton (consistently magnificent throughout the record) plays ambrosial guitar. Gary Katz’s producton and the engineering of Roger Nichols conspired to gift the record a crystalline clarity that has rarely been matched.

The title track is just wonderful. Like so many us marooned in the stifling suburbs Donald escaped (at least in his imagination) with the aid of late night DJs heard on a much treasured bedroom transistor radio.

In his case it was the highly creative storyteller Jean ‘Shep’ Shepherd and the hep Mort Fega who opened up his own New Frontier. So, if this character was to become a DJ himself what kind of show would he present?

Surely a graveyard shift program, on an independent station, where deep into the night you could spin the music of your jazz idols and converse with like minded souls until the sun came through the skylight.

Yet, once again, never denying the truth and poetry of the ardent dream, a shadow looms.

Some souls out there include callers who warn about the race of men in the trees. And, all the sweet music in the world taken with liberal helpings of Java and Chesterfield Kings can’t mend a broken heart. He muses that he wishes he had a heart like ice. But, he doesn’t.

So, deep into the night he craves balm from the music which though it can’t cure can make the pain less sharp. And, who knows, a flame not doused by ice could yet rekindle.

We know from Donald Fagen’s captivating memoir, ‘Eminent Hipsters’ that whatever else in his life may have soured with age and infirmity that his belief in the power of great music has never dimmed.

This is a man who affirms that the music of Ray Charles rescued a generation by liberating them from emotional suppression which was the fallout from World War 2. You can feel that conviction in the music of The Nightfly even at its most wearied low point.

Finally, the shining carousel in giddy, glittering motion song which provided me with the key to the album, ‘Walk Between Raindrops’.

Some people say they wish that they had known in their youth what they now know.

I agree with Donald Fagen that this is a profoundly wrong headed idea. The glory of youth is all that you do not know, can’t possibly know, as you fix your eyes on your guiding star and the rainbow up above. The rain, hard or soft, will come soon enough. Soon enough.

The song takes its cue from a rabbinical story where, miraculously, the rabbi stays dry in the rain by walking between the raindrops.

It can’t be done. Of course it can’t.

Yet that’s exactly what Donald Fagen has done in The Nightfly.

He’s walked back to his youth and hymned the young man he was with knowing affection despite the rain of bitter knowledge manhood has inevitably brought him.

And, to do that he has indeed walked between the raindrops. I call that a miracle.

Duane Eddy : Drive South (A road movie in 5 Songs)

‘Drive South’ starring Henry Fonda as Charlie

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and Jean Arthur as Anna

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Music by Duane Eddy

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Minnesota 1938

Scene 1 – Introducing Anna

Anna looked out at the Minnesota night sky.

A distant moon illuminated swarms of ghostly moths fluttering by her window.

Snow and ice all around. And, the Cold … the Cold.

No matter how thick the blankets you sheltered under you were always cold in Minnesota in Winter.

A Winter which seemed to reign all through the year.

How many stars were there above Lutsen?

Thousands upon thousands. And, she had wished upon every one.

Every one.

Wishing that one day, soon, she would be looking at those same stars somewhere far away where the days and nights were warm.

With someone who would take good care of her and call her Anna not Anni-Frid.

Like Papa and the boys always did. Papa was already planning a marriage for her to a local farmer, a widower, who came of ‘good Norwegian stock’.

Anna. The name she called herself. The name she would take with her out into the world beyond the fences of the farm.

South. Like the birds to live, to thrive, she would have to head South.

South.

Scene 2 : Introducing Charlie

Charlie came from the South.

Georgia.

Now you could blink your eyes twice and miss all there was to see in Alapaha.

But it was home. The air smelled sweet and the peaches were so fine – straight off the tree.

And, if it wasn’t for that trouble he’d got into with the local Sheriff on account of a misunderstanding about the ownership of a truck he won, fair and square, in a card game with one of the Faulkner boys he would be there still.

Instead, he had to high tail it out of there without a backward glance. Better that than a long spell behind bars or be baked to death on the chain gang.

Sure, he didn’t know how he would pay the next time he needed gas. But, with a grin, he thought somehow he would find a way. He always did.

He knew the dirt roads and trails round here better than anyone. Forty miles of bad road and he would be long gone.

All they would ever catch of him would be the dust he left behind!

Scene 3 : Love and flight

Now, Charlie was thousands of miles away from the Southern sun in Minnesota. Still, there wasn’t a car or a tractor ever made that Charlie couldn’t make run even if everyone else had given up on it.

And, there was always work in farming country for a man who could save the struggling farmer the price of a new machine by resurrecting an old one.

Word got around. And so did Charlie. Farm to farm making those machines last one more harvest.

Charlie thought The Olsens worked harder than Georgia mules. And it seemed they were about as talkative too.

They were head down and close mouthed from sun up to sun down.

Though Charlie liked to talk he’d come to understand that these Norwegian folks spoke only when it was strictly necessary.

Only Anna spoke as if talk was a pleasure. When they got a chance to talk before the shadow of Mr Olsen or one of his five hulking sons intervened.

But, you can say a lot in a very few words. A lot.

Old Mr Olsen near cracked a smile Charlie got his old John Deere running again. Come in boy and wash up and let us share supper with you.

Anna is a fine cook – we will miss her food when she leaves us to become Mrs Nordstam come spring.

And, as he came into the house there was Anna haloed in the half light .

And, that was that. He couldn’t, wouldn’t, let her become another man’s wife.

He knew from the look in Anna’s eyes that she had been waiting for him just as much as he must have been waiting for her.

Some things don’t need words. A look is more than enough.

He told Mr Olsen he’d come back in the morning.

And he did. At three. Before anyone was awake.

Apart from Anna. He knew she would be awake. And waiting.

They had to walk a long ways in the still moonlight to where he had parked the truck.

They didn’t speak but they both knew that they were bound together now and that the road ahead, however bumpy, would be one they traveled together.

So, as the truck pulled away heading South their faces were shining bright as any star and their hearts were on fire.

Charlie said they would find a preacher once they crossed the state line.

And they drove South. South.

Under the canopy of heaven.

Scene 4 – Odyssey of love

Together in the truck and the truck stops they found they were as close as two people can be.

As the ribbon of the road unfurled they told each other the stories of their childhood and their secret dreams.

They would never forget the changing light and the charging of their hearts as they headed South.

The names of the towns they passed through or where they stayed when Charlie was working became hallowed beads on their love’s rosary.

Redwing, Bemidji, Grand Rapids, Aitkin, Brainerd, Little Falls, St Cloud, Elk River, La Crosse, Potosi, Dubuque, Lomax, Kampsville, Granite City, Cairo, Columbus, Tiptonville, Golddust, Locke, Memphis.

Of course, there were times the truck broke down and days when they thought they’d never see another dollar.

Charlie got in a fight a time or two and Anna longed for the days when they would have a home to call their own. A home where they could have a family.

In the meantime they kept moving.

Scene 5 – A home of their own

Kept moving. ‘Til the day they found Bell Buckle or Bell Buckle found them and they claimed each other.

Turned out Bell Buckle was in sore need of a first class mechanic and a woman with a smile as bright as the Southern sun.

Under the Southern sun two become three, then four and finally five.

And, they were never really cold again.

Note :

Duanne Eddy with his trusty Gretsch 6120 made some of the defining instrumentals of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Every home should have his Greatest Hits securely shelved.

I intend to write much more about Duanne when, ‘Peter Gunn’ features on The Jukebox later.

Bob Dylan & Bruce Springsteen agree : Wanda Jackson Rocks!

‘Wanda Jackson, an atomic fireball of a lady, could have a smash hit with just about anything.’ (Bob Dylan)

‘There’s an authenticity in her voice that conjures up a world and a very distinct and particular place in time. It’s not something that can be developed.’ (Bruce Springsteen)

‘When I start erupting aint nobody gonna make me stop!’
(Wanda Jackson, Fujiyama Mama)

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We are creatures of diverse tastes. What satisfies our appetite one day may not excite the taste buds the next.

Sometimes only Lobster Thermidor will do. Then again, some days you’d be nearly prepared to kill for a half pound hamburger slathered with onions and hot mustard.

Those of you with a sophisticated palette might care to sip a Joseph Drouhin Premier Cru Clos des Mouches at dinner followed by a vintage Port.

Some days I would too.

On others though I’d be prepared to fight my way the toughest bar crowd for a pint of plain. Which as we all know is sometimes your only man.

Settling into my armchair at night in need of wisdom I often reach for the poetry of Seamus Heaney or the deep humanity of Anton Chekhov.

Still there are times when I need the relentless drive of a Lee Child thriller or the guaranteed laughter always present in the pages of P G Woodhouse.

Similarly when it comes to music surveying the serried ranks of my record collection my eye will often be irresistibly drawn to the section containing several versions of Schubert’s masterpiece song cycle, ‘Wintereisse’.

But, but, there are times when I crave, need, and absolutely demand nitroglycerin fueled music that will blast me out of earth orbit before parachuting me back home – shaken, stirred and wholly satisfied.

And ready to relaunch.

When I feel like that I return over and over again to the late 50s/early 60s records of the Queen of Rockabilly.

The extraordinary Wanda Jackson.

Who else could deliver the lines:

‘I never kissed a bear, I never kissed a goose,
But I can shake a chicken in the middle of the room.’

and make you think – yeh, that’s exactly the kind of party I’m looking for.

Let’s have a party!

I have been known to play, ‘Let’s Have A Party!’ a dozen times in a row when the humour is on me.

Other times I’m more sober and can be content with only half a dozen spins.

Every time I hear the record I’m more and more convinced that it’s one of the greatest records ever made.

I would happily swap you a hundred foot tower of, ‘Corporate Rock’ Deluxe Box Sets for Wanda’s spine tingling, ultra sexy, ‘Hooooh’ exclamations that, once heard, will surely never leave your head.

Big Al Downing (see previous Black Rockabilly post) takes care of the pyrotechnics on piano. Big Al with guitar slinger Vernon Sandusky had been a member of Bobby Poe and the Poekats who had toured with Wanda. Producer Ken Nelson added Buck Owens on rhythm guitar and is that James Burton in there too?

Fabulous though these musicians were the undoubted star of the show is Wanda’s incendiary vocal.

Wanda sings like a wondrous mix of angel and banshee (maybe that’s a pretty good definition of the woman of all young men’s dreams!) one moment crooning pretty, the next outgrowling any bear that ever lived. All the while she’s absolutely in control and having an absolute whale of a time.

What more can you ask of a record!

Wanda was born in Maud, Oklahoma in 1937. Through her musician father she developed a deep love for the Western Swing of Bob Wills, Spade Cooley and especially, Hank Thompson.

In her early teens she was a radio star in Oklahoma City before hooking up with Thompson to record country songs for Capitol. Later she recorded straight country for Decca before rejoining Capitol in 1956.

Once she graduated from High School she hit the road with her father acting as manager and chaperone. Her dad was friendly with Bob Neal who was then managing a very promising hillbilly cat called Elvis Presley!

Wanda often toured with The King over the next few years and it is said that their closeness went beyond the artistic realm. Hardly surprising as Wanda was an absolute knockout beauty and Elvis wasn’t to shabby in the looks department either!

Elvis certainly encouraged Wanda to sing Rockabilly/Rock ‘n’ Roll and the results both live and on record were astonishing.

Wanda, at her thrilling best, is every bit as electric as Jerry Lee or The King himself.

Listen to her astounding performance of, ‘Fujiyama Mama’ from 1958 which, incredibly, was a No 1 hit in Japan.

Wanda tells us that, ‘Well you can talk about me say that I’m mean, I’ll blow your head off baby with nitroglycerine’

Who can possibly doubt her the enormity of her explosive power!

The more I reflect on what distinguishes the artists who appeal to me the most I realise that it’s the qualities of life force and personal presence in the voice (whether instrumental or sung) that does it for me. And, what presence there is in Wanda’s voice!

As regards life force let’s just say that Wanda probably watts out more energy in a two minute record than any nuclear power station. And, of course, repeated exposure to Wanda’s energy will do you nothing but good!

Wanda was able to take a contemporary R&B standard like Leiber & Stoller’s, ‘Riot in Cell Block No 9’ and give it a powerful, wholly individual reading reflecting her femininity and her humour. What a blast!

The clip below shows you how Wanda was a mercurial live performer easily dominating the stage while joyously interacting with her fellow musicians. When I get accees to time travel technology I’m definitely going to set the coordinates to a Wanda Jackson show in 1960.

What a party that will be!

Wanda Jackson. Wanda Jackson!

Always and ever the Queen of Rockabilly.

You betcha! Yeh!

Notes:

‘Let’s Have A Party’ (written by Jessie Mae robinson)was recorded in 1958 but not released as a 45 until 1960. Elvis featured it in the film, ‘Loving You’. Wanda’s version was top 40 in the USA and the UK.

The young paul McCartney must have been listening as he recorded the song himself on his Rock ‘N’ Roll record aimed at the Russian market. Of course, Paul does a mean, ‘Hooooh!’ himself!

By the mid 60s Wanda returned to country music as the tsunami from Liverpool capsized the careers of so many of the original Rock ‘n’ Rollers. Many of her country sides are well worth investigating.

But for me her glory will always be contained in those epochal records from 1958 to 1962.

These are best found on an Ace Records compilation, ‘The Queen of Rockabilly’

As so often Bear Family Records will satisfy those who demand comprehensive career coverage.

The European Rockabilly revival of the 80s/90s (in which I enthusiastically participated) saw Wanda tour and record a worthwhile album, ‘Rock ‘N Roll Your Blues Away’ on Rounder Records.

Later, she joined forces with Jack White to record the truly fine, ‘The Party Ain’t Over’ on Nonesuch in 2011.

Wanda has had a real influence as an exemplar of excellence on female artists like Adele, Rosanne Cash, Imelda May, Cyndi Lauper and Rosie Flores.

A Poem for All Ireland Sunday – Up Tipp!

This Sunday sees my Dad’s beloved Tipperary contest the All Ireland Hurling final against all conquering Kilkenny.

So I have decided to Reblog a post from the early days of The Jukebox which evokes the feelings of anxious exiles listening to the radio on All Ireland Sunday.

Up Tipp! Up Tipp!

Once or twice a year when the stars are in their correct alignment and the muse comes to call I find myself moved to write a poem.

I present one below that came unbidden one Sunday afternoon some years ago just after I had listened to a commentary on an Irish hurling match between arch county rivals Tipperary and Kilkenny.

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Static

Sundays in summer my father took me with him to hear the Gaelic Games
Hurling, of course, a Tipperary Man’s birthright and delight.

Since radio reception of RTE – which on the old valve box still read, ‘Athlone’
Was poor and filled with a blizzard of wordless static we’d take the car (a Hillman Imp)

Up the vertiginous slope of Harrow on the Hill and park next to a telegraph pole –
In search of a perfect signal

As if by magic through the air came the alternating anguished and ecstatic tones of Michael O’Hehir –
his voice slicing through the miles like the Sliothair splitting the posts
For a marvellous point

Listening, rapt, willing victory, the match would pass in what seemed minutes
After, we’d sit in easeful silence as the evening became itself
And we were simply ourselves : a father and a son at one

Listening on a clear channel.

Notes:

Though I firmly believe that a poem should always retain some mystery many of you deeply versed in the lore of music may find some of the references above baffling.

Here’s a key that may help!

Gaelic Games: The principal Gaelic games of Ireland are Gaelic Football and Hurling. They are played throughout the island of Ireland.

The GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) was instrumental in the revival of these games in the late nineteenth century.

The GAA was very important then in Irish society and culture in fostering a sense of distinct Irish national consciousness. Now that the Catholic Church, has largely lost its grip on Irish society, the GAA is probably the most interwoven institution within that society.

Its strength is that it is an intensely local organisation calling on and winning loyalty from the family, the town land, the parish and finally the County.

GAA rivalries at every geographic level are staggeringly intense. Reputations made playing these games last a lifetime and more.

Hurling: A wonderful field sport played by teams of 15 a side. Players use sticks, called Hurleys. The Sliothair (a ball near in size to a baseball) can be hand passed and hit through the ground or the air.

A point is scored by sending the Sliothair above the bar and between the posts of the opponent’s goal.

Hurling calls for bravery, speed of thought and action and enormous technical skill. Played well it is absolutely thrilling to watch.

RTE: Radio Telefis Eireann – the national broadcasting station of Ireland.

Harrow on the Hill: A leafy suburb some ten miles from central London. Chiefly known for the fee paying public school attended by such luminaries as Lord Byron and Winston Churchill. I grew up there.

Michael O’Hehir: A much beloved commentator on all Irish sports from the mid 1930s to the mid 1980s but particularly associated with Gaelic games.

For exiles from Ireland listening to him was an extraordinarily powerful emotional experience. He was deeply knowledgeable and had the gift of coining a memorable phrase in the moment an event took place.

His voice could climb dizzily through the registers from marching band flute to ear splitting soprano saxophone squaks!

This post dedicated to the memory of my father, Wally Hickey (1926 – 1989).

Joyous update!

Tipperary 2-29 Kilkenny 2-20 ..

All Ireland Champions 2016 – Tipperary!!

An epic performance by the men in Blue and Gold!

My Dad will be having quite the party in Heaven!