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.

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