But, but, soon you’ll be going to College and everything’s going to change from monochrome to wide vision Technicolor.
A whole new world.
A new frontier.
French New Wave.
Italian Neo Realists.
Ginsberg. Corso. Snyder. Ferlinghetti.
Rhythm & Blues. Soul.
Cool Jazz. Bebop. Hard Bop.
Once you get to College you’re going to form a band with your songwriting partner (songwriters work best in partnerships).
Together, once you have the songs, you will as producers and directors make gleaming records which will be as enigmatic as they are addictive.
Those in the know will know.
You will find and cast a gallery of stellar musicians matching their individual and collective talents to the specific demands of each song.
From the vast treasury of tracks spinning in your heads you’ll find influences and inspiration.
You will embed those influences and inspirations in your newly minted creations.
You and your partner will swop riffs and rhythms and references (that’s how you found each other).
Hey, remember that fabulous bass line from Horace Silver on, ‘Song For My Father’ ?
Sure do. Sure do.
The thing about Horace is you play him to people who swear they just can’t stand Modern Jazz and they say … well, now, I do like that .. what did you say his name was?
That’s because Horace’s Jazz is drenched in Blues and Gospel and because he writes a mean theme and knows how to arrange so that the theme grows in power all through a tune.
Look how they have space for the solos and dynamic ensemble playing.
Write a tune that’s simple and deep and you really got something!
Let’s give Song For My Father a few spins right now.
I got a feeling it might just gel with that Rikki song we’ve been fooling around with.
A true message always gets through.
And Donald Fagen and Walter Becker we’re always alert to those messages.
Even if they sometimes expressed those messages in code.
Of course experienced record buyers and Steely Dan fans in particular get a particular frisson from such cryptography.
Occasionally Becker and Fagen affected ennui at their audiences unceasing demand to hear Rikki every time they played a gig.
In such cases trust the song and the audience every time.
Rikki don’t lose that number
You don’t want to call nobody else
Send it off in a letter to yourself
Rikki don’t lose that number
It’s the only one you own
You might use it if you feel better
When you get home
Casting for Steely Dan :
Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter on lead Guitar, Dean Parks on acoustic Guitar, Michael Omartian on Piano, Jim Gordon on Drums, Victor Feldman on Percussion, Walter Becker on Bass and backing vocals, Donal Fagen on lead and backing vocals, Tim Schmidt on backing vocals.
Casting Horace Silver :
Horace Silver on Piano, Carmell Jones on Trumpet, Joe Henderson on Tenor Saxophone, Teddy Smith on Bass, Roger Humphries on Drums.
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.
‘Humans are distinguished by being a remembering, storytelling and singing race’. (Barclay Butler)
‘ A word thrown into the silence always finds its echo somewhere where silence opens hidden lexicons’. (Dejan Stojanovic)
‘ We were looking for an echo – an answer to our sound – a place to be in harmony; a place we almost found’
All of us search for, cherish and store in our hearts’ chambers the echoes of the sounds of the golden sunny uplands of our lives.
Those times when we achieved what we set out to do; when we were first in love, when someone said,’you’re really good at that aren’t you?’, when you knew that this was a really fine time, THE fine time to be alive.
What holds for individuals holds for friendships, communities and nations which strive to hold on to the fine times and to work towards regaining them when they seem misplaced, lost or abandoned.
We remember with joy the times we made it to the summit and wincingly the times our faltering grip couldn’t hold on to the elusive prize and we had to start again bruised and chastened from base camp or the muddy ground
We are all looking for answers to our longings and dilemmas, for a place to be in harmony with ourselves, our families and those with whom, willingly and unwillingly, we share our lives.
‘Looking For An Echo’ a single released on Atlantic in 1975 by Kenny Vance has continued to echo in my life for nearly forty years because it’s an anthemic folk/doowop ballad that gloriously captures the sweet heartache of remembering the thrill of reaching for that harmony and the melancholic realisation of how rare it is to hold on to that harmony, once achieved.
Kenny Vance (who grew up as Kenny Rosenberg) is a son of Brooklyn and a canny time served music industry veteran.
He came up through 1950s vocal and doowop groups before achieving chart success and a measure of fame with Jay and The Americans who had a string of hits throughout the 60s including the eerily beautiful, ‘She Cried’ (memorably covered by The Shangri – Las).
They were a supporting act on both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones first US tours. Late additions to the group, talent spotted by Vance, were two hyper smart East Coast musicians and writers, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who would form the coolest band of the 1970s, Steely Dan.
Post Jay and The Americans, Kenny went on to carve a productive and profitable niche as a musical director for TV (Saturday Night Live) and in the Film Industry. He was involved in the highly successful soundtracks for Eddie and the Cruisers, American Hot Wax and Animal House.
By the mid 70s he was ready to record again and he produced a fine album called Vance 32 the highlight of which was Looking For An Echo, written by a friend, Richie Reicheg. The recording was layered beginning with simple acoustic guitar and Kenny’s searching, ruminative vocal.
This gives the song the yearning quality which is so attractive. The electric instrumentation added builds the swelling atmosphere and the sense of time passing in tension and release.
It is now something of a standard within the world of vocal group and doowop aficionados: regularly played on oldies radio stations and frequently used a a show stopping, tear inducing, finale to live shows.
It reincarnates the doowop days of practicing in parks, subways and halls with vocals soaring upwards from stoops, fire escapes and tenement block roofs as bunches of teenagers quivering with energy and ambition reached for that sound that would warm their hearts and might, just might, make them stars if they could only be heard by someone who could get them into a recording studio and onto the radio.
The song is a quest song and we all know that most quests end in mature (or wearied) acceptance that we will never reach El Dorado to find the mother lode but that there were many fine times along the journey. And, that perhaps the place we now inhabit has its own virtues and consolations if not the fabled ones we imagined in our youth.
Still, we listen for the echoes.
Kenny has revisited the song with his group the Planotones upping the dramatic ante and stressing the nostalgic heft of the song.
I much prefer the original but would still queue to see him perform the song live.
There is a superb version of the song by the titans of acapella singing The Persusasions – available to view on the internet and on their album, ‘Chirpin’.
I’m a lover of reference books on all subjects (as you may have guessed!) but none has given me such pleasure as Jay Warner’s, ‘American Singing Groups: A History 1940 – 1990’.
I guarantee that if you read it you’ll be soon making long lists of records to buy and marvelling at the hope and energy which produced so many great sounds that still echo in our hearts and memories.
You could start by looking up the entries for groups referenced in Echo – The Moonglows, The Harptones and The Dells.
My favourite Paul Simon album is his criminally under appreciated Hearts and Bones.
For the exquisitely described heartbreak of the title track, the devastating sadness and accuracy of, ‘Maybe I Think Too Much’ but most of all for the sweet threnody that is ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War’ which manages, entirely successfully, to yoke a portrait of the surrealist couple to the spectral sounds of the Orioles and the Five Satins.
There is no end to the making of doowop compilations. I recommend those on the Rhino, Ace and Proper labels.
Part of the charm of the doowop era is that there are so many one off triumphs that might turn up almost anywhere now – happy hunting!