Tag Archives: Deacon Blues

New Frontier – Donald Fagen

Note: 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 general height, weight and build. D.F.

Fagen’s liner notes from The Nightfly

To the extent that he has an image, Donald Fagen’s will always be defined by the cover of his 1982 debut solo album The Nightfly – a super-cool late-’50s hipster miraculously still around in the present day, spinning jazz records and smoking endless cigarettes long into the night (the time on the clock to his right reads ten past four).

Fagen’s accidental memoir, Eminent Hipsters, suggests that he pretty much was the young man whose persona he adopts on The Nightfly: a precocious wannaBeat in love with the culture of jazz and outsiderdom; “sentenced to a long stretch at hard labour in Squaresville” but not yet the hip sophisticate he needed to be to fully escape it. The Nightfly is the work of a man approaching middle age, looking back on his younger self and the world he grew up in with fond affection. Compared to Steely Dan, Fagen’s old band, it’s almost cuddly.

True, it’s the creation of a well-read and impressively self-educated man who doesn’t mind making you work a bit (the video for New Frontier wisely doesn’t assume its audience will know who Tuesday Weld or Brubeck were, or what Ambush is, or how you might wear a French twist – note that the girl in the video does not have one), but the mood is friendly and warm. After the bitterly cynical and ultimately tragic Gaucho (the final Dan album, from 1980), The Nightfly is probably the only music Fagen could make without driving himself crazy.

New Frontier shows he’s still the incorrigible craftsman of old, though. There are beautiful little details all the way through it: the way the backing vocalists hang on the last word of every line, making each terminal word into a hook; Fagen’s hilarious enunciation of “wingding” (how many other lyricists would have chosen that word over the more prosaic “party”?); the guitar playing of Rick Derringer and Hugh McCracken; the little riff the backing vocalist in the right-hand channel does on “Brubeck”; the tone-cluster piano squonk just before the guitar solo; the contrast set up in the lyric between the bright optimistic future the singer imagines for himself (studying design overseas, of course) and the suburban nuclear paranoia he’s living in right now. Fagen is a guy with warm memories but a clear-eyed view of his atomic-age youth.

As he doubles down on what I hope is merely his crusty-old-geezer routine in his new Rolling Stone tour diary (his Eminent Hipsters tour diary is, while very funny, also very crusty), it’s refreshing to relisten to The Nightfly and certain songs off Aja (the title track, Deacon Blues, Josie) and hear a Donald Fagen that meets the world with neither a defiant snark nor a cane raised in the air.

Nightfly

The author’s own recently recorded work:

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First world problems: Gaucho & Third World Man – Steely Dan

Third World Man is the bleak conclusion of the bleakest album of Steely Dan’s frequently bleak discography. Bleak, I say? I’ll go further. It’s horrifying.

The cynicism they displayed throughout the seventies curdles into something rank and foul-smelling on their last album Gaucho. Their previous album Aja had been perhaps their warmest effort: Peg, Home at Last, the title track and Deacon Blues are hymns to the companionship of a good woman or, in the latter case, of jazz music. What mockery is evident is light-hearted (I Got the News) or regretful (Black Cow). More than on any other Dan album, you sense that the songs’ first-person narrator and Donald Fagen are the same person, or at least that Fagen and Becker have put themselves into their lyrics more than before.

Gaucho, in contrast, is populated with losers, cheaters, stalkers, dealers, users. Fagen and Becker have their fun with all of them. The narrators of Glamour Profession (a drug dealer who thinks he’s a Hollywood star in the making), My Rival (obsessive jilted lover), Gaucho (middle-aged gay man with unfaithful younger lover) and Hey Nineteen (incorrigible pussy-hound falling headlong into an age gap) all deserve his contempt, and they’re the targets of some of his funniest one-liners, while spinning off some good ones themselves: ‘Bodacious cowboys such as your friend will never be welcome here,’ says the narrator of Gaucho to his boyfriend, having found him and the Gaucho in a compromising position. Yet the sum of all this is an album dripping with contempt, a record that surveys the last days of the Me Decade with evident disgust.

That is, until we get to the ambiguous subject of album closer Third World Man, the only character in the whole album whom Fagen treats with any sympathy or compassion, the only one who deserves any.

Who is Johnny? Is he a veteran with PTSD? Is he an immigrant driven mad by the disparity between his circumstances and the privilege taken for granted and squandered by the sort of people who appear throughout the rest of the album? Fagen declines to specify why the sidewalks aren’t safe for a “little guy” like Johnny, or why he wears a disguise, or why the fireworks start (or whether the fireworks and disguise are metaphorical or literal). And surely no one in the narrator’s world had ever tried to find out.

Third World Man is the album’s conscience – the conscience of Steely Dan’s whole career really – and yet it only made the cut because some hapless tape operator recorded test tones all over the master tape for The Second Arrangement, a track Becker and Fagen had previously deemed the best thing they’d ever recorded. TWM (an Aja outtake?) was pulled from the vaults and completed by the addition of Larry Carlton’s guitar solo, the most nakedly emotional playing I’ve ever heard from him, a career highlight for a supremely technical but sometimes bloodless player.

Fagen was dumbfounded by the loss of The Second Arrangement; it was yet another setback in what had already been a tough project, during which he had been shouldering the load almost on his own. Becker had been mired in a heroin addiction, before being hospitalised with a broken foot sustained in a freak car accident. Then he suffered the death of his girlfriend from an overdose. Her family sued him for, they claimed, getting her hooked in the first place (Becker was eventually found not guilty). Left on his own and weary of the work and the responsibility, Fagen’s use of Third World Man in place of what he saw as the band’s ruined masterpiece was an admission of defeat, a rare “will this do?” shrug of the shoulders from a guy for whom no amount of work in the studio had ever been too much. Yet had he chosen to persevere with re-recording The Second Arrangement, we’d have been denied one of the greatest, most humane Steely Dan songs and one of the most affecting album closers in the history of popular music.

Steely Dan chris walter
Walter Becker, Donald Fagen