Tag Archives: The Nightfly

Walter Becker RIP

I was away last week and read about Walter Becker’s passing in the New York Times. They gave him a full-page obituary – indicative, I thought at first, of the band’s  higher profile in the US compared to here, until I opened up the BBC News app on my phone and saw that his death was a top story there, too.

I’m no different from any other pop fan, and can’t keep the music and the artist entirely separate. It requires a particular cast of mind to do that, and I don’t have it. My thoughts about the character of the musicians whose work I admire (none of whom I know) feed into my understanding of that work.

But with Walter Becker, I had to make an attempt to consider the music as separate from the man, as he was always something of an enigma. His partner Donald Fagen made a somewhat autobiographical solo album (The Nightfly) in the 1980s, and published a book a few years ago detailing his teenage art-cultural obsessions. Moreover, he was the singer, and it’s hard not to hear the words being sung as a reflection of the singer, even when you know that he didn’t write all of them.

Reticent though Fagen is next to his rock’n’roll peers, Becker was even less forthcoming. Photographs of him suggest a stern character, or perhaps a supercilious one (his friend Rickie Lee Jones said in her tribute to Becker that he hated to be photographed, which may explain why he could look off-putting in photos). His work suggests a bottomless sarcasm and cynicism. In the Classic Albums documentary on Aja, he’s gimlet-eyed and brutally dismissive about the faults he hears in recordings and performances that appear faultless to we ordinary mortals. Yet those who knew him speak of a gentle, patient man, generous with his time, but shy and affected by a difficult childhood and some troubled adult relationships.

What we know for sure is what we know from his work. Like Fagen, he was a studio perfectionist. He was egoless in pursuit of the best record possible, handing over tracks to trusted players whenever he thought someone else would do a better job than he could – despite being a crackerjack guitarist himself. For years, I didn’t know that he played one of my favourite ever guitar solos (the one on Aja‘s Home at Last), simply because he so rarely allowed himself the luxury of taking a solo when Denny Dias, Larry Carlton, Jay Graydon, Elliott Randall, Rick Derringer and Mark Knopfler were a phone call away. Think about that: a guitarist working in rock music who was self-effacing to the point where he was willing to not play on songs off the last two albums at all (songs that he wrote) in pursuit of the best possible records.

That kind of musical humility deserves applause. But really, everything he did as part of Steely Dan deserves applause.

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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: