In 1959, nearly exactly 60 years ago, US backed strongman Fulgencio Batista was toppled as President of Cuba and ran for his life, in 1961 Fidel Castro became the leader of Cuba. In 1959, Donald Fagen was eleven years old and in 1961 he was thirteen years old. That means, Fagen’s much loved 1982 first solo album The Nightfly was not a memory based , nostalgia thrilled, jazz opera as it told the story of an overnight radio jazz DJ who moved to Havana and got out of town one step ahead of a firing squad. No, it is a child’s daydream. And that makes it even gentler and more sepia colored.
The Nightfly was Steely Dan without Walter Becker (they’d be performing together for years and finally had enough -they would reform in 1992 and release their final masterpiece, Two Against Nature in 2000, 20 years between albums), so Gary Katz producing, Larry Carlton on lead guitar when it wasn’t Rick Derringer, legendary drummer Steve Gads is on two songs, a drum machine is looped in all over the place. And remember, this was 1982, so there is only 32 tracks… 31 musicians in total were used and it was the first record ever that was all digital and an audiophile’s dream date.
Look at the years, there is twenty between the date the climax of the album, “The Goodbye Look,” occurred and the release of the album and THIRTY SEVEN between the album and last night, where Steely Dan performed The Nightfly in its entirety. So the album went from a daydreamy nostalgia of a 34 year old to a grizzled, voice impaired old man of 70 in it for the money.
Yes, folks, The Nightfly at the Beacon last night was one against nature. Later in the evening Donald would have Michael McDonald as a guest star in to sing some old Steely songs, Michael can still sing, Donald simply can not. He sounded terrible, he didn’t come within 100 miles of the high end, Fagen’s breathing was so labored he came in and out on song after song. At his best when playing his melodica and conducting his not as precise as we are used to band so that’s to the good, and give him “A” for effort, sure it was still actually quite scary watching him cock back his head like Stevie Wonder and be simply incapable of singing the songs. This has nothing to do with Walter Becker’s death last year. 2016, and Becker still with them, at the same venue, I gave them a “D” (here) and promised to never see them again. Then I wanted to see Vince Gill with the Eagles, so I caught them again at Citifield last year and, Becker out because he was really, really ill, they were terrible and I swore I would never see them again. But The Nightfly, man, that is such a great album, I would put it in the top 100 albums ever, and top 50 if we are discussing favorites. Last night Steely Dan were better than in 2016 and better than in 2017, because, really how much damage can you do to the sensibly reconstructed jazz swing of the Drifters’ “Ruby Baby”. But it should have been one of the great musical experiences and it wasn’t that.
The Beacon has tremendous acoustics but the sound was a little cluttered, and the pacing off a bit, and yes, I wanted to hear “I.G.Y.” -a dream of a song that feels so sad as it bets on a future world that never happened, or, God knows, “The New Frontier” -a set highlight as it rollicks in a post-adolescent, wing-ding in a fallout shelter… I watched it, and I heard it, and I enjoyed it thoroughly… much more than Fagen appeared to. A Bossa Nova “The Goodbye Look”… the great thing about the song is that The Nightfly himself survives, he gets out, and is back in New York by final song on the album. How happy is that? The song is almost funny, the “pour me a Cuban Breeze, Gretchen” -which had the audience roaring its approval, was magical. “Maxine” with the back up singers singing it was good. The problem was that, well, the music hasn’t aged but the performances have. It’s like the Picture Of Dorian Gray, Donald got older, the songs remained as fresh as ever, and suddenly there is nowhere to hide from them, the extreme past and the past and Fagen who is hunched over and looks like your least favorite Rabbi, at seventy years of age he looks like he is 70 years of age. On the cover of the Nightfly, the mid-30s Fagen looks remarkably smooth just like Brubeck (“he’s an artist, a pioneer” -though Fagen was more of a Thelonious Monk fan) and on the back cover is a picture of a house at night, with a light in the top window where the eleven year old Donald listened to his transistor radio -all of this is slightly sad as you watch the show progress. Donald never talks to the audience, never acknowledges except for a thank you so much at the end of the forty minute performance. But he doesn’t abuse them either, he doesn’t wring them out for every drop of good feeling he can get. The performances are straight and mostly marred by his singing and a little by the arrangement, but really if he sang it well I would have been fine with his refusal to give into what it is he is selling.
Of course, there isn’t a chance in hell I will ever go and see Steely Dan. Unless, unless, unless… Michael McDonald joined the band.
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