“The Nightfly,” Fagen’s Brilliant Solo Set

by Kevin Burton

   If you loved Steely Dan, you couldn’t miss “The Nightfly,” by Donald Fagen, the 1982 solo debut for the band’s co-founder.

   This fabulous set taught me something about Fagen and about Steely Dan.

   This is the fourth post I have dedicated to answering the “album challenge” by writing about records that influenced me earlier in life. 

   I just googled “coolest rock and roller” and got lists of “the greatest.”  That is not what I asked for.

   I don’t see Fagen as a candidate for greatest rock and roller, but can’t think of anyone who is cooler.  Check out his You Tube videos where he breaks down how the music to some of the Steely Dan hits were put together.

   “The Nightfly,” in lyrics and music, is super cool, but it’s not like Steely Dan.  Here’s the difference: 

   “I actually tried to write these new songs with as little irony as possible,” Fagen told The New York Times.  “I guess Walter’s lyrics tend to have a little more bite than mine. I wanted this album to be a little brighter, a little lighter than a Steely Dan record.”

   Fagen was of course speaking about Walter Becker, the other Steely Dan co-founder. I always assumed that Steely Dan “thing,” the lyrics you couldn’t untangle to save your life, sprang mostly from the mind of Fagen. Guess not.

   Figuring out some of those Steely Dan lyrics was like trying to fold a fitted sheet.  

   I think Steely Dan shares a place in history with Monty Python, as acts so brilliant that a large chunk of society just didn’t get them.

    Steely Dan never charted as well as I would have thought.  “The Nightfly” was well received but didn’t chart well either.

   “IGY” (which you may remember as What a Beautiful World) reached number 26. “New Frontier,” to me the better of the two singles, stalled at number 70.

   But the album has had staying power. Its continued popularity through the years led   Robert J. Toth of the Wall Street Journal to call it “One of pop music’s sneakiest masterpieces.”

   The album is an homage to positivity and technology in the Kennedy Era and is very much auto-biographical.

   Fagan somehow got even the sound of technology and efficiency musically into the two songs that charted. He makes a convincing case for that late 50s early 60s era as the best time to be alive.

   The title tune is told in the voice of a fictional all-night DJ, “Lester the Nightfly,” who played jazz and took calls. At the time I was a consumer of such talk shows. Larry Glick on WBZ in Boston and Jim White on KMOX St. Louis were my favorites. The song speaks to the random, weird calls that hit the airwaves while most people are asleep.

   “The Goodbye Look,” one of my favorites, is the song closest to Steely Dan in terms of lyrics you have to decipher.

   I have used the chorus as a personal catchphrase, when jobs or relationships were obviously ending, “I know what happens, I read the book, I believe I just got the goodbye look….”

  Because it is a Fagen song, I always searched for deeper meaning from the term “Mandarin plum” in “Green Flower Street.” It didn’t help that I misheard it as “madrin plum.” With that correction and from context it appears to be just a term of affection for a Chinese woman. 

   Fagen’s reworked version of the Leiber and Stoler song “Ruby Baby” makes me wish he would record a while album of covers just to get his take on certain songs.

   The infectious “Walk Between Raindrops” might be the sunniest song about rain I have ever heard.

   “Maxine” is my least favorite song on this set but that’s just by comparison with the others. The harmony on it is superb. And it mentions Mexico City, which would later become an important city for me.

   Only eight songs on the set, but just as with Steely Dan’s “Aja” (which only has seven), you don’t feel cheated.

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1 Comment

  1. How interesting that you should write about this just now. I don’t recall having heard of it back when it was first released. However, today I read what you have written and I just got hold of a copy of this a few minutes before that. Something tells me I’m supposed to give this a good listen! 🙂

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