After Steely Dan closed up shop in the early 1980s, Donald Fagen went solo with The Nightfly, an album which became an instant and timeless classic. Now a mere 24 years later he has finished his semi-autobiographical trilogy with the release of Morph The Cat.
By Andy Gill
NEW YORK — In the brutal world of American football, teams often employ what they call a “hurry-up offense,” a series of plays they can run quickly when time is running out. You don’t need to meet Donald Fagen — a hunched, thin and angular presence, the antithesis of “sporty” — in person to realise he’s not exactly Mr Hurry-Up. You just have to check his release schedule, which makes even such leisurely operators as Kate Bush and The Blue Nile seem like feverish paragons of industry.
After his first solo album, the timeless classic “The Nightfly,” appeared in 1981, nothing was heard of Fagen until 12 years later, when he finally got round to releasing the follow-up, the sci fi-themed “Kamakiriad.” The reason for such a yawning lacuna, he confided at the time, was a loss of confidence and direction which, reading between the lines, could be recognised as something between a midlife crisis and a nervous breakdown, a hole out of which he had to climb before continuing his career. This month, he delivers “Morph The Cat,” the third installment of what constitutes a loose trilogy — although this time, he has a less sensitive excuse for his tardiness, having spent much of the intervening 13 years working with the reformed Steely Dan, with whom he’s recorded one live and two studio albums, and undertaken two grueling tours.
We meet in the Time-Warner building in New York, virtually across the street from Radio City Music Hall, so I am secretly delighted to find him wearing a pair of bad sneakers. Back in the Seventies, a Steely Dan song contained what has to be, hands down, the most convoluted — yet curiously catchy — chorus in pop history, to wit: “Bad sneakers and a pina colada my dear/Stompin’ on the avenue by Radio City with a/Transistor and a large sum of money to spend.” It became such a staple of the Dan lyrical mythography that the duo’s mid-Nineties VH1 Storytellers performance was conducted in front of a giant backdrop map of Manhattan on which the music hall was prominently marked.
The map was entirely apt, as New York has furnished an intrinsic part of Fagen and his colleague Walter Becker’s aesthetic ever since they left college and tried hawking their weird songs around the publishers of Broadway’s legendary Brill Building. Even when they moved out to Los Angeles and formed Steely Dan, they took New York with them, secure in their hearts and their attitudes. As cynical, sardonic, overeducated cultural snobs with a fondness for complex chords and hipster humour, just about the only other Angeleno with whom they might have got on well in La-La land would have been Frank Zappa.
When the bloody red sun of fantastic LA had finally, inevitably, scorched the life out of Steely Dan, Walter Becker upped sticks for Hawaii to clear his head. Fagen headed back east, home to New York, where he’s remained for the subsequent quarter-century, grappling with his moods and his muse. He’s become the pop equivalent of Woody Allen, a drolly cynical, jazz-loving, neurotic Jewish observer of the passing show, who feels less at ease the farther he strays from Manhattan. You can’t imagine Fagen yomping through the countryside gulping down lungfuls of healthy air. He’s strictly a smoky-jazz-bar, triple-latte-to-go kind of guy, a sort of Seinfeld misfit who needs the city’s brash, corrupting energy to keep his mind ticking over.
“Woody Allen’s from another generation than I am, but I think there are some parallels,” he agrees, “in that he’s an over-educated Jew, and I think he feels more at home here than anywhere, and maybe feels like an outsider outside of Manhattan. Maybe even inside Manhattan!
“We probably have more in common than not. But because I’m younger than he is, maybe I felt that in the Sixties America had a chance to change its course — there was a moment of optimism there which is probably past now.” Like Allen, Fagen finds it hard to keep his natural pessimism under wraps. “It may have been an illusion, but there was a sense of community in the Sixties, for about 10 seconds, but it was critically adulterated by the media and other things. And the drugs didn’t help. A lot of other things went wrong. It created this enormous backlash which we’re still suffering from.”
There’s a pervasive air of apprehension about “Morph The Cat” that’s at least partly to do with that backlash, as Fagen confronts the fallout of the Second Bush Era. Even the chimaeric figure of Morph The Cat itself, a sort of feelgood spirit whose presence hovers over New York, is less benevolent than first appears the case.
“To me it’s got an ominous side which isn’t that apparent at first,” he claims, “in the sense that he seems to have his own personality, but because he’s narcotized the citizenry, they may not notice — he makes them feel really good. At least, I saw it that way. But I think there’s something ominous about a lot of the record, actually. I think “The Nightfly” was from the standpoint of adolescence, and although the second album had this sci-fi framing device, it was really more about midlife, in a way. And this one’s looking towards the endings of things, so it has a more apprehensive mood about it.”
Fagen is a confirmed fan of W.C. Fields, whose attitude and humour continue to provide him with inspiration
So, what has prompted this?
“Mortality!” says Fagen, with a terse bark of mordant laughter. “It’s intimations of mortality. I’m 58, and by that time, more people you know have died. My mother died a few years ago. And being a New Yorker, 9/11 had a lot to do with the mood of the city.”
Fagen, it transpired, was in New York when the Twin Towers came down.
“I didn’t see the actual thing happen, but I was stuck in town for a few days afterwards, because you couldn’t leave,” he explains. “The bridges and tunnels were all secured and there was no traffic. I saw the people walking uptown, trying to get home, and a lot of people covered in soot. There were fighter planes going overhead — a very wartime sort of atmosphere. Then this huge cloud of smoke downtown started climbing towards the moon. It was very strange. Everyone was in shock. So not only did everything about the town change, you were also seeing it from a shocked perspective.”
And while the ordeal brought out a spirit of comradeship in many New Yorkers, there were a few ominous exceptions, as Fagen noticed when walked over to a hospital to give blood.
“While all the police were downtown, they had these cadets from the police academy, these grey uniforms I’d not seen before, controlling traffic at the big intersections,” he recalls. “It was their first chance to exercise power, and I noticed they were kind of bullying people around, which had a real wartime vibe about it.”
Since then, of course, events at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib have effectively formalised that kind of behaviour as the American Way, whilst back home any uniformed functionary — right down to hotel commissionaires — feels justified in adopting a brusque, threatening tone with their customers. With the advent of Homeland Security, I wonder, does Fagen feel his homeland is any more secure than it was?
“I’ve no idea,” he admits, “though I do know that some of the security lines I’ve been through, whether in airports, or coming into this building today, are quite laughable. Which is OK with me, because if they were really rigid it would make life quite nasty. I don’t mind the lax security myself, but it’s kind of silly.”
In the notes to the song “Mary Shut The Garden Door,” he says “Paranoia blooms when a thuggish cult gains control of the government.” Surely, I protest, that could never happen in the US? “Nah, couldn’t happen here!” he deadpans, before outlining the differences, for him at least, between the Clinton Era and the Bush Era.
“The Clinton era, if it didn’t have hope, at least had the illusion of hope, which is good enough for me!” he offers, with another self-mocking snort of laughter. “But I was born into paranoia, I’m a hydrogen-bomb baby, with the air-raid drills and all of that stuff. I grew up with the almost certain expectation of worldwide nuclear war. So I’ve always felt I was living on borrowed time, I was taught to think that way. Then after the nuclear threat died down, you had the Vietnam War on TV every night. There were a few decades after that when there wasn’t that much overtly threatening, but what’s happening now is like it’s back to living in terror all the time.” He gives another mordant chuckle. “Now my body’s settled back into its normal tingling sensation of terror. But at least I’m not of draft age any more, so I don’t have that to worry about.”
Still, there’s plenty of other things for Donald to worry about, not least the chilly breeze of mortality growing closer, a smouldering apprehension which, typically, he attempts to douse with humour. “You can either approach it with fear,” he believes, “or just make a lot of jokes about it. I prefer the jokes strategy. With things that you have no control over, humour is usually the best way to go.” Hence, when he decides to reflect upon death, Fagen doesn’t look to the great philosophers, but to the great comedians, taking the inspiration for his new song “Brite Nitegown” from W C Fields, who used to refer to death as “the fellow in the bright nightgown.”
Fagen is a confirmed fan of the great man, whose attitude and humour continue to provide him with inspiration. “Fields used to bill himself as ‘The World’s Greatest Juggler’,” he says. “And he was. He had an amazing life. He trained himself as a juggler first; he didn’t talk, just juggled. His patter really started as that stuff you say as you’re juggling, little asides and so on. He was the most politically incorrect comedian ever — I love him, especially that movie “It’s A Gift,” the greatest movie of all time! His picture of family life is, on a certain level, the most accurate depiction I’ve ever seen, including any play by Pinter or the Greek playwrights. I love that bit where he comes down the stairs smoking a cigarette, sees his wife is in the sitting room, and eats the cigarette! Perfect!”
Another inspirational hero of Fagen’s was Ray Charles, both as a keyboard player and as an icon of hipster cool. There are musical echoes of Ray Charles throughout Fagen’s oeuvre, most obviously in the way he effortlessly fused jazz and R&B to score pop success; and the soul pioneer’s attitude and style are paid tribute in the new album’s “What I Do,” “A conversation between some younger version of myself and the ghost of Ray Charles,” which finds Ray advising Don to “find your bad self” in order to emulate his success with the ladies.
“I think Ray Charles was one of the most mysterious people ever. Just watching him, the way his body moves — for a kid from New Jersey to see that kind of passion, that was really revelatory for me. At that point I was living in the suburbs, and even though I was a jazz fan when I was very young, and used to hearing passionate performances on records, the general tendency of jazz in the Fifties was cool, so seeing Ray Charles, who had that much gospel in his style, you could tell he was utterly authentic. So yeah, he had a huge influence on me.”
Not that Fagen has ever really tried to emulate Ray Charles’ passion in his performances, of course. “Morph The Cat” is a typical example of his own somewhat cooler approach, in which arrangements of Ellingtonian depth and subtlety are tugged gently along by immaculately understated funk grooves, whilst the lyrics sprout unusual coinings and one-use songwords like “arctic mindbath” and “Rabelaisian.” The cumulative impression given by the album is that reality is so much harder to cope with today that people would rather escape into fantasy, drugs or just plain denial than have to deal with it directly. Fagen doesn’t deny this, but he doesn’t offer judgment, either.
“Well, I think there’s a valid escape into a good relationship, that’s the best escape in a way,” he says. “Constant vigilance is very stressful, and since they don’t let you drink or take drugs any more, you have to have sex or something.”
They do say the poor enjoy sex more, because it’s all they have.
“Well, they have music too,” says Fagen. “Hopefully!” He pauses a moment, then adds, “That’s all I have, actually. I’m a happy-go-lucky guy!”