It could have been a lot worse than it was. Six to eight weeks off the bike, won’t be playing much guitar for a while, can still operate an airsoft rifle and a race car (sorta). Still don’t like it. And it would have been better, somehow, if I hadn’t led most of the race. Easier to go from DFL to a broken wrist than from P1 to same. I’m not permitted to lift any weights with my left hand/arm, which will make it a bit more difficult to hold onto the nearly twenty-pound weight loss I managed in August and September. Oh, and then I managed to completely break my rather fancy, and in no way completely paid for, Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra phone. Just to make sure I entered the month of October flat broke, earlier today my freelance/personal IdeaPad suffered death-of-the-keyboard after just four and a half years of use. (That’s sarcasm; not since my mighty 600X have I actually gotten this much use out of a laptop.) None of this qualifies as tragedy but it also doesn’t qualify for any of the sympathy I would receive were I subject to an actual tragedy.
On the other hand, those of us who live in a permanent Seventies of the soul have some good news to celebrate, so let’s get to that.
Ten days ago, Donald Fagen released two live albums. The first and more widely desired one is Northeast Corridor Live, the first live album by “Steely Dan” since the oft-reviled Alive In America. The second is Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly Live. Insofar as we are now down to just one living “core” Steely Dan member, and insofar as these albums appear to have been recorded with essentially the same personnel, the difference in their labeling amounts to a nicety, but I’m sure it’s important to someone, somewhere.
They’re both great, which was in no way assured given Fagen’s age and the difficulties of touring and recording in, ahem, the worst disease to ever strike anywhere at any time. Northeast Corridor has a few delightful choices besides the Greatest Hits, most notably “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”, “Glamour Profession”, and “Things I Miss The Most”. The latter is the only track from the past forty-one years; everything else is from that fecund 1972-1980 period that burned the band into the American brain.
In the aftermath of said eight years, and not incidentally the drug-related death of Walter Becker’s girlfriend, Fagen went solo to write and release The Nightfly. It’s such a mature, thoughtful, and sentimental release that one’s mind slightly boggles at the fact he was just thirty-two years old at the time. (At the same age, David Lee Roth recorded Eat ‘Em And Smile, if that helps put things in perspective.) The subject of the album is, approximately, the emotions and environment experienced by a teenaged Fagen in the Camelot Era. It was the last time he would look backwards with any consistency; after that, he focused on the future.
And not just the grim irrelevant future faced by the narrators of “Deacon Blues” and “Hey Nineteen”, but the science-fiction future. Like many other Boomers, Fagen had been interested in sci-fi for a long time. The song “Sign In Stranger”, from The Royal Scam, is a sort of proto-cyberpunk tale of Mizar Five, a putative planet circling a double star in Ursa Major.
Fagen’s second solo album, Kamakiriad, is all in on science fantasy. Rather than rephrase David Browne’s review, I’ll just quote it:
To prove just how old-world it is, Kamakiriad is one of those antiquities known as a concept album. Set around the millennium, it revolves around a wide-eyed narrator tooling around the country in a steam-powered, environmentally correct car called a Kamakiri (Japanese for praying mantis). A cross between Blade Runner and Lost in America, the story includes visits to a virtual-reality nostalgia theme park (”Springtime”) and, in ”Tomorrow’s Girls,” a sighting of some sexy extraterrestrials.
It is an album at once enthused and depressed, knowing and innocent, hopeful and hopeless. It’s hugely obvious that Fagen was reading Gibson and Sterling; “Snowbound” is basically a cyberpunk story set to music. The narrative tone isn’t that different from The Nightfly, and with good reason, because they are both told from the perspective of excitable youth. And while there’s no hint of those futuristic leanings on Two Against Nature, the Dan album that called time on a long slumber, the follow-up Everything Must Go sees Fagen once again channeling his inner Robert Heinlein. “The Last Mall” is Neuromancer via the cynicism of “Gaucho”. The rollicking “Godwhacker” follows a group of enhanced humans as they jaunt across space and time to kill the Deity himself. “Green Book”, a track that would be immediately recognizable as a Steely Dan tune to almost anyone with merely a random five-second excerpt, leans on the always-reliable conceit of… bio-engineered clone women?
My coat is black and the moon is yellow
Here is where I get off
As you can see for yourself old girl in the Green Book
I tango down to the smoky lobby
My eyes adjust to the light
The new cashier looks like Jill St. John
Can that be right?
I’m rolling into the bar at Joey’s
They’re getting ready to close
And here she comes very “Kiss Me Deadly”
My life, my love, my third hand rose
Flash ahead to a yummy playback
Just you and me in a room
Double dreaming a page at a time in the Green Book
The torso rocks and the eyes are keepers
Now where’d we sample those legs?
I’m thinking Marilyn 4.0 in the Green Book
I like the neon I love the music
Anachronistic but nice
The seamless segue from fun to fever
It’s a sweet device
I’m so in love with this dirty city
This crazy grid of desire
The festive icons along the way
The boardwalk, the lovers, the house on fire
She’s kinda cute but a little younger
She’s got the mood and the moves
It’s kinda scary to dig yourself in the Green Book
One of the most cherished hobbies of Steely Dan enthusiasts is a little game called Is This Becker’s Idea Or Fagen’s Idea? It’s safe to say that any time you see science fiction, nostalgia, or the irrational-but-evocative combination of the two, it’s Fagen at work. (On the other hand, ruminations on the worthlessness or faithlessness or women, preferably accompanied by a world-weary suicidal ideation, is pure Becker.) Fagen’s last two solo albums haven’t offered much in the way of futuristic imagination, being obsessed with September 11th (Morph The Cat) and the dissolution of American society (Sunken Condos), but there is some hope on the horizon.
Fagen has spent the past few years scrapping with the estate of his departed partner over the rights and payments from future Steely-Dan-branded tours and music, but according to a recent interview he’s also put together enough material for a new album. Let’s hope it offers a peek, however brief, at the future as we envisioned it in the past.
For Hagerty, I wrote about the breaks.