Weekly Roundup: Time Out For Bad Behavior And The Gentle Sci-Fi Of Donald Fagen Edition

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.

23 Replies to “Weekly Roundup: Time Out For Bad Behavior And The Gentle Sci-Fi Of Donald Fagen Edition”

  1. Bon Ivermectin

    Praying for a fast and full recovery.

    I understand your thesis about the consequences of excessive fear of risk, but it would be nice if there was some way to educate this guy to improve with a degree of proportionality (perhaps he’ll read your column!). Unfortunately, that’s something that our society seems to have lost in almost all areas.

  2. Bruce Mayhall Rastrelli

    I’m looking for cd reviews written for Digital Audio and CD Review by Roland Graeme. Dead ends everywhere from archive.org, google books, online searches.
    Can you help?

  3. NoID

    Hope you heal quickly. 3/4 of my kids broke bones this year, as did their father (though it was just my vestigial pinky toe, so no real harm done). I wouldn’t say we’re on a first name basis with the local ortho quite yet, but they definitely know our faces at this point.

    Regarding laptops, our last two (both purchased for my wife) have been terrible. First was a new but basic HP purchased about 4 years ago (the model name escapes me), the next was a midrange Lenovo ThinkPad E15 bought this past Christmas. It was intermittently slow out of the box and the touch screen was fritzy, and even after one warranty repair it still struggles at times to simply run Word, PowerPoint, and Chrome or Edge simultaneously. Meanwhile my work-issued HP ProBook is a good soldier, pushing 4 years and going strong with just the occasional slog through molasses while typing. I don’t know if my wife is just the kiss of death for computers or if you really just can’t get a good laptop for less than a G, but it’s frustrating as all get out.

    Speaking of concept albums, ever given Clutch’s “Psychic Warfare” or “Book of Bad Decisions” a go? I don’t know if they’re textbook concept albums or rock operas, but they definitely tell a story and have some sci-fi leanings to them (PW more than BoBD).

    • NoID

      Also, a question from someone who really wants to get out on track but thus far has been stymied by the prior decision to start a medium-large family at the age of 18: I understand why he rolled, as it was advantageous for him to get back pointing the right direction. Is that the “wrong” thing to do primarily because it keeps a spinning, slow car on the track and in front of everybody, thus increasing the chances of further carnage (of the kind you experienced)? Better to slide off in a predictable fashion and accept 100% your shame rather than distribute it to other cars in the field?

      Speaking of my dreams being crushed by…someone with a rocking torso…the largest fruit of our union may be getting into a Predator circle-track kart next spring if our friend decides to sell his stuff. Fingers crossed…

      • Mike

        I don’t have as much on track experience as Jack, nor will I likely ever, but in the races I have done I’ve been witness to several spins and other mishaps, two of which I was involved in. When things go wrong, they seem to go wrong very slowly until it’s all at once. At that point, if you haven’t reeled it in, there’s usually very little you can do to keep it under control. The best you can hope for is to be consistent. As I like to say, predictably bad is still predictable. Also, at the races I’ve run, there can be 80 or 90 other drivers out there, of which I’m intimately familiar with the driving habits of maybe 4 or 5 of. As the odds go, they’re generally not the people who are getting into mischief. So when trouble happens, I tend to give it a wide berth.

        One of my favorite “hero” anecdotes….I was doing an A&D (Arrive and Drive) for a team down at Road Atlanta. I was in a non-turbo right hand drive Subaru wagon, so not a particularly good car from any perspective, but it was predictable as a sundial. Coming off the long main stretch into T1, two large sedans got tangled together (in my memory they were a gold Mercedes and a green Jag) and I realized that if I aimed for the exact spot where the cars were _now_, by the time the Subaru and I arrived at that point, the Merc and the Jag would be spun off elsewhere. It played out just like something out of the movies; the two bruiser sedans caromed and spun off, and I threaded the needle between them. The car owner had watched the whole thing and gave me a hearty high five at the end of my stint for that stunt!

  4. JMcG

    Hope you get well soon, Jack. I roadraced motorcycles a good while ago and managed to get out with damage only to my wallet.
    I am very fond of Nightfly and listen to it far more than Steely Dan these days. It goes really well with grilling a steak over charcoal while sipping a martini. Sort of like Waylon Jennings goes with drinking a can of beer while your buddy drives the pickup. As you pointed out, incredible that it was made by a thirty-two year old. I was 17 when it came out and couldn’t imagine the world that was about to open up in front of me. By the time I realized how lovely were the times I’d lived through, I was past the point of casting any light on them.

    • John C.

      I am sure in the present day Mr. Fagin is just happy to have appreciative ears for Nightfly. I wonder though when the album was new. A grilling and martini man at the height of Steely Dan’s career would have probably instead chose to listen to Sinatra or perhaps that Gone Fishing song as sung by Bing Crosby and Louie Armstrong. Having experience with how music like that was made at the Brill Building, Steely Dan was a rebellion against that structure. The rebellion was of course much more successful with people who had at least started with that structure and instruction, After the structure was gone, the quality of the rebellion fell into the abyss.

      • JMcG

        The Steely Dan albums always seemed kind of snide to me, not actually heartfelt enough to be a rebellion, just jaded and louche. Nightfly wasn’t like that, at least to my unsophisticated 17 year old war.
        I’m a particular fan of Lyle Lovett’s work with his large band when I’m in a martini mood these days.
        Speaking of which, my first boss was a three martini lunch man. A really terrific guy. I can’t for the life of me figure out how people functioned with that level of alcohol in them. He did, though.

  5. hank chinaski

    I’ve heard ‘New Frontier’ and maybe ‘IGY’, not elevator-ized, overhead at grocery stores on more than one occasion, and once caught ‘Maxine’ out of a car at the beach. I need to give Kamakiriad another shot.

  6. Eric L.

    Now you’ll have more time to play MoO! I saw this video a few weeks ago, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpjxWBwLkIE), about a nice man’s observations on how swarms of weaker units can obliterate stronger units. It immediately made me think about MoO: Maybe that’s the ideal strategy to use against The Guardian. My small fleets of powered-up ships seemed to get wiped out too quickly. Maybe all those tech trees for ships were traps laid by those crafty game designers, and the real solution was to crank out hordes of basic ships.

    And, man, how many games of AoE2 have I lost for not knowing Lanchester’s Law? 🙁

    • sobro

      AoE2 takes me back to a simpler time. Select a group of basic archers, target an individual knight, rinse, repeat. Try to fire from high ground for extra hit points.

  7. yossarian

    is there gas in the car,?
    yes, there’s gas in the car….

    i’ve spent a significant portion of the last few months listening to my steely dan collection and trying to figure out who is playing what. denny dias deserves more recognition than he gets for the early, and in my opinion best, dan albums. also, there’s a great documentary on youtube with becker and fagan in a studio breaking down the tracks on asia.

    i never have been able to get on board with the later albums but you have piqued my interest and it’s time to give fagan a second chance.

    get well soon!

  8. goose

    I hear ice cream is good therapy for broken wrists

    I’ve been to the land
    Where the mu mu mate
    And the children still cry
    Mine’s a 99!!

    Hope you heal up fast

  9. Ken

    Jack, I’m about 10 years younger, but between also being a mountain biker (and strength training) I’m seeing it’s easier to get injured as I age.

    I began supplementing with Glucosamine and Chondroitin a few years ago; and focusing on stretching and muscle groups I wouldn’t normally focus on. I’ve added grip exercises, (Captains of Crunch are great and USA made), neck exercises (a weighted neck harness, ya look like a sex gimp but it’s good for neck strength) and core exercises.

    Its reduced the strain on my body and allowed me to hang a bit longer in the sport and the gym.

    • silentsod

      I’ve got a Captains of Crunch 100# sitting next to me. I can click it easily enough it’s time to move on up.

      Anywho, I recently added cooldown stretches after many years of doing no such thing and lifting weights/doing cardio/etc. Wow, is my back/hips/glutes and all that interconnected stuff tight! I’ve seen good improvement in hip flexors. The back/glute stuff is relieving what I believe is an aggravated nerve which is making my toes tingle as I type. I consider myself unfortunately late to the mobility game and now I have to undo two decades of strong chair game.

      Did you notice a real difference with glucosamien and chondroitin?

      • Jack Baruth Post author

        I’m on the Gripzilla 150 and 200 for left and right hands respectively. Didn’t realize there was a USA alternative!

    • Jack Baruth Post author

      Utterly insane.

      Imagine a world in which this happened and… I don’t know, Bernard Purdie went on to play Fletch?


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