The physical media of Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly has long since passed out of my life. I first taped it from vinyl back in the mid-Eighties, complete with a scratch on the title track that jumped over about 3 seconds’ worth of music. (Another reason I’ve never been on board the vinyl nostalgia train.) Some time later, I bought a more pristine copy, but in mp3 form only. However, all this time I’ve remembered a key fact from the liner notes, one that Wikipedia has been kind enough to reproduce for me, saving me the trouble of paraphrasing. Quoth Fagen himself:
Note: The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.
In other words, we’ve found a prime specimen of that fantastic beast, the concept album. Each song on The Nightfly represents in one way or another the teen dreams of Fagen himself, albeit written now from the distance of adulthood. Those childhood imaginings mixed romantic notions of hard-boiled heartbreak with giddily optimistic visions of the future, both for the world and for himself.
Nowhere is that optimism more obvious than in “I.G.Y.”. The International Geophysical Year was a project undertaken by 67 nations from July 1957 through December 1958. Satellites were launched, undersea ridges were mapped, the Van Allen belt was explored, Antarctic research bases were built, and more. In young Fagen’s eyes, all this scientific advancement and international cooperation meant that “a beautiful world” was just around the corner — by 1976 we’d have cities powered by the sun, leisure time for artists everywhere, eternal youth and freedom.
But of course, this album came out in 1982, and despite its wide-eyed lyrics, Fagen’s voice can’t help but lend a sardonic edge to every song. Thus, unlike Howard Jones’ version of this leadoff track, Fagen’s original maintains some ironic distance from its narrator, whose glorious ideals had already been disproven.
Nevertheless, youthful hope pervades many of the songs on this album. “Walk Between The Raindrops” envisions our hero in an idealized relationship, in an idyllic Miami setting. The title image evokes an untouchability, divine providence to see the lovers unscathed through every adversity. Similarly, “Maxine” paints the future of a high-school romance as a whirlwind of exotic travel, sophisticated living, and morning lovemaking. The album’s sole cover, a version of Dion’s “Ruby Baby”, fits into this sunny daydream world too — within its story of unrequited love is the firm belief that “I’m gonna steal you away from all those guys.”
“New Frontier” sits apart from these other songs. Like “Maxine”, it’s spoken by the high-school boy, but unlike “Maxine”, its visions of the future are in service of making things happen in the present. Young Fagen (or in any case a narrator who might as well be young Fagen) is throwing a “wingding”, presumably in his parents’ absence, inviting friends to explore “a dugout that my dad built / In case the Reds decide to push the button down” — in other words, a fallout shelter. That shelter is fortified with “lots of beer”, which the boy hopes will help him score with a blonde girl who’s “got a touch of Tuesday Weld.”
For this girl, he spins a fantasy which manages to combine an “I.G.Y.”-ish enthusiasm for a perfect future, a “Maxine”-ish idea of his dazzling path into manhood, and an entirely improbable excitement about a post-nuclear world in which “we’ll open up the doors and climb into the dawn.” All of it, though, is to get this girl alone in the shelter. He asks if she’s single, chats her up about jazz, and urges her to “pretend that it’s the real thing” so that they can “stay together all night long.” Forget about the streamlined world, this “New Frontier” is much more personal and sexual than global and scientific.
There’s another side to this album, though, albeit no less sentimental in its way. “Green Flower Street” is our first hint. In this tune, the narrator is a pulp hero, who woos an Asian woman (“my mandarin plum”) in a dangerous milieu, where “it’s murder out in the street” and “there’s trouble most every night.” Despite her brother’s rage at the interracial affair, the hero’s “joy is complete” when he’s with his lover.
The equally pulpy hero of “The Goodbye Look” doesn’t fare quite as well. The title is a bit anachronistic for the “late fifties and early sixties” concept — the line “I read the book” directs us pretty clearly to a literary predecessor, which I thought for sure would have been a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett yarn, but instead turns out to be from a 1969 novel by Ross MacDonald, the spiritual successor to those innovators of the hard-boiled detective story.
The song’s plot has nothing to do with MacDonald’s book, though — it’s more akin to Graham Greene’s “The Comedians”, if anything — a westerner caught in the machinations of a corrupt Caribbean island government. His tone, though, nails those hard-boiled hallmarks of understatement (“a small reception just for me” is redolent with menace) and regret (in the dream of an old lover, and the title kiss-off image.) That tough-tender combination, reminiscent of Elvis Costello’s “Watching The Detectives”, is the teenage boy’s masculine ideal, fed by a hundred Chandlers, Hammetts, and MacDonalds too.
That leaves us with the title track, whose title character finds the apogee of the heartbroken hero. Lester the Nightfly brims with sarcasm, a tone Fagen can play to a T. From his citadel at the foot of Mt. Belzoni, he beams “jazz and conversation” into the world, sucking down “java and Chesterfield Kings”, and berating his callers for their wacky views or their inattention to preventing echo by leaving their radio playing during a call. He shills for “that little blue jar / Patton’s Kiss And Tell”, and revels in sweet music. And yet, he says, “I feel like crying,” and wishes for a heart of ice. The bridge brings us the rest of the story, a long-ago love who he still pines for to this day.
In the context of “Green Flower Street” and “The Goodbye Look”, it’s easy to see how this image might have appealed to young Fagen. He’s kind of a spiritual cousin to the title character in Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues”, who manages to make car crashes and alcohol poisoning sound like the perfect expression of artistic freedom. The dissolute loser, who gambled at life and lost, is a romantic archetype all its own, and a young man who feels unlucky in love can at least dream of nursing heartbreak while devoting himself to music.
With the exception of the album’s nod to Dion, that music is jazz. Brubeck gets name-checked specifically, but the sound of the whole album wouldn’t feel entirely out of place on WJAZ. True, he covers Dion (or The Drifters, I suppose), but on The Nightfly Donald Fagen shows us who he was, and why he’d go on to bring jazz and rock together so memorably.