Peter Jones – Nightfly: The Life of Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen
(Chicago Review Press. Book review by Peter Bacon)
Mark Murphy… Jon Hendricks… Donald Fagen… For those of us not far from author Peter Jones in both years and taste, it’s a perfectly logical sequence. The title of Jones’ first foray into musical biography was This Is Hip: The Life of Mark Murphy and, were it not for the risk of sowing confusion among booksellers and book seekers alike, he might easily have given that same title to his one about Hendricks (This Is Bop: Jon Hendricks and the Art of Vocal Jazz), and to this one. Hipness they all have, in spades.
In an article in Philosophy Now, in which Thorsten Botz-Bornstein links Stoicism and Hip Hop, we find this: “Coolness is a nonconformist balance that manages to square circles and to personify paradoxes.” Substitute Hip for Cool and we have an indication of the conundrums and apparent contradictions that make people like Murphy, Hendricks and Fagen so interesting as subjects for Jones’ investigations and potentially so intriguing for us as readers.
To a great extent, the Steely Dan story was told perfectly adequately by Brian Sweet in Reelin’ In The Years, but this was published in 1994, shortly after Fagen had released his second solo album, Kamakiriad, and Steely Dan had just begun touring once more (an occurrence only slightly less surprising than the sight later in that decade of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson back on stage), but before the two subsequent Dan albums and two more Fagen solo efforts, plus loads more international touring.
Half of Nightfly covers the same ground as Reelin’ In The Years, and although Jones’ focus is on Fagen as an individual rather than the band which was in effect Fagen and his musical partner Walter Becker, inevitably, given that Steely Dan was so all absorbing, it’s really just a question of a tweaking of emphasis and slightly different anecdotes.
There are times when this feels a little strained. Do we really need, for example, the tale on page 53 about how Walter’s mother Joan embarrassed herself in front of Walter and his then girlfriend Audrey Thaler? And could it have something to do with the fact that Thaler is one of the few Dan/Fagen associates that Jones specifically thanks in the acknowledgements and so presumably one of the few first-hand sources he had?
Of course, there is nothing wrong with the unauthorised biography (Fagen and Becker wouldn’t talk to Sweet either, and given the nature of the men, our eyebrows would have been raised if they had) but without some really strong close sources or a very well articulated personal angle on the subject matter, the results will stand or fall on the thoroughness of the research and even-handedness of the treatment.
According to these criteria, Nightfly stands pretty solidly. Jones has delved thoroughly and comments intelligently. A little disagreement with the general consensus might have added some spice, but if Jones agrees with the critics of the time and since as to which albums were the finest and which the greatest disappointments, then who am I to complain. (Yes, I am aware that my deep personal affection for the troubled Gaucho, from 1980, is at odds with the consensus, and with Jones’ view.)
So, back to squared circles and personified paradoxes. Steely Dan’s art, and Fagen’s, is jam-packed with them. There’s the contrast between music and lyrics which runs right through their output: easy-listening mellifluousness in one and acerbic irony in the other. There’s their relationship with the styles and heritage of music: they look and act like a rock band, but they really want, Fagen in particular, to be jazz musicians, and it’s often in a jazz context that their music is played today.
One of the most striking arcs which Jones identifies in the Fagen story is of Donald’s increasing obsession with perfection in the recording studio and how, in the “post-Sweet” part of the Dan/Fagen tale, that all came to be reassessed. How a musician who had grown up adoring recordings by jazz musicians made with barely any rehearsal and with time for just two or three takes, all playing together, in the studio, could end up insisting on sampled and looped bits of recorded drums so as to preserve the perfect (inhuman?) timing of the beat, and recordings painstakingly assembled from isolated musicians, is just such a paradox.
Jones does at one point draw analogies between Steely Dan and the Beatles. Early prolific output, later disenchantment with touring, an artistic peak with recordings painstakingly made following that retreat from the road… all make sense. What Jones – sensibly – avoids is any speculative comparisons as to who did what in the song-writing. While it is clear in retrospect which in the Lennon/McCartney canon is really Lennon and which McCartney, the Fagen/Becker individual contributions are more difficult to figure out.
Since he sings the vast majority it would be natural to think that Fagen was the dominant lyricist and Becker the tunesmith, but Fagen’s solo output suggests that Donald is pretty self-sufficient, and superior in both areas, especially when Becker’s solo efforts are held beside them. Were all those lyrics fixated on young girls Becker’s idea? Well, the recurrence in Fagen’s solo output would suggest not. Whatever, it’s the one and only area of their music which feels dated.
The death of Walter Becker in 2017 put paid to the partnership but Steely Dan rolls on. Nightfly ends on some bitter and ironic notes of its own, and ones all too cliched in the world of ageing, famous rock stars: lawsuits. Actions taken by early “band” members are understandable perhaps. What does leave a bad taste and feels distinctly unhip are the lawyers’ letters going back and forth between Fagen and the estate of Walter Becker.
Categories: Book review