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Donald Fagen: On the Dunes

Our final Fagen song this week is from his astonishing solo album Kamakiriad. It’s a concept album: a long, shaggy, sci-fi romp in a futuristic car. The songs have a loose, funky, jiggly joy that make this album perfect on a long car trip, or when you’re cleaning the house. I love it with an unseemly passion.

“On the Dunes” isn’t like the rest of the album; it seems to sit in its own melancholy corner. I happen to think this song deserves to be a standard—it’s just a bit in disguise here, because of its attenuated tempo, and its atmosphere of not wanting to arrive anywhere in particular. But I’m waiting for some ingenious stylist to come along and reveal this song to us in all its masterful construction.

Drive along the sea
Far from the city’s twitch and smoke
To a misty beach
That’s where my life became a joke
On the dunes…

Donald Fagen, long may you wave. Thanks for the music, the words, the mysteries, the irresistible grooves.

Donald Fagen: Time Out of Mind

This wasn’t the first cut on the Gaucho album to speak to me; it took me a while to warm up to it. It is, in fact, not exactly a warm song. But suddenly I couldn’t get enough of it. It’s understated, boppy, and subtle as hell. The lyrics, like so many of Fagen’s, sit like veritable pashas in their bed of melody:

Children we have it right here
It’s the light in my eyes
It’s perfection and grace
It’s the smile on my face

The instrumental bridge is 24 bars of ever-amplifying counterpoint between the saxes and Walter Becker’s guitar: so elegant and sassy, so seemingly effortless. (In actual fact, Fagen and Becker were beyond obsessive in their efforts to get things just right in the studio. The stories are legendary; some sections of “Gaucho” racked up 200 takes.)

And then comes my favorite moment in the whole song: Mike McDonald (famously of the Doobie Brothers), who’s been singing backups, suddenly comes to the fore to bring us out of the bridge, singing “Children we have it right here” with such a thrilling melisma that it gives me chills of joy every time I hear it. No kidding: it’s one of the greatest moments in pop music.

Donald Fagen: Gaucho

From the opening upbeat, we know we’re in a warm bath. That beautiful saxophone, that long-limbed tempo, the sweet unabashed major chords – pure sunlight. When I first heard it, I was driving at night through the oil fields of western Oklahoma, picking up some faraway station in that random way that happens at night. I felt I’d been transported to some new, glistening planet.

Gaucho the album is a long, long way from Pretzel Logic. The band was scruffy back then, in the early 1970’s: working swiftly, seemingly uninterested in matters of perfectionism. Now, ten years later, the fellas were really stretching out in the studio. They had time, money, and all the best players. The best drugs too, apparently – and the miracle is that they got through that period not only without dying, but with producing some stunning paeans to altered states.

The title song, “Gaucho,” is a prime example of Fagen’s lyrics telling you a story without filling in all the blanks.

Who is the gaucho amigo
Why is he standing in your spangled leather poncho
And your elevator shoes
Bodacious cowboys such as your friend
Will never be welcome here
High in the Custerdome…

Where are we? Who is speaking? What’s the Custerdome?! And the strange disconnect between this bossy club chat and the swooning beauty of the music… well, you can spend your whole life trying to figure it out. Trust me.

Donald Fagen: Through With Buzz

I couldn’t resist including this truly odd song from Pretzel Logic. It’s very short. One of the reasons it’s so short is that each of the three verses is one line long. Why did Fagen do that?! It makes me laugh every time – as if he were really so very irritated with his friend Buzz that he doesn’t even have the patience to explain; he has to hurl himself back into that catchy chorus: he’s just so through with Buzz, goddammit!

There are yet more odd aspects to this song. It features, of all things, a string quartet. There they are, with their funny violin runs, and their heavy bowings a la “Eleanor Rigby.”

I’m wondering whether in our current age, Fagen regrets his third verse, which runs, in its entirety: “Maybe he’s a fairy…”  But once again, the throughness-with-Buzz overtakes the singer, and he can’t dwell on the details, he just has to aver how through he is: oh yeah, uh huh. The song leaves you with an earful of melody and a head full of questions.

Donald Fagen: With a Gun

Steely Dan. The sound track of my 20’s. What a band. It’s really all about guitarist Walter Becker and keyboard/vocalist Donald Fagen. But if you push me against the wall, not terribly hard, I’ll say it’s really all about Donald Fagen. What a composer, what a lyricist. He was actually writing art songs all along: art songs disguised as West Coast rock, country western, low-down blues, smooth LA grooves, and funk funk funk.

It’s impossible to encompass Donald Fagen in five songs, but I’ve decided to focus on two songs from my favorite early Steely Dan album, “Pretzel Logic;”  two songs from their later masterpiece, “Gaucho,” and one song from Fagen’s sublime solo album, “Kamakiriad.” If anyone listening to these songs here feels compelled to go on YouTube and listen to some more, then I’ll have done my job.

Just listen to this goofy song. It twangs along with a perfectly authentic  country thump, but it goes places no country song usually goes, with its stops and starts, and odd-shaped phrases. And then the bridge! Very unusual chord progressions, and right in the middle: “You hide… in… the bu…shes…” Gorgeous, peculiar 3-part vocal harmonies! Whaaaa…?!

And the lyrics. Fagen gives us hints of several stories within this single song. It’s such a narrative. Why didn’t Fagen ever write a show?? (Was he just too high for all those years to concentrate on a long-form project? ) Yet even as he tells his stories, Fagen’s lyrics are maddeningly elusive, a little off-center, never quite spelling it out for us. It’s all part of the mystique.

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