I love it when I like something I’m predisposed to hate. Steely Dan: hate ’em! Yes, some good tunes, “My Old School,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” but not so much the songs off “Aja” which played constantly on the radio and at parties when I was in high school. Too cold and bloodless! All that sneering! You couldn’t tell what any of the songs were actually about except that these guys were disappointed and dissatisfied with everything.
Side Two of “The Nightfly,” Donald Fagen’s first solo album, I on the other hand consider a small masterpiece. We start with a teenager having a party in the underground bunker his Dad built for when the “reds decide to push the button down.” We’re in the early sixties, the height of nuclear paranoia, but this kid’s not worried: he’s got his sights set firmly on the future, the New Frontier Kennedy has promised, and in the short term on the big blonde with a touch of Tuesday Weld also at the party. “I hear you’re mad about Brubeck/I like your eyes I like him too,” he says, trying to persuade her to stay the night in the bunker with him. While contemplating the future of the Great Society he takes a moment to consider his own future:
Well I can’t wait till I move to the city
Till I finally make up my mind
To learn design and study overseas
In my mind, he succeeds in getting the girl to stay and “confess her passions and secret fears.” But then well after midnight, party long over and she fast asleep, as he lies on an uncomfortable cot in the pitch black quiet of the bunker with its persistent smell of plastic alternate futures occur to him.
Possibility #1 finds him a late-night dj, playing jazz and and sympathetically listening to the crazy ramblings of his insomniac listeners, mourning a lost love but comfortable in his solitude. Possibility #2 finds him in “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” territory, an ex-patriate trying to flee a banana republic before the whole place blows up, though still finding a moment for a few sips of a Cuban Breeze. And possibility #3 finds him in love, the ominous big casinos on the beach from the previous song now big hotels holding honeymoon suites. the state so blessed it lifts them above the elements and allows them to “walk between the raindrops.” It’s daytime outside the bunker but they don’t know that down there and so the kid settles into this final, optimistic fantasy, imagining the day he’ll meet someone who can help him live up to it.
Facts: this 1982 album was one the first recorded digitally, and for a while was the go-to for audio stores trying to show off their high-end equipment. It’s jazzier than most Steely Dan, which is also something I usually don’t like but here there are actual melodies and Larry Carlton’s guitar parts are great in a way Rock Critics often call “sinewy.” Side One is boring except “I.G.Y.,” which was the FM radio hit although I find it snarky in a Randy-Newman-at-his-most-obvious way. Find some high-end equipment and play Side Two instead. Preferably with the record changer arm up so it repeats and repeats.