Donald Fagen: Morphing with the Years

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By Bradley Bambarger <2006>

Recording engineer Elliot Scheiner recalls that, earlier in life, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen was rather obsessed with making records.

While recording The Royal Scam in 1975, Scheiner expressed dismay that Fagen and Steely Dan partner Walter Becker wanted to work on Christmas day, engineer in tow. Fagen replied, with logic a single guy found hard to argue with, “You got something better to do?” The studio lights were on that holiday.

It’s a bit different now. Fagen (and Scheiner) took this Christmas off, after the singer-keyboardist spent most of a year perfecting his studio tan with a third solo album, Morph the Cat. At 58, Fagen has at least been getting out a bit more, having developed a taste for performing; in the ’90s, the stage-shy Steely Dan returned not only to make more Grammy-winning records but to tour for the first time in decades.

The set list for Fagen’s first-ever solo tour includes a few Steely Dan tunes and R&B covers that may spice the night, but the show will concentrate on tracing the complementary threads of Fagen’s solo work — from the brave-new-world nostalgia of The Nightfly (1982) and sci-fi romanticism of Kamakiriad (1993) to the apocalyptic-erotic musing of Morph the Cat.

“New Frontier,” the debut single from The Nightfly, bred a hit video that waxed nostalgic about the amorous possibilities of the Cold War bomb shelter. On Morph the Cat, love and sex are similarly mooted as solace, if not shelter, from disaster in such songs as the conjugal nesting anthem “Great Pagoda of Funn” and airport infatuation ode “Security Joan.” To Fagen, the world seems to have come full circle since his school days.

“I grew up half-expecting to see a mushroom cloud on the horizon,” Fagen says. “Post-9/11, the anxiety isn’t as bad, even if the danger is actually more present and people just don’t talk about it. But the ground hum of paranoia and government surveillance that goes with wartime makes people feel they need to sneak around, which can be sexy. Also, when mortality seems imminent, the body just feels more compelled to reproduce.”

Born in Passaic, N.J., Fagen graduated in South Brunswick High School’s class of 1965 before heading to Bard College in upstate New York. He was reared on Beat novels, Fellini movies, science fiction and Mad magazine, all of which can be discerned in the sardonic fantasias of his lyrics. Upbeat and ultra-refined, the funk of Morph the Cat may pour out of speakers like audio butter, but the humor in the songs — if lighter than with vintage Steely Dan — is often tinted a laconic shade of black.

Fagen describes his teenage self as “a jazz snob.” The Miles Davis Quintet with pianist Red Garland and drummer Philly Joe Jones was young Fagen’s ideal band rather than The Beatles (although Bob Dylan would be a revelation). Guests not long ago on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, Fagen and Becker emitted “wows” like little boys as the octogenarian radio host recalled her encounters with Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington.

But harmonic sophistication and rhythmic suppleness weren’t the only things that Fagen and Becker took from jazzers (whether through youthful observation or employing such heroes as Wayne Shorter for “Aja”). The jazzman’s “inside” wit also “seeped in, definitely,” Fagen says. “Walter and I both appreciate the sort of jokes that wouldn’t necessarily go over in your normal, B-flat situation, if you know what I mean.”

Along with love during wartime, Fagen’s new themes include death. The title of “Brite Nitegown” comes from a W.C. Fields expression referring to a spectral Grim Reaper as “the fellow in the bright nightgown.” Typically, though, Fagen spins sad experience (such as the recent passing of his mother) and his own mortality issues into a lightly ironic, cinematic groove. Suicidal depression, too, rears its head (in “The Night Belongs to Mona”), as does political fear and loathing (“Mary Shut the Garden Door,” written as the Republican National Convention pitched its tent in Manhattan).

It is social politics as much as music that Fagen dwells on in conversation these days — and in a conspiratorial growl that belies the ageless suavity of his singing. No fan of the current White House, he also has the ’60s child’s disgust with Madison Avenue. At first, the title track to Morph the Cat sounds like B-movie nonsense. Yet a closer listen reveals a sly, between-the-lines wisdom in this tale of a ghostly, fuzzy “cat-thing that descends on New York, bestowing on the citizens a kind of rapture” (and stopping for a latte as it goes).

“ ‘Morph the Cat,’ the song, started out as just me taking an aerial view of New York,” explains Fagen, a longtime Manhattanite who lives on the Upper East Side. “But it became a surreal way of depicting people being narcotized by a short-term high. The mass-media, advertising-saturated brain death in our country can be alarming.”

Fagen likes to say that he operates “under ’70s rules no matter what time it is — it’s a contract I have with my mind.” Sonically, this applies to Morph the Cat not being the all-digital contrivance of many modern records, no matter how immaculately executed. The album marked Fagen and Scheiner’s continued return to an analog-tape, full-band-in-the-studio method for cutting those sleek rhythm tracks.

One of the guitarists in Fagen’s studio and live band is Wayne Krantz, an ideal fit. (Fagen also snagged Krantz’s ace drummer, Keith Carlock, after seeing them play at the 55 Bar in New York’s West Village.) An improviser who strides the divide between jazz and rock, Krantz grew up in the ’70s listening to Steely Dan. He says the pristine sound of Morph the Cat merely conveys with clarity music-making that at its heart is “earthy and organic, with Donald’s rare, totally individual feel for time driving things.”

The most disarming episode on Morph the Cat is the slow burn of “What I Do,” in which Fagen imagines the counsel Ray Charles might have given a less confident performer in his younger days. As voiced by Fagen (and a sweet-sexy backing chorus in tribute to the Raelettes), Charles says that driving girls to rhythmic distraction is just wired into his DNA and that, if Fagen loosens up, he might just find his own groove.

Having conquered writer’s block and performance anxiety, Fagen would seem to have taken the imaginary advice. But negative inspiration has something to do with it, too, he says: “The ’80s wasn’t the most inspiring decade to me, but the ’90s were pretty mediocre, too. At least the 21st-century is truly horrible, and bad times have always been good for art, if nothing else.”

(Originally published in February 2006 in The Star-Ledger of New Jersey.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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