Turn that Heartbeat over Again: Donald Fagen flies solo

Now bereft of his creative partner, the Steely Dan co-founder brings his new band to Portland


Update: several of Fagen and the Nightflyers’ upcoming shows, including the Portland performance, have been canceled due to illness, according to a release from the Oregon Symphony, which sponsored the concert.

It was still September when [I] was quite surprised to findthat Walter Becker died. Paul McCartney without John Lennon, Don Henley without Glenn Frey, and now, Donald Fagen without Walter Becker. Death came for Becker on Sunday, September 3, 2017, splitting up Steely Dan forever. I stalk the obits. I’d forgotten that it’s Becker’s early pictures, his long hair and camera stare-down, I associate with the band as much as Fagen’s acidic vocals.

On Tuesday, September 12, Fagen brings his new band The Nightflyers (named for Fagen’s first solo album, The Nightfly) to Portland5’s Arlene Schnitzer concert hall. We’re promised Steely Dan hits, Fagen solo numbers and a few surprises.

Donald Fagen & the Nightflyers perform in Portland September 12.

I Got the News. A few days before the show, the biggest surprise — shock, really— is the loss of Fagen’s life-long creative partner. In his elegy to Becker, Fagen wrote “I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.” We don’t know whether that means Steely Dan will continue (as the Eagles have without Frey) or that Fagen will continue to play their music along with his own, as McCartney has done since a few years after the Beatles’ demise and Fagen has done between Steely Dan tours.

I do know that both with and without Becker, Donald Fagen is worth hearing, and even worth reading.

I was smokin’ with the boys upstairs when I heard about the whole affair.Actually, I was twelve years old and about four years away from my first cigarette when my then-music mentor who lived down the gravel lane brought over The Dan’s debut album the day it was released: Can’t Buy a Thrill.

It’s perfection and grace. It’s the smile on my face.As soon as the needle hit the groove on “Do it Again,” the first cut, I was slow-grinding; eight measures of layered Afro-Cuban rhythm/instruments before the pitched riff came . . . in the background. Much later. The lead vocal — even farther in the background — tells a story that has nothing to do with pop romance and everything to do with human nature. It became a hit.

“Do it Again” had a lot more happening in its four minutes than most other pop music of the time, or since. Apart from the harmonic complexity most art rockers go on and on about, the song arced sexy and mesmerizing, like my favorite songs in Schubert’s Winterreise. Schubert and Steely Dan knew how to write memorable hooks, although Steely Dan’s lyrics are much much sharper than Muller’s purple poetry. The execution was tight. And it was probably the first time I actually not only listened to but thought about a song’s lyrics in this wry, pessimistic narrative. I fell hopelessly in love with the band, particularly the shy Fagen.

Eminent Hipster

One of my friends once worked with Donald Fagen’s sister, who escorted my friend and the zucchini loaf she baked for Fagen over to his house, who received them by locking himself in the bathroom and never coming out. “I’ve had bizarre anxiety symptoms all my life, as a kid, as a teenager and in my thirties and early forties,” Fagen writes in his 2013 book Eminent Hipsters, which gives a linear context to Fagen’s anxiety, hypochondria, germophobia and ATD (acute tour disorder) — entertainingly chronicled in the tour diary portion. We learn of Fagen’s contempt for:

  • Canadians
  • Rich people
  • TV Babies (i.e. anyone born after 1960)
  • Hotel swimming pools
  • Hotels
  • the perky response “Absolutely!”
  • Contemporary movies
  • TV Babies
  • Vegas
  • Aspen
  • Golf
  • Touring
  • Performance venues
  • TV Babies
  • Bicycling

I skimmed the first part of the book, a compilation of essays, most of them published previously in Harper’s, Slate, JazzTimes, Premiere, covering subjects such as Henry Mancini (my favorite of the essays —exonerating all of us for loving the music of a composer who outlived his shelf-life as the king of cool), science fiction (a teenage Fagen’s obsession that influenced songs from early Steely Dan’s “King of the World” to his 1993 solo album Kamakiriad), Ray Charles (who clearly influenced his stage presence), late night DJs (whence Fagen’s The Nightfly was spawned). Oddly, the essays feel like the vanity project of a wannabe writer. They sprawl and didn’t hold my attention. A good editor might have helped.

“Only a Fool Would Say That.” For me, the heart of the book is the tour diary recounting Fagen’s days on the road with his 2010 band, The Dukes of September. Once, he tried bitching about tour conditions to his manager Irving Azoff, “who over the years has acquired a piece of just about every valuable asset in the music business (or what’s left of it), including the acts, the venues, the company you have to buy tickets from, and various other entities that just seem to spit money back at him,” Fagen writes. Azoff replies that Fagen gets only second-rate accommodations “because the Dukes ain’t Steely Dan.“ Here and elsewhere in the diary, unlike so many rock stars, Fagen, the astute observer of character and absurdity, is happy to make himself the butt of the joke.

Another irony: Fagen, the misanthrope, lives to serve the audience he would prefer to avoid offstage, and so rarely feels he pleases. The convoluted pretzel logic it takes to unlock his vulnerable sincerity from his ironic diatribes is worth the read.

What I got from the diatribes was how high he sets his own expectations and how he personally deals with failure when those expectations are not met, which happens often on this tour. Fagen’s tour diary snarls as much at the shortcomings of others as his own. It kind of reminds me of his smile. But he’s never contemptuous of his audience. What redeems the cantankerous Fagen, in fact, is how hard he works for them.

“For a lot of performing artists, every night in front of an audience, no matter how exhilarating, is a bit of a ritual slaying,” Fagen writes. “Without necessarily letting it show, you use every last bit of your marrow, every last atom of your energy in an attempt to satisfy the hungry crowd. On some level, you’re trying to extinguish yourself. Because, corny and Red Shoe-y as it may seem, that’s what you are, and they need it. And it’s exhausting.”

Fagen whines like the Audi Spyder down my street. Self-deprecating, he divulges his accepted tweaks with innocent, wry humor in the same way he tempers Walter Becker’s fast, dark punches, transforming what could have been black and white anger to shades of universal melancholy and wit in Steely Dan’s lyrics.

Fagen captured his partner’s qualities in his eulogy: “Like a lot of kids from fractured families, [Becker] had the knack of creative mimicry, reading people’s hidden psychology and transforming what he saw into bubbly, incisive art.” With Becker gone, who’s going to become that laser pointer in Fagen’s life?

Maybe we’ll see the beginning of the answer Tuesday night.

Donald Fagen & The Nightflyers perform Tuesday at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Tickets and info online.

Portland pianist Maria Choban, ArtsWatch’s Oregon ArtsBitch, blogs at (Morph the) CatScratch.

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2 Responses.

  1. Libby Titus Fagen says:

    In his statement about Walter’s death, Donald vowed to continue the Steely Dan Band. In fact, Steely Dan starts their fall tour on October 12th in Tulsa, Ok,
    Steely Dan is very much alive!

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