Graded on a Curve: Nightfly: The Life of Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen by Peter Jones

Lovelorn music man Lester the Nightfly, a major player on Donald Fagen’s 1982 solo album The Nightfly, is a character with a complex identity. At first contemplation, he’s a jazz DJ on the nightshift during the golden, Camelot era of American life in the early ’60s, fielding calls from a cornucopia of after-hour nutsos while holding steady with his jazz heroes whose music he showcases across the night and out into the airwaves.

But upon further inquiry, Lester is made of deeper more profound soul-stuff. He wishes he “had a heart like ice,” so that he wouldn’t have to feel so much, wouldn’t get attached to someone outside of himself, wouldn’t fall in love. But his heart isn’t made of ice, he isn’t invincible, and he ultimately cannot be driven solely by the cerebral prowess in his possession. Lester is a reluctant romantic.

And so is Donald Fagen, known primarily for his work alongside Walter Becker in the jazz-forward rock group Steely Dan. Part of what Fagen’s solo discography speaks to is his intense musicality and identification with traditional pop songwriting, that of Bacharach and David and Henry Mancini—writers of legend. Where Steely Dan went heavy on the cerebrally obscure lyrical content, sometimes belied by their ear-catching musical accompaniment, Fagen’s solo discography, with four studio albums thus far, has steered more toward the traditional, but of course never sacrificing the signature snark.

Donald published his own memoir Eminent Hipsters in 2013 which was a mix of personal memory and tour diary showcasing the plight of the rock legend thrust forward into the future, now older and forced to encounter the modern world in all of its misguided TV-baby misery.

Jazz journalist Peter Jones has written a new book on Fagen’s life and music entitled Nightfly: The Life of Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, published last week through Chicago Review Press. It is a more comprehensive story of Donald’s career, within Steely Dan and without, than Hipsters—perhaps lacking the element of autobiographical self-reflection that prohibits shining a light on particular moments and cultural milieus that the individual’s vision of self deems necessary or unnecessary (or harmful to the ego).

The work traces Fagen’s life from childhood in suburban New Jersey through jazz and musical education, to his era at Bard College and the fated meeting with Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker. Nightfly articulates Donald’s influences as Hipsters did—black humor, science fiction, jazz—but it also details the forming and evolution of Steely Dan, including managerial changes, record label snafus, and the conflict-clash between touring as a must of the profession and the desire to craft pristinely produced studio albums requiring massive amounts of time off the road.

Jones is a fitting writer to discuss Steely Dan’s and Fagen’s work given his own musicianship and jazz knowledge, as so much of the group’s song catalogue was founded upon jazz fundamentals. He clearly has a lot of passion for Fagen’s work, and for Steely Dan’s too, and presents a portrait of the band as we know it to be—consisting of Fagen and Becker who used a slew of talented LA session players to carry out their compositional will—no matter how many instrumentalists’ egos they bruised and hundreds of studio hours they used in the process—and produced some of the most classic and unique records of the 1970s as a result.

Jones examines Fagen’s and Becker’s dark characters, contrasting Fagen’s straight-edge introversion with Becker’s wild and sometimes drug-enthused extroversion, and how they worked together as one unit that transcended either’s individual characters. It’s refreshing too to be reminded of the essential contributions of characters like producer Gary Katz and engineer Roger Nichols who, as Jones details, ultimately had a complicated storyline with the band that included payment issues and an abrupt firing during the early 2000s’ Everything Must Go sessions. Drawing from well-compiled research, the band’s story is expanded upon by Jones’s own reflections on Steely Dan’s and Fagen’s studio albums, which adds something new to the band’s familiar story.

Perhaps this biography might have been even more elucidating with new interview material from Fagen himself, but since when has he or his band been anything known as cooperative? Nightfly: The Life of Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen shines as much light as there is to be shown on Fagen’s career and character. He, much like the Steely Dan characters he lays claim to, has always been elusive.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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