Happy 35th Anniversary to Donald Fagen’s debut album The Nightfly, originally released October 29, 1982.
In his 2014 memoir Eminent Hipsters, Donald Fagen writes of WEVD's late-night jazz DJ Mort Fega. "My main man…he was laid-back, knowledgeable, and forthright, the cool uncle you wished you'd had.” Put the needle down on Fagen’s 1982 solo debut The Nightfly, and even now, 35 years later, Fagen will still become to you what Fega was to him—an eminent hipster himself, cool and steady-handed, a guiding voice in an increasingly frazzled world.
The album, recorded a year after the post-Gaucho breakup of Steely Dan, is a masterwork of production, one of the earliest examples of fully-digital recording. Inspired in part by Fagen’s Cold War childhood in New Jersey, The Nightfly is as intimate a portrait as we’re ever going to get of the notoriously shy bandleader, a sonic vision of a life lived in sci-fi paperbacks and late-night jazz and dreams scented of Ambush perfume and atomic ozone. Fagen, photographed in his apartment with a tie and a microphone and his sleeves rolled up, is here to guide you through the evening with a jazzy soundtrack, a fable or two, a tune you can dance to, a song for your heartbreak.
Right off the bat, “I.G.Y.” is soothing, a mid-60s vision of the futuristic 1976, with Spandex jackets and world peace. It’s narcotic. It is instantly chill. It’s an advertisement for a dream of an America we were once promised but will never fulfill, melancholy and all at once hopeful. Hearing him play a slowed-and-stripped down rendition of this during his tour with The Nightflyers took on a particularly mournful quality, given the current state of affairs of our nation.
The Nightfly also remains a curious case in build-up. The title track doesn’t appear until the second song on the B-side, and the A-side has some of the album’s weaker tracks. “Green Flower Street” has all the patter of a rain-slicked street and a swingin’ cover of the Drifters “Ruby Baby,” closing with the lovelorn (but musically sparse) “Maxine.”
But it just further sets the stage for the B-side, where all the real action is. The album kicks into gear with “New Frontier,” a raucous party in an abandoned bomb-shelter. “It’s just a dugout that my dad built / in case the Reds decide to push the button down.” It seems almost worth building a bomb shelter just to limbo and listen to Dave Brubeck records, plus the added benefit of surviving the nuclear blast. It’s that sort of cheeky look at the apocalypse that makes Fagen so goddamn wonderful.
(It should also be noted that Ambush is still manufactured and can be easily found online. I am wearing some, from what I’m pretty sure was a gallon bottle, as I write this.)
Oh, but “The Nightfly.” Here we are, back from commercial break, and our eminent hipster is here to guide us through the rest of the long night. It’s not difficult to imagine the Fagen on the cover singing this song into that mic, for you and for all the other lost souls out there, just as Uncle Mort soothed his teenage soul all those years ago. “Tonight you’re still on my mind….” he croons to some unknown lady. Perhaps he is singing to me, I think, swooning just a little.
The album winds down with “The Goodbye Look,” which is perhaps the darkest song on the album. There’s a twinge of his late musical partner Walter Becker in here, a sinister quality that is missing from the rest of the album, all feathered over with Fagen’s increasingly-anxious vocals. And it’s in sharp contrast to the album’s upbeat closer, “Walk Between the Raindrops,” an easy, lovely little tune that wouldn’t have been out of place in any Manhattan ballroom or cocktail party of the time.
(In addition to “I.G.Y.,” Fagen performed “The Nightfly,” “Green Flower Street,” and “New Frontier,” during his solo tour earlier this summer. I am not in the slightest bit ashamed to say that I wept with breathless, nearly-orgasmic bliss through most of the first verse. Though he rarely performs his solo work live, he played “Green Flower Street” with the Dukes of September and has been playing “New Frontier” during his current tour, along with Becker’s “Book of Liars” from 11 Tracks of Whack.
Fagen would follow up the album with two more in the “Nightfly Trilogy,” Kamakiriad in 1993 and Morph the Cat in 2006. But 35 years later, The Nightfly couldn’t be more perfect. It remains a record collection essential, a sonic delight. Thanks for calling. I wait all night for calls like these.