Jazz and Conversation

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Steely Dan at Coachella in 2015.)

I am occasionally tempted to buy super-deluxe reissues or archive sets (most recently Elton John’s Jewel Box), but the feeling always goes away. And I don’t go crate-digging anymore, so my collection has been pretty static for a long tine. But I bought an MP3 album this week: Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly: Live.

Fagen has been doing lots of press lately thanks to the release of The Nightfly: Live and Northeast Corridor: Steely Dan Live. In one interview, he mentioned that he wanted to go on tour in 2019 as Donald Fagen and the Steely Dan Band, only to be told by the promoter Live Nation that they wouldn’t book the band under that name; it had to be Steely Dan. Although one album is credited to Fagen and the other to Steely Dan, the lineup is the same on both, and the tracks on both come from the same run of shows, toward the end of 2019. (Tracks on The Nightfly: Live come mostly from a single show.) Fagen says the decision to make the albums was spontaneous: the band was sounding especially good after being on the road for a couple of months, and he asked the sound crew to start recording them.

The Nightfly seems to have grown in estimation since its release in 1982, not just in mine but in everyone else’s. It’s hard to find anybody with a bad word to say about it. It’s another example of the sound and the impeccable studio craft that Steely Dan fanatics love, but it’s definitely not a Steely Dan album. Fagen says that the solo albums he and Becker made were “more intimate,” and that Steely Dan albums were “more journalistic, and I was playing a part, in a way.” He denies that The Nightfly lacks an edge, however; he says that the edge is more subtle, and he’s right about that. It’s a concept album, set at the dawn of the Kennedy Era, and it evokes the vibe of the time, its optimism and its fears. We can see how the people in the songs were like us, and how they were not, and try and understand them with our knowledge of how things turned out.

Fagen notes that his current band has been together about four times as long as the original Steely Dan, and that the live albums are intended to showcase his players. He admits that the performances are pretty much like the records: “a lot of times I have difficulty coming up with anything better than Walter and I originally imagined.” But there are little moments that break the mold, a solo here (piano on “Ruby Baby,” guitar on “New Frontier”) and an embellishment there. The only track that’s drastically different is “Maxine,” on which Fagen leaves the vocals to the Steely Dan Choir of backup singers, as he’s done on “Dirty Work” and “Razor Boy” in recent years. (I was disappointed at first, but the new performance captures both the naive youthful optimism and deep autumnal vibe of the original.) Fagen always sang at the top of his range, and that’s more of a challenge now that he’s past 70. But he hits more notes than he misses, and he absolutely sings the hell out of “The Nightfly,” which is more soulful than the 1982 original.

I like The Nighfly: Live, but I wish there were more to it, not long, improvisatory freakouts necessarily, but a bonus cut or two, maybe? The Steely Dan Band has a repertoire of instrumentals that have been used to play Fagen and Becker on and off the stage, from straight jazz numbers to the theme from The Price Is Right, and while they’ve been bootlegged, an official release of one or two would be a fine thing. (One such instrumental, the R&B tune “A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry,” is on Northeast Corridor.)

I wrote earlier in the week that I’m not especially interested in Northeast Corridor: Steely Dan Live. I have many live Dan bootlegs, so adding another live set isn’t a high priority. And unless you are a Nightfly fanatic, you may find The Nightfly: Live to be superfluous as well. My suspicion is that most people who buy it will be either Fagen completists like me, or vinyl collectors. But it’s a pleasant 39 minutes, and if somebody offers you a guarantee that the next 39 minutes of your life will be pleasant, you should take it.

No Man’s Land

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Bob Seger, 1980.)

When I was a teenager, I adored Emerson, Lake and Palmer. But then I put their albums on a shelf for years, and when I finally listened again, I didn’t like them nearly as well. All that stuff about mythical beasts and sentient computers, which was right in the wheelhouse of a 17-year-old nerd, sounded different to the older me. It didn’t sound bad, necessarily, but it also didn’t tickle the ol’ amygdala the way it used to do.

We’ve all revisited an album or an artist we used to like a lot and found that it just doesn’t turn us on anymore. The style loses its appeal, or the songs burn out. Or maybe we just don’t need the album as an album anymore. It happened to me with Tapestry the last time I listened to it; it’s not bad, and the individual songs remain very good, it’s just that I don’t think I need to hear all of them together anymore.

Bob Seger’s Against the Wind came out in 1980, during the year I was program director of my college radio station—which, I remind you, was a straight-up album rock station with little interest in finding or promoting new acts or alternative music. So we loved it, and I’m pretty sure that every cut found its way onto the air at one time or another. I’ve returned to it frequently over the years, but I liked it a lot less when I heard it the other day. Listen here while I rank the tracks.

10. “Good for Me.” I can’t say whether this is a good song or a poor one; whenever I listen to the album it comes and goes without making an impression.

8. (tie) “The Horizontal Bop”/”Betty Lou’s Gettin’ Out Tonight.” I loved these cuts 40 years ago, but they sound like cartoons to me now, goofy and overblown.

7. “Long Twin Silver Line.” Gains points for being a train song, which is not something you heard much in 1980. Loses them for being performed with the same cartoony gusto as the previous.

6. “Shinin’ Brightly.” Against the Wind is billed to the Silver Bullet Band but only three of Seger’s musicians are on it, and on only five tracks. On the others, including “Shinin’ Brightly,” Seger is backed by members of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. “Shinin’ Brightly” has as empty a lyric as you’re ever going to come across, but such a great group of musicians is incapable of sounding bad.

5. “You’ll Accomp’ny Me.” I detest that apostrophe, and the fact that Seger felt like it needed to be there should have told him that “accompany” might not be a word you want in the lyrics to your song. (“Someday lady you will ride with me” was just sitting there.) I’m surprised to find “You’ll Accomp’ny Me” up this high, as it’s something I never need to hear again.

4. “No Man’s Land.” Bob Seger, rock ‘n’ roll existentialist: this is not the only song he ever wrote in which a lone man fights against the world and time and is destined to lose but perseveres nevertheless. (It’s not even the only one on this album.) Thanks to its medium-tempo lope, Seger is not exactly laughing at fate, but he’s definitely smiling at it.

3. “Her Strut.” We were amused back in 1980 by the skillfully timed pause in the line “They do respect her but … they love to watch her strut.” (Hey Beavis, he said “butt.”) Decades later, “Her Strut” is a condescending, sexist mess, but it rocks harder than anything else on the album.

2. “Fire Lake.” This was a song Seger had in the can for years before 1980, and it not only features the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section but three Eagles. It was an immediate smash on the radio but didn’t stay in anybody’s music library long-term.

1. “Against the Wind.” As on “No Man’s Land,” your level of appreciation for this song probably corresponds to how seriously you take Bob Seger as a heartland philosopher, or how deeply you can see into your own navel. But if you stick around for session man Paul Harris’ piano and the long fade, with Seger testifying as his backups sing “against the wind,” you’ll hear what might be the loveliest thing he ever made.

I won’t mind hearing these songs in the future, one at a time via the gods of shuffle. But do I need to hear the whole album all at once ever again? Probably not.

If you’ve had this experience with some formerly beloved album or artist, do tell.

Sixes and Sevens and Nines

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: the Stones on stage in San Francisco, June 6, 1972.)

In the spring of 1969, during the earliest sessions for the album that would become Sticky Fingers, the Rolling Stones noodled with a song called “Good Time Women.” The Stones finally recorded it in October 1970, at the end of the Sticky Fingers sessions, but it didn’t make the album. It’s ragged and jammy, part of the process a band goes through when they’re trying to figure out if something is a whole song or the germ of a better one.

In the summer of 1971, the Stones were encamped at the Villa Nellcote in the south of France, sleeping by day and recording by night with whoever was around to work. (Mick Jagger was often absent; he and Bianca were expecting their first child at the time.) And not just sleeping and recording. The Nellcote sessions were a thorough debauch, with celebrity visitors and carloads of drugs for those who indulged. That was Keith Richards, members of the crew, and other musicians, mostly, but not Jagger, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts, who largely abstained. At one point, visiting American country-rocker Gram Parsons was asked to leave because of his drug use. (Imagine using drugs in such quantities as to make Keef say “whoa, dude, hold up.”) There were concerns that the French police might bust the villa and shut the whole thing down.

On August 3, 1971, the Stones who were present laid down the first takes of a new song, and they kept at it. Wyman left the session at one point, and when he came back hours later, Mick Taylor had taken over on bass and the band was still working on the same song. Producer Jimmy Miller played drums on a few takes, and Watts later overdubbed him. Recording engineer Andy Johns would later claim upwards of 150 takes were recorded in France and elsewhere. Even after all that, the struggle to finish the song wasn’t over. They couldn’t seem to get the mix right, and Jagger has complained about the sound of it ever since.

In later years, Keith would say that he came up with the basic riff upstairs in the villa and took it immediately downstairs to record. But the finished version of what came to be called “Tumbling Dice” is also based on “Good Time Women.” The lyric is different, though: Jagger has said it grew out of a conversation with a housekeeper at the villa who liked to gamble with dice.

“Tumbling Dice” was the first single from Exile on Main Street, and it landed at American radio stations during the second week of April 1972. It cracked its first Top 10 at WHOT, a daytime-only Top 40 station in Campbell, Ohio, on April 24, and at WMEX in Boston a few days later. It first appears at WLS in Chicago on May 1, and hits #1 for the first time at KGY in Olympia, Washington, on May 5. As May shades toward Memorial Day and the end of the school year, “Tumbling Dice” is cracking Top Tens everywhere. In addition to Olympia, it makes #1 in Tampa, Omaha, Akron, Rochester, New York, and in Chicago, where WCFL ranks it #1 for the week of June 1, 1972. (At WLS, it peaks at #4.) It tops out on the Billboard Hot 100 at #7 for two weeks from May 27; in Cash Box, it spends two weeks at #10. WCFL ranks it #12 for the year (while WLS has it at #60). It doesn’t make Billboard‘s Top 100 of 1972; in Cash Box, it’s #92. (Exile on Main Street, released in May, had a four-week run at #1 on the album chart beginning June 17, 1972.)

Regarding the best of all Rolling Stones songs, there’s a degree of consensus. When Rolling Stone magazine ranked the top 500 singles of all time in 2003 and 2010, “Satisfaction” was #2 on the entire list. On Kent Kotal’s more recent Top 3333 Most Essential Classic Rock Songs, “Gimme Shelter” ranked highest, with “Satisfaction” and “Start Me Up” in the Top 10. For a long time, I would have ranked “Brown Sugar” at the top. But now, for me, it’s “Tumbling Dice.”

“Tumbling Dice” has everything that makes the Stones great: apart from their playing (how did they get that guitar noise at the start?), it creates an atmosphere that’s ragged and sleazy and redolent of bad girls, drugs, liquor, games of chance, and the sort of people your mama don’t want you to know, and it’s like nothing else that ever got on AM radio. The mono single version of “Tumbling Dice” is here, and it sounds better than you’ve ever heard it.

God Save the Queen

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Freddie Mercury and Brian May, on stage the same week I bought A Night at the Opera.)

I have written previously about my 1976 daybook, which I crammed with trivia, sports scores, and little notes about the ongoing life of 16-year-old me. The entry for March 12, 1976, shows that I bought the album A Night at the Opera by Queen on that day. I did most of my record-buying at shopping-mall stores in Madison, but since March 12 was a Friday, I suspect I picked it up somewhere in my hometown.

I was, like many others who bought the album that spring, inspired to lay my money down by “Bohemian Rhapsody.” In mid-March 1976, it was nearly six weeks away from reaching its peak of #9 on the Hot 100, but it had already hit #1 in cities across the country. In Chicago, WLS didn’t chart it until the end of February, but for the week of March 27, it went from #20 to #5, and to #1 the week after that, the first of five weeks at #1.

I listened to A Night at the Opera constantly for a year or two before putting it on a shelf and pretty much leaving it there. But I listened to it again not long ago, and I may listen to it more often in the future, because while it’s as familiar as the weather, it’s also mighty good. Listen to it here (and watch, because there’s some vintage video) while I rank the tracks.

12. “God Save the Queen.” It was inevitable that they would record this at some point, but it’s a throwaway.

11. “Sweet Lady.” I am trying to listen with two sets of ears: the ones I have now, and the ones that absorbed this album multiple times a week in 1976. I think I like “Sweet Lady” more now than I did then, but I like other songs better, so it ranks down here.

10. “Death on Two Legs.” I always wonder what my parents thought when they heard me blasting some guy singing “insane, should be put inside, you’re a sewer rat decaying in a cesspool of pride.”

9. “I’m in Love With My Car.” I got my driver’s license while “Bohemian Rhapsody” was high on the charts, and I liked this song more then than I do now.

8. “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon.” I was tempted to rank this and “Seaside Rendezvous” together, campy vaudeville-style tunes that they are, but I didn’t, for reasons I’ll explain below.

7. “Love of My Life.” This is pretty campy too—those harp flourishes take it over the top—although I suspect that Freddie Mercury is completely sincere in his delivery of it.

6. “The Prophet’s Song.” When I was playing the album in 1976, I would frequently skip this, the first cut on side 2. I like it much better now; the stacked choruses, voices multiplying voices, are every bit as impressive as the similar choral effect on “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

5. “Good Company.” Inspired by traditional jazz of the 1920s, this song is responsible for teaching me the verb to dandle: “Take good care of what you’ve got, my father said to me / As he puffed his pipe and Baby B he dandled on his knee.” If you always heard it as “dangled,” I get it. I’d probably have thought the same thing if the lyrics weren’t printed on the album jacket.

4. “Seaside Rendezvous.” I was re-listening to this album in the car, and “Seaside Rendezvous” was the last song I heard before I got out. I sang it to myself, over and over, for the next couple of hours. Like “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon,” it hasn’t got much to do with rock ‘n’ roll, but there may not be anything more purely pleasurable in the whole Queen catalog.

3. “You’re My Best Friend.” I think I have said in the past that this is the best thing on A Night at the Opera. I’m inclined to think that only when I’m not listening to the rest of A Night at the Opera at the same time.

1. (tie) “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “’39.” I am unable to resolve the conflict between 1976 me and 2020 me. I liked “’39” back in the day, but I adore it now, for its gorgeous wall of sound and the sad story of time travelers whose trip has unexpected consequences. As for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” as much as I thirsted to hear it over and over back then, I really don’t need to hear it again now. But when I do, I’m impressed as much by its sheer audacity as I am by the production itself.

Long Way Home

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Don Henley on MTV Unplugged, 1989.)

I am not a person who hates the Eagles as a unit. As for two of the most famous Eagles themselves, that’s different. Glenn Frey’s solo stuff had all the personality of muzak. Don Henley’s, meanwhile, can be unsubtle and unpleasant. To make consistently listenable music (and yes, opinions vary on how listenable the Eagles are), they needed each other.

During several hours on the interstate recently, I listened to Henley’s first three solo albums all in a row, and here’s what I think I think:

I Can’t Stand Still came out in the winter of 1982. “Dirty Laundry” was the big single, going all the way to #3 on the Hot 100; its harsh critique of TV news gained it a lot of publicity outside of rock ‘n’ roll radio, as serious talk shows discussed its implications. In 1982, what Henley described—the showbiz-ification of suffering and scandal—was primarily a big-city, local TV phenomenon. The rise of talking-head national cable news and the corporatization of local TV news in the last four decades, however, makes “Dirty Laundry” sound prophetic. But it’s a prophecy delivered by a guy yelling two inches from your face. And Henley wasn’t done with “Dirty Laundry”: “Johnny Can’t Read” and “Them and Us” take on the educational system and the mutually assured destruction of nuclear war with the same hectoring shrillness of “Dirty Laundry.”

Message: Don Henley is here to tell you what’s what.

(In defense of I Can’t Stand Still, it’s the most solid of his 80s records, with two lovely ballads, “Long Way Home” and “Talking to the Moon,” the country/gospel standard “Uncloudy Day,” and “Nobody’s Business,” a briskly rockin’ co-write with J. D. Souther and Bob Seger.)

Henley preached a lot less on Building the Perfect Beast. I liked it when it came out in 1984; I like it a lot less today. The only tracks apart from “The Boys of Summer” that don’t make me wish for the leavening impact of the other Eagles are “You’re Not Drinking Enough,” which is a respectable country song, and “Not Enough Love in the World.” “The Boys of Summer” itself is crispy from 35 years of airplay. (And for cryin’ out loud, radio, get yourself an edit and stop playing the album version, which starts with several seconds of high-hat cymbal and a single electric guitar and destroys whatever forward momentum your station has going.) On “All She Wants to Do Is Dance,” Henley gets caught up in Central American revolution, then comes home to the “Sunset Grill,” where he and his girl sit in the bar feeling smugly superior to everybody else who comes in.

Message: Don Henley is the most interesting man in the world.

It took five years before Henley returned with The End of the Innocence. I bought it right after it came out, hooked by the stately title track, but I never warmed to the rest of the album, even though I listened to it a lot for the next several years. On my most recent listen, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. The three singles—“The End of the Innocence,” “Heart of the Matter,” and “The Last Worthless Evening”—are the best stuff on it by a long shot, and vastly different from the rest of the record, which is clogged with butt-ugly arrangements and misanthropic lyrics.

Message: please do not look Mr. Henley directly in the eye.

I bought Henley’s Inside Job in 2000 but have listened to it maybe twice, so I can’t comment on it. The 2015 album Cass County, on which Henley collaborates with an array of country stars including Miranda Lambert, Vince Gill, Merle Haggard, Tricia Yearwood, and Dolly Parton, is his best solo record by quite a bit, with the strongest set of songs he ever put on one record. But what makes Cass County better than Henley’s other solo albums is that it, and he, is not so self-important. Although there are a couple of instances where he slips back into old patterns, Cass County is mostly just a guy performing solid songs honestly. When the Eagles did that, they were at their best. It took their drummer a long time to remember the formula.

That’s All for Everyone

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Christine, Stevie, and Lindsey on the Tusk tour in 1980.)

The fall of 1979 was a remarkable season for rock albums: The Long Run by the Eagles, Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door, The Wall by Pink Floyd, Damn the Torpedoes by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk were all released between August and November. Not quite so titanic but still significant releases in the same season included Fear of Music by Talking Heads, Cheap Trick’s Dream Police, Head Games by Foreigner, Blondie’s Eat to the Beat, and Regatta de Blanc by the Police. (And, hat tip to our man Kurt Blumenau, Aerosmith’s Night in the Ruts too.)

That fall, I was doing a show on the college radio station called Virgin Vinyl, where I’d play selections from the new stuff that had come in during the past week. When Tusk came in, I played the whole thing, possibly 40 years ago tonight, but most likely 40 years ago this week. Listen to it while I attempt to rank the tracks here in 2019.

20. “That’s Enough for Me.” By the time you have reached side 3, you have already heard several of Lindsey Buckingham’s punk-inspired, semi-experimental goofs, and “That’s Enough for Me” feels highly unnecessary.

19. “Never Make Me Cry”
18. “Honey Hi”
I will ride with Christine McVie to the end of the line. I adore her voice and how she does not play the piano as much as she caresses it. But these songs are casualties of a double-length album. They’re lovely, but they get lost.

17. “I Know I’m Not Wrong”
16. “Save Me a Place”

15. “The Ledge”
Tusk finds Lindsey, Stevie, and Christine going all White Album from time to time. Each of them seems to recycle ideas at least once or twice, but Lindsey does it most often.

14. “Sisters of the Moon.” This was the fourth single in the States and it bombed spectacularly, getting only to #86 on the Hot 100 in a three-week run in June 1980. KDWB in the Twin Cities took it to #17, but in the fall of ’79, when the station charted several cuts from several of its top albums.

13. “Never Forget.” See #19 and #18.

12. “Beautiful Child”
11. “Storms”
Stevie is in full ethereal goddess mode here, and that’s a compliment.

10. “Over and Over.” On the night I tracked this on the radio, “Over and Over,” track 1 on side 1, seemed like a less-than-scintillating way to start a record, certainly not like “Second Hand News” on Rumours or “Monday Morning” on Fleetwood Mac.

9. “Not That Funny”
8. “What Makes You Think You’re the One”
More Lindsey flavor. In college, we dug “Not That Funny” simply because of the way he sings “It’s not that funny, is it?” Meanwhile, “What Makes You Think You’re the One” could have been a hit single.

7. “Walk a Thin Line”
6. “That’s All for Everyone”
The more Lindsay involves the rest of the band on his songs, especially on vocals, the better the songs are.

5. “Brown Eyes.” For years, “Brown Eyes” went right past me without making much of an impression, but it deserved better. The former Mr. and Mrs. McVie play beautifully together, so much so that when the rest of the band comes in, I find myself thinking, “No, leave them alone, they’re doing fine on their own.”

4. “Tusk.” Now that we’ve all heard “Tusk” a million times, we can no longer capture the utter WTF moment we experienced the first time the marching band kicked in. The record is not really as foreign as it sounded in 1979. Mick Fleetwood’s insistent drum beat is engraved on human DNA, and the first half has the same ominous feel as “The Chain.”

3. “Think About Me.” The most obvious single on the album.

2. “Angel.” “Angel” would have made a better fourth single than “Sisters of the Moon.”

1. “Sara.” Stevie is a little more anchored and a little less the ethereal goddess on “Sara,” partially because the song is based firmly on her real life, often presumed to involve a child she didn’t have with Don Henley. Stevie herself has said it’s A) about her breakup with Mick Fleetwood; B) about Fleetwood’s ex, who was named Sara; and C) about “what all of us in Fleetwood Mac were going through at the time.” There’s evidence in “Sara,” for all of it and then some: desire, regret, hope, loss, it’s all in there.

As a double album, Tusk will always suffer next to its two predecessors, and also the album that followed it, Mirage. Taken on its own, however, it’s better than I have given it credit for over these last 40 years.