I’m heading downtown on That Parade Float People Call the A Train, listening to the new Donald Fagen album. (And yes, that’s still the right word, so don’t even start with me.) I accidentally discovered it yesterday while browsing at Barnes & Noble and said “already?!” right out loud, his last solo CD having appeared about 6 years ago. Needless to say, Mr. Fagen is not known for cranking ‘em out – though admittedly I said the same thing when I found out they were doing a remake of Arthur, 30-some-odd years later. I guess it’s all relative.
So far, it sounds great – crisp and smart, lush in the right spots, delightfully cranky, reassuringly familiar without being an outright career retread. Perhaps less vitriolic than in the old days, but maybe once you’ve gotten what you want in life, that’s what happens. (I’ll let you know.) There’s nothing groundbreaking here, and that’s just fine: nobody can do what he does. A (perhaps unintentional) side effect of his kind of genius (like that of Joni Mitchell or Stephen Sondheim) is that artistically, he is something of a dead end. That looks a bit insulting as I type it, but in fact, I mean it as the highest compliment. There is no improving on what he has invented (unless you’re him), and if you emulate him, you end up producing a pale, inferior imitation. Hello, young writers, whatever you’re doing: study this stuff hard, but please God make up your own.
I saw Donald Fagen on the street once, about ten years ago. I was stepping outside after a soul-sucking rehearsal on 8th Avenue when he hustled past – a bit hunched, but at full speed ahead. Our eyes happened to meet and my jaw dropped in recognition before I had a chance to stop it; he gave a quick nod of acknowledgment as if to say, “Yeah, it’s me. Can we just be cool about this?” and kept on moving. I immediately called a friend to report my sighting.
“You’ll never guess who I just saw on the street,” I gushed.
“No, but close,” I said.
That’s what I mean.