Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad: A Futuristic Sentimental Journey

PAUL ROSENBERG
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Starting from a relatively young age I was strongly attracted to two things – music and science fiction. By the time I was 11 years old my average weekend afternoon would consist of reading Ray Bradbury and listening to ELO’s Out Of The Blue – a group I was first attracted to by their spaceship logo. So, it’s not surprising that over the years I’ve been attracted by instances that combine these two elements, music and sci-fi. For example, I listened to John Williams’ famous soundtrack to the first Star Wars movie (a double album) as much as I did anything else. But even more interesting to me are songs that combine elements of sci-fi, and when I think back to some of my favorite songs from those days I recall “Starship Trooper” by Yes, with its obvious connotations, and “’39” by Queen’s Brian May, a song that tells the story of the effects of time dilation in space travel. Then there’s Rick Wakeman’s album No Earthly Connection, which posits that music was brought to earth by beings from space:

Music is the spaceman’s time

It’s a travel form of moving love

Music is the spaceman’s time

Left on earth for man to find

Music has no earthly connection…

Those songs are of course just a few examples of songs with futuristic themes. On the other hand, Donald Fagen’s 1993 solo release Kamakiriad is a sci-fi oriented album on a completely different order, from the album’s thematic premise to the advanced production techniques that often make the music sound futuristic, even otherworldly, and yet somehow familiar. In fact, invention blends with familiarity in many unique and very effective ways on Kamakiriad, which creates a futuristic sentimental journey in which I’d wager many of us “of a certain age” can recognize ourselves.

Fagen spells the album’s story out clearly for his listeners in the liner notes to the CD, which I repeat here:

Kamakiriad is an album of eight related songs. The literal action takes place a few years in the future, near the millennium. In the first song, “Trans-Island Skyway”, the narrator tells us he is about to embark on a journey in his new dream-car, a custom-tooled Kamakiri. It’s built for the new century: steam-driven, with a self-contained vegetable garden and a radio link with the Tripstar routing satellite. The next six songs describe his adventures along the way. In the last song, “Teahouse On The Tracks”, the narrator lands in dismal Flytown, where he must decide whether to bail out or to rally and continue moving into the unknown.

This odyssey in a futuristic vessel starts out in a suburban setting that sounds familiar; “We pull in to Five Zoos, past motels and drive-throughs”, but one notes the sometimes-unfamiliar words (starting with the title of the album itself) used to describe it; “We reach the sprangle just at dawn…”, a clever use of an obscure verb for sprawl. But the real alien element in the first song, “Trans-Island Skyway”, is the music itself. What is the instrument that plays the insistent harmony that plinks away from the beginning through the whole song? Guitar? The bass line too seems impossibly mechanical – as does the drumming, which features a subtly difficult yet crucial kick drum part and syncopation that are, well, perfect.

It’s a truly futuristic production:

As unreal sounding as it is at times, the musical lineup on Kamakiriad is deceptively straightforward, with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker backed up by a solid three-piece rhythm section of organ, guitar and drums. On the other hand, there are seven backup singers and seven horns, including some truly great names like Randy Brecker, Lou Marini, Alan Rubin, Cornelius Bumpus and Roger Rosenberg. It’s an impressive arsenal, and Fagen deploys it masterfully, with bits of vocals and horn section bouncing off each other and weaving with the lead vocals in ways that, though they are typical of Fagen’s work, to my ear achieve their highest expression here on Kamakiriad.

A great example of this is the third song on the album, “Springtime”. The interplay of the sections is astonishing. And listen again to the odd futuristic drumming, each snare hit seeming to be a whole instrument section, while an impossibly steady ride cymbal sets the pace off to the side.

“Springtime” is also a great example of the album’s open sentimentality, a story about a visit to an amusement park where you can examine your past heartaches. Sounds morose, and yet the song breaks into an upbeat shimmy that tells a story that actually sounds pretty familiar…

Easter break – ‘66

A shack on Cape Sincere

Mad Mona bakin’ gospel candy

It was a radical year

We get a little silly

And we fall into microspace

It’s even better this time around

With Coltrane on the K.L.H.

Swing out to Lake Nostalgia…

You can’t help but admire the way Fagen embeds his points of reference in the names themselves: “Cape Sincere”, “Lake Nostalgia”, and the very sly reference to K.L.H. (which if you don’t know, were at the time considered some of the very best loudspeakers available). As for the invented word “microspace”, well, if you’ve ever gotten “a little silly” after eating some “gospel candy” you probably know what he means.

But back to the sci-fi. The album’s single, “Tomorrow’s Girls”, tells the story of beautiful women from outer space, descending on Earth to ruin the lives of hapless men. However, though they may be from another world, in another Fagen-esque twist, they are very traditional looking, “a virus wearing pumps and pearls”.

You can tell he’s just having fun though, from the first chorus of the song:

From Sheilus to the reefs of Kizmar

From Stargate and the Outer Worlds

They’re speeding towards our sun

They’re on a party run

Here come Tomorrow’s Girls…

But on the other hand, make no mistake – these girls are aliens, and they are dangerous:

They’re landing on the Jersey beaches

Their engines make the white sand swirl

The heat is so intense

Earthmen have no defense

Against Tomorrow’s Girls…

You notice as the album goes along that the sound of the music production becomes steadily more traditional – other than the sometimes seemingly impossible low and round bass tones Walter Becker gets, the rest of “Tomorrow’s Girls” has more sci-fi in the lyrics than in the music.

Over the next songs the narrator’s journey takes him through ups and downs, and as the exposition at the beginning of the album tells us, in the final song he ends up like so many of us, at rock-bottom, in dismal Flytown. Yet for a song that begins with the line “Tonight could be the night you crash”, there’s a decidedly upbeat, optimistic feel to the music, which has now completely abandoned the high-tech futuristic sounds of earlier in the album for the atmosphere of a rundown jazz club – the Teahouse on the Tracks. The story abandons sci-fi now too, because just as our hero thinks he might be at the end, he catches the strains of a jam session and ventures in, where

Some cat says buddy

If you’ve got eyes

To rhythamatize

Bring your flat hat and your ax

Here’s another example of Fagen’s invented wordplay – “rhythamatize” – you instinctively know what it means – or the word “groovessential” (my personal favorite) which appears later in the song, when while sitting in on a sizzling jam session (“the crowd was bouncing, in sync with the pulse”), the narrator feels “somewhere deep inside… some frozen stuff begins to crack”. The next day he is up and ready to take on the world again:

On Sunday morning

You’re back at the wheel

You’re feeling calm and crisp and strong

If it feels right

Just drive for the light

That’s the groovessential facts…

I have to say that I was really touched by the shameless optimism of this song, coming from a guy like Fagen, who until then had cultivated a kind of arch and cynical image along with Becker. But then again, look at songs like “Any Major Dude” or “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”, and you can see they were not always casting a jaded eye on every subject.

Nor was the change just lyrical in nature either. That same year the previously reclusive Fagen toured with the NY Rock and Soul Revue, which by the time I saw it had been joined by Walter Becker too. Then a series of Steely Dan tours followed, and a much different, lighter Steely Dan – and Donald Fagen – was revealed. It was great to see, especially that first tour, when Fagen stood up from the keyboard with his melodica and performed Teahouse On The Tracks, actually doing a jig on stage when he sang the line “you get a case of party feet”.

Donald Fagen, performing the most optimistic, upbeat song he ever wrote, and dancing on stage. It was a sentimental journey I’ll never, ever forget, as is Kamakiriad, which I still enjoy immensely every time, now thirty years after its release, and for what it’s worth, consider to be one of the most extraordinary albums ever produced.

And that, my friends, is the groovessential fact.

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Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad: A Futuristic Sentimental Journey ultima modifica: 2024-01-23T19:07:16+01:00 da PAUL ROSENBERG
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