On Donald Fagen's Kamakiriad:
The Small Consolations of the Florida Room, 1993
Donald Fagen's second solo album, Kamakiriad in 1993, more than a decade following the lauded The Nightfly in 1982) is a concept album. No, really, it really is a concept album, spelled out in the liner notes/lyric sheet to the Reprise Records CD. There are eight "related" songs, and Fagen tells us what they are about:
"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 a 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 on 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."
As visions of the future go, it seems odd: the millennium of which he writes is the 21st century, which was only seven years from the release of the recording. But technology was going multiplying at warp speed in those years. Satellite radio, already in the experimental stage, would debut commercially in September 2001 when XM and Sirius were competitors. Auto GPS systems were already being used by Audi in 1990, but didn't really hit the market until 2001. Yet like a lot of speculative fiction going back to Hanna-Barbera prime time cartoon The Jetsons (1962-1963 originally), Kamakiriad imagines a cleaner, more efficient, less intrusive future. About 10 or 12 years ago, in a conversation with the visionary producer T Bone Burnett, we lamented, almost at the same time: "They promised us jetpacks; all we got were 'apps.'"
I'm agnostic about Fagen's description of the Kamakiriad story. (The next post will be derived from our 1993 interview in which Fagen can speak for himself.) I'm sure telling a story gave Fagen the structure he needed to write songs mostly without his other half, Walter Becker. But Becker is not absent. In fact, he is the producer of the album, the bass player, and he emerges as lead guitarist. This is a sea-change from the habit of using either highly-skilled members (Denny Dias, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter) on the early Steely Dan albums, or cream-of-the-crop studio players such as Larry Carlton, Elliott Randall, and Jay Graydon. The other guitarist is session player and occasional Steely Dan touring member Georg Wodenius; the Hammond B-3 organ is played by Paul Griffin, whose other credits ranged from Bob Dylan to Wilson Pickett at their finest.
The sound is as sleek and smooth as Fagen imagines would flow on the "Trans-Island Skyway," though his hydroponic-farm on wheels has a strong steampunk vision: After all, "the frame is from Glasgow, the tech is Balinese," the satellite radio set to samba. He is putting us on, but as the techno-tropical sound of the album goes, it's all as lovely as one would expect it to be.
The Fagen-Becker songwriting team contributes "Snowbound." The other co-write is the pivotal "Florida Room," with lyrics contributed by Fagen's longtime romantic partner (the credits list her as "inspiration"), the singer-songwriter Libby Titus. Fagen is credited with the rhythm and horn arrangements, the horns played by a copious ensemble, whose most prominent names include Randy Brecker, Cornelius Bumpus, Ronnie Cuber, and Lou Marini. Not to leave anyone out, but there are dozens of names meticulously credited, and if you started tattooing these names on your back, arms, and legs in 1993, the tattoo artist might still be working.
Those are some of the facts and details. But to me, every Steely Dan album or the sparse collection of Fagen or Becker solo records, is a concept album. A reason that Steely Dan captivates me, and perhaps many other listeners, is that the songs allow us to fill in our own narratives. Every Steely Dan album has correlated with my life. In the early days, it was about the Bard College connection we, like many Bardians of the late 1960s, shared for just a year, but which never goes away. One year in which the intimacy and intensity of the relationships forged lasting connections; in which the gorgeous isolation of the then-pristine and undiscovered Hudson Valley gave us some pensive distance from the war and uprisings in the cities; and allowed us access to ourselves and deepest yearnings that were unavailable to us in the suburbs in which many of us grew up.
But for me, the Steely Dan connection kept on growing, and I've yet to write here about the near-perfect Pretzel Logic, which like Katy Lied and The Royal Scam stuck to me like a second skin, in which situations in song mirrored the events of my life with such plausibility that they seemed like an MRI that also captured my thought balloons. Aja from 1977 and Gaucho from 1980 meet this standard to a degree, but in my mind, these later two albums have a distance that I appreciate aesthetically but which penetrate the psyche less profoundly. There is a reason Aja connected with masses the way none of their other albums did.
Once I woke up from anesthesia after a routine medical procedure and my first words were: "Where does the soul go?" My Steely Dan experience does not go that deep. Instead, it is like a 50-year ping-pong match, with snappy serves, long volleys, the occasional slam responded to with a slicing spin...the game continues, fascinating in its longevity, its durability, its unflagging enthusiasm.
Kamakiriad is part of the game, and Fagen's description of purpose is interesting, but not essential. Because to me, the album is not about the future, but a blend of past and future, in which the songs I am compelled to access, downloaded like chips implanted in my brain, are "Tomorrow's Girls" and "Florida Room."
Let's talk about "Tomorrow's Girls" first. Like so many superficially cheerful Steely Dan songs, there's a dark subtext. In this case, there's a bit of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a suburban Everytown where everything looks hunky dory. Or Hunky Dory, if you prefer, and I do, because I see the under-recognized influence of David Bowie here, as in some other Steely Dan songs. But while Invasion of the Body Snatchers offers a tense, slow reveal to the presence of aliens that in the 1950s look like us, act like us, and might actually be us, "Tomorrow's Girls" gives us the tip right away:
This morning was like any other
Mommies kissing daddies goodbye
Then the milkman screamed
And pointed up at the sky
What were these creatures? Beautiful young women, but not of this Earth. They were more human than inflatable Japanese love dolls: "Their kisses feel like real kisses, and when they cry they cry real tears." They marry and are right at home at a suburban backyard barbecue; they're irresistible. But what are they? "A virus wearing pumps and pearls/Lord help the lonely guys/hooked by those hungry eyes." Really, another day at the songwriting office for the occasionally misanthropic Fagen: solo or with Becker, Steely Dan guys never get the girl. Or the right girl, or even a real girl.
"Florida Room" is more personal. For those unfamiliar with the precise phrase, a Florida room is a small den with a view, in a condominium apartment built for the first New York snowbirds who moved part time, then full time, to South Florida. If they were like my family, the journey would begin in Miami Beach, where my grandparents summered, because it was cheaper. The family crept up the coast from Dade County and North Miami Beach through Broward to Palm Beach County, the rite of passage to the promised land of Boynton Beach, Delray Beach, and Boca Raton. These were the aspirational places of my parents (and probably Fagen's) generation, and my family embraced it early and surrendered to it completely.
I was the only one in my small immediate family not to move to South Florida full-time. And every member of my family died there, in the month of August: my younger brother David in Boca (2007), my mother in Boynton (2012), my dad, long outliving his little bit of money but happy with his second wife, Anna, in a dreary part of Lauderdale Lakes (2020).
The Florida Room was like the temple of my mother and stepfather's Boynton Beach pad. On the second floor of a three story building, there was a waterview. Often unlovable stepdad Hyman sealed his fate with our family by chasing my then toddler daughters out of the Florida Room because they were eating crackers, which might leave crumbs, which might attract ants.
We had just flown from New York arriving in late afternoon for one of my mother's typical acts of self-congratulation, possibly her 70th birthday, and found she had nothing to feed her granddaughters. Just a couple of crackers. Let's say it was 4:30 in the afternoon. Dinner would not be served until 7:30 (ordered in), when my brother's stepson's Little League game was over. I went out to get some cheese and snacks and a bottle of vodka, and by 8:00, for the first and only time in my life, I was drunk and angry enough to punch my brother in the face. We were disinvited from the next night's birthday gala at my brother's house, but my father quickly put us up at his modest rented home nearby in Sunrise.
After the death of Hyman and my brother in 2007, my mother lost the will to live. She was already showing signs of physical and mental deterioration (she was a lifetime pack a day smoker of unfiltered Camels cigarettes until a few years earlier). For the next five years, I visited from New York frequently, though it did not do her much good, since she always favored my younger brother; he lived down there, he needed to be close to family, he was the caretaker. She had two activities: lunch at the clubhouse diner of her gated communitiy, and sitting on her reclining chair, reading bodice-ripping romance novels, drinking one, then two, increasingly large glasses of jug white wine from 3 pm on. Though the TV was on, she would stare for long moments at the small man-made pond visible from her chair, in the Florida Room. "Isn't it beautiful?" she'd say? I never had the heart to disagree.
So the song moves me. And after she died, and I spent much intermittent time in the apartment, I never went to Florida without a copy of Kamakiriad, playing on repeat. Because that, to me, is what the album is about: death in Florida in August, and the small consolations of the Florida Room.
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