Brightest Future, Darkest Days

Jazz-rocker Donald Fagen’s futurescape is only utopian on the outside

J.P. Williams
Dec 3, 2020 · 7 min read
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Image by Computerizer from Pixabay.

veryone knows road movies, but there are also road concept albums. The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking by Roger Waters, Songs for the Deaf by Queens of the Stone Age and A Fine Day to Exit and The Optimist by Anathema are examples. Steely Dan visionary Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad (1993) is another example, but one more dialed back. It’s perfect for lowering the top, donning your shades, and putting on the appearance of simply cruising through your mid-life existential crisis.

The Future Is Bright

Kamakiriad is set twenty minutes into the future and that future looks bright. According to the liner notes, the narrator’s new car is a multinationally produced Kamakiri, which means “praying mantis” in Japanese. It’s “steam driven, with a self-contained vegetable garden and a radio link with the Tripstar routing satellite.” This dream car runs on clean, renewable steam of the sort that may actually power our future if we get our act together enough to have a future. The lyrics, as on Fagen’s previous solo release The Nightfly (1982), are often optimistic, making this album an example of solarpunk before solarpunk was a thing.

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The car of the future. Illustration by E. Williams.

So it’s only fitting that the roads of the future traverse what gives every appearance of being a utopia. If there has been apocalyptic tumult, humankind has already dealt with it and resumed partying. No nuclear fallout, environmental catastrophe, zombies slurping brains or even teenagers fighting totalitarian regimes. Instead, America appears to be a network of roadhouses, clubs and house parties, where everyone from yuppies to outcasts has a place in the music, and the narrator is intent on hitting them all.

The music on Kamakiriad is as bright as its futurescape. Steely Dan may have been on hiatus in 1993, but longtime bandmate Walter Becker played bass and guitar, produced the album, and co-wrote its biggest hit “Snowbound.” As the album sails from sophisticated jazz-rock to yacht rock that you can dance to without spilling your drink on the deck, listeners might feel Kamakiriad is a Steely Dan album in all but name, and indeed the album’s Wikipedia page cast it as the “eighth studio album by Steely Dan” until a recent edit removed that description.

“This dream car runs on clean, renewable steam of the sort that may actually power our future if we get our act together enough to have a future.”

The Days Are Dark

The lyrics on Kamakiriad aren’t always so sunny. In the first track, “Trans-Island Skyway,” the narrator comes across a car accident. He vaguely recognizes the deceased driver, but who cares when the survivor is a young woman with “dancer’s legs” and “snakehips”? His indifference to the driver’s death and his obliviousness toward the girl’s trauma, his blithe predatoriness, constitute the original sin of the album’s narrative and, when wryly juxtaposed with the breezy music, suggest all may not be well with our man behind the wheel.

Simply put, he’s having a mid-life crisis. He’s aging, rootless and running from a string of failed relationships into a series of doomed flings, and he’s worried the young looker he just picked up may only see him as an old guy giving her a lift and not as a potential bedmate. Fagen was 45 when he released Kamakiriad, so similar thoughts may have been on his own mind, which would make the album’s narrator an alter ego. In any case, the narrator’s situation isn’t uncommon: fortysomething and grasping at life even as the end of the road appears up ahead.

The narrator turns out to still have his mojo. The dancer appears later, suggesting the two are at least dating. In “Snowbound,” he takes shelter from the weather with her, and in “Florida Room” he takes shelter again, this time with an old love from his past, one with whom he now seems to have an easy friendship, perhaps with benefits. He has a weakness for these ladies and often portrays them as deadly. The killing turns to gendercide in “Tomorrow’s Girls,” when an alien race of women (from ZZ Top’s “Planet of Women”?) invade and steal Earthlings’ hearts on a massive scale.

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Still from Aelita of Mars (1924). Public domain.

Yet the road goes on and leads to “The Dunes.” The music of this track is deep in soft rock territory — soulful with tinkling piano, noodling guitar and a dash of sax, but listeners beware: We’ve reached the source of the narrator’s trauma, the seat of his neurosis. It’s here that the great love of his life, the one, broke up with him, and it’s here that, in his words, “my life became a joke.” This is what kicked off his existential crisis and it’s what he’s been on the road fleeing.

By the final track, “Teahouse on the Tracks,” the narrator has arrived in Flytown. It’s a bleak place where, according to the liner notes, he must decide whether to “bail out or to rally and continue moving.” At first glance, it may seem as if he’s merely contemplating putting down roots, but on a deeper level he’s considering suicide. The lyrics make clear that the teahouse isn’t just a nightclub, it’s a metaphor for death and Heaven:

Some day we’ll all meet at the end of the street
At the Teahouse on the Tracks.

The Crisis Is Existential

The crisis on Kamakiriad is existential, but the existentialist philosophers weren’t big on suicide. The narrator is what Albert Camus calls an “absurd man” in The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). The absurd individual has realized that life is ridiculous: There is no ultimate meaning, and yet you keep going until you die as if there is meaning. Naturally, this raises the question of whether life is worth living. Camus was no stranger to hardship — he grew up in poverty in French colonial Algeria and survived the Nazi invasion and occupation of Paris — yet he declares that life is indeed worth it.

To illustrate his claim, Camus draws upon a Greek myth related by Homer in the Odyssey and translated by Alexander Pope as follows:

A mournful vision! the Sisyphian shade;
With many a weary step, and many a groan,
Up the high hill he heaves a huge round stone;
The huge round stone, resulting with a bound,
Thunders impetuous down, and smokes along the ground.
Again the restless orb his toil renews,
Dust mounts in clouds, and sweat descends in dews.

For Camus, Sisyphus’ toil in Hades is the perfect representation of human life. We struggle, repeatedly and utterly without hope, but what fascinates Camus is something else. He imagines Sisyphus in that moment when he turns to see the boulder rolling back down the mountain and knows he must resume his labor the next day. In such moments, instead of despairing, we can say, “Fine, I’ll roll it up again tomorrow. And I’ll like it.” The effort itself is what makes life worth living.

When the narrator of Kamakiriad makes his decision, however, his immediate reasons less resemble Camus’ thought than an event in the novel Nausea (1938) by fellow French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. Nausea is about a man named Roquentin, a character with many similarities to Fagen, including a love of jazz. In a celebrated scene at the end of the book, the sound of a jazz record calls him back to the illusions and vagaries of life. The saxophone, the vocalist, a scratch on the disc, and thoughts of the composer inspire a change in Roquentin:

I feel something timidly brushing against me and I dare not move because I am afraid it might go away. Something I didn’t know any more: a sort of joy.

So it is with Fagen on Kamakiriad. The music helps to justify existence, at least a little and in spite of it all:

The crowd was bouncin’ in sync with the pulse
You get a case of party feet
And then from somewhere deep inside you
Some frozen stuff begins to crack

I have reservations about the philosophy of The Myth of Sisyphus — it comes off a lot like providing an all-encompassing meaning to life, the very thing Camus begins by rejecting — but the power of music is something I can buy. Everyone has experienced it and it’s why music therapy exists. According to Harvard Health Publishing, it can provide physical and mental benefits such as pain relief, decreased anxiety and better quality of life for people with dementia. It’s also often raised in the context of suicide prevention, meaning music can actually save lives.

Thus it is that Kamakiriad’s narrator is back on the road the next morning. He will continue to drift across the future and retread the same angst, but he has a new orientation. Maybe he’s embraced his fate like Sisyphus. Maybe art will keep him going like Roquentin, who decides to write something that will be there after he’s gone. Or maybe he’s just had a good night’s sleep and a stiff cup of coffee. In a world with no ultimate solution out there with its thumb up by the side of the road, such imperfect measures will have to be enough.

The Gleaming Sword

From Opera to Metal and Back Again.

J.P. Williams

Written by

I write about the intersection of arts and ideas, my small contribution to the #ThinGraphiteLine between civilization and its collapse.

The Gleaming Sword

A place to share music reviews, analysis and personal experiences.

J.P. Williams

Written by

I write about the intersection of arts and ideas, my small contribution to the #ThinGraphiteLine between civilization and its collapse.

The Gleaming Sword

A place to share music reviews, analysis and personal experiences.

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