“O” is for “On The Dunes” (Donald Fagen).

Donald Fagen has made an art form of cynicism.  Cynicism.  It’s a dirty word for some, an excuse for inaction and unpleasantness, the safe haven of the spoilsport. 

” Don’t you like anything?  Do you have to question everything?”

I want to hit these people, but if you seek an alternative way to channel that anger, Fagen is your man.  Like William Burroughs before him, he is a champion of the cynical, a spokesman for the terminally hard done by.  A heroic figure to those who lack any propensity towards heroism themselves.  The snidey and the grumpy, the world weary.  Donald Fagen takes their doubts and bathes them in luxurious musical complexities usually earmarked for dying lovers in an operatic suicide pact, or for the final triumph of some poster boy’s hard work and kindness in the face of something insurmountable.  In other words, he puts it up on the wall and says “this is what life is about”.

Even more than Cohen and Dylan, Fagen is not a poet, because the words don’t live on their own.  His genius is to shackle his first world problems to music of shiny optimism.  Fagen talks about his  solo album”Kamakiriad”, here.  Of all the albums about people driving bio-sustainable cars across America in the near future, it’s one of the best.  And one of the most striking songs on this album is “On The Dunes”, a wistful break-up song of unparalleled self pity. 

The scene is a beach, and Donald has been dumped there.  As Bill Hicks once said, the beach is “where dirt meets water”, and for Fagen the dunes, the epitomy of sun drenched, air brushed beauty, occupy similar territory:  here’s the opening verse.

“Drive along the sea

Far from the city’s twitch and smoke

To a misty beach

That’s where my life became a joke

On the dunes

On the dunes
(became a joke on the dunes)

Where rents are high

And seabirds cry

On the dunes”

Reading those lines in that grave voice reserved for poetry, they are simply angry with a touch of humour.  (Pam Ayres could read them).  Add the music though, and the brattish repetition of the phrase “on the dunes” (“on the dunes (became a joke on the dunes)” is somehow lifted up into the sophistication of the harmonies.  The music almost acts as Fagen’s confidante, comforting him and us in the hour of need.   Cut glass grooves, the coldness of a hostile world against Fagen’s warm and fragile vocals. It’s a bit too high for his voice and he knows it.  

The melodrama continues in verse two:
“As you spoke you must have known

It was a kind of homicide

I stood and watched my happiness

Drift outwards with the tide.”

That’s a lot of responsibility to put on a person Donald.

But the high point for me comes in the chorus, where he paints a beautiful picture of the scene in the first half, and then trashes it in the second half; Bill Hicks style:

“Pretty boats

Sweeping along the shore

In the faltering light

Pretty women

With their lovers by their side

It’s like an awful dream

I have most every night”

His voice here is masterful, full of pain (“in the faltering liiiiiieeeeeeght”) and yet soaring above the lush harmonies that open out purposefully in contrast to the hesitant side stepping of the verse. And then there’s the way he tucks the punchline (“it’s like an awful dream”) away right at the end of the phrase. This part of the song has such an uplifting musical effect that the anger is almost lost in the beauty of it.

 In a long and lingering coda, a sequence of chords rolls around like waves lapping at the sand, the drums and sax conversing sparingly.  Thoughts in the mind of the man on the dunes.  Pop’s short attention span has no space for jazz these days,  but Fagen loves it, knows that jazz can be about more than just macho posturing (“Whiplash” was twenty years in the future).  Here the music goes almost absent mindedly around in a lazy circle, but it never escalates.  Like the lingering shots of  Bob Hoskins at the end of “The Long Good Friday”, or Robert De Niro’s last scene in “Once Upon A Time In America”, things are just sinking in.  And it’s four minutes of an eight minute song.  It takes as long as it takes.

If this is an inner dialogue between words and music, for me the music wins.  Its lush romanticism eventually overwhelms us and him, words dissolving into sound and fading eventually into silence.  If this is cynicism, its the kind that sparkles with humanity and humour and God knows we could use that right now. 

One thought on ““O” is for “On The Dunes” (Donald Fagen).

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