When I go to a cafe on Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on weekend mornings, I sometimes see celebrities strolling by, since many of them live in the high-priced neighborhood. Over the years, I have seen the likes of Madonna, Whoopi Goldberg, Michael J. Fox, Bill Cosby, Emma Thompson, John F. Kennedy Jr., Ron Howard and many other so-called glitterati.
Recently, one such "sighting" startled and disturbed me.
As a friend and I sat enjoying a cappuccino outside, I noticed a rather elderly fellow walking by. He seemed strangely familiar, but I could not place where I knew him from.
“You know who that was?” my companion said.
"No, who?” I replied.
“Donald Fagen,” she said.
To which, I said: “Who the hell is Donald Fagen?”
Frustrated, she answered: “The guy from Steely Dan!”
I was stunned. I quickly turned around to watch him walk away -- from the back, I wasn't convinced it was the same rock star that had penned and performed some of the greatest songs of my youth.
Fagen, dressed in a t-shirt and corduroys, walked into a deli and exited carrying a newspaper. He then retraced his steps back up the avenue.
This time, I was determined to watch him closely. As he approached us, I studied his face -- it was indeed Donald Fagen, or at least a much older, slumped version of the man I recall from photos in the 1980s.
I continued my discreet surveillance -- Fagen strolled up to a luxury hotel building located atop a restaurant and entered it (and no pedestrians seemed to notice him or identify who he was).
I had always liked Steely Dan and enjoyed some of their songs, but I was never a devoted fan. They were a bit too "jazzy" and "intellectual" for me.
And I simply couldn't reconcile the spectacle of this balding, elderly, rather pathetic looking creature on death's door with the glamour and excitement of the pop music of my youth.
Then I realized I had seen him before, but I never made the connection to Steely Dan.
Once I got home, I checked on the Internet and confirmed that Fagen does indeed live on the Upper East Side (in that hotel, apparently).
It seemed so strange -- how could one of the biggest pop stars in the world (at one time) have metamorphosed into such an anonymous, somewhat forlorn figure?
Naturally, unlike me, Fagen likely has tens of millions of dollars in the bank and enjoys a musical legacy that will last forever -- but on that sunny New York City morning, he and I were “equal” -- he was just another anonymous loser walking to the corner store to buy the paper.
Then I thought about Steely Dan – as a teenager, I liked their songs but knew nothing about the group, nor even knew what the members' names were. I actually believed that “Steely Dan” was one of the musician's names (little did I realize that it was taken from a William Burroughs novel and signified a sex toy).
I also did not know what the band members looked like, nor how many there even were.
Steely Dan is unusual in the sense that the two principal members (Fagen and guitarist Walter Becker) did not appear on their album covers, nor did they tour or do any kind of promotion in the 1970s that I can recall.
But their songs, like "Peg," "Rikki, Don't Lose That Number," "Reeling in the Years," "Any Major Dude Will Tell You," "Deacon Blues" and many others played endlessly on FM radio stations back then. They were popular, highly respected, artistically sound and commercially viable -- i.e., pop superstars.
However, Messrs. Fagen and Becker remained rather anonymous -- like studio session musicians who shunned the trappings of fame and publicity (while taking the money, of course).
Part of me admired them for rejecting the glamour, glitz and "machinery" of fame, but a larger portion of my conscience wondered why they remained in the shadows, despite the obvious success of their albums.
Well, for one thing, they were, shall we say, less than photogenic? But I think it was deeper than that. They simply wished to be musicians and songwriters, rather than “celebrities” (something I could certainly admire about them).
Then again, what is the point of being successful without really being famous -- especially in the lofty realms of pop music?
I wondered about that as I carried in my mind that sad and upsetting vision of Donald Fagen -- a stooped, melancholy, homely old man carrying the New York Times while shuffling down Madison Avenue.
Millions of people around the world dream the impossible dream of becoming rock stars and making an ungodly fortune -- Fagen was one of the precious few who actually saw that hopeless aspiration come true.
And yet, what was the point?
Fagen is now an old man who doesn't seem overly contented (from my quick reading of his body language). I doubt most people would even recognize him (even I, someone with a keen eye for famous people, took a while to “make” him).
Did being a successful musician make him happy? Does a life filled with accolades and money satisfy his ego and soul?
Although I certainly don't know the man, and have never spoken to him, I would have to concur that nothing from his dazzling career has made him content.
I confirmed this assessment by reading several interviews he has given over the years. Fagen, who comes across as extremely sardonic and highly intelligent, seems rather disassociated and detached from his fame and notoriety.
Indeed, he appears to be unaware or even dismissive of the cumulative successes he has accrued over the decades.
So, again, I have to ask -- what is the point of wealth and fame if it leads to a black hole, a dead end and a long tunnel of darkness of boredom and despair that only can result in old age and a certain gloomy death?
This is why I think the ideal pop-rock star is David Bowie, a man who somehow synthesized superb musical skills with an uncanny obsession for glamour, self-promotion and glitter (the latter of which Fagen completely eschewed).
Thus, Fagen might be just as talented as Bowie, but Bowie remains a far more compelling and unforgettable pop culture figure, a veritable “legend” as it were.
It occurred to me that Fagen -- whose songs are well-known across the globe -- could stroll down the streets of New York, London, Rome, Paris Delhi, Tokyo, etc., without being noticed or bothered at all.
Perhaps that's a good thing (especially in light of what befell the very famous John Lennon). But, then again, what does one really gain from isolation and anonymity?