by Donald Fagen
Reviewed by Michael Pucci
“. . . several degrees more substantial than the typical musician tell-all.”
The Steely Dan sound, a staple of FM radio and instantly recognizable, has been a canny blend of two ingredients: impeccably crafted, rigorously complex jazz-rock performed only by the best musicians money can buy.
But there has always been another, equally important element lurking beneath the smooth exterior: their lyrics, owing as much to Beat culture and science fiction as to Dylan, are the group’s real secret weapon, laced with black humor and cryptic allusions (and delivered in Donald Fagen’s inimitable sneer).
It’s as if Mr. Fagen and Walter Becker, Steely Dan’s masterminds, were actually fiction writers who preferred to tell their stories musically.
It comes then as no surprise that Mr. Fagen’s new quasi-memoir is several degrees more substantial than the typical musician tell-all.
Eminent Hipsters is not one of those “as told to” cash-ins detailing drug-fueled exploits or a groupie confessional. Dubbed by its author an “art-o-biography,” it’s a thoughtful collection of essays about the artists who most influenced a young Donald Fagen growing up in the Jersey suburbs during the 1950s, the folks “whose origins lie outside the mainstream or creatively exploit material from the margin.”
Opening with a profile of the obscure yet influential Boswell sisters, Mr. Fagen sets the tone for the book to follow: as he describes the “subversive genius” of this nearly-forgotten vocal group, a favorite of his mother’s, he writes with the knowing detachment of a hip jazz critic who’s apparently heard every jazz album known to man. Any reader will be hard pressed not to queue up YouTube for the Boswells after reading this deserving tribute.
He follows with similar reminiscences of Ray Charles, Ike Turner, Henry Mancini, and jazz deejay Mort Fega. These pieces all feature the autumnal tone of someone who outgrew all of his idols long ago but still feels great affection toward them, as in the case of Jean Shepherd.
Best known for writing what would became the holiday standard A Christmas Story, Shepherd for years performed a series of monologues on WOR radio that belied the beloved film’s rose-colored wistfulness and instead offered up slices of childhood unvarnished for kids growing up during the height of the Cold War.
“Shep made it clear he was just as dazed, enraged and amused as you were, that he noticed what you noticed. He established himself as one of a handful of adults you could trust,” Mr. Fagen remembers, which makes the revelation felt after seeing his hero in the flesh years later all the more poignant.
The true highlight of Eminent Hipsters is its final piece, a tour diary of Mr. Fagen’s 2012 tour with Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs as a rock-and-soul revue called the Dukes of September.
Taking up nearly half the book, the candidly funny travelogue documents the author suffering through what he calls Acute Tour Disorder, criss-crossing the country to perform for audiences filled with nostalgic baby boomers (“Tonight the crowd looked so geriatric I was tempted to start calling out bingo numbers”) or younger people (“TV babies”) who have never heard the soul music the Dukes spend much of their shows covering.
This humor is tempered, however, by a genuine melancholy, putting in perspective the price paid by a spotlight-averse 64 year old still on the touring grind:
“For a lot of performing artists, every night in front of an audience, no matter how exhilarating, is a bit of a ritual slaying. Without necessarily letting it show, you use every bit of your marrow, every last atom of your energy in an attempt to satisfy the hungry crowd. On some level, you’re trying to extinguish yourself. Because, corny . . . as it may seem, that’s what you are, and they need it. And it’s exhausting.”
Steely Dan is still a working outfit, having just completed a summer tour, though for how much longer remains unclear. But 40 years after asking if we were reelin’ in the years, Mr. Fagen proves with his generous collection that his wry voice is still worth listening to, with or without a killer rhythm section.
Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen, review
'Eminent Hipsters' is a witty, erudite selection of essays by Steely Dan’s grumpy old frontman, Donald Fagen
By Bernadette McNulty
I remember the first time a friend presented me with a Steely Dan CD. It was both a gift and a test, an initiation into music beyond what then, among Nineties rave bleeps and grunge guitars, was considered anywhere near remotely cool. The sound baffled me at first – with its closeted atmosphere, noodly jazz structures, and slightly reedy, elliptical lyrics it sounded like the Eagles reimagined by Woody Allen – but there was also enough to intrigue me and, ultimately, enough to keep me going back to songs for which, like jazz or wine, you eventually develop a taste.
I imagine that is a description band frontman Donald Fagen would approve of from a person he would dismiss as “a TV baby”, an expression he admits to borrowing from the film Drugstore Cowboy to describe anyone born after 1960, “when television truly became the robot caretaker of American children and therefore the principal architect of their souls”. In his account of a 2012 tour with his side project, the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue, Fagen spends a lot of time being tormented by TV babies. They provoke his ire by turning up to gigs expecting Steely Dan’s greatest hits, or worse, waving their camera phones about: “The TV Babies have morphed into the Palm People… sending instant videos to their friends: 'Look at me, I must be alive, I can prove it, I’m filming this s---.’ You know what? I refuse to look at you. You’re a corpse. And you prove that every day, with everything you do and everything you say.”
As you can tell from this, the 65-year-old American, a proud snark in his youth, has matured into a rabidly grumpy old man. But thankfully age has not stripped him of his keen wit and nose for elegant prose. Rock stars are not necessarily sensitive wordsmiths or deep self-analysts by nature – their life stories, documenting a rake’s progress through narcotics and women, tend to be tossed off as record sales dwindle. In his usual contrary fashion, Fagen has decided instead to create a collage of writing made up of critical essays (some previously published) on the cultural heroes or “eminent hipsters” of his youth, combined with his recent tour diary.
Fagen describes himself as someone who could have easily followed another career as a journalist or an English teacher, although going on the transcript of a profoundly unilluminating audience he had with Ennio Morricone, he was better off sticking to the clever lyric writing.
None the less, his “art-o-biography”, much like his music, is nerdishly clever, entertainingly original and even a moving reconfiguration of the memoir format. The early scholarly bombardment of the essays feels partly designed to shake off the casual browser, rhapsodising over obscure, cult figures of the 20th century, including jazz singer Connie Boswell, science fiction writer AE van Vogt and radio DJ Jean Shepherd. Fagen’s fanboy discussions are worth sticking with, though, as he teases out fascinating nuances and connections. He perceives in Boswell, born in the same year as Frida Kahlo, and also disabled, a similar impulse in her singing to “pull apart” her source material, “reorganise its parts and reshape it into something richer than the original”.
His vivid portrayal of growing up in Fifties and Sixties America includes snapshots of the rapid implosion of San Francisco’s flower children, and of suburban houses clad in so much wall-to-wall beige carpet that he remembers “the coolest girl in high school would crawl across her mom’s floor croaking, 'Water… water!’” For the baby boomers, science fiction was seen not as escapism but as a realistic depiction of their ideological alienation from their parents’ generation, a perception that L Ron Hubbard would use when he created Scientology.
Fagen, for all his waspish antagonism to groups and conventions, shows an almost tender sympathy towards his idols’ flaws, whether it be Henry Mancini’s squareness or Ike Turner’s destructive Faustian pact. It’s a mix that flourishes best in the tour diary, as he depicts the indignities and disappointments of being an ageing rock star on the road who has basically detested touring since his youth.
Descending his way through dodgy hotel swimming pools, shrinking venues and increasing onstage meltdowns – let alone those superficial TV babies – Fagen succumbs to what he calls Acute Tour Disorder, or what others would call hypochondria, misanthropy and the severe grumps. But he presents it with such style and humour, you’re almost willing him back on the tour bus, if only to get another volume like this out of him
In new book Donald Fagen lets his thoughts roam- and they're not all kind
October 23, 2013|
Ever wonder what the typical rock star is thinking about on stage? Playing the same songs played a million times before? To the same audiences? Night after night? Year after year?
Donald Fagen, 65, co-founder of literate, aggressively dyspeptic jazz-rock mainstay Steely Dan, may be no one's idea of the typical rock star . But for the unvarnished thoughts of an iconic rock stalwart, decades into a successful career? Let us turn to the latter half of Fagen's newly released book, "Eminent Hipsters," which is given over to the remarkable diary that Fagen maintained during a 2012 oldies tour with Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs.
Among the things that Fagen complains about in his tour diary: the tour bus, hotel swimming pools, Apple AC cords, poor ventilation, Canadians in general, blue type in emails, pay-per-view, dressing rooms, expensive sound equipment in old music halls, unresponsive audiences, paranoia, insomnia, the shabbiness of the Toledo Zoo, playing corporate gigs and staying in lousy hotels ("Isn't there some rule that says the floral pattern on the wallpaper can't be duplicated on the carpet?"). He also remarks that, when he is touring with Steely Dan, the band "usually stays in somewhat cruddier hotels, and the crew, God bless 'em — I don't know where they stay."
All of which, to an extent, is in keeping with a co-founder of Steely Dan, a virtuosity-minded band that, after starting in 1972 and recording several block-party-weekends' worth of FM hits ("Reeling in the Years," "Hey Nineteen," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"), complained about the inconsistent sound of rock concerts and refrained from touring for years. Fagen and Becker, who mostly avoided putting their faces on album covers, became magents for music nerds, as well as nerd-nerds — gods of esoterica. The name of the band? A nod to a sex device in William S. Burroughs' famously difficult novel "Naked Lunch." The name of Fagen's book? A nod to "Eminent Victorians," a famously skewering 1918 biography of Victorian figures.
"Yeah, I guess," he said, rolling his eyes. "But it was important. I remember I didn't feel as though I had done anything wrong. It gave me confidence to write, though I stopped for years to write songs with Walter."
When he started writing again, in the 1980s, then off and on ever since, it was for the movie magazine Premiere, Harper's Bazaar, Slate, "which calls whenever an important musician dies." Several of these pieces make up the first half of "Eminent Hipsters": Appreciations of Ike Turner, Ray Charles, radio legend Jean Shepherd (who wrote "A Christmas Story"), thoughts on jazz clubs and 1950s science-fiction novels.
At Barnes & Noble, Fagen stopped and went inside. He drifted to the sci-fi section, picking up a paperback of Ray Bradbury's "The October Country," with its spare, autumnal image of orange trees. "Nice cover. Better than a picture of a girl who looks like Charo being chased by a lizard …" He browsed the shelves. "I don't know most of these guys in this section now …. And I don't like fantasy. I love Philip K. Dick. This guy (William Gibson, who wrote the classic 'Neuromancer'), big Steely Dan fan. And this guy (Robert Heinlein, who wrote the classic 'Starship Troopers'), big fascist — sci-fi guys are either liberal or very conservative."
He crossed in front of a stack of memoirs ("I doubt I could do a real one without Walter") and stopped before a wall of music books. He slouched, sipped his Starbucks and considered each title: "I haven't read (Bob Dylan's) 'Chronicles' yet, but I should. And that Miles Davis book, not great."
He thought of something: "You know, my book, it's not about a musician facing down his audience but an older musician feeling alienated from the world he's forced into. I get into a car now, everyone is immediately looking at phones. What the (expletive)? I have tech rage. Daniel Day-Lewis, whom my wife (singer Libby Titus) knows, doesn't have a cellphone. I resisted email a long time. It's destructive to the human soul."
He looked around.
"Where's the, you know, books?"
At the Nabokov shelf, he brightened.
"Nabokov, this is a good test of someone," he said, "whether or not they like Nabokov. Walter and I loved 'Lolita.' My mother had a copy and insisted she never got through it. 'Pale Fire,' Walter and I were inspired by that, this false document, annotated, the annotation having nothing to do with anything. It's hilarious."
He grew bored and left.
On the sidewalk, he bummed a cigarette from his tour manager. "I don't smoke," Fagen said, smoking.