Donald Fagen and a musical memoir that surpassed itself
By Donald Fagen Viking 159 pages, $26.95
Steely Dan, the band co-founded by Bard College chums Donald Fagen and Walter Becker at the end of the '60s, made its name by combining the influences of Duke Ellington, R&B, funk and pop with a consistently brilliant strain of lyric-writing that was the very definition of sardonic. That this band became one of the major commercial successes of the '70s is a minor miracle. Bringing the sophistication of jazz to bear on pop-based song structures is no mean feat, and no one but Steely Dan has ever really gotten it right.
Witty, erudite, bitingly self-deprecating, and intellectually dense, Fagen's lyric writing belongs in a class of its own. Part Beat poetry and part world-weary hipster flash, the rest was the observational musing of a delightfully twisted and occasionally bitter consciousness. Those lyrics have long suggested that Fagen, should he ever feel like bothering, would make an excellent prose stylist.
"Eminent Hipsters," Fagen's first foray into such an area, turns out to be everything you'd want from the man.
Don't expect the always fashionable "I was in a huge band that toured the world, trashed hotel rooms, and consumed equally prodigious amounts of cocaine and groupies" type of memoir, though. "Hipsters" largely takes the form of a diary, follows no straight linear path, and like Bob Dylan's "Chronicles," breezes over certain parts of its writer's history, while sticking around far longer in others.
No matter. The magic here is in Fagen's pen, which seems to be filled with a substance more closely resembling a bile-vitriol blend than anything as run-of-the-mill as plain old ink.
If experiencing Steely Dan always felt a bit like reading William Burroughs while listening to Count Basie or Ellington played by a rock band while under the sway of a strong hallucoinogen, "Hipsters" demands an equal amount of multitasking. Fagen is at once a heart- on-sleeve Romantic and the grumpiest of grumpy old men, a man for whom disgust with modern culture and those who populate it comes as naturally as breathing. Taking in this wonderful book demands that we simultaneously accept both sides of Fagen's personality - the kid who first fell in love with (and then found a way out of the New Jersey of his youth via) music, and the now 65-year-old "lifer" musician who finds life on the road, the music business in general, and major portions of his own audience to be worthy of little more than contempt.
Major portions of the book are culled from Fagen's journal notes, thoughtfully scribbled down while the man was in the midst of a recent tour with side project the Dukes of September, a soul/R&B review featuring Fagen, Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald. The journal entries are at once side-splittingly funny and heartbreakingly poignant. They also reveal the depth of Fagen's disgust for a generation he refers to as "TV babies," a sweeping generalization Fagen employs to describe anyone born after 1960, "when television truly became the robot caretaker of American children and therefore the principal architect of their souls." (If you aren't laughing yet, well, then "Eminent Hipsters" might not be for you.)
You know those annoying people who can't seem to enjoy a concert unless they are holding their silly little cellphone in the air and filming it? Yeah? Fagen knows them, too.
"Yeah, call me Uncle (expletive)," he writes. "I don't care. William Blake's 'dark Satanic mills' of the industrial revolution may have enslaved the bodies of Victorian citizens, but information technology is a pure mind-(expletive). The TV Babies have morphed into the Palm People. For example, those people in the audience who can't experience the performance unless they're sending instant videos to their friends. Look at me, I must be alive, I can prove it, I'm filming this (expletive). 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. Wake up, ya dope!"
Think life on the road with a band is somehow a Romantic undertaking filled with the thrills and chills attendant to superstar status? Think again.
"June 29: Waking up in the overchilled back bedroom of the bus with the thick shades locked down is like waking up in a dark, dusty shoe box on a shelf in the basement of a Florsheim shoe store in, say, Utica, New York, in 1953. Staggering up to the front, I saw that we were parked across the street from the Miramar Hotel in bright, downtown San Jose. A day off here. Oh. Great."
Under the illusion that paying money for a ticket to see Fagen in concert might get you off the hook, and transform you into someone he might actually respect? Wrong!
"July 18: I'm back from the show. The house was a legion of TV Babies, maybe tourists from Arizona. I don't know. Probably right- wingers, too, the victims of an epidemic mental illness that a British study has proven to be the result of having an inordinately large amygdala, a part of the primitive brain that causes them to be fearful way past the point of delusion, which explains why their philosophy, their syntax and their manner of thought don't seem to be reality-based... In the sixties, during the war between the generations, I always figured that all we had to do was wait until the old, paranoid, myth-bound, sexually twisted Hobbesian geezers died out. But I was wrong. They just keep coming back, these moldering, bloodless vampires, no matter how many times you hammer in the stake. It's got to be the amygdala thing. Period, end of story."
Reading between the lines here - and they are brilliant lines, the sort that leap from the page, written in a frenzied, dazzling flow that suggests a literary analog to a poignant bebop solo - it's not hard to see that Fagen, for all his sneering grumpiness, is really a jilted idealist. If you never cared - if you never believed that the great minds, the elevated artists and writers and contributors to our culture that are Fagen's eminent hipsters might actually elevate that culture above the dung heap of capitalism's twilight years - then you'd never be able to feel the disappointment that fuels Fagen's eloquent rants. It's as if he's simply acknowledging that the battle is over, and the good guys lost.
Or, as he puts it in the Steely Dan tune "Everything Must Go": "It's high time for a walk on the real side/Let's admit the bastards beat us/I move to dissolve the corporation/in a pool of margaritas."
Sounds like a plan. But before the whole thing goes belly-up, I'd recommend you grab yourself a copy of "Eminent Hipsters." It makes great reading for the end times.
Jeff Miers is The News' Pop Music Critic
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