The Donald Fagen Papers
By Lary WallaceApril 16, 2014
Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen
I SAW HIM in concert once. It was a Steely Dan concert, 2006, at an outdoor venue in summertime Virginia. While we waited for Donald Fagen and Walter Becker — the founding members of the Dan — to emerge for the main event, the core band got ready on the dimly lit stage by working out a classically cool jazz number from the golden age of hip. I don’t even know the name of the song or who it was by, but I wish I did. It was a majestic moment, suspended between anticipation for what was about to come, and reverence for what had come before.
The mood went from subdued to raucous when the Dan started playing as the Dan, shucking off the formalities of 1950s jazz for the exuberance of the hybrid sound they’d developed in the 1970s, merging jazz and rock and soul and breeding them all together. The pre-show workout had been Steely Dan’s way (I think) of showing off their band’s jazz chops while also paying tribute to the culture that spawned their sensibility and sound. In his new collection of essays, Eminent Hipsters, Fagen pays tribute to that culture more directly and abundantly.
A lot of reviewers are not amused by the nostalgic crankiness Fagen demonstrates throughout this brief but dense, and highly personal, book. I am not among them. Basically, what I think an amused appreciation of Eminent Hipsters comes down to is whether you can tell when Fagen is joking and when he’s being earnest, and whether you think he’s funny even when being earnest.
Not that Fagen is always trying to amuse, or that amusement is always appropriate. Some of these essays are fascinating simply as character studies, as cultural history, as music criticism, or as autobiography. Many of these essays have been floating around, on the web and elsewhere, for a decade or more, and a couple of them are original to this volume.
There’s an essay on the complexities and the demise of Jean Shepherd, the radio storyteller and voice of A Christmas Story (in both the literal and authorial senses), published several Christmases ago in Slate. One night in 1965, when Fagen was a college freshman, Shepherd appeared at nearby Rutgers, and Fagen drove to see him:
Onstage for almost two hours, he had the young audience in his pocket from the downbeat. But, for me, something wasn’t right. On the radio, speaking close to the mic, he was able to use vocal nuances and changes in intensity to communicate the most intimate shadings of thought and feeling, not unlike what Miles Davis could achieve in a recording studio. Live onstage, he spoke as though he’d never seen a microphone in his life, trying to project to the back of the room. Moreover, he blared and blustered like a carnival barker, as if he had the scent of failure in his nostrils and was ready to do anything to get the crowd on his side. It was obvious that the guy I thought was so cool had a desperate need to impress all these people, whom I assumed to be casual listeners at best.
This was a man who’d been a hero of Fagen’s since childhood — who’d been, as Fagen writes here, “one of a handful of adults you could trust. […] Night after night, Shepherd forged the inchoate thoughts and feelings of a whole generation of fans into an axiom that went something like ‘The language of our culture no longer describes real life and, pretty soon, something’s gonna blow.’”
This attitude — this rebellious impulse against a repressed 1950s suburban childhood — flew over a lot better in the 1960s and 1970s, the age of Fagen’s becoming, than it does now, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have real poignancy. Fagen’s willingness to write critically of Shepherd’s decline is a case in point, and so is his willingness, in a different essay, to write about an old-school nightfly DJ who hadn't declined — who was, when Fagen finally met him in 2005, “just as cool and steady as he’d sounded all those years earlier when he rode WEVD’s signal through the swirling, bitter Northeastern night.”
This would be Mort Fega, and even though you or I might not recall the name, Fagen certainly does, just as he recalls “pull[ing] the radio under the covers,” “[i]n order to escape my parents’ wrath. […] I’d usually drift off before the closing theme.” As the host of a jazz show that aired back then called Jazz Unlimited, Fega served, Fagen tells us here, as the closest thing he had to a model in creating the Lester the Nightfly character for his first solo album, The Nightfly (1982).
That album was one extended exploration of all the forces that textured Fagen’s childhood and inspired his adulthood, from nuclear-bomb duck-and-cover drills to Kennedy’s promise of the New Frontier to stifling sexual mores to, of course, the jazz that bespoke a promise of escape from it all. This book serves as a kind of companion piece to The Nightfly, and as a tribute to the same past explored there. But that past was all about the future, whereas Eminent Hipsters and the present described therein decidedly is not.
The kids are not all right, and Fagen is not afraid to say so. He even has a name for them, TV Babies, and when he compares them to his own generation, he does not do so favorably, writing that his own crop of boomers comprised
the last bunch of kids not seriously despoiled in their youth by television (with its insidious brainworm commercials) and drugs. Chances were they’d spent their first years of life without a TV and had to use their imagination to entertain themselves. Perhaps they’d even played with some non-corporate-developed toys and read a few books. Sans malls, they hung out at candy stores and had milk delivered by the milkman and the doctor came to their bedrooms when they were ill. Since then, TV and the malls and the drugs have annually compounded the Big Stupid we live with now.
Including even the hypocritical ranting against drugs, this is all pretty boilerplate coming from someone of Fagen’s generation, albeit much better phrased. A funnier screed comes during the diary of a recent tour Fagen has included as a kind of bonus offering, completely original to the collection:
By the way, I’m not posting this journal on the Internet. Why should I let you lazy, spoiled TV Babies read it for nothing in the same way you download all those songs my partner and I sacrificed our entire youth to write and record, not to mention the miserable, friendless childhoods we endured that left us with lifelong feelings of shame and self-reproach we were forced to countervail with a fragile grandiosity and a need to constantly prove our self-worth — in short, with the sort of personality disorders that ultimately turned us into performing monkeys?
Not only is this funny and hyperbolically cranky, it’s also endearingly self-deprecating and psychologically acute. It’s all the things Fagen hasn’t gotten nearly enough credit for, at least in the reviews of this book. Of course, his music gets all the credit there is to give for these things, and maybe that’s why there’s none left over for Eminent Hipsters. But it deserves a better reception than it’s been given.
He remembers where he was when John Lennon died. He “walked over and watched as a huge crowd of sobbing New Yorkers gathered at Seventy-second Street and Central Park West.” This night “pretty much set the tone” for Fagen’s 1980s. After completing The Nightfly,
I came apart like a cheap suit. The panic attacks I used to get as a kid returned, only now accompanied by morbid thoughts and paranoia, big-time. I could hardly get through the day, much less write music. I started seeing a shrink and gobbling antidepressants.
He writes about what it had been like to first encounter Walter Becker, also on the Bard campus in 1967, and, more to the point, what it had sounded like:
someone playing some electric blues guitar inside, just messing around. But this wasn’t the trebly, surfadelic, white-guy sound I was used to hearing from other student guitarists. This fellow had an authentic blues touch and feel, and a convincing vibrato. His amp was tweaked to produce a fat, mellow sound, and turned up loud enough to generate a healthy Albert King–like sustain.
He defends Ike Turner, as a musician, in terms no more fashionable now than they were when he wrote this eulogy, for Slate, in 2007. He interviews Ennio Morricone and comes away with more than Morricone, apparently, was willing to give him. He writes tenderly about science fiction and the wonders it’s always promised. He gives Henry Mancini the tribute his singular sound dearly deserves but seldom receives.
Every piece emerges from, and is preoccupied with, the very same culture Fagen had consumed, embraced and adopted by the time he left adolescence. In this sense they are very constrictive in their concerns, but in another sense — the sense of sheer variety — they are elaborate, expansive, even generous. Not only does Fagen know what he likes, but what he likes is solid and substantial and time-tested.
While diarizing his tour in 2012, he writes of finally getting to sleep by playing some old jazz, Getz Meets Mulligan in Hi-Fi, vintage 1957, and presumably he didn’t even have to hide under the covers from his parents’ wrath to do it:
These two white jazz virtuosos, both acolytes of Lester Young, both ex-junkies and heavy drinkers, and both, according to musicians’ lore, megalomaniacal dicks, played like angels, and never more so than on this album.
He’s a cranky sentimentalist, yes, but his sentimentality has always been grounded in an earnest fondness for the culture he emerged from. It’s not just a refusal to change, this stubbornness of Fagen’s; it’s a refusal to feel shame at that refusal.
“I’ve been listening to it for a half century,” Fagen continues, of Getz Meets Mulligan in Hi-Fi, “and it always seems fresh and beautiful.”
Lary Wallace is an eccentric-at-large and the features editor of Bangkok Post: The Magazine.
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