“Eminent Hipsters,” Shake It! — A Look at Donald Fagen’s “Art-O-Biography”

Donald Fagen

Donald Fagen (image credit: Alexander Cohen)

Viewed chronologically, the lyrics to Steely Dan’s songs seem to tell a story, but the narrative is obscure and hard to follow at some points.  So elusive, in fact, that at least one “top 10” list of difficult lyrics has been posted on the Web.  Many Steely Dan aficionados have tried in vain to explicate such conundra as “The Boston Rag” or “Show Biz Kids.”  Almost as difficult to fathom are the personalities of  Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the duo who composed them.  A cursory search turned up only one author who has taken a swing at a biographical account of the pair.

EMINENT HIPSTERS book cover

EMINENT HIPSTERS (2013) by Donald Fagen

Fortunately, Steely Dan obsessives now have a primary source for their research rituals.  In Eminent Hipsters, Fagen gives his readers an inside look at some of the experiences that that made him who he is today.  Some of this self-revelation comes obliquely, through writing about the “eminent hipsters” of his formative days, “the talented musicians, writers and performers from a universe beyond suburban New Jersey who showed me how to interpret my own world.”  Fagen also discloses some of these self-interpretations, which are occasionally brutally honest, but more often thoughtfully introspective.  In the process, Fagen demonstrates that he has become like the heroes of his younger days, those who “merely because they live in a freaky space, have enough distance to see some truth.”

Published by Viking Penguin in 2013, Eminent Hipsters is a collection of nonfiction pieces that Fagen has written over the years for various purposes.  Some are essays and interviews that first appeared in other venues.  Others, such as pieces about the Boswell Sisters, his college days at Bard, and a journal that he kept while on tour with Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs in 2012, appear for the first time in the book.  All of them follow the “organizing principle” of an “art-o-biography”:  “How the stuff I read or heard when I was growing up affected (stretched, skewed, mangled) my little brain.”

Fagen’s music-themed pieces demonstrate his knack for evoking the personalities of great artists and the Zeitgeist of their scenes and times.  With the dual authority of enthusiast and eye-witness (as well as being an icon in his own right), he describes the jazz musicians he listened to while enduring the dysphoria of living in 1960s suburban New Jersey.  In “In the Clubs,” Fagen recounts the opportunities he took to see and hear (and sometimes meet in person) some of them in Manhattan ‘s jazz clubs.  “Exit the Genius,” originally posted on the CITYHOUR blog in 2010, both memorializes Ray Charles and reveals the musical legacy that Fagen inherited from him.  In the “The Devil and Ike Turner”, a 2007 obit written for Slate,  Fagen uses the legend of Robert Johnson’s midnight rendezvous with the devil as a metaphor to frame Turner’s history, both as a music great and as a “poster boy for spousal abuse.”  Fagen’s evocations of his own responses to major jazz radio personalities of the 60s are even stronger:  “I Was a Spy for Jean Shepherd” (a 2012 Slate piece) and “Uncle Mort” (Jazz Times, 2006).

Fagen emphasizes that these figures not only influenced him to learn how to play jazz, but also introduced him to a world that proved to be the antidote to the square, middle-class, suburban environment that he endured until he was able to escape to Bard College, where he was to meet Becker.  Another major influence came from reading fiction, in particular the writings of the Beats and science-fiction novels by major talents like Philip K. Dick.  Fagen devotes an entire piece, “The Cortico-Thalamic Pause:  Growing Up Sci-Fi” (originally posted on his blog, donaldfagen.com, which now redirects to his Facebook page), to the latter.  This essay is a fascinating investigation of the influence of general semantics on the major science fiction editors and authors of the 1960s.  This theory led to the polarization of the science fiction scene, based on which authors accepted John W. Campbell’s obsession with it and which did not.  One who did, L. Ron Hubbard, went on to found his own religion.

Two pieces are overtly autobiographical.  The first, “Class of ’69,” is a kind of Bildungsroman in miniature, shedding light on how the informal and formal education he underwent at Bard College led to his transformation into a literate songwriter and musician.   In the last piece in the book, “With the Dukes of September,” Fagen shows us that he can be a cranky, irritating curmudgeon when he is in the throes of “Acute Tour Disorder,” for which he provides a tongue-in cheek, DSM-like set of diagnostic criteria in an appendix.  At least one reviewer has taken umbrage at Fagen’s honesty here, particularly his less-than-kind commentary on the audiences at some of the gigs on the tour.  However, Fagen is not one of the “megalomaniacal dicks” whom he intermittently criticizes in this piece.  His is not a sentiment that has never been expressed before by an artist.  For example, Kurt Cobain sang these less-than-complimentary lines, which could have been aimed at Nirvana’s fans:

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us

What “smells like teen spirit” to Cobain, Fagen calls “TV Babies.”  Nevertheless, Fagen can’t help himself when a performance turns out to be everything he wants, both for himself and the audience.  For example, he describes a show at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre as follows:

Nevertheless, the band, inspired by the wildly responsive, obviously snockered Friday night crowd, laid down the grooves behind the singers and soloists, who were all on fire.  For a couple of hours, five thousand people forgot their problems, their grief, the fear of their inevitable appointment with oblivion and were lifted up and out of it by seeing and hearing a hot band play some good music.  So there.

Or this, at a Rochester gig:

When everything’s working right, you become transfixed by the notes and chords and the beautiful spaces in between.  In the center of it, with the drums, bass and guitar all around you, the earth falls away and it’s just you and your crew creating this forward motion, this undeniable, magical stuff that can move ten thousand people to snap free of life’s miseries and get up and dance and scream and feel just fine.

Bring back the Boston rag.

This post is an edited version of a piece that
appeared first on FRISCO KID's other blog.