While autobiographies are hardly one of my more enthusiastically-embraced genres, there is a certain voyeuristic itch that's scratched by getting to peek into the lives of assorted figures with whom I've developed some familiarity. While I was certainly appreciative of Steely Dan's music, and had a couple of their albums, I was never a big fan, but was at least able to put Donald Fagen's name into the right context.
His book, Eminent Hipsters is one of those projects that I suspect involved the publisher prodding for material, as the biographical reminiscences only run 85 pages, with the rest of the book being a journal he was keeping during a 2012 tour with The Dukes of September Rhythm Review, which featured him, Michael McDonald (of the Doobie Brothers) and Boz Scaggs (of the Steve Miller Band & solo work). The book is relatively recent, having initially come out in 2013 (the introduction is dated to January of that year), with the paperback being issued in late 2014. What's odd here is that there's a significant gap, from 1969 to 2012, in the material … which not only represents a huge jump age-wise (from college to age 64), but skips over all the “rock star” elements (which one would guess would be the stuff that Steely Dan fans would be looking for in a book by Fagen). As such, this comes across as pretty much two books, one about things that influenced him in his first 21 years, and, I suppose, made him who he is, and then a look at his senior existence, on the road (and dealing with “Acute Tour Disorder”).
I wish I'd be able to give you a coherent overview of what's in the first part of the book, but chapter by chapter it's pretty much a fire hose of name checks, some I recognize, but most (being that Fagen's tastes run to jazz) I don't have a clue about. However, the chapters do have themes that they stick fairly close to, so I'll try to present at least the broad strokes. This starts in “Boswell's Version”, where he notes that his cousin Barbara (“…a knockout, gorgeous and curvy, a great dancer, and hip too. Hanging out at jazz clubs in the Village, she had no trouble getting to know the major players …”) would play hot albums for the kids, and his mom (who was “…a fine swing singer who from the age of five through her teen years worked with a trio in a hotel in the Catskills …”) was “a connoisseur of what jazz people refer to as 'phrasing'”, and among these faves of hers were the Boswell Sisters, who had, according to Fagen, “created a body of work rivaling that of Duke Ellington”. Mind you, in the two paragraphs separating “phrasing” from “Ellington” in the text, he's name checked a dozen performers, ranging from those he notes to be “now forgotten” to such mega-stars as Frank Sinatra. The Boswells, and especially Connie, serve as a central element in this chapter that allows the author to paint a complicated portrait of popular music in the 20's, 30's, and some aspects reaching into the 50's.
The next chapter is “Henry Mancini's Anomie Deluxe”, which starts out with one of the more traumatic events in Fagen's life – his father deciding to move the family to a pre-fab sprawling suburb in New Jersey when he was about 8. The descriptions of “Squaresville” eventually settle into what was on TV, including Blake Edwards' memorable Peter Gunn, whose still-cool-today theme by Henri Mancini spoke to the youngster.
Mancini was cranking out scores for the show, and its spin-offs, putting out albums of material which “sold in the zillions”. This lets the author drift down memory lane for things that drove him to learn more about jazz, and riff on pop cultural factors, and the shift from the music of previous decades to new generations, and how Mancini's music keeps re-surfacing in surprising contexts.Mancini didn't have to look far to find the appropriate sound to enhance Edwards's vision of anomie deluxe. At the time West Coast jazz (essentially, white bop) was being offered to college kids as part of the same package that included the Beats, open-toed sandals and psychoanalysis.
The next chapter takes a abrupt turn in focus, with “The Cortico-Thalamic Pause: Growing Up Sci-Fi” looking at the author's reading preferences (if not obsessions), the cultural elements leading to these works, as well as that of the time in general:
And, speaking of “general”, Fagen gets into a whole section dealing with General Semantics, which has the seed concepts that sci-fi author A.E. van Vogt spun out into a plot element of “the Cortico-Thalamic Pause” in his book The World of Null-A. The chapter moves into Fagen's first experience with San Francisco, and whips back into literature, tracing the weirdness surrounding the creation of Dianetics.Contrary to all the popular depictions of the fifties as a time when teens danced on the counters of a thousand pastel-dappled soda shops to the sounds of twangy guitars, the decade was, in fact, characterized by a nail-biting paranoia.
This then leads to “I Was a Spy for Jean Shepherd” … a radio personality he was introduced to by his “weird uncle Dave”. Shepherd also wrote, and is immortalized as the source of the material (in his book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash) of the endlessly broadcast film A Christmas Story. This lets Fagen get into radio issues, comedy performers (Lenny Bruce, etc.), and what does or doesn't work in broadcast vs. live. The key piece here is that Shepherd would “… get his listeners – the 'night people,' the 'gang' - to help him pull goofy public pranks on the unwitting squares that populated most of Manhattan.” and would read stories sent in by listeners, his “spies”. Needless to say, one that Fagen had sent in was read on the air, leading Fagen to claim: “My life as an independent consciousness had begun.”
Next comes “In the Clubs”, where the author tells of his experiences going up to New York City to listen to jazz, etc. It seems odd that this started when he was in his very early teens (in the early years of the 1960s). This chapter is truly amazing … but so jam-packed with details of clubs, musicians, genres, playing styles, characters, and more, that I have no way to even begin to give you samples. Guess you'll have to get the book, eh? This is followed by a very brief (4 pages) chapter on a particular favorite of the author – an all-night jazz DJ by the name of Mort Fega – which is titled “Uncle Mort”. Another 4-page chapter comes next, “A Talk with Ennio Morricone”, which is a reprint of an interview Fagen had done for Premier magazine with the guy who did the scores for (among others) the “classic” Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. Even briefer (clocking in at 3 pages) is “Exit the Genius”, a free-standing tribute to Ray Charles wherein he claims that: “When Ray Charles died in 2004, we came to the end of American culture as we had known it.” Next comes the slightly longer “The Devil and Ike Turner”, which is a fascinating look at the man, in a context that makes him look like a Delta Blues version of Faust (no, really).
The last chapter of the reminiscence part of the book is “Class of '69” which is a recalling of Fagen's years at Bard College. This was, somewhat notably, in the same general area of the planet as where Dr. Timothy Leary was running his center. The chapter starts out with the basic college stuff, questions about direction (he didn't think he was good enough at music, so initially was an English major), all sorts of heartache and/or sex and obsession, and experiments with drugs. Then he stumbles over (his Steely Dan partner) Walter Becker, and it's suddenly pretty much all about the music. There are some interesting names checked here, including a point where they had classmate Chevy Chase (yes, that one) playing drums for an band they put together for an event. The last story in this part is based on another name-check, that of G. Gordon Liddy, who led a raid on the house Fagen was living in off-campus, leading to fifty kids getting thrown in jail … they eventually get let out, but Fagen decides to boycott graduation in 1969 over what he sees as the college's involvement in enabling the raid.
Then, suddenly, it's 2012. Nice segue.
The first couple of paragraphs of “With the Dukes of September”, he backgrounds the genesis of this project, from the 1980 shooting of John Lennon, to his The Nightfly album (and panic attacks and paranoia), to getting pulled into an event series that produced The New York Rock and Soul Review, which was the predecessor of the act he's touring with. What's most notable about this whole journal is what a cranky old guy he's turned into – not helped by the much-lower tour budget that this group has vs. what he'd been used to with Steely Dan. He bitches a lot about “the TV Babies” who don't recognize classic songs, etc. As to not posting the journal on-line:
Anyway, he bitches about reading, he bitches about hotels, he bitches about long bus rides (instead of flights), he bitches about pretty much everything (“The hippie stuff was fun for about five minutes and then, by late '67, the barbarism had set in.”). Of course, being an almost daily report, it is a fascinating look “behind the curtain” of a rock tour – if featuring a bunch of 60-something guys as the main players. City after city. Concert hall after concert hall. Hotel after hotel. And, everything that can be bitched about in each. Oh, and even some drugs (albeit mainly of the prescription variety).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 … (this goes on for quite a bit, and is a delightful, if long-ish rant)
There's a bunch of less pleasant stuff as well, like the suicide of Fagen's wife's son. Also, “ATD” – Acute Tour Disorder – which he spends four pages describing in detail in an appendix. Here's a little example of the tone of much of this, from the August 9 entry, following a show in Boston:
TMI, anyone? Frankly, a lot of the tour journal is like that – reminding me of some of my hand-written journals from places back when I was traveling – complaining about stuff because the irritations are the easiest data to access at the time.But after seven weeks out, ATD tends to trump joy. To boot, my right kidney's been bothering me a lot, probably because of some crystal gravel, tiny kidney stones that I sometimes get.
As I didn't come to Eminent Hipsters as a big Steely Dan / Donald Fagen fan, I didn't have the reaction that a lot of reviewers had in being pissed off that he didn't address the stuff that most of them really wanted to read. It's an interesting enough book, and (were he less hostile to all things digital) would have been a great opportunity for him to have put together play lists of YouTube, etc., resources of the influences he mentions. With a close read, however, you might be able to pull this together for yourself and get quite a useful background in the sorts of music that he grew up on. I guess I need to note that his Steely Dan partner, Walter Becker, died in between my reading this, and getting around to writing the review. Obviously, that's not really here nor there in terms of my interface with the book, but a bunch of the back-and-forth with his representatives deal with it not being an "SD tour" (with the implication that they'd like him to agree to one), and that now appears to be a moot point. I guess Fagen will have to get used to the crappier hotels.
Anyway, as noted, this is a relatively recent release (the paperback came out just 3 years ago from the day I'm writing this), so there's a decent possibility of it still hanging around in the remaining brick-and-mortar book vendors. It appears that the hardcover is out of print at this point, but the new/used guys have it (for less than the paperback), if you're looking for something more substantial. The online big boys have this at a few bucks off of cover price, but the used options don't save you much (and used mass-market books tend to be a mess), so that might be your best bet should this sound like something you'd want to pick up. Again, I probably enjoyed this more because I'm not a particular fan of the author and his most notable band, and it might be an irritating tease if Steely Dan was one of your faves ... the “music history lessons” woven into the first part of the book are worth reading in any case.