Monday, November 11, 2013

Eminent Hipsters

When asked if he would ever write a book, Donald Fagen quickly replied that he was too lazy for such a pursuit. It was disappointing as the co-founder of Steely Dan’s writings have always proven erudite and immensely readable. I’m referring to things beyond the caustic song lyrics penned by him and Dan co-founder Walter Becker. Namely, those essays that had appeared in several magazines and on Fagen’s (now defunct) website.

So when I learned of Eminent Hipsters, I was more than just fanboy curious. Especially as Fagen is older and grouchier than ever. Maybe that was the driver? To get those cranky thoughts on the page and continue to validate his long held persona, seemingly worn without concern for what anyone thinks. Or was it therapy? Catharsis? Boredom?

Some of all of those. Fagen’s new book is actually a collection of the aforementioned writings that were written over several years. Most of it has been previously published. Aha!

The book’s title refers to those progenitors of hipness who would prove influential to a “certain young man…” as the liner notes to Fagen's debut solo album, The Nightfly had read. The early chapters of Eminent Hipsters focus on the likes of Henry Mancini, humorist Jean Shepherd, and The Boswell Sisters, the trio who broke convention even in the 1930s. Each sketch briefly bios and highlights the respective hipster’s works/claims to fame. But more importantly, how a young Donald would lock his bedroom door and be captivated by them (while his peers did the usual teenage things like go on dates).

Mancini is credited with spurring the youth’s interest in jazz. Shepherd, a popular radio monologist in the 50s (and best known for his screenplay and narration of A CHRISTMAS STORY), inspired at least some of Fagen’s sardonic wit (though a sound argument for the author’s innate snark can be made) and "inspired a whole generation of alienated youth." He explains that fans familiar only with the beloved movie aren’t aware of Shepherd’s more acidic barbs on society.

The Boswells were an early musical influence, and Fagen’s summation of their trajectory is a beautifully written and informative passage. Preeminent radio jazz DJ Mort Fega, whose shows Fagen stayed up (and whose grade suffered) for in the 60s, is given a nice write-up. In a piece that originally ran in Premiere magazine in the late 80s, Fagen interviews film scorer Ennio Morricone (through an interpreter). When he asks the composer about the legendary directors he worked with (Leone, Malick, De Palma, et al) he always replies “Belissimo!”

These early segments of Eminent Hipsters are my favorites. A man in quiet awe of those who would impress upon him an aesthetic, an attitude, a career. There’s also a great chapter on the science fiction writers like Bester and Dick. But it’s not just all gushing worship. Fagen describes a disheartening night in the mid-'60s when he visited a university to see Shepherd perform, and how off his shtick was in front a live audience, rather than his more natural, pungent delivery over the airwaves. Mancini is described first as innovative, then maybe too comfortable as time went on. But whose tastes never change?

Fagen also provides snippets of his early home life. His mother was once a professional singer. There was a soul wrecking move to a bland NJ suburb, to a house that is described having a cement patio that overlooked a lake of mud. His father and uncle started a Burger Chef franchise in Ohio. There are recollections of trips to Manhattan jazz clubs, catching the old greats, many of whom were in their final glory days.

Another chapter is devoted to Fagen’s time at Bard College, where one day he would hear choice guitar licks coming from a room and walk in to find Walter Becker. There are a few entertaining anecdotes about those days, when Fagen played in several campus bands (including one in which Chevy Chase played the drums) and was arrested along with many others in a police (drug) raid on the dormitories, spearheaded by then District Attorney G. Gordon Liddy!

The majority of Eminent Hipsters features Fagen’s 2012 road diary of the “Dukes of September” tour, in which he headlined with Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs. It’s a healthy glimpse into the mind of a tired, often paranoid grouch who offers damning assessments of each hotel and concert hall he visits across the U.S. There’s much bitching about the unacceptable acoustics of the venues. This is not unexpected for someone so notoriously fussy about high fidelity – I especially liked his rant against the futility of recordings “mastered” for iTunes; what indeed does that mean? What with crappy transducers (earbuds, speakers) and all through which to hear music. I agree with the author in that legions of people have no idea of what truly quality sound is.

Fagen unapologetically inhabits the ivory tower, cracking on the citizens of all those flyover cities he plays, frequently calling out the “TV Babies” (those born after 1960 who were raised on television) he sees in hotel swimming pools and in audiences (and he also assesses each of those audiences, brutally – all they want to hear are SD songs, they’re geriatric, propped up corpses,  etc.). He explains that on this tour, he is forced to stay in dumpy hotels and rides a tour bus with the back up musicians, while with Steely Dan he travels in luxury.

The scowl of these entries reminded me of what I had heard of Fagen and Becker’s road experience in the early days of Steely Dan, how ill suited these New Yorkers were to the road.. Hipsters does have one reference to the early days, as Fagen recalls cleaning his underwear in the sink with Woolite. I was confused as to how these guys, up in years now, could tolerate the tour machine.  It all makes sense, learning of the latter day luxury route, and why these guys tour so much after years of avoiding it.

But as Irving Azoff (one of Fagen’s longtime agents) explains, since the “Dukes” don’t do press or have any albums, the funds are not there for jet setting. And it provides for some delicious latter day loathing, filling nearly 100 pages. I laughed out loud several times. But thankfully, there is a nice break in the melancholia for a favorable summary of a current hipster, director Wes Anderson.

Yes, the tour entries are a brisk, enjoyable read, but eventually they grow as tiresome as Fagen’s plight. Many are infused with discussions of medical conditions. There’s even an appendix describing “Acute Tour Disorder” (followed by PTD – Post Tour Disorder). One-third of the pages devoted to the wearying tour would’ve been enough. Perhaps allowing more recollections of younger years. Including……

Of course, the original Steely Dan years. Sorry, "zombie", you won’t get that here. It’s a shame, as undoubtedly there are many gems to be unearthed, as Brian Sweet’s Reeling in the Years suggests/documents (though that was unauthorized and secondhand info). The liner notes Fagen and Becker wrote, recalling those fertile years, for the 90s reissues of SD’s discs were quite entertaining as well.

There are fleeting references to Fagen’s most productive period, including some discussion of the song “Deacon Blues” (with lyric reprint), but as the author states “that’s another story…” Hopefully in Fagen’s next tome.

No comments: