Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen writes a portrait of the artist as a grumpy old man.
By Seth Stevenson
Late last summer, I noticed that Donald Fagen — one half of the 1970s fusion-rock duo Steely Dan — was playing at the Beacon Theater in New York. I bought a pair of tickets and invited my friend Pete. Pete had first turned me on to the delights of the Dan — the complex harmonies, the precise musicianship, the world-weary lyrics — our freshman year of high school. Somehow, the group’s portraits of slit-eyed urban drifters struck a chord with a pair of apple-cheeked AP students. I’m pretty sure Pete and I listened to the Dan together, with great ceremony, the first time we both smoked weed.
Fagen was on tour as part of the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue — an occasional, mildly depressing project in which he and fellow jazz-inflected rockers Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald perform R&B standards (smattered with a sprinkling of their own musty hits). Turned out Pete couldn’t make it to the show. Unwilling to inflict this potentially bleak scene on anyone else, I went alone. From my seat in the rafters — as hordes of drunken Long Island baby boomers shrieked for McDonald to bust out his Doobie Brothers catalog — I focused on Fagen.
He belonged somewhere else. Clad all in black, his skinny arms gangling up and down his piano keyboard, his aging voice rasping with every note, he threw off a jagged intensity that seemed out of place amid the surrounding cavalcade of soft cheese. He was apart. Aloof. As punk as a dude in his 60s can be. I marveled that the guy still had the juice.
At least, that’s what I told myself as I left the theater. I think I deeply needed Donald Fagen to be a badass that night. Maybe I wanted him to justify all those years I’d spent idolizing him as a teen — and, truth be told, as an adult. I’ve developed more recent musical crushes. But some core part of me still self-identifies as a “Steely Dan guy.”
In the final chapter of his new quasi-memoir, Eminent Hipsters, Fagen reprints the personal journal he kept while on that Dukes of September tour. It paints a less electric portrait of his night at the Beacon, concluding with a harrumph: “Hometown gigs are a drag.” He was cranky onstage, thrown off his game by all the “friends, relatives, doctors, etc.” dotting the crowd. Much of the rest of his tour diary is consumed with complaints about health problems, travel snafus, and the spotty acoustics in the venues. Some representative lines:
“Ah, waking up in Tulsa on a midsummer morning with a wicked sinus headache.”
“I guess some Snapple leaked onto my MacBook Pro keyboard so that now some keys are sticky and make a disturbing sucking noise.”
“I’m hoping that Richard can get someone to do a CAT scan of my kidney. It still hurts.”
Perhaps it’s always a mixed bag when we access the inner thoughts of our childhood idols. We don’t want them humanized. Don’t really want to know about their quotidian concerns, their insecurities. “Gods do not answer letters,” John Updike wrote of baseball deity Ted Williams, who refused to acknowledge even the applause of his own fans. Yes, contemporary pop celebrities take to Twitter each time they buy a new pair of sneakers. But ‘twas not ever thus. Twentieth century rock gods, in particular, ascended to pop-culture Olympus on the wings of their unreachable, unknowable cool.
In 2004, when Bob Dylan wrote Chronicles: Volume One — the first installment of his planned three-part memoir — Dylanologists clamored to peek inside the skull of this notorious enigma. They were thwarted. Dylan remained a puzzle. He burnished his myth even as he claimed to be nothing special, flitting from aw shucks to thou shalt kneel in the course of a single sentence: “I really never was any more than what I was — a folk musician who gazed into the gray mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze.”
Keith Richards’ 2010 autobiography Life likewise lifted a few veils while preserving the legend. The book reads as though you’ve flopped down in Keef’s country manor house sometime in the wee hours, lit a few candles, and have settled in to let his roguish monologues wash over you. In Richards’ telling, he’s less a protagonist than a bemused bystander — just a guy who happens to have a knack for guitar riffs and nonfatal substance abuse. He never sought the world’s attention and was unfazed and indifferent when it found him.
Now come these annals from Fagen, another rock hero born, like Dylan and Richards, in the 1940s. He’s nowhere near the star those other two fellows are. But to a small, proud band of aficionados — those with a yen for jazzy 13th chords and waggish drollery — he’s a colossus all the same. I’d hoped this book might confirm my notion of Fagen as a dark lord of nebbishy cool. I eagerly anticipated dish about Fagen groupies (surely a unique, beguiling breed of woman) and tales of dissipated, sun-bleached, ‘70s California angst.
No dice. For one, Fagen eschews the typical memoir form and instead pieces together something he terms an “art-o-biography.” The book consists mostly of critical essays (many of them previously published) about musicians and performers that have caught Fagen’s fancy over the years, topped off with that dyspeptic tour journal and a gentle remembrance of his college years at Bard. At its worst moments, Fagen’s writing descends into a bitter screed: He rails against modern music, the Internet, and what he calls “TV Babies” — by which he means pretty much everybody born after 1960.
Even the stuff Fagen likes isn’t safe. In an essay about the radio monologist Jean Shepherd, of A Christmas Story fame (a piece that originally appeared in Slate), Fagen first describes his youthful admiration for Shepherd — the kinship he felt with the sly, subversive voice that crackled through the radio in his childhood bedroom. Then he details how his feelings soured later on in life. The adult Fagen attends a live Shepherd performance that reveals Shepherd’s “straight-up narcissism.” Fagen finds himself “no longer wanting to meet the great man.” He chides Shepherd for mistreating his own acolytes: “Old fans, for whom [Shepherd] had been almost like a surrogate father or big brother, were often met with derision when they approached him.
I couldn’t help but think of this Shepherd essay when I read Fagen’s assessment of the crowds on the Dukes of September tour, just a few chapters later: “If I wander around or eat in one of the restaurants at casino theater gigs, fans sometimes recognize me and want to talk. So that gives me an additional reason not to leave the room.” Or, after a frustrating Dukes gig in San Antonio: “I’d been imagining a flash theater fire that would send the entire audience screaming up the aisles, trampling each other to get to the exits.” I have sympathy for performers’ uneasy relationships with their paying customers. But Fagen seems oblivious to the parallels between Shepherd’s late-career churlishness and his own.
Now it’s me who’s being churlish. Yes, Eminent Hipsters is a gust of disillusionment — bearing the unwelcome revelation that my one-time musical hero has turned into a whiny crackpot with bad kidneys. Yet even as this less cool image of Fagen emerges, the book also manages to remind me what it was about the guy that wowed me back when I was 14. As off-putting as he can be when delving into his own gripes, Fagen is utterly charming when he celebrates other performers. He defends TV and film composer Henry Mancini from charges of fuddy-duddyness: “The sides you carved were strictly, like, young.” He gives Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” its due, asserting that the song — “square-ass backup singers and all — just may have been the most beautiful three minutes and thirty-nine seconds in all of twentieth century music.”
Or take his essay on Connie Boswell, an obscure 1930s singer who fascinates Fagen. Boswell, he writes, exhibits a manner “simultaneously hot and cool: she’s emotionally connected to the lyric and at the same time reveals a self-reflexive, ironic quality that’s astonishing for the era.” As it happens, that description also perfectly captures the delicate hot/cool balance that Fagen himself pulled off in his vocal performances on Steely Dan records. And it’s the kind of top-notch, incisive cultural critique that you ain’t gonna get from the likes of Keith Richards. Just like the lyrics he penned for the Dan, Fagen’s writing here is charged with a zingy, acerbic intelligence. I love his tossed-off insults (“a bit of a moldy fig”) and his quirky interrogative beats (“Got that, chillun’?”). He refers to a songstress “twitching like a maenad” and recasts Ike Turner as an R&B Faust.
In one revealing passage, Fagen expresses his fondness for Wes Anderson — another perfectionist who seems to approach his art less as a spontaneous eruption of creativity and more as a precise, controlled process of assemblage. In Steely Dan’s heyday, the “band” was mostly a rotating crew of studio musicians, each carefully chosen to play on specific tracks they were suited to. Fagen and his partner Walter Becker would sift mercilessly through these takes, in some instances recording several different guitarists’ versions of a solo before they’d settle on one with the proper vibe. There is a calculated remove to these songs — an ironic distance — not unlike the feeling you often get watching an Anderson film.
Fagen possesses none of the swagger of the typical rock dude — those ambulatory ids who love to splash around inside the chaos of their own stardom. He’s far too self-conscious for that. “The fact is,” he confesses in his introduction, “until I got out of high school, I was pretty sure I’d end up in journalism or teaching English or working in a bookstore or something along those lines.” He is both blessed and cursed with the observer mentality. An asset when he’s crafting clever, character-driven song narratives; a hurdle when he’s up on stage or dealing with needy fans.
It also goes a long way toward explaining his appeal to a certain species of shy, cerebral high school kid. The kind of kid who is pretty sure he’ll end up in journalism or something along those lines. Incidentally, as I write this, I notice the Dan is playing at the Beacon. Might try to scalp a ticket. Look for me in the rafters.