In new book Donald Fagen lets his thoughts roam- and they’re not all kind
By Christopher Borrelli
Donald Fagen of the band Steely Dan has a new book and tour diary, Eminent Hipsters. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)
Ever wonder what the typical rock star is thinking about on stage? Playing the same songs played a million times before? To the same audiences? Night after night? Year after year?
Donald Fagen, 65, co-founder of literate, aggressively dyspeptic jazz-rock mainstay Steely Dan, may be no one’s idea of the typical rock star. But for the unvarnished thoughts of an iconic rock stalwart, decades into a successful career? Let us turn to the latter half of Fagen’s newly released book, “Eminent Hipsters,” which is given over to the remarkable diary that Fagen maintained during a 2012 oldies tour with Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs.
On the audience in Beaver Creek, Colo.:
“Stewed, swaying ski chicks …”
On the air-conditioned stage in Houston:
“An irritating polar draft in hell …”
On the audience 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, ending up in a horrible scene outside on the sidewalk with people on stretchers, charred and wrinkled … I guess I’m getting more and more thin-skinned as the tour goes on.”
Chicago — of which Steely Dan once cryptically declared: “There ain’t nothing in Chicago/For a monkey woman to do” — gets off lightly. Fagen writes that, while backstage at the Ravinia Festival, deeply agitated, he took a toke from a joint before the show, smoothing the wheels for a dull, “tight and polite” performance. Which is nicer than his description of Vancouver, its audience so old that “there were people on slabs …”
To say Fagen is a crank is like saying the sun also rises.
Or that, somewhere, right now, a Steely Dan song is playing in a supermarket. Some truths are self evident.
Late in the summer, while Steely Dan was in town for shows at Ravinia, Fagen took some time out to talk about books, his violent onstage thoughts, and hating rock music. Walking from his Gold Coast hotel, he was hunched, mumbling, his lips squashed into a pancaked scowl. He was not fond of having his photo taken (“I don’t do acting”) or being recognized by fans (“I’m suspicious of the committed ones”), but he was also not mean, angry or caustic. He was simply himself: funny, awkward, droll, in skinny black dress pants and white sneakers, the kind of guy whose idea (with Steely Dan partner Walter Becker) of a nostalgic song about going back to his old school promises: “California tumbles into the sea, that’ll be the day I go back …”
Not a typical rock star.
Even that term, he groaned, “‘rock star,’ people forget that it wasn’t used widely until — well, I forget when, but there wasn’t this institutionalized careerism in rock that there is now. I don’t like rock music, to be frank. I know David Byrne, and I once heard Nirvana, I think. But anthemic rock music is inherently fascist — anything intended to move huge masses of people is politically offensive to me.”
He headed up Rush Street.
Asked if he was hesitant to release Eminent Hipsters, with its polarizing portrait of the audience, he crossed his hands in front of him, slowed his pace and nodded. He thought a moment, then shrugged: “I never kept a tour diary before. And I’m not that social. I think my friends know how I talk. My natural motive is irony. I was a little afraid Mike and Boz would be mad, but I sent it to them. Mike thought it was funny and Boz had reservations. It is exaggerated somewhat — audiences in Canada aren’t actually mummified. It’s just me being honest, and me feeling old, and I have to say, if you want to know the truth, I just don’t care.
“The thing is,” he continued, “during that tour, I was on the road and I wasn’t with Walter, my usual pal. Mike and Boz are great but this was less upscale than a typical Steely Dan tour, and I am used to a certain level of comfort on the road — not Rolling-Stones nice, just nice. We were traveling by bus, and … it wasn’t good.”
Among the things that Fagen complains about in his tour diary: the tour bus, hotel swimming pools, Apple AC cords, poor ventilation, Canadians in general, blue type in emails, pay-per-view, dressing rooms, expensive sound equipment in old music halls, unresponsive audiences, paranoia, insomnia, the shabbiness of the Toledo Zoo, playing corporate gigs and staying in lousy hotels (“Isn’t there some rule that says the floral pattern on the wallpaper can’t be duplicated on the carpet?”). He also remarks that, when he is touring with Steely Dan, the band “usually stays in somewhat cruddier hotels, and the crew, God bless ’em — I don’t know where they stay.”
All of which, to an extent, is in keeping with a co-founder of Steely Dan, a virtuosity-minded band that, after starting in 1972 and recording several block-party-weekends’ worth of FM hits (“Reeling in the Years,” “Hey Nineteen,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”), complained about the inconsistent sound of rock concerts and refrained from touring for years. Fagen and Becker, who mostly avoided putting their faces on album covers, became magents for music nerds, as well as nerd-nerds — gods of esoterica. The name of the band? A nod to a sex device in William S. Burroughs’ famously difficult novelNaked Lunch. The name of Fagen’s book? A nod to Eminent Victorians, a famously skewering 1918 biography of Victorian figures.
Indeed, Fagen, who grew up in New Jersey and met Becker while studying at Bard College, may be one of the few rock stars who gets book recommendations from his fans. He thought he would become a journalist, or an English teacher. He once wrote a satiric screed against dodge ball for his high school newspaper: “The phys ed teacher said, ‘Don, why did ya do it, Don?’ And I said, ‘Look, I’m sorry, but this (dodge ball) thing is scary.'”
He spoke truth to power.
“Yeah, I guess,” he said, rolling his eyes. “But it was important. I remember I didn’t feel as though I had done anything wrong. It gave me confidence to write, though I stopped for years to write songs with Walter.”
When he started writing again, in the 1980s, then off and on ever since, it was for the movie magazine Premiere, Harper’s Bazaar, Slate, “which calls whenever an important musician dies.” Several of these pieces make up the first half of Eminent Hipsters: Appreciations of Ike Turner, Ray Charles, radio legend Jean Shepherd (who wrote A Christmas Story), thoughts on jazz clubs and 1950s science-fiction novels.
At Barnes & Noble, Fagen stopped and went inside. He drifted to the sci-fi section, picking up a paperback of Ray Bradbury’s The October Country, with its spare, autumnal image of orange trees. “Nice cover. Better than a picture of a girl who looks like Charo being chased by a lizard …” He browsed the shelves. “I don’t know most of these guys in this section now …. And I don’t like fantasy. I love Philip K. Dick. This guy (William Gibson, who wrote the classic Neuromancer), big Steely Dan fan. And this guy (Robert Heinlein, who wrote the classic Starship Troopers), big fascist — sci-fi guys are either liberal or very conservative.”
He crossed in front of a stack of memoirs (“I doubt I could do a real one without Walter”) and stopped before a wall of music books. He slouched, sipped his Starbucks and considered each title: “I haven’t read (Bob Dylan’s) Chronicles yet, but I should. And that Miles Davis book, not great.”
He thought of something: “You know, my book, it’s not about a musician facing down his audience but an older musician feeling alienated from the world he’s forced into. I get into a car now, everyone is immediately looking at phones. What the (expletive)? I have tech rage. Daniel Day-Lewis, whom my wife (singer Libby Titus) knows, doesn’t have a cellphone. I resisted email a long time. It’s destructive to the human soul.”
He looked around.
“Where’s the, you know, books?”
At the Nabokov shelf, he brightened.
“Nabokov, this is a good test of someone,” he said, “whether or not they like Nabokov. Walter and I loved Lolita. My mother had a copy and insisted she never got through it. Pale Fire, Walter and I were inspired by that, this false document, annotated, the annotation having nothing to do with anything. It’s hilarious.”
He grew bored and left.
On the sidewalk, he bummed a cigarette from his tour manager. “I don’t smoke,” Fagen said, smoking.