Donald Fagen: ‘Eminent Hipsters’

By Simon Sweetman

You could never expect a man who made his name by placing the incongruous inside happy-sounding so-slick pop-jazz ditties to write a conventional memoir; Steely Dan is as much a magic act as it is a musical act -– and not just for the fact that you’re either under the spell or looking always for where the smoke emanates from and where they play those mirrors. It would then be unfair, inaccurate, just wrong to expect Fagen to reveal the secrets, to unmask himself.

Eminent Hipsters is a collection of essays masquerading as a memoir, and just as Steely Dan might masquerade as jazz lovers and players, and/or as a pop act -– and they do a good job of both, every time -– so too does Eminent Hipsters work (and well!) as an ever so slightly revealing and often sardonic snapshot of some of the motivations and influences on and around Fagen.

The first half of the book features tributes to Ray Charles and the jazz clubs, to the 50s hip-swaying hipsters and favourite sci-fi writers. The writing is great, as immaculate as any of the great Dan songs (you know, all of ‘em). His essay tone is similar at times to John Waters, a different kind of quirky, the same sort of eye for detail, the same unabashed fan-boy devolving – but no huge gush, always the right kind of smug. Never a word going to waste.

You start to see how all of this influenced him -– how this book-nerd jazz-lover was eyes and ears open, wide-eyed, door-closed, the world could stay at least an arm’s length away, but Fagen would pin things down and run them under the microscope, in that same mad-scientist way that he and Walter Becker later worked on Steely Dan songs you can see in his youth Fagen was experimenting, documenting, studying, focussing -– everything you experience could come in handy.

The way a Steely Dan song is constantly modulating, so too these essays are fizzing-full of ideas.

And then it’s to a lengthy tour-diary from the recent Dukes of September Rhythm Review that had Fagen taking buses with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald, sharing stages to offer up a bunch of R&B covers in towns around America, a few of their own hits saved up for each encore.

Fagen is almost hostile in his contempt for some members of his audience -– it’s wonderful. He’s rude and smug and hilarious. He’s sharp-tongued and catty and dyspeptic.

And he’s able to summon heartbreak (discussing the suicide of his wife’s adult son) or strange incredulity (“this room in the Hyatt is dang ugly, cowboy”) -– sometimes in the same paragraph.

Just like so many Steely songs you wonder how it can all fit in, you wonder too if there shouldn’t have been more –- it seemed so slight at the time, best spend the rest of your life revisiting, finding new clues each time.

Yes, there could be another volume easily -– I could have read 10 more essays on a range of Donald Fagen bookpop-culture topics; I could have read another two or three tour diaries.

The new tour experiences trigger memories of times with the Dan, but he sums up his college meeting with his partner in crime Walter Becker in just one page. Well, you know, Steely Dan is known for its economy, its wonderful use (and abuse) of the opaque.

Before there was Matt Groening there was Donald Fagen. After Eminent Hipsters there’ll be more from Donald Fagen. Or there won’t.

You either love it. Or you don’t.

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