Moments of musical transcendence and life on the road … this dry white whine from the Steely Dan singer is a memoir to savour
By Anthony Quinn
This book is a piece of pure bliss, and it’s not even the book I thought or hoped it would be. When they said a memoir by Donald Fagen was on the way it seemed reasonable to assume that the co-founder of Steely Dan would be reflecting on the run of seven LPs between 1972 and 1980 that constitute one of the greatest oeuvres in American rock, and would thereby shine a light on the famously enigmatic lyrics with which he and his partner Walter Becker used to bamboozle us. For instance, in “Brooklyn Owes the Charmer Under Me,” who or what was the charmer? Could it be true that the strolling blues “Chain Lightning,” from their 1975 album Katy Lied, was actually about two old Nazis surreptitiously meeting in a Uruguayan square to mark the 40th anniversary of Hitler’s rise to power? Oh, and can pretzel logic be taught?
The book isn’t telling. The one Steely Dan song discussed at any length here is “Deacon Blues”, and then only in the context of a tune Fagen worries about not rehearsing for a concert in Alabama. Crowds there used to yell for it because it contains the line “They call Alabama the Crimson Tide”. (They don’t yell for it now.) Instead, Eminent Hipsters is partly a chance for Fagen to go reeling through the years of his nerdy, nervy youth in suburban New Jersey to consider “how the stuff I read and heard when I was growing up affected (stretched, skewed, mangled) my little brain.” You may, as a Dan fan, care to spot the songs in his reminiscences. Even if you don’t, you will hear his voice -– that sardonic dry white whine -– distilled in just about every sentence.
For the young Donald, an upbringing in a New Jersey housing development was more or less a prison. Or, as he puts it: “I’d been framed and sentenced to a long stretch at hard labour in Squaresville.” His escape route was SF, books and, of course, music. The first half of Eminent Hipsters comprises a series of mini-essays on his early listening. Henry Mancini’s music for TV and film (Touch of Evil, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) was a jazz neophyte’s introduction to “cool,” while the improvised routines of hipster DJ Jean Shepherd enthralled him and many another disaffected youth tuning a radio beneath the bedclothes. Casting around for a comparison to this now-forgotten cult figure, Fagen alights on a Midwestern storyteller like Mark Twain. But whereas most would leave it at that, he elaborates the thought with a modern twist: “say, Mark Twain after he’d been dating Elaine May for a year and a half.” Sometimes inspiration comes from an unexpected source; one of the most charming pieces recounts his affection, inherited from his musician mother, for the Jazz Age trio the Boswell Sisters, whose (white) New Orleans background and technical virtuosity gave old songs a startling refit. (I immediately downloaded their version of “We Just Couldn’t Say Good-bye”, and Fagen is right, it’s brilliant.)
Later on, as the ’50s swing into the ’60s, he crossed the river to discover jazz clubs, notably the Village Vanguard where “gods” strutted the stage –- Miles Davis, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Monk, Mingus. By then he had another DJ on the brain, Mort Fega, “laid-back, knowledgeable and forthright, the cool uncle you always wished you had” and clearly a precursor of Fagen’s own late-night jazz DJ from his debut solo album The Nightfly (1982). What makes this tour of the pantheon so refreshing is that Fagen, for all his cynical patter, retains the steady, unfakeable rigour of the true enthusiast. He takes his old idols seriously, and wants us to understand why they mean so much. The book reaches its hero-worshipping apogee in his consideration of Ray Charles, about whom he makes two extraordinary claims. When, in 1954, Charles hijacked gospel and “replaced God with a woman,” the resulting music, according to Fagen, “rescued a generation from the deadly, neurotic suppression of feeling that had afflicted the nation after World War Two.” Woah. Who knew? And he’s not finished. “Georgia on My Mind” may be a great song to you and me, but for Fagen and his generation “it just may have been the most beautiful three minutes and 39 seconds in all of 20th century music.”
Hang on to that near-hallucinatory moment of transcendence, because the second half of the book brings us crashing right down to earth. “With The Dukes of September” is his journal of a tour undertaken in summer 2012 with his old friends Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald (ex-Doobie Brothers). Fagen remembers himself at college as “a first-tier nerd, and pitifully lonely.” Now, a 64-year-old band-leader on a tour bus, he’s a first-tier grump -– and pitifully lonely. Away from his long-suffering wife Libby he frets and moans about almost anything -– aches and pains, quitting smoking, the inadequacy of painkillers, altitude sickness, hotels with grungy swimming pools and smelly bedsheets, the rotten acoustics of old concert halls, his inability to get a wink of sleep. “A miserable night in the Grand Hyatt. How can I be the adorable host, the sensitive accompanist, the more or less competent vocalist I’m expected to be under these conditions?” As for the audiences, don’t get him started. First they’re too old. At Santa Rosa, “the crowd looked so geriatric I was tempted to start calling out bingo numbers.” In Vancouver, “they must have bused in people from nursing homes.” But worse are the too young, who just scream for the hits they remember from college. Fagen calls this lot “TV babies,” meaning people born after 1960 “when television truly became the robot caretaker of American children and therefore the principal architect of their souls.”
At times you wonder how he manages to get out of bed, let alone do a gig every other night. It’s tough being Donald. Yet even at his most audience-weary and misanthropic he saves himself with a killer turn of phrase: “If these people could only see into the mind of the viperous Robespierre they had invited into their midst …” Viperous Robespierre! By the end of August he’s smoking again, his blood pressure’s up and he’s swallowing painkillers faster than ever. Eventually he diagnoses himself as suffering from Acute Tour Disorder, the result of “severe vocational distress.” Perhaps it’s in the Fagen DNA. He tells us that when his parents moved to Ohio in the late 60s they found themselves an apartment on (“wait for it”) Chagrin Boulevard. So why does he put himself through it? To make a living is the obvious answer: he and Becker are touring again this autumn with the reformed Steely Dan. And just occasionally (he admits it) because there’s no better job around: “When everything’s working right, you become transfixed by the notes and chords and the beautiful spaces in between. In the center of it, with the drums, bass and guitar all around you, the earth falls away and it’s just you and your crew creating this forward motion, this undeniable, magical stuff that can move ten thousand people to snap free of life’s miseries …”
Musician, heal thyself.