By Janet Maslin
The New York Times
If you like Steely Dan’s greatest hits too much, Donald Fagen of that band probably hates you already. You may be one of the “TV babies” who illegally download those songs, show up at his concerts expecting to hear familiar hits, have no patience for anything soulful or adventurous or obscure, yet rather humiliatingly are paying part of his rent these days. The phrase “TV babies” comes from the film Drugstore Cowboy, which used it to the same contemptuous effect.
But the TV babies in his concert audiences probably won’t be the readers of his book, “Eminent Hipsters.” It’s too sly and idiosyncratic and unpredictable for them: It begins with a string of very short reminiscences about cultural influences from little Donny Fagen’s New Jersey childhood, then quickly changes form. Midbook, there are a few works of actual journalism, including Mr. Fagen’s hilariously intense interview of Ennio Morricone, the renowned but outmatched Italian composer.
Here’s an abbreviated Fagen question: Isn’t it true that Mr. Morricone’s scores for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns “reflected and abetted Leone’s vision by drawing on the same eerie catalog of genres — Hollywood western, Japanese samurai, American pop and Italian opera?” and that his “scores functioned both ‘inside’ the film as a narrative voice and ‘outside’ the film as the commentary of a winking jester?” He goes on, “Put it all together and doesn’t it spell ‘postmodern,’ in the sense that there has been a grotesque encroachment of the devices of art and, in fact, an establishment of a new narrative plane founded on the devices themselves? Isn’t that what’s attracting Lower Manhattan?”
Mr. Morricone did the only thing he could do: shrug. So much for Mr. Fagen’s interviewing career.
Eminent Hipsters includes a brief glimpse of Bard College in the late 1960s, where Mr. Fagen and Walter Becker began the collaboration that would be Steely Dan (with Chevy Chase sometimes on drums). Tales of early LSD use and a drug bust led by G. Gordon Liddy, then an assistant district attorney in Dutchess County in New York, may cast some light on the vituperativeness of Steely Dan’s “My Old School,” in which the singers vow to leave Bard in the dust and never look back.
That’s what the book does: It switches gears entirely and becomes a road journal about his summer concert tour of 2012. The whole second half of Eminent Hipsters is devoted to describing Mr. Fagen’s complaints about being on a bus tour.
Lest the reader feel some warmth at being taken into Mr. Fagen’s confidence, Eminent Hipsters quickly makes a couple of things clear: Mr. Fagen writes a journal on the road only because he can’t write music while moving. And his main reason for writing seems to be staying sane. On tour, he finds himself demoted into an environment in which every little thing bothers him, including the classier scenery.
Even he has to be grudgingly admiring of Marin County, Calif.: “Nice country, if you’re partial to that kind of thing.” But, as for Aspen, Colo., the town is “an ordinary-looking but expensive shopping center where scary rich people are waited on by chunky, big-boned, blond hippie types,” he writes. “It has all the modern conveniences, except for oxygen. If you look up, there are some nice mountains (I assume people ski down them in the winter). I didn’t even see any pretty girls, although some of the girls I saw were wearing pretty shoes.”
Some of this is simple description. But a lot of it is sour grapes. In their youth, Mr. Fagen (now 65) and Mr. Becker toured grandly, traveling from one good hotel to the next via private plane. They were worth it: They drew big crowds and they were surly, too. “We were perceived as artists just by virtue of our wisenheimer personalities and transparent resentment of authority,” Mr. Fagen writes.
But that was a long time ago. The Fagen-Becker duo doesn’t perform as Steely Dan very often, and the 2012 tour described here casts Mr. Fagen in a less stellar role. He has teamed up with Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers and Boz Scaggs. Both play such smooth, geriatric dance music that Mr. Fagen half-jokes that he ought to be doing bingo calls. Together, they travel as the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue.
As Eminent Hipsters reveals, Mr. Fagen has changed from an alienated suburban kid, “a subterranean in gestation with a real nasty case of otherness,” into somebody’s crabby Uncle Morty. He doesn’t like long, claustrophobic bus rides. Arriving at a destination isn’t much better, since all it promises is one more depressing, shabby hotel room. (Mr. McDonald and Mr. Scaggs don’t even bother with hotels; they save money by sleeping on their buses. Mr. Fagen still has enough morbid curiosity to want to see what the hotel pool looks like before the screaming kids fill it up.)
At night, there’s a different kind of despair. He reports faithfully on each audience, and, too often, the crowds will boo a Ray Charles song because it’s not a Doobie Brothers hit. During one such show, sensing that the audience members want to hear only songs they remember from college parties, Mr. Fagen wanders to the rear of the stage and tells two female singers that he’s been imagining what would happen if the whole building went up in flames, leaving nothing but charred, trampled concertgoers in the wreckage. It helps him to vent. It doesn’t help anybody else.
Eminent Hipsters is as bleakly funny about the aging rocker’s plight — What’s he going to write songs about? His kidney stones? — as Steely Dan always has been about its perversely chosen subjects. If you’d like to know what the lyrics to their song “Deacon Blues” were really about, and whether it has to be played at an Alabama tour stop just because it mentions Alabama, take comfort: Mr. Fagen’s cranky new incarnation is just as thornily entertaining as his cranky old one.