By Ben Fong-Torres
For the San Francisco Chronicle
It wasn’t his fault, but Donald Fagen, half of Steely Dan and a fine artist on his own, stood up San Francisco.
Fagen, author of the delightful book, Eminent Hipsters, was going to be in town at the Swiss American Hall on Nov. 6. I was engaged to interview him. Some 300 fans were expected to attend. But, just before the event, Fagen told the Booksmith, which was presenting him, that he had a medical emergency in his family and had to postpone. The postponement soon became an outright cancellation.
Bummer. I had looked forward to talking with Fagen about, among other things, his love of radio. It pulsates through Hipsters, which has been called a memoir of sorts. That’s because it isn’t his life story. Almost half the book is a cranky but funny diary covering a tour, just a couple of years ago, with Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs. But the book begins with tributes to people, events and scenes that impacted his youth, in New Jersey and New York.
There were the Boswell Sisters, Henry Mancini, and Ray Charles. There were Manhattan jazz clubs and Bard College. And, perhaps most of all, there was the radio.
From his first solo album, 1982’s The Nightfly, I knew of Fagen’s love affair with the medium. For the cover, he posed as a DJ behind a microphone and a turntable, and in the title song, he sang about “an independent station, WJAZ, with jazz and conversation.”
In Fagen’s book, he paid homage to one DJ and struck a chord that should ring familiar to many of us: “Mort Fega’s radio show ‘Jazz Unlimited’ came on at midnight and ended at five or six a.m. In order to escape my parents’ wrath, I had to pull the radio under the covers.”
“The Nightfly character from my first solo album wasn’t supposed to be a stand-in for any particular jazz DJ,” Fagen wrote. “But there were a few actual radio personalities of the time that went into the mix. In the early sixties, a number of Manhattan’s powerful stations were blasting hard bop throughout the metropolitan area.”
Fagen, who is 65, was not a rock ‘n’ roll fan. After school, instead of watching “Bandstand,” he’d listen to a DJ, Ed Beach, host of “Just Jazz.”
But it was at night when young Fagen heard his favorites. “I could always tune in to WADO and hear King Pleasure sing DJ ‘Symphony Sid’ Torin’s wiggy theme song.” Friday nights, Torin hosted remote broadcasts from Birdland. “I’d close the door to my room and blast live music by Basie and Mingus out of that little Zenith table radio.”
But young Fagen was under the covers with his radio when his favorite DJ came on. It was Fega, on WEVD. “Unlike Symphony Sid, whose growling hepcat routine seemed out of sync with the Kennedy era … Mort had no jive persona to sell. He was laid-back, knowledgeable and forthright, the cool uncle you always wished you’d had.”
Another smooth talker was Jean Shepherd, a late-night storyteller, monologuist and social commentator. Said Fagen: “Because Shep made it clear he was just as dazed, enraged and amused as you were, that he noticed what you noticed, he established himself as one of a handful of adults you could trust. (Others were Mailer, Ginsberg, Vonnegut and Realist publisher Paul Krassner.)”