Book Review: ‘Eminent Hipsters,’ a Memoir by Donald Fagen

Among all the chronicles of rock & roll memoirs, there’s none quite as funny as Donald Fagen’s Eminent Hipsters. Much of the humor is, perhaps, unintentional, yet Fagen’s voice as narrator, and his perspective on the travails of his life as a touring rock star, is as sardonically funny as the narratives of so many of his famous songs.

But it’s written with much brilliance, and surprising candor. As in his songwriting solo and with Walter Becker, Fagen simply sees the world unlike most. His estimation of most people – especially those alive now – is less than favorable.

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Fagen is, of course, one of the founding members of Steely Dan with his late great partner Walter Becker, who died on September 3, 2017. Anyone familiar with the songs the two cooked up for the Dan’s songs knows how rich they are with generous amalgam of humor and darkness intertwined. That same fusion exists in Fagen’s soul, which we get to experience intimately in these pages.

Donald’s a musical genius, one who has spent a lot of time in the “college of musical knowledge” as he put it, devising with Becker their own signature merger of rock songwriting with the expansive harmonies of jazz. They also created their own standard of record-making, which succeeded in being soulful, precise, funky and elegant all at once. And never imitative. Regardless of one’s enthusiasm for their music, it would be hard to minimize the degree of their innovation in creating a form only they could truly fulfill, in the songwriting, musicianship and production. They set their own Steely standard, and not once did they make an album which failed to reach it.

Fagen, unlike Becker, is also a famous curmudgeon. Though this has been known about him, and expressed sometimes in interviews, nowhere have his intensely negative sentiments about the human race ever surfaced as overtly as they do here.

In fact, much of the book is Fagen griping. And griping, really, in the middle of a true rock and roll dream: unlike 98% of the world’s musicians, the man has  made a fortune playing music, so really is in pretty good shape. He has earned it – sure – the guy’s a genius, and with the Dan and solo has created countless masterpieces. So what exactly does he have to complain about?

Good question, and one that is thoroughly answered here. As it turns out, he’s got quite a lot to complain about. It has to do with humans in modern times, neither of which he likes much.

Like Dylan’s own memoir, Chronicles, this one doesn’t tell or even attempt to relate his entire history, or that of his band. Yet Fagen has never played by the rules, and this omission of all the normal stuff distinguishes the man from most. Yet it is utterly engrossing reading. His voice comes through with all its steely mockery, derision, desolation and disgust well preserved and presented. With with precious little here about Steely Dan, there is his diary of sorts from his tour with the Dukes of September, the soul band concocted with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald.

There are also some interesting Fagen-scribed essays here, including a long and inspired take on the Boswell Sisters and an interview he did with Ennio Morricone.  But it’s here in this tour log, more than anywhere, that the true Fagen spirit is exposed.

His despair, which starts small and gradually inflates, stems from the fact that on tour with the Dukes he gets treated quite differently than when with Steely Dan. One reviewer referred to this as Donald’s “dry white whine.” Everything that affects him – the hotels, the traveling, the transport, venue, reception and food – are considerably less grand in every way than that to which he grew accustomed. And he’s hardly a go-with-the-flow kind of guy. He’s actually the exact inverse of that.

But it’s not as if Donald was roughing it, really, or even sharing his space. Each artist on the tour got his own bus, and both Scaggs and McDonald would often sleep on theirs. Not Donald, who insisted always on hotel lodging, as living on a bus is, to him, tantamount to the “life of an insect.”

But hotels – like concert venues – are invariably populated by other humans, which to Fagen is almost always trouble. They either want something from him he can’t deliver, or ignore him when he wants to be noticed.

More annoying to him than the generation of “TV Babies” (those born with few books but constant TV) is the new generation forever tuned into the phones in their palms, rarely looking up at the world. What irked him the most was the expanding multitude of audience members who are looking at their cellphones all through the show. “Don’t they know they it lights up their face in the dark?”

Then there is the challenge of staying in shape, physically and psychologically, when on the road, which to Fagen is a supreme challenge, as he writes:

“Swimming? Pools are grungy or freezing or crowded or there’s just not enough time. Treadmill in the hotel gym? Go fuck yourself – I am too wasted to exercise…. Bicycling? You mean, call the concierge, inquire about rentals, roll around unfamiliar streets while cars and trucks are trying to kill me? I can’t even get the hell out of bed.”

If it weren’t Fagen writing this, it would get tiresome. But because this is a genius songwriter here, a man who has written countless miracle songs and made so many classic albums, it’s different. Because it answers a question we’ve wondered about for decades. The answer being: So this is the mind that created all those great songs with Walter Becker!

He’s a songwriter and artist famous for creating something new and previously unattained with the fullness of the Dan. Yet much of modern times, including the technology created to improve our lives and standard of living, he finds to have the opposite effect. Instead of streamlining our lives and imbuing each individual with ever-expanding knowledge, he’s hyper-aware of how much of modern times is worse than the past. This following passage is pure Donald, evoking his love for the simplicity of previous times, and the irony of realizing that this long-awaited futuristic world which we awaited so long is not at all the one we imagined:

DONALD FAGEN: In 1964, long-playing vinyl records sounded great. It was the age of high fidelity, and even your parents were likely to have a good-sounding console or tube components and a nice set of speakers, A&R, KLH, and so on.

All the telephones worked, and they sounded good, too. Rarely did anyone ever lose a call, and that was usually on an overseas line.

Anyone could work a TV set, even your grandmother. Off, on, volume, change the channel, period. By then, just about everyone had an aerial on the roof, and the signal was strong: ten, twelve simple channels of programming, not all good, but lots of swell black-and-white movies from the thirties and forties, all day and most of the night.

No soul-deadening porn or violence. Decent news programs and casual entertainment featuring intelligent, charming celebrities like Steve Allen, Groucho Marx, Jack Paar, Jack Benny, Rod Serling, and Ernie Kovacs.

Yeah, call me old Uncle Fuckwad, I don’t care. William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” of the industrial revolution may have enslaved the bodies of Victorian citizens, but information technology is a pure mindfuck.

The TV Babies have morphed into the Palm People. For example, those people in the audience who can’t experience the performance unless they’re sending instant videos to their friends: Look at me, I must be alive, I can prove it, I’m filming this shit!

You know what? I refuse to look at you. You’re a corpse. And you prove that every day, with everything you do and everything you say. Wake up, ya dope!”

Donald Fagen: “[Musical artists] want to be alert and vibrant so that the audience won’t think badly of them, won’t punish them for not being as talented or magnetic as you thought they were.”

As powerfully projected as his antipathy towards most aspects of modern times is his love and reverence for things that do matter. Many of the improvements we’ve endured, he writes, have made things worse. But when somethings lasts, as in art and song, that matters.

He also has respect for artists who made their art in defiance of any trends or overt attempt for popularity. It’s a quality which Steely Dan certainly shared, though in our interview they did not agree. “We were influenced by trends,” Becker said, “they were just trends from different centuries.”

Still, their intentional merger of soulful rock with expansive jazz harmonies defied the trends of every decade of their music. They acknowledged Dylan as being an instigator in terms of expanding the lyrical content of songs. But it was their shared love of science fiction, old jazz, movies and other arcana wed to sardonic expression best suited to Fagen’s delivery, which distinguished the Dan always. All of which was inspired by the creative courage he saw up close since he was a kid going to jazz shows. Always the courage and ambition to do something new impressed him almost as much as the work itself. Jazz – especially that of the 1950s which first captured his soul – represented this ideal to him.

DONALD FAGEN: I started going to jazz clubs in New York when I was twelve or thirteen, first with my older cousins Mike and Jack, and then later on my own. I remember seeing the mighty Count Basie band at a matinee at Birdland, with the great Sonny Payne on drums. When the whole band pumped out one of those thirteenth chords, you could feel the breeze on your face.”

Another source of pure love in the Fagen soul is for great songs, and great records of those songs, such as Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind.”

DONALD FAGEN: “Georgia on My Mind”—square-ass backup singers and all—just may have been the most beautiful three minutes and thirty-nine seconds in all of twentieth-century music.”

He’s, as one might guess, tremendously well-read, and well-versed in all forms of philosophy and logic. Though he offers little to nothing about the legendary musicians who played on Steely Dan records (such as Steve Gadd, Mark Knopfler, Larry Carlton, Tom Scott, Wayne Shorter, Randy Brecker, Jim Keltner, Rick Marotta, Jeff Porcaro and many others), he does share a lot on Count Alfred Korzybski, who created the General Semantics movement of the 1930s.

Granted, the Count and his theories are not often discussed among musicians. Not in this century anyway. Yet it reveals so much about Fagen that this subject deserves lengthy inclusion. It’s not there for the fans, or the publisher. It’s there because this is where he lives, and from where his approach to songs comes. It’s a keen understanding that. like human interaction itself, that lyrics are understood only to the extent to which we agree on the meaning of words. Which, he suggests, we do not:

DONALD FAGEN: The Count, though, saw all problems in human relations as problems in semantics, that is, the fact that words mean different things to different people. Moreover, General Semantics, his own invention, would also take into account neurological events: the ways in which people reacted to new words, new information and new situations. Confronted with a stressful stimulus, one’s reflexes and/or conditioned behavior often preempted the appropriate measured response.

Every now and then he slips in details about himself so telling, so candid and often so sad, that it’s startling. Yet adds extra weight to this memoir, because it’s so real. Reading, he wrote, used to be one of his greatest pleasures in life. Now he doesn’t read at all, because he’s so old and “broken,” having enduring so many sorrows, that he doesn’t possess the emotional endurance to get through a book.

So when it comes time to sleep, a problem for anyone on the road after a show, but an ongoing and worsening one for Fagen. So instead of reading, or watching an old movie, he puts on Stravinsky. Comforted, evidently, by the brilliant complexity of the music, he’s able to duck out of consciousness for a while.

Other little admissions reveal the admittedly odd, inappropriate thoughts that occur to him, some of which he shares with others. The two back-up singers in their band, he writes, was a little startled when, during a solo in the show he walked over to them to share his vision of a fire breaking out in the theater, causing the audience to panic and attempt to flee. Not your typical onstage banter.

He also also delivers what is one of the most cogent and poignant explanations of why so many musical artists turn to drugs. It starts when he gets to Vancouver, he remembers you can get Tylenol with codeine over the counter, and gets several bottles. “I mean,” he writes, “William Burroughs definitely couldn’t be bothered. But if you take four of them, it just might hit the spot… By showtime I was feeling a little better.”

Then comes the crux of the issue, the explanation:

“It’s no wonder so many traveling performers end up in rehab or worse,” he writes. “It’s easy to see how it happens. They want to be alert and vibrant so that the audience won’t think badly of them, won’t punish them for not being as talented or magnetic as you thought they were. So your crush won’t suddenly end. I know, it’s pathetic.”

Pathetic, maybe, but so real, and true. For this revelation alone, this book is well worth reading. But there’s much more.  There’s some about Fagen the kid, loving jazz and science fiction and vocal groups. And a whole lot about Fagen the human, and what it’s like to be a genius in the regular world. Would it have been even better had their been several chapters about Steely Dan? Absolutely. Perhaps he will write a second volume, as Dylan has promised to do with Chronicles.

But for now this will suffice. After two readings, it remains enthralling. very funny, eccentric and quite brilliant. The man has one of the most distinctive voices around – as a singer, creator and thinker – and this is a rare and singular opportunity to revel in that voice, and in the often-disgruntled, sometimes bizarre, but never indifferent or disengaged world of Donald Fagen.

Donald Fagen. Photo by Danny Cinch. I remember seeing the mighty Count Basie band at a matinee at Birdland, with the great Sonny Payne on drums. When the whole band pumped out one of those thirteenth chords, you could feel the breeze on your face.”

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