Donald Fagen’s new book
When a member of Steely Dan writes a book, then I suppose a blog named after a Steely Dan song has to read it and write about it. But I’m not in a mood to write a traditional book review, which is probably quite appropriate, because Donald Fagen’s Eminent Hipsters (Viking, 2013) is not a conventional book.
It really is two ideas for a book, and with both of them too brief to qualify for a full-length book, they were combined. The first section, 85 pages long, comprises previously published essays in which Fagen writes with insight and erudition about his jazz favourites and DJs (fans of The Nightfly cover art are perking up as we speak), and how they influenced him, and about growing up in the jazz clubs of New York. It’s good stuff which made me dig out the innovative oeuvre of the Boswell Sisters. I expect that this would please Fagen.
The second part, all of 73 pages, is the star of the show though: Fagen’s diary of his “Dukes of September Rhythm Revue” tour in 2012 with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald (about whom we hear little), a more “low-rent” exercise than a Steely Dan tour.
Fagen, now a sextegenarian, seems a pretty tetchy fellow at the best of times, but he’s also blessed with wit. So when he is really annoyed about something — overcrowded hotel pools, irritating audiences, modern culture, hotel linen that smells of soy sauce, the tedium of travel — he is deliciously sarcastic company; in print, that is. I bet Fagen is awful company when he is in a dark mood.
There are touching moments: Fagen discusses suicide, depression and an uncle who was on a tough streak in business. There are also moments when you want to high-five Donald, or even identify with him.
One such moment is when he narrates a visit to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Noting impressive exhibits, such as Rosa Park’s bus and the Lincoln in which Kennedy was shot, Fagen proceeds to write: “I was going to ask if they had a vintage copy of The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, the first of Ford’s screeds blaming the Jews for all the world’s ills, but I chickened out.” Don’t we all know the feeling?
A favourite passage concerns the Ray Charles-despising audience at a gig in San Antonio, “maybe tourists from Arizona, I don’t know. Probably right-wingers, too, the victims of an epidemic of mental illness that a British study has proven to be the result of having an inordinately large amygdala, a part of the primitive brain that causes them to be fearful past the point of delusion, which explains why their philosophy, their syntax and their manner of thought don’t seem to be reality-based.” The pay-off line to that is almost worth the price of admission alone.
Fagen is at times very funny, sometimes insightful, occasionally annoying (the “TV Babies” riff!). Throughout the book, he is engaging. You don’t come away knowing Fagen, but you’ll know what he thinks on any number of issues.
Steely Dan fans will be pleased to read about the genesis of “Deacon Blue”, but there’s very little of that kind of thing in Eminent Hipster. Still, even if the book doesn’t tell us much about the Dan, it could be said to be much like the band’s music: detached yet accessible.
Usually I don’t pay much mind to a book’s cover, unless it is so bad as to cause me a Fagenesque cantankerous disposition. The cover of Eminent Hipsters is marvellous, though, by virtue of the white area bearing the book’s title and author’s name being embossed in bond paper on the high-gloss jacket, as is the back-cover blurb. It’s lovely and random, and makes the book nice to touch.
Ah well, so this did come out a bit like a book review.