There is only one major flaw with Donald Fagen’s new book: at 159 pages, ‘Eminent Hipsters’ it is way too short.
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Part essay collection; part memoir; part journal extracts, ‘Eminent Hipsters’ is a little Frankenstein of a book. “You may be thinking,” writes Mr. Fagen in his introduction, “oh no, another rock-and-roll geezer making a last desperate bid for mainstream integrity by putting out a book of belles lettres.” I found the book extremely accessible, deeply engaging, and more than a little humorous.
It opens with 10 short essays, some of which have appeared in Premiere magazine. My favorite is titled, believe it or not, “Henry Mancini’s Anomie Deluxe.” The piece is as witty as it is educational. Donald Fagen is seriously clever man. It’s easy to understand why he enrolled in Bard College, the progressive school up the Hudson River from New York City, as an English major in 1965. He eventually changed majors and graduated with a degree in music in 1969.
Beware! This book needs to be approached with caution! Donald Fagen is an unabashed “jazz snob” and self-described manic depressive. If you are what he describes as a “TV Baby” (“...people who were born after, say, 1960, when television truly became the robot caretaker of American children and therefore the principle architect of their souls”), you may find ‘Eminent Hipsters’ way off-putting.
Fagen is a cofounder of Steely Dan. With his partner, Walter Becker (and a revolving door of topnotch studio musicians), they produced a series of classic jazz-tinged rock albums during the 70s and 80s. I first heard Steely Dan in 1973, early one summer evening in tiny Baumholder, Germany, as my army buddies and I were under the spell of psychedelic drugs and watching the sunset to the sounds of their first album “Can’t Buy A Thrill.” It was unforgettably exquisite.
The last half of the book is dedicated to entries from his “grouchy” tour journal written during his cross-country tour in the summer of 2012 with a couple of other medicare-age stars, Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs (AKA The Dukes of September Rhythm Revue). Most of the entries revolve around grips about the food, lodging, room service, pay-per-view movies, customs and immigration (they played a couple of gigs in Canada), unresponsive audiences, professional autograph seekers, insomnia, spider bites, kidney stones, bad acoustics, dirty laundry, headaches, sexual dysfunction, travel arrangements, hometown gigs, and a irritating desire for cigarettes after abstaining for several months.
In an entry dated August 22, Fagen recalls reaching out in desperation to his road-manager, Pasqual, for some herbal therapy:
“The show at Ravinia, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was, I don’t know, tight and polite. It’s that kind of place. In a desperate attempt to deal with my agitated mood, I asked Pasqual if I could have a tiny toke on one of his thin, neatly rolled joints a half hour before the show. This was a very unusual move on my part. I hadn’t smoked any pot for, literally, years. The experience was immediately both familiar and sad. Time stretched out, elongating the spaces between the beats. This gave me more time to think about what I was going to play, and more time to execute. On the other hand, I felt dissociated from the event as it was unfolding. Each song seemed to take forever to wind through the arrangement, and I even lost my place a couple of times. On the upside, I felt a little less wired. But, ultimately, it was a classic bummer.”
Donald Fagen was born in 1948 and grew up in New Jersey. He lives with his wife in New York City.