…sly and idiosyncratic and unpredictable…Eminent Hipsters is as bleakly funny about the aging rocker's plight…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.
In his entertaining debut as an author, Donald Fagen—musician, songwriter, and cofounder of Steely Dan—reveals the cultural figures and currents that shaped his artistic sensibility, as well as offering a look at his college days and a hilarious account of life on the road. Fagen presents the “eminent hipsters” who spoke to him as he was growing up in a bland New Jersey suburb in the early 1960s; his colorful, mind-expanding years at Bard College, where he first met his musical partner Walter Becker; and the agonies and ecstasies of a recent cross-country tour with Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs. Acclaimed for his literate lyrics and complex arrangements as a musician, Fagen here proves himself a sophisticated writer with his own distinctive voice.
In these entertaining sketches, Steely Dan keyboardist and front man Fagen pays tribute to the “talented musicians, writers, and performers” from beyond the suburban New Jersey of his youth. In one chapter, Fagen recalls his early fascination with now-forgotten jazz singers the Boswell Sisters. He singles out Connie—whose career was affected in some measure by an early brush with illness (likely polio)—and praises her last recording, saying that she sounds like a “toned-down Wanda Jackson or Brenda Lee.” Fagen sends a kind of love letter to Henry Mancini, telling the composer of the theme from the television show Peter Gunn—a theme whose first notes every neophyte guitarist tried to learn back then—that his music continues to be young and fresh. Fagen vivaciously recalls his college days at Bard, meeting his future Steely Dan bandmate Walter Becker, and playing at a Halloween party with Walter and actor Chevy Chase on drums. In 2012, Fagen, Michael McDonald, and Boz Scaggs toured as the Duke of September Rhythm Revue; during the months of the tour, Fagen kept a journal, included in these pages, that’s filled with irony, sarcasm, humor, anger, and flat-out honesty about what it’s like to be on the road playing to houses filled with aging hippies: “Tonight the crowd looked so geriatric I was tempted to start calling out bingo numbers. By the end of the set, they were all on their feet, albeit shakily, rocking.... So this, now, is what I do: assisted living.” Agent: Andrew Wylie, Wylie Agency. (Oct.)
Praise for Eminent Hipsters
“[An] excellent. . . and satisfying memoir. This is less about Fagen’s career than about his tastes. . .He writes insightfully about music, films, and books. . .with this remorseless, hilarious book, Fagen reveals himself as a first-class grump. . . Eminent Hipsters is also a convincing testimonial to the honing effect of a lifelong devotion to the culture of misfits, weirdos and cranks.”—Rolling Stone
“Fagen is utterly charming when he describes other performers. . .he defends TV and film composer Henry Mancini from charges of fuddy-duddyness. . . his essay on Connie Boswell is the kind of top-notch, incisive cultural critique you ain’t gonna get from the likes of Keith Richards. Just like the lyrics he penned for the Dan, Fagen’s writing here is charged with a zingy, acerbic intelligence.”—Slate.com
“As you would expect from someone who has been one of the most consistently sardonic voices of rock, Fagen can write.”—GQ.com
Fagen is cofounder of the literate jazz-pop-rock band Steely Dan, and his first book is a wry compendium and "art-o-biography," as he coins it, consisting of pieces that illuminate the musical, literary, and cultural influences on the young Fagen and a hilariously cranky tour diary from 2012. His appreciations of Henry Mancini, the Boswell Sisters, jazz clubs and radio, sf, and the comedy of Jean Shepherd are all tempered with reminiscences of growing up in suburban 1950s New Jersey. Fagen's portrait of his college years at Bard in the piece "Class of '69" superbly evokes a time and place and serves as a capsule memoir of the college experience. In the lengthy diary from a tour with Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs last year, Fagen comes across as an avuncular misanthrope as he describes mostly offstage moments filled with dreary hotels, long travel, frustrating audience reactions, shabby venues, and the resultant anxiety (along with some musical joy) that all of these things bring. VERDICT Rather than a straightforward memoir, this collection provides music fans a distinctive perspective on an artist's inspirations and life, written in a sardonic and uniquely entertaining voice.—James Collins, Morristown-Morris Twp. P.L., NJ
Not really a rock memoir, but rather a book as distinctively peculiar and edgy as one might expect from the co-founder of Steely Dan. The literary debut by keyboardist Fagen, a former English major who has written pieces on popular culture for magazines, opens with essays concerning his formative years as a skinny, anxious nerd immersed in jazz and science fiction, rebelling against 1950s suburbia as a self-described "subterranean in gestation with a real nasty case of otherness." He writes of radio hipsters and jazz clubs, of the "mendacity on the part of adults that was the most sinister enemy of all." Fagen ends this section with a reminiscence of his years at Bard College, where his underachieving bohemian classmates included Walter Becker, who became his musical partner. And that's pretty much it for Steely Dan, since "that's another story," one that perhaps he is saving for another book. Instead, the second half is what he understatedly calls his "grouchy tour journal from the summer of 2012," when he teamed with Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs as the Dukes of September, performing their own hits and older R&B for an audience he appears to dislike. The younger ones are "lazy, spoiled TV babies" who have "ultimately turned us into performing monkeys." Other fans are the same generation as the headliners: "Mike, Boz and I are pretty old now and so is most of our audience. Tonight, though, the crowd looked so geriatric I was tempted to start calling out bingo numbers." On another, there "were people on slabs, decomposing, people in mummy cases." Some of this is acerbically funny in a self-lacerating sort of way, and some of the essays, particularly the one on hero worship and disillusionment ("I Was a Spy for Jean Shepherd"), are very incisive, but much of it is a downer. It's characteristic that the author knows what his readers want--the story of Steely Dan--and refuses to give it to them.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Penguin Group|
|File size:||590 KB|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
Read an Excerpt
**This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.**
In the Clubs
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 Bird-land, 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.
Once upon a time, the jazz club was a mythic place that signified urban romance, free-loving hipsterism and the Dionysian rites of the Exotic Black Man: in short, the dread possibility of ecstasy. As a survivor of many nights in actual jazz clubs, I can testify that the image was only partly correct.
Like most of the finer things in life, jazz is an acquired taste. As a suburban youth, I would often ride the bus up the New Jersey Turnpike through the industrial wasteland that must be crossed before the island of Manhattan is won. The combined sum of several weeks’ allowance would be burning a hole in my pocket. After docking at the dependably sinister Port Authority terminal, I’d take the AA train to Waverly Place in the West Village, which by then had pretty much completed its transformation from bohemia into Bohemia Land. Tourists nursed espressos at the Cafe Wha? and the Cafe Bizarre. At Figaro’s coffee shop on Bleecker and MacDougal, I’d order a burger and listen to my heart pound as I watched the exquisite, joyless waitresses slink around the room in black leotards. An epigraph on the menu read “Where the Beat meet the Elite.”
By the early sixties, jazz, having already been displaced as America’s dance music of choice by rock and roll, was facing another crisis. College kids, after a brief flirtation with bop and cool jazz, had chosen “folk” music as their official enthusiasm. Unlike gnarly post-Parker jazz, guitar-based roots music was totally accessible and irony free, and almost anyone could play it in some form. Moreover, the leftist anthems of the Depression were easily adapted to become the official music of the early civil rights movement. New clubs featuring Dylan, The Tarriers, Judy Collins, Richie Havens, and the like were pulling in a huge share of the business. Nevertheless, the Village was still the best place to hear jazz in its last glorious incarnation.
At the Village Vanguard, my distress at being the youngest person in the audience would dissolve as soon as the music started. In the early sixties, gods stood on that tiny stage. A lot of them drank J&B and smoked Luckies, but they were gods just the same. Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane were still youngish, fearless and working at the summit of their creativity. The proprietor, Max Gordon, once he got to know my face, used to seat me at the banquet next to the drum kit and give me a flat bar Coke. The cover charge was, like, seven bucks.
One of my favorites was bassist/composer Charles Mingus, who’d always bring along his demonic drummer, Dannie Richmond. Every time Richmond started banging out that triple time, the vibration of his sizzle cymbal would move my glass toward the edge of the table and I’d have to push it back to the center. I remember Mingus halting a tune in midgallop to lecture us on race, politics, cheating record companies and hypocrisy, both black and white. Watching this tempestuous artist at work, I found the extramusical events just as exciting as the music. I have to admit cringing, though, when Mingus, on one of his rougher nights, started screaming “Uncle Tom!” at old Coleman Hawkins, who was sitting at the bar. Hawk just gave him a world-weary smile and took another swig. Once, when I complimented pianist Jaki Byard after a set, he actually sat down at my table and graciously answered some questions about the music.
As the premier club in New York at that time, the Vanguard attracted a crowd that was a mix of serious fans and tourists. Of course there would always be the young preppie in a blazer sitting with his date, attractive in a little black dress. Imagine a split-screen: On the left, the kid’s eyes are wide, his face is flushed; he’s transfixed. He can’t believe he’s finally in a real jazz club twelve feet away from the great John Coltrane, who’s blowing up a hurricane.
His date, on the right side of the screen, is in hell. Although she’s heard her boyfriend talk about jazz, this is her first real exposure. She’s been in this tiny, smoky, smelly room for almost an hour now, nursing screwdrivers and being forced to listen to four Negroes create a din that sounds like nothing imagined on God’s earth. She’s got her head in her hands down on the table because it hurts, a real pounder behind the eyes. Most humiliating is the fact that her boyfriend has forsaken her for a black man who seems to be using his silver horn as a satanic instrument of masturbation. The two sides of the screen merge when she finally pulls on her date’s arm and demands to be escorted out. In the clubs, this classic scene can still be glimpsed today, always interesting, always poignant.
Two of the most mind-blowing musicians I got to see at the Vanguard were both patriarchs of early jazz who were still active in the sixties. Earl “Fatha” Hines had been a member of Armstrong’s original Hot Five and, during the thirties, had been the main attraction at Al Capone’s Grand Terrace Ballroom in Chicago. As if that weren’t enough, the band he’d led in the forties, the one that included Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Ammons and Wardell Gray, was the first big band to feature bebop players and arrangements. Hines’s gold lamé jacket, legendary smile and many-ringed fingers had the same effect on me as I’m sure they had on the crowd at the Grand Terrace. And then he began to play. I pretty much knew what to expect: he still played clean and swinging. I suppose it was my romantic imagination, but the music seemed to be enhanced by a sonic glow, an aura earned on its journey across an ocean of time.
The same could be said of the music of Willie “The Lion” Smith. In the twenties and thirties, Willie had been one of the mighty virtuosos who developed Harlem “stride” piano. In the sixties, Willie was still sharp and strong, a past master who seemed to have walked straight from a Depression rent party into the present, complete with cocked derby, milk bottle glasses and clenched cigar. He’d worked up his act into a seminar in jazz history, alternating pieces from his repertoire with stories about the musical life of Harlem, the cutting contests, the gangsters and the nuances that defined the styles of his contemporaries James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Luckey Roberts and Eubie Blake. He had a special affection for his protégé Duke Ellington, whose works he generously performed.
Claiming that his father was a Jewish gambler, Willie peppered his tales with Yiddishisms and made a point of wearing a Jewish star. Though the jive was fascinating, the real fun began when he commenced his abuse of the Steinway, his phenomenal left hand pumping like a locomotive as the right filigreed the melody. After knocking out his version of “Carolina Shout,” Willie’s comment was “Now that’s what you call . . . real good.” But he could be lyrical too, as he was on his own “Echoes of Spring.”
One more thing about the tough, road-hardened African American entertainers from the twenties who had to be heard without the benefit of microphones, men like Willie, Earl Hines, Coleman Hawkins, Ellington’s band: they could play REALLY LOUD!
Bill Evans at the Vanguard was always a gas. Those familiar only with his studio recordings don’t realize what a spry, funky hard-charger he could be on “up” material in a live setting. When he played quirky tunes like “Little Lulu,” he could be funny, too. Of course, even then, he rarely shifted out of that posture you see in photos, doubled over at the waist, head inside the piano as if trying to locate a rattly string. By the late seventies, I noticed that this quintessential modernist had developed an odd, loping shuffle in his right-hand lines, as if he was regressing to an antiquated rhythmic style dating back to Willie Smith’s day. What was up with that?
Real fans and serious hipsters remember Slug’s Bar on Third Street between avenues B and C. The neighborhood was dicey but the sounds were happening. Some nights, the audience would be just me, eyes darting around nervously, and maybe two heavily medicated patrons nodding at their tables. Cedar Walton, Jackie McLean, Art Farmer and Jimmy Cobb were among the regular performers. In 1972, trumpet star Lee Morgan’s girl shot and killed him out front.
Around 1965, the folk/rock club Cafe au Go Go started a Monday night jazz policy. These were jam sessions featuring top players who happened to be in town. The one I attended was one of the best all-around nights of jazz I ever saw. The rhythm section alone—Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Willie Bobo on drums—began the set. The other players—Hank Mobley on tenor, Dave Pike on vibes and Curtis Fuller, I think, on bone—fell by as the night went on. Jamming on standards and blues for over two hours without a break, Mobley and Kelly were monstrous: hard-swinging and composing in the moment. It was the shit and I knew I was lucky to be there.
When the civil rights movement became more militant in the mid-sixties, the music followed suit. In those years, a lot of jazz was motivated by righteous political fury, or directed toward a spiritual catharsis. The clubs, overwhelmed for the moment by the rock revolution, began to close. The Five Spot, the Half Note and, finally, Slug’s, all gradually vanished. The Village Gate managed to survive only by switching to rock and Latin sounds.
In the eighties, the jazz scene returned, “healthier” than ever. You’d go to hear acts in nifty, wholesome “club environments” and “art spaces.” No smoking, of course, no nodding junkies, no heavy boozing—in fact, no vice of any kind except, perhaps, the criminally high cover and drink charges. The clubs that presented the top mainstream acts all had a suitably mainstream look and were very strict about reservations. One night in the eighties, I took some friends to Michael’s Pub, then home to Woody Allen’s Monday night gigs, to see a piano trio. The atmosphere was tense and the maitre d’ was rude—there was no romance at all.
We split before the set started. Bring back Slug’s!