Old Uncle Fuckwad looks back: Donald Fagen pens Eminent Hipsters

“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.”

Ah, the good old days! Before eight-tracks, before cassette tapes, before CDs, before Mp3 players, when vinyl was where it was at! We’re obviously all about that here—and apparently Donald Fagen, co-founder and frontman of legendary jazztastic pop-rock group Steely Dan is as well. Some readers might conclude from his new autobiographical book Eminent Hipsters that DF is some kind of cranky old man—or as he puts it, an “Old Uncle Fuckwad.” Rest assured, he is. But he’s great at it.

If you’re familiar with the musical character of Steely Dan and Donald Fagen, you’ll know that there is an intense voice of jazz music that runs throughout their body of work. And if you’re familiar with Fagen’s debut solo effort The Nightfly, you’ll also know how in touch Fagen is with the nostalgia and romance that accompanies the years spanning his teens (cue Mad Men—so does everyone else apparently!)

Eminent Hipsters traces the development and evolution of Fagen’s musical beliefs and persona by uncovering his earliest influences and the artistic experiences that helped to define who he became. Through this, we get an excellent portrait of what life must have been like for a kid in suburban New Jersey during the Cold War era that escorted us into the golden age of rock-pop in the 1960s.

Part of the intrigue behind Steely Dan’s appeal (for which Fagen is at least half responsible) is its ability to appeal to mainstream audiences, transcending genre and shtick, dishing out tunes that are so good it can’t be denied. My rock n’ roll-souled Dad once called Steely Dan’s oeuvre “smart people’s music,” which he didn’t mean as a compliment. “It’s great stuff—but it speaks to my head, not my heart. You know?”

I know. But along with the band’s wide fan base, it also propagates a cult audience, stolen directly from the world of jazz. I suppose the conclusion of all this is: if you dig rock n’ roll, you have to dig Steely Dan, because it’s just plain good, even if it is for smart folk. If you dig Steely Dan, you don’t have to dig rock n’ roll: you might, but you don’t have to.

See how SD is technically cheating here? They’re getting two audiences for the price of one. This might account for the fact that even the most loyal of fans can have trouble acquiring tickets to see them at their week-long run at the Beacon Theater in NYC. Ahem. Overall, SD is a complex organism. And so is Donald Fagen, which makes Eminent Hipsters a compelling, yet appealingly smooth read. We are given great insight into the reasons behind the band’s expansive allure when we learn all about what Fagen liked as a kid: jazz music, sci-fi lit, radio DJ’s, and Ennio Morricone’s film scores.

We also gain personal access to some of DF’s most private memories and concerns, such as reminiscences of family members’ deaths, his anxiety issues, and his pronounced revulsion to the future and its self-proclaimed “progress.”

My favorite is a rant in the latter portion of the book devoted to journal notes from a recent tour with the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue: “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.” This is so great! I grant you permission to shout this in an inane voice at anyone who so much as mentions buying Google Glass. If that doesn’t get the eloi’s attention, just start Frisbee-ing LP’s in the appropriate direction. Just be careful not to scratch them.

All jokes (?) aside, perhaps the most valuable takeaway from Fagen’s book is that he looooooves music and always has. A simple fact, and potentially unsurprising; yet, it adds musical cred to a cleaner rock-ish band that, as you now know, caters to a crowd who reads books, some of which have no pictures and very small print.

In the first chapter, we are told all about one of his mom’s favorite musical acts, The Boswell Sisters, and its musical contributions; a relatively obscure start to musical refs. Fagen then goes on to reflectively praise the likes of Henry Mancini and his Peter Gunn theme song, Charles Mingus and Bill Evans and their runs at the Vanguard in NYC, and Ike and Tina Turner. Granted, all of this is peppered with humorous personal anecdotes that assist in deciphering the development of Fagen’s musical and personal character.

But it is tremendously satisfying to know that even with his high IQ and charmingly wry humor, Fagen is at heart, like the rest of us, a total music nerd. Like most other intensely talented musicians, at his core, he’s all about music for the sake of music (even if it is music that looks before it leaps), which is the best place in which to start creating.

The final tour-diary section of Eminent Hipsters is what you might expect when a cool-ified intellectual is forced to become a famous rock star: the rough-and-tumble Spinal Tap touring experience analyzed by Woody Allen’s younger cousin from South Brunswick, New Jersey.

In other words, a helluva great read. Recommended for smart people everywhere.

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