Songwriter Explores Inner Space

Fagen, Donald. Eminent Hipsters. Penguin Group: New York. 159 pages. 2013.

Donald Fagen bookThis book is not about the jazz/rock band Steely Dan. The author Donald Fagen is co-founder and tours with this legendary group, but in this tale he is on the road with the Dukes of September and writing a daily journal about his experiences. The journal is a long concluding chapter to this book.

The first eighty-five pages consist of ten essays describing hipsters Fagen encountered through 1969, the year of his graduation from Bard College. The essays are followed by the lengthy journal that painfully chronicles a two-month tour conducted in 2012 with a large band headlined by Fagen, Michael McDonald, and Boz Scaggs. This journal is not about band mates or music but the suffering Fagen. While McDonald and Scaggs live and sleep in their respective touring buses, Fagen exits his bus, checks into a hotel, and acquires meals by calling room service and retiring with pay-per-view movies or jazz playing on his laptop; the hotel swimming pools are sought for exercise, but the water is brackish. As for stage performance, he disparages his audiences frequently; 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.’” Omitting from your read this lengthy concluding chapter and journal will enable avoidance of the gloomy and grouchy side of Fagen, but you will miss out on a few laughs and insights into cultural blemishes you may actually agree with.

Fagen frequently uses the term TV Babies to “mean people who were born after, say, 1960, when television truly became the robot caretaker of American children and therefore the principal architect of their souls.” These individuals populate his performance audiences and may be clamoring for a Steely Dan hit when Fagen wants to give them something more relevant to the moment. When playing to a San Antonio audience, the TV Babies, believed to be right wing tourists from Arizona, disdainfully sat through soulful Ray Charles covers from the sixties, a condition Fagen attempts to trace to having an abnormally large amygdala, a primitive part of the brain. “That’s why, when you hear a Republican speak, it’s like listening to somebody recount a particularly boring dream (122).” Also to be found in the book is a funny description of hotel desk and room service clerks with perkiness using the term “absolutely” repeatedly. He attributes this annoying behavior to some corporate employee training program.

The ten essays range from three to sixteen pages in length. The essay subject matter dates from the 1950s and 1960s, but it is unclear when they were written. From the copyright page: “Parts of this book appeared in different form in Harper’s Bazaar, Jazz Times, Premiere, and Slate.” The essays strive to elevate impressionable characters in Fagen’s music past to hipster status; the individuals include Connie Boswell, Henry Mancini, Ray Charles, and Ike Turner. Other essays are devoted to radio/TV personality Jean Shepherd, disc jockey Mort Fega, and filmscore writer Ennio Morricone. Fagen also writes of having read much science fiction in his youth and visiting as a teen the jazz clubs of New York City; he also produces a relatively long piece on his four-year English degree earning years at Bard College. With this college-days chapter the essays end, and we have completed an interesting set of chronicled life experiences through 1969. The 1970s Steely Dan years through 2010 are only sparsely addressed in this volume; for its brevity, this is Fagen memoir, not autobiography. The writing shows flashes of literary brilliance, however, as he employs interesting metaphor to further fortify points near the end of discussions.

Fagen demonstrates his music writing prowess in a chapter devoted to the vocal and arranging work of the Boswell Sisters in the 1930s swing period: “. . . they imitated jazz instrumental effects with their voices, devised tricky phrasing, switched from straight time to swing time, employed ‘speed singing’ and even raced through whole choruses in ‘Boswellese,’ a childhood language of their own invention (9).” These sisters, Connie, Vet, and Martha, who preceded and inspired the more commercially-succesful Andrews Sisters, specialized in transposing popular ballads into fun-filled up-tempo bluesy numbers that captured Fagen’s attention and was a topic for one of the more revealing and uplifting chapters of this book.

Fagen elevates hipster Ray Charles to an equally high level. “Ray brought soul out of the closet. . . Elvis borrowed from Ray. . . Horace Silver, Count Basie, and Charles Mingus owed Ray Charles.” Comparing Ray to the funk musicians of the 1970s there is no holding back: “James Brown, Isaac Hayes, and Barry White seemed less interested in pleasing a woman than in collecting body parts. In contrast, Ray’s sage interpretation of ‘America the Beautiful’ in 1972 was once a taunt, a healing gesture and a blind man’s dream of the Promised Land. . . Ray’s work, even in decline, was always wiser and subtler than that of the new breed. It was music for adults (65).”

A more difficult task of creating legacy lies with the person of Ike Turner. The story buildup begins with describing Ike’s broad and varied experience in the music industry and the premise that his composition “Rocket 88″, an R&B chart topper, may have contributed more to rock ‘n’ roll than any other single tune. Ike penned fine tunes for his wife Tina and the Ikettes, including “A Fool In Love” and “I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” and others. But, he was incarcerated for seventeen months for various legal offenses. When Tina came out with her book and subsequent movie, “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” Ike was forced to bear the label “wife-beater” along with the “ex-felon” and “heavy drug user” tags. Nevertheless, Ike persevered with his music and won an album Grammy as recently as 2006. This engaging story earned for Ike Turner the Fagen designation “eminent hipster.”

Fagen admits to suffering from many ailments. There are frequent references to panic attacks and an anxiety disorder. The book “Appendix” is actually a categorization of a disorder he coins Acute Tour Disorder (ATD)–why not “Fagen’s Disease?” ATD is a set of psychological and physical responses to stressful experiences, poor sleeping patterns, and bad diet during a multi-month performance tour. If the ATD is allowed to continue post-tour unmanaged or untreated, it will result in Post Tour Disorder. PTD is a post-traumatic stress disorder conceived by “Dr” Fagen for categorizing behavior of some aging touring rock musicians. With discussion limited to the Appendix, one can omit this theory without a difficult conscience; also, the individual essays and journal content in this book are independent of one another and may be read and enjoyed separately.

1 Comment

Filed under Book Review, Reviews

One response to “Songwriter Explores Inner Space

  1. Peter Furlong

    Reblogged this on Peter on Music.

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