[17 December 2013]
There are some things we know about the rock band Steely Dan. First, it hasn’t been a band in the conventional sense for most of its existence. Second, their songs, with jazz-inflected structures and worldwise, often cryptic stories, have never seized center stage in the pop landscape, even as they’ve sold bunches of records and are enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Third, the core duo, bassist Walter Becker and keyboardist Donald Fagen, is as famous for their reticence to talk about their music as for the music itself.
OK, so maybe “reticence” is not the proper word here. Getting the straight poop on the band’s travails from Becker and Fagen has been a losing game for years. They’re past masters at cloaking their sardonic work in a suitably sardonic mythos. The facts, at least those they’ve chosen to reveal, are often wrapped in sarcasm, smartass-ery, and good ol’ fashioned throwing the dogs off the scent. Becker told band biographer Brian Sweet that neither he nor Fagen would provide an interview for the project, and to “carry on as if Donald and I were dead.”
Nonetheless, Steely Dan fans (like me) have managed to cobble together enough of the story through magazine interviews, liner notes and such. One might think the arrival of Fagen’s memoir, Eminent Hipsters, might fill in some of the blanks, or at least offer a Steely Dan roadmap for the uninitiated. Perhaps not surprisingly, that’s not the case.
This is the total antithesis of the recent wave of rock bios, memoirs and tomes fat enough to serve as doorstoppers. Eminent Hipsters is a slim, brisk volume, divided into two sections: a more formal memoir of Fagen’s upbringing and influences, and a journal from his 2012 legends tour with Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs. It tells us virtually nothing about the life and times of Steely Dan, but it confirms some things about Fagen longtime fans have long since surmised.
First, he’s a jazzbo at heart. That much is clear from the presence of jazz within his Steely Dan and solo work, but no one would ever have guessed he’d been hooked as a wee lad by the Boswell Sisters, a trio of musicians with Connie as lead singer who recorded in the late’20s and early ‘30s. Although they had some success in their day, by the time Fagen came along in the baby boom, his household might have been one of the few in which they were still household names.
Fagen is still taken by the intricacies of how they inverted the conventions of their era’s music. His knowing, easy-going appreciation of the Boswells, neither fanboy gushy nor scholarly dense, will tempt you to YouTube to see what struck him so deeply. (By comparison, his brief tributes to Ray Charles and Ike Turner, while sincere, don’t carry the same level of personal resonance.)
We also already know that Fagen was heavily influenced by the offbeat side of boomer-era pop culture. He confirms that by flipping through his sci-fi library, moving past Philip K. Dick to less celebrated writers A. E. van Vogt and Alfred “Alphie” Bester. He then touches on the impact of humorist Jean Shepard’s work on his youthful psyche. All these influences logically point the way to The Nightfly, his 1980 solo album in which he invents a late-night radio deejay on the air at the height of the Cold War.
Fagen opens up a bit about his time at Bard College, where he started gigging out in a few local combos and eventually met Becker. The two discovered numerous common influences, and swiftly joined musical forces. Among their adventures was the 1969 campus drug bust, which rounded up the two of them and several other students, mastermined by a guy in the county district attorney’s office named G. Gordon Liddy (the saga is obliquely recalled in the 1973 hit “My Old School”). But by that time, Becker and Fagen had already pledged to take their talents in another direction, and save what they called “the dynamite” for bigger stages.
“But,” Fagen writes, “that’s another story.”
The back half of Eminent Hispters catches up with Fagen 43 years later, dealing with the vagaries of touring (something he never much liked to do in the first place) by keeping a journal. While he drops a few amusing anecdotes about the various goings-on and mishaps, it’s more of an opportunity to see how his mind works. He teeters on grumpy-old-man territory from time to time, but he also reveals his everlasting penchant for observing life from just off the side of things.
What the journal also says, which is something his music often does not, is that his music, and his approach to a life in the music industry, comes from a deeply personal place. He’s not just the hippest wise-acre in the room, telling stories and throwing down riffs. There’s thought and heart behind and beneath what he does and how he does it; the thought part we already gathered, the heart part is something of a discovery.
The most touching example of that is the second half of the 21 July entry, which has nothing at all to do with the tour. It’s a brief recollection of the anniversary of the suicide of his wife’s son, and how he broke off from the tour to be with her that day. In it, he admits his life, as well as his wife’s, will never be the same after that tragedy.
Attempts to deploy dimestore psychology to connect the personal lives of Becker and Fagen to their music, or expectations of either to suddenly get dishily confessional at this late date, continue to be ill-advised. But for an artist whose reluctance towards self-revelation has been part of his mystique, these short paragraphs, along with the descriptions of his family in both sections of the book, make Fagen much more relatable as a person (as does the December 2013 Down Beat interview in which he discusses his relationship with jazz past and present).
Our current social media-besotted moment has rendered the concept of oversharing to the realm of the quaint and peculiar. And our expectation that our stars pour not only their souls into their art, but also their guts onto our screens, has turned many entertainment consumers into self-entitled carnivores of private lives compelled to be made public. Eminent Hispters stands blissfully apart from all that. Then again, as his music has always made clear and this funny, charming read makes clearer, “blissfully apart from all that” is where Fagen has been for years.