Subterranean hipster blues
Donald Fagen’s witty take on the music memoir
Donald Fagen, of the band Steely Dan: he describes the maturer fans at his shows as “so geriatric I was tempted to start calling out bingo numbers”. Photograph: Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Getty Images
Taking a leaf from Bob Dylan’s book Chronicles: Volume One, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan glides over strict biographical detail yet delivers a terrific music memoir.
Eminent Hipsters, which Fagen, one of the most erudite and sceptical musicians of the past few decades, terms his “art-o-biography”, is divided into distinct halves. The first 80 or so pages are a series of short essays, some previously published, that map the cultural landscape of Fagen’s childhood and teenage years.
Born in 1948, he recalls the first 12 years of his life as a time spent wrangling with bland interior design (“beige was the default colour of the 50s”), precociousness (as a 10-year-old he was into contemporary jazz and sci-fi by the likes of Alfred Bester and Philip K Dick) and increasing ennui. He was saved by artists “who creatively exploit material from the margin or who, merely because they live in a freaky space, have enough distance to see some truth”.
Late-night jazz radio shows from the likes of Jean Shepherd and Mort Fega fed his habit not only for music but also for connecting with adults he felt he could trust. (Other such voices included Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg and Kurt Vonnegurt.)
At times acerbic – at college he is “pitifully lonely . . . The idea of actually going on a date was both conceptually repugnant and beyond the limits of my courage” – these essays bring us to the late 1960s.
Then the book becomes a 2012 tour diary. Cue the fascinating if queasy musings of a 64-year-old who, as band leader of the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue (with veteran pals Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs), is world-weary and waspish. (He describes the maturer fans at his shows as “so geriatric I was tempted to start calling out bingo numbers” and tells his younger, camera-phone-wielding fans: “I refuse to look at you – you’re a corpse”).
Fagen redeems himself somewhat when he allows his misanthropic mask to slip. He admits he loves what he does because he becomes “transfixed by the notes and chords and the beautiful spaces in between . . . this undeniable, magical stuff that can move ten thousand people to snap free of life’s miseries”.
There is also a moment of poignancy when he writes about his stepson’s suicide.
So no reflections on Steely Dan albums and their cryptic lyrics, no dirt-digging on the relationship between him and his music partner Walter Becker. Rather, Fagen wittily reworks the music memoir. No mean feat from a man who describes his younger self as “a subterranean in gestation with a real nasty case of otherness”.