I didn’t come to Mr. Fagen through the albums he and Walter Becker populated the seventies with. Of course, I was familiar with them. How could any white boy intellectual wanna-be in America who came of age during that period not be? Rikki, Josie, Peg, and Kid Charlemagne were all characters familiar to me, if at some sort of remove. They were somehow strangely soulless and ethereal, like the college-age siblings of my friends. They seemed like something I should aspire to, something I might inevitably become, but that right now seemed beyond the grasp of a simple rock and roller in the suburbs of the big shoulders.
No, I came to Mr. Fagen by way of his 1982 album, “The Nightfly”, first through the evocative, sneaky, “New Frontier”, and then, years later, through the other brilliant, subtle, evocative, songs that were a pastiche of life in the sixties, of a life, as Fagen, the artful dodger himself wrote, of someone of his own “general height, weight and build”.
So this. Eminent Hipsters, Mr. Fagen’s 2013 collection of essays and god-knows-what-else, reads like the brilliant companion piece to that brilliant album. It brings that same kid to life in a way Mr. Fagen never quite does in his songs, making him fascinating and intriguing and compelling. Making him, probably, everything Mr. Fagen wanted him to be when he first began making the rough sketches for “The Nightfly”.
Taking a nod, if not much else, from Lytton Strachey’s classic 1918 takedown of Victorian England, Eminent Hipsters is really two books. The first, a compendium of the essays Fagen published in Premiere, Slate, Harper’s Bazaar and Jazz Times (plus two new essays that appear here for the first time). The second, really simply notes from his tour as a member of the “Dukes of September” with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald.
To be clear, the first section is, as brief as it is, worth the price of admission. And no, I’m not just talking to Steely Dan fans or aging baby boomers. And yes, I realize that 27 bucks is a lot for 85 pages. But nowhere are you going to find what Mr. Fagen gives you here. An introduction to the long forgotten Boswell Sisters that will have you scouring bit torrents. A deconstruction of the relationship between Alfred Korzybski and the golden age of Science Fiction. An analysis of the genius of Jean Shepherd that goes well beyond the holiday value of “A Christmas Story”:
In the late fifties, while Lenny Bruce was beginning his climb to holy infamy in jazz clubs on the West Coast, Shepherd’s all-night monologues on WOR had already gained him an intensely loyal cult of listeners. Unlike Bruce’s provocative nightclub act, which had its origins in the “schpritz” of the Catskills comics, Shepherd’s improvised routines were more in the tradition of Midwestern storytellers like Mark Twain, but with a contemporary urban twist: say, Mark Twain after he’d been dating Elaine May for a year and half.
And lest you think the essays are all nostalgia for a sunnier and more optimistic time (though frankly, why would you?) there’s a tremendous meditation on the role of drugs and music that includes Fagen’s 1966 trip as an undergrad to the Haight:
It was fascinating, for about a week, anyway. Then you started to notice that a lot of the kids looked all waxy and wild-eyed and that they were talking much too slow or much too fast, and then you got that Oh shit feeling like Lou Costello thinking he’s talking to Abbott and then realizing he’s talking to the Wolfman.
That insight and language are resident in the second half of the book as well, just not as often:
Aspen, the town, is an ordinary-looking but expensive shopping center where scary rich people are waited on by chunky, big-boned, blond hippie types. It has all the modern conveniences except for oxygen. If you look up, there are some nice mountains (I assume people ski down them in the winter). I didn’t even see any pretty girls, although some of the girls I saw were wearing pretty shoes.
The result is a book that gives the reader a perspective on the sixties – and their resident aliens, the baby boomers – from the inside out. In the first half, you see Mr. Fagen wrestling with the demons and spirits and inspirations that formed him and much of his generation. And in the second half, you see that formed man wrestling with maturity, America, work, love and life, in a country he’s familiar with but still conflicted about. All with a cultural insight and self-awareness and ear for language that is rare, surprising and exciting.
You know. Just like he’s always done.
Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen was published by Viking on 10/22/13 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).