Hipster on the Road

Donald Fagen has done a bit of published writing over the years; way back in 1989 he interviewed film composer Ennio Morricone for Premiere; in 2007, he wrote an article for Slate rehabilitating Ike Turner’s reputation, and one last year about his experience listening to New York radio personality and author Jean Shepherd. Those pieces and others are collected along with original material in Fagen’s first book, Eminent Hipsters, which will be published by Viking Press next week. The jacket excerpt explains the title: “The main subjects are the talented musicians, writers, and performers from a universe beyond suburban New Jersey who showed me how to interpret my own world.”

Would that it were entirely that.

Fagen’s chapters on Henry Mancini and Shepherd are tremendous; so are his autobiographical tales of going to jazz clubs in New York as a young man and attending Bard College in upstate New York, where he met a fellow-traveling musician named Walter Becker. But Becker is apparently the last eminent hipster Fagen ever met. Fagen’s life story ends at graduation in 1969, and the last half of the book—75 pages—is made up of a tour diary from Fagen’s 2012 travels with the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue.

Five pages into the diary, the reader has learned what there is to know about Fagen and touring: he strongly dislikes everything about it, from the buses to the hotels to the venues to the audiences, but the point is belabored mercilessly for an additional 70 pages. It’s easy to see how this might have been otherwise. Fagen could have used the tour diary to reflect on his 40-year relationship with fellow Duke Michael McDonald and the musicians with whom he’s crossed paths in Steely Dan; he could have used the fact that the Dukes setlists include a lot of old R&B numbers to elaborate on the songs and artists that influenced him. Instead, he keeps complaining about the children in hotel swimming pools and the no-frills way the Dukes have to travel compared to his present-day tours with Steely Dan.

Anybody who’s familiar with him knows that Fagen is a famous curmudgeon, with little use for the trappings of stardom, the rituals of meeting the press and the fans, and the business of the business he’s in. (Marinating in his misery on the road, he bemoans the details involved in releasing Sunken Condos, his 2012 solo album.) So the general bitchiness of Fagen’s tour diary isn’t especially surprising. Some of his observations are interesting—about the peculiarities of crossing national borders, or how the more beautiful an old theater is, the worse its sound quality is likely to be. But after a while, the diary starts to feel like a fuck-you to the fans, especially when they’re repeatedly insulted as “elderly,” or “TV babies” who grew up in the 70s and want only to hear Steely Dan hits, or when he wishes they’d be consumed in a flash fire.

And that’s unfortunate. The first half of Eminent Hipsters really does reveal how a unique constellation of personalities in the late 50s and the 1960s helped to turn a 113-pound nerd into one of the eminent hipsters of my generation. The last half is a chilly rebuke to anybody who chooses to think of him that way.

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