A hipster’s life and times
Of the many, many entertaining passages sprinkled throughout Eminent Hipsters, Donald Fagen’s slender volume of memoir and musing, one in particular caught my attention. Looking back on his teenage years, the co-founder of Steely Dan recalls the experience of taking a girl to a jazz club in the mid-Sixties, hoping to share with her the experience of listening to some of the music to which he is in thrall. They’re on a date: the boy in a preppie blazer, the girl in a little black dress.
Imagine a split-screen, Fagen writes. On the left, the kid’s eyes are wide, his face is flushed; he’s transfixed. He can’t believe he’s finally in a real jazz club twelve feet away from the great John Coltrane, who’s blowing up a storm. His date, on the right side of the screen, is in hell. Although she’s heard her boyfriend talk about jazz, this is her first real exposure. She’s been in this tiny, smoky, smelly room for almost an hour now, nursing screwdrivers and being forced to listen to four Negroes creating a din that sounds like nothing imagined on God’s earth. She’s got her head in her hands down on the table because it hurts, a real pounder behind the eyes. Most humiliating is the fact that her boyfriend has forsaken her for a black man who seems to be using his silver horn as a satanic instrument of masturbation. The two sides of the screen merge when she finally pulls on her date’s arm and demands to be escorted out. In the clubs, this classic scene can still be glimpsed today, always interesting, always poignant.
Indeed it can. And how exquisitely Fagen recalls the tumult of emotions that many of us must have shared on such occasions, before we acquired sufficient pragmatic wisdom to know that this music and most (although not all) girlfriends were better kept apart.
Eminent Hipsters is a surprise and a joy. The first half consists of essays illuminating the various youthful enthusiasms and some of the people and events that would shape his life: the route into jazz provided by the music of Henry Mancini, the programmes of the jazz disc jockey Mort Fega (the model for the protagonist of The Nightfly, Fagen’s first solo album), his days at Bard College and the fateful meeting with Walter Becker, who would become his partner in Steely Dan.
Some of these have been published before, in Premiere, Slate, Harper’s Bazaar and Jazz Times; one that hasn’t is his reminiscence of the devotion of his mother, a night-club singer, to the Boswell Sisters. If, like me, you know them only by name, Fagen’s description of their recordings will sent you straight off in search of the moment, during their 1932 version of “We Just Couldn’t Say Good-bye”, when a sudden key-change from F major to F minor makes us feel, in Fagen’s description, as though “we’ve been instantly transported from the sleepy Delta to Times Square on a Saturday night.”
With page 86 (of 159), however, the book executes an abrupt key-change of its own. The essay format is abandoned and for the rest of the volume we’re into an intimate diary of the two-month tour undertaken in the summer of 2012 by Fagen, Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald, calling themselves the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue — a successor to the shows presented by the same singers almost 20 years earlier, when they called themselves the New York Rock and Soul Revue.
I don’t think I’ve read a more unvarnished and punishingly self-aware expression of the sensations experienced by a musician of Fagen’s age and standing while on the road and experiencing what he calls Acute Tour Disorder (ATD), a syndrome that tends to magnify every small irritation into a source of major annoyance. Hotels, venues, audiences and his own performances are mercilessly criticised. We hear how Scaggs and McDonald save money by passing up the various Grand Hyatts and Four Seasons, choosing instead to sleep on their upholstered, blacked-out and soundproofed tour bus in the venue car-parks. “I’ve tried that a few times,” Fagen remarks. “It felt more like the lifestyle of an insect than a human.”
Fagen frets about his health, in particular a spider bite that he fears will turn necrotic, swallows painkillers and sleeping pills, listens to Stravinsky in his room, and spills the beans on “privates”: those high-paying gigs undertaken by major recording artists for corporations celebrating success or individuals celebrating birthdays, weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. Everybody of his generation seems to do them nowadays, as a result of the discovery that album royalties can no longer be guaranteed to maintain them in accustomed luxury, but a certain amount of consequent self-loathing is involved.
“The worst are corporate gigs where the band is hired to perform in front of several hundred or a hundred or even fifty suits at a convention or company party,” he writes. “They usually sit at tables, dinner-theatre style, maybe with their wives or, just as often, hired escorts, and consume a lot of hard liquor. If they’ve hired a top band, it means they’ve had a good year and the leadership has invested in a real blowout, a wang-dang-doodle, although they never look as though they’re having much fun. The hookers like to get up and dance.”
Occasionally real life makes a painful intrusion. He’s in Orange Beach, Florida when he learns of the death of the son of his wife, the singer Libby Titus, whom they have been unable to save from his addictions and suicidal impulses. Anyone who has spent a part of their life on the road, in whatever circumstances, will identify with that, and with the solution: deal with it, and carry on.
* The photograph of Donald Fagen, taken by Danny Clinch, is from the jacket of Eminent Hipsters, published in the US by Viking Penguin and in the UK by Jonathan Cape.