I’ve always been curious about musicians and have built a bit of a library of musician biographies and autobiographies. This time around I was offered this book, “Eminent Hipsters,” thinking it was an autobiography of one of my favorite musicians, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. What this turned out to be was not really an autobiography, but rather a brief glimpse at Fagen’s influences and then the spewings of a cranky old man on tour.
Don’t get me wrong, it was still an entertaining book, but Fagen only offered a glimpse of his musical background. Maybe that’s all we need to understand this private man’s life and raison d’etre. The “hipsters” he talks about are pretty specific. These range from his first musical influence, the Boswell Sisters (introduced to Donald as a child through his mother’s 78rpm records) to Henry Mancini to radio personalities: Jean Shepherd, best known for narrating A Christmas Story, and late-night jazz DJ Mort Fega. It is pretty certain that jazz music was a big influence on Fagen’s music.
There is a short section on how and where Fagen met the co-founder of Steely Dan, Walter Becker, and how the two were arrested by G. Gordon Liddy on trumped up drug charges and later how those charges would come back to haunt him while touring in Canada.
The book is read by Donald Fagen and while as a whole it allows the listener to understand the true feelings of the musician’s mind and words, at times his speech, whether his natural pattern or something else, was a bit slurred (for lack of a better term) and hard to understand. But once his rhythm of speech is heard for a while, he becomes easier to follow and for the most part slipping into the mind of Donald Fagen.
One of the best reasons for the book being read by the author, is prevalent in the last half of the book. The last half of the book Is what seems to be readings from a journal he kept while on tour with “The Dukes of September”. “The Dukes” primarily are: Donald Fagen, Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald. Fagan delivers the journal readings in the manner of what could easily be considered the ramblings of a cranky old man. This cranky old man, however, happens to be an aging rock, jazz and soul musician who needs a little more than just performing a show, he needs the crowd response to be perfect, the equipment to be perfect, the room’s acoustics to be perfect and the musicians must always be on it. Fagen rants on about autograph hounds, physical ailments, and humanity’s downfall through pop culture. The younger generation is referred to as TV children and his bitterness is aimed strongly at them.
While his sarcasm and wit is very bitter and harsh, it is funny if you give him a big ol’ southern “bless his heart” which is a southern way of saying, “hey, he ain’t right, but maybe he’ll get better.”
If you can stand the harsh criticism of humanity and the whining for better conditions on tour, this book will reward you with some interesting anecdotes from the essays and journal entries that make up this book and expose a bit of Donald Fagen’s psyche.