Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen
Steely Dan is one of my favourite bands. It was all the fault of Mick at our Youth Club, whom I adored from afar. This was the mid-1970s and he had a copy of the Dan’s new fourth album Katy Lied (1975). Fagen has a rather distinctive voice which is hard to describe, but I liked it What wowed me though was their jazziness. Even back then, before I really knew what jazz was really about, I knew a nice jazz progression when I heard one – and Your Gold Teeth II was the track that sold it to me, the chords are simple in the key of A major, but in the opening bars it goes from A down to a G natural and done jazzily (think Charlie Brown cartoon music style), it hooked me, plus a modulation into F#m! (I have the sheet music book of their first four albums). Getting to know everything by them immediately followed. Mick was impressed, but not that impressed! What could have been eh?
Anyway, a couple of years ago, Fagen, who was an English major for a while at college, compiled various pieces he’d written over the years with a few new bits, and the tour diaries of his Dukes of September supergroup tour in 2012. I couldn’t not read this slim volume, but it was pricey for its size, so I waited for an affordable used copy to come along – mine was withdrawn from Brooklyn Public Library, and apart from the stuck down d/j it is nearly new, as well as covered. A bargain then, but what of the contents?
Firstly, the title. Fagen uses ‘hipster’ to refer to:
artists whose origins lie outside the mainstream or who creatively exploit material from the margin or who, merely because they live in a freaky space, have enough distance to see some truth.”
That description in place, Fagen moves on to tell us about his influences – and they’re surprising. Not necessarily the jazz greats like Miles Davis who spring to mind, although he gets plenty of mentions, but people like the Boswell sisters – a harmony trio who put their own slant on jazz standards and Jean Shepherd – a late night jazz DJ who enthralled Fagen. He writes about his love of Henry Mancini’s film & TV scores. He discovered Mancini through the theme to Peter Gunn with that unmistakeable bass riff. Mancini worked a lot with Peter Gunn‘s director Blake Edwards, whose:
camera eye seemed to take a carnal interest in the luxe and leisure objects of the period, focusing on Scandinavian furniture, potted palms, light wood paneling and sleek shark-finned convertibles. It was, in fact, all the same stuff my parents adored, but darkened with a tablespoon of alienation and danger. Sort of like seeing a smiling Pan Am pilot climb out of his 707 with a copy of La Nausée sticking out of his back pocket.
Mancini didn’t have to look far to find the appropriate sound to enhance Edwards’s vision of anomie deluxe.
I admit, I had to look ‘anomie’ up – it means “lack of the usual social or ethical standards in an individual or group” – as exemplified by J.G.Ballard’s novel Hi-Rise for instance. Fagen also talks about his love of Sci-Fi and the stories of Philip K Dick and other heroes such as Ray Charles.
It was at upstate NY university Bard who took a wider range of students than normal – ‘desperate suburban misfits with impressive verbal skills but appalling high school records’, including Fagen himself, that he met Walter Becker, who was to become his musical partner.
I could hear someone playing some electric blues guitar inside, just messing around. But this wasn’t the trebly, surfadelic, white-guy sound I was used to hearing from other student guitarists. This fellow had an athentic blues touch and feel, and a convincing vibrato. His amp was tweaked to produce a fat, mellow sound, and turned up loud enough to generate a health Albert Kin-like sistain. Inside, playing a cranberry red Epiphone guitar, was a severe-looking bespectacled kid who would turn out to be my partner and bandmate for the next forty years.
The rest is history as they say.
The last third of the book is taken up with Fagen’s diaries from a supergroup tour he did in 2012 with Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs. They called themselves the Dukes of September – a nod to their ages – by then Fagen is in his early sixties. Touring the US, and Canada – whose audiences he writes about thus:
So, unlike American audiences presented with an irresistible groove, Canadians (at least when they’re sober) just sit motionless for two hours, fighting every impulse to nod, tap a oot, say hooray of move any part of their bodies. That is, until the big finish of the show; when, as their superegos are no longer able to contain the furious directive of the lower brain, they rise to their eel and , at last, explode with bestial cries and applause.
An indulgent generalisation of course, but funny! When you’re in your early sixties, touring a band is no fun. The Dukes of September, although composed from three individual stars, aren’t well enough known to justify chartering jets between gigs. Fagen writes wittily if a little crankily about life on the bus and what his calls ATD – Acute Tour Disorder (which is replaced with PTD post tour).
Fagen is a genial, and literate companion through these pieces. This little book was a pleasure to dip into over a week or two. I certainly gained a new appreciation for Henry Mancini (whom I’d previously only associated with The Pink Panther theme and Baby Elephant Walk). I also keep meaning to reboot my jazz education which came to a halt in the mid-1980s – inspired by Fagen, I should just get on with it! (8.5/10)
Source: Own copy
Donald Fagen, Eminient Hipsters (Jonathan Cape, 2013) Vintage paperback 176 pages.