Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen

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Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen

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Category: Entertainment
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A collection of essays on music, movies and literature, plus extracts from an on-the-road touring diary by Donald Fagen of American rock outfit Steely Dan - eclectic, grumpy, passionate and funny in turns.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 161 Date: October 2014
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099593331

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Donald Fagen is best known as one half of the partnership that became Steely Dan, one of the more sophisticated names in American rock music. While at school in the 1960s he was convinced that his vocation would be journalism, until music took over. When the group, or rather duo plus hired hands, went on hiatus, he contributed to various journals. About half of this fairly brief book consists of his articles on films, music and science fiction, and the rest is made up of his entries (including random thoughts concerning the world around him) from a touring diary.

The articles dwell on the music and films which were so much a part of his teenage years, or in his words how the stuff I read and heard when I was growing up affected (stretched, skewed, mangled) my little brain. Opening the collection is a piece about the Boswell Sisters, a family trio who specialised in close harmony singing during the jazz age of the inter-war-years, who were particular favourites of his mother, and who were also notable for recording a song named Rock and Roll as early as 1934.

He also writes with affection and enthusiasm of the TV and film scores of Henry Mancini, notably the music he composed for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, of the jazz greats Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, and the New York jazz clubs where they played, of Ike Turner, now largely remembered for little more than having been the abusive ex-husband of Tina, and of the science fiction writer A.E. van Vogt. All of these, the 'eminent hipsters' of his youth which give the book its title, clearly left their mark in some way on his work with Steely Dan and his later solo music, above all his album The Nightfly.

Nowhere does the passion come across more loud and clear than when he recalls Ray Charles, whose Georgia on my Mind ‘just may have been the most beautiful three minutes and 39 seconds in all of 20th century music’. It compensates for a brief interview with a clearly uncooperative and minimally responsive Ennio Morricone, who was obviously determined not to say anything of value.

The second part of the book is taken from the journal of his summer 2012 tour with The Dukes of September, a ‘band’ formed specifically for the purpose, fronted by himself and his old hit-making friends Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald. It seems to have turned him into the Victor Meldrew of music, for like many of his peers he clearly prefers the more creative, studio-bound part of a rock musician’s career to promoting and touring the fruit of his imagination’s labours. Touring and contentment, where Fagen was concerned, do not really go together.

Away from his wife during those weeks on the road, he vents his frustrations on perpetual aches and pains, inadequate painkillers, giving up smoking, problems in getting to sleep at night, hotels with smelly bedsheets, dodgy swimming pools and screaming children, and the poor acoustics they find in old concert halls. His audiences, he complains, are always the wrong age. They’re usually too old. At one venue, he muses, they look so geriatric that he is tempted to start calling out bingo numbers. At another, somebody must have bussed in people from nursing homes. Sometimes they’re too young. It’s the TV babies, or people born after 1960 ‘when television truly became the robot caretaker of American children and therefore the principal architect of their souls’, who scream for the hits they remember from their college days, or wave their camera phones around so they can send instant videos to their friends at home instead of really concentrating on the concert experience.

Then he goes off on a tangent or two, but quite entertainingly, as he looks back at the good old days. Fifty years earlier it was the age of high-fidelity, long-playing vinyl records sounded great, and your parents doubtless had a good-sounding console and a fine set of speakers. Anybody, even your grandmother, could work a TV set, and there were less channels, without any soul-deadening porn or violence.

Meanwhile, back on the tour, he decides he is suffering from ATD, or Acute Tour Disorder, the result of severe vocational distress. So why didn’t he stay at home, you may be forgiven for asking. Well, he has to make a living – and when all is said and done, it’s not as bad as that, all the time. Because for a working, performing musician, there is often no better job around. When everything is working properly, you become transfixed by the notes and chords and the beautiful spaces in between… the earth falls away and it's just you and your crew creating this forward motion, this undeniable, magical stuff that can move ten thousand people to snap free of life's miseries.

Steely Dan fans may connect with much of this book more than the general reader. But Fagen’s take on the cultural age of the last few decades is an eclectic one, covering as it does movies and literature as well as music. He may be a tad grumpy, but many others of his generation on both sides of the Atlantic have also gone into print with their reminiscences, in which they also dwell on the current state of things and how much better it was back in their young day. If you’re going to complain, at least be entertaining and funny about it – and don’t forget the passion that made you take up a sometimes thankless career in the first place. He ticks all the right boxes.

For the life of a contemporary American musician, albeit from a different genre, may we recommend Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music by David N Meyer; or alternately the more comprehensive, self-explanatory Jazz by Gary Giddins and Scott Deveaux

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Buy Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen at Amazon.com.


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