Face It: Your Hero Is a Grumpy Old Man

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 11 2013 7:45 AM

Reelin’ in the Years

Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen writes a portrait of the artist as a grumpy old man.

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Even the stuff Fagen likes isn’t safe. In an essay about the radio monologist Jean Shepherd, of A Christmas Story fame (a piece that originally appeared in Slate), Fagen first describes his youthful admiration for Shepherd—the kinship he felt with the sly, subversive voice that crackled through the radio in his childhood bedroom. Then he details how his feelings soured later on in life. The adult Fagen attends a live Shepherd performance that reveals Shepherd’s “straight-up narcissism.” Fagen finds himself “no longer wanting to meet the great man.” He chides Shepherd for mistreating his own acolytes: “Old fans, for whom [Shepherd] had been almost like a surrogate father or big brother, were often met with derision when they approached him.

Donald Fagen
Donald Fagen.

Danny Clinch

I couldn’t help but think of this Shepherd essay when I read Fagen’s assessment of the crowds on the Dukes of September tour, just a few chapters later: “If I wander around or eat in one of the restaurants at casino theater gigs, fans sometimes recognize me and want to talk. So that gives me an additional reason not to leave the room.” Or, after a frustrating Dukes gig in San Antonio: “I’d been imagining a flash theater fire that would send the entire audience screaming up the aisles, trampling each other to get to the exits.” I have sympathy for performers’ uneasy relationships with their paying customers. But Fagen seems oblivious to the parallels between Shepherd’s late-career churlishness and his own.

Now it’s me who’s being churlish. Yes, Eminent Hipsters is a gust of disillusionment—bearing the unwelcome revelation that my one-time musical hero has turned into a whiny crackpot with bad kidneys. Yet even as this less cool image of Fagen emerges, the book also manages to remind me what it was about the guy that wowed me back when I was 14. As off-putting as he can be when delving into his own gripes, Fagen is utterly charming when he celebrates other performers. He defends TV and film composer Henry Mancini from charges of fuddy-duddyness: “The sides you carved were strictly, like, young.” He gives Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” its due, asserting that the song—“square-ass backup singers and all—just may have been the most beautiful three minutes and thirty-nine seconds in all of twentieth century music.”

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Or take his essay on Connie Boswell, an obscure 1930s singer who fascinates Fagen. Boswell, he writes, exhibits a manner “simultaneously hot and cool: she’s emotionally connected to the lyric and at the same time reveals a self-reflexive, ironic quality that’s astonishing for the era.” As it happens, that description also perfectly captures the delicate hot/cool balance that Fagen himself pulled off in his vocal performances on Steely Dan records. And it’s the kind of top-notch, incisive cultural critique that you ain’t gonna get from the likes of Keith Richards. Just like the lyrics he penned for the Dan, Fagen’s writing here is charged with a zingy, acerbic intelligence. I love his tossed-off insults (“a bit of a moldy fig”) and his quirky interrogative beats (“Got that, chillun’?”). He refers to a songstress “twitching like a maenad” and recasts Ike Turner as an R&B Faust.

In one revealing passage, Fagen expresses his fondness for Wes Anderson—another perfectionist who seems to approach his art less as a spontaneous eruption of creativity and more as a precise, controlled process of assemblage. In Steely Dan’s heyday, the “band” was mostly a rotating crew of studio musicians, each carefully chosen to play on specific tracks they were suited to. Fagen and his partner Walter Becker would sift mercilessly through these takes, in some instances recording several different guitarists’ versions of a solo before they’d settle on one with the proper vibe. There is a calculated remove to these songs—an ironic distance—not unlike the feeling you often get watching an Anderson film.

Fagen possesses none of the swagger of the typical rock dude—those ambulatory ids who love to splash around inside the chaos of their own stardom. He’s far too self-conscious for that. “The fact is,” he confesses in his introduction, “until I got out of high school, I was pretty sure I’d end up in journalism or teaching English or working in a bookstore or something along those lines.” He is both blessed and cursed with the observer mentality. An asset when he’s crafting clever, character-driven song narratives; a hurdle when he’s up on stage or dealing with needy fans.

It also goes a long way toward explaining his appeal to a certain species of shy, cerebral high school kid. The kind of kid who is pretty sure he’ll end up in journalism or something along those lines. Incidentally, as I write this, I notice the Dan is playing at the Beacon. Might try to scalp a ticket. Look for me in the rafters.

Correction, Oct. 21, 2013: This review originally misstated that Donald Fagen's wife's son committed suicide in July 2012. The suicide occurred in July 2009. The sentence has been removed.

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Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen. Viking.