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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Illustration by Peter Bagge

Late last summer, I noticed that Donald Fagen—one half of the 1970s fusion-rock duo Steely Dan—was playing at the Beacon Theater in New York. I bought a pair of tickets and invited my friend Pete. Pete had first turned me on to the delights of the Dan—the complex harmonies, the precise musicianship, the world-weary lyrics—our freshman year of high school.  Somehow, the group’s portraits of slit-eyed urban drifters struck a chord with a pair of apple-cheeked AP students. I’m pretty sure Pete and I listened to the Dan together, with great ceremony, the first time we both smoked weed.

Fagen was on tour as part of the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue—an occasional, mildly depressing project in which he and fellow jazz-inflected rockers Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald perform R&B standards (smattered with a sprinkling of their own musty hits). Turned out Pete couldn’t make it to the show. Unwilling to inflict this potentially bleak scene on anyone else, I went alone. From my seat in the rafters—as hordes of drunken Long Island baby boomers shrieked for McDonald to bust out his Doobie Brothers catalog—I focused on Fagen.

He belonged somewhere else. Clad all in black, his skinny arms gangling up and down his piano keyboard, his aging voice rasping with every note, he threw off a jagged intensity that seemed out of place amid the surrounding cavalcade of soft cheese. He was apart. Aloof. As punk as a dude in his 60s can be. I marveled that the guy still had the juice.

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At least, that’s what I told myself as I left the theater. I think I deeply needed Donald Fagen to be a badass that night. Maybe I wanted him to justify all those years I’d spent idolizing him as a teen—and, truth be told, as an adult. I’ve developed more recent musical crushes. But some core part of me still self-identifies as a “Steely Dan guy.”

In the final chapter of his new quasi-memoir, Eminent Hipsters, Fagen reprints the personal journal he kept while on that Dukes of September tour. It paints a less electric portrait of his night at the Beacon, concluding with a harrumph: “Hometown gigs are a drag.” He was cranky onstage, thrown off his game by all the “friends, relatives, doctors, etc.” dotting the crowd. Much of the rest of his tour diary is consumed with complaints about health problems, travel snafus, and the spotty acoustics in the venues. Some representative lines:

 “Ah, waking up in Tulsa on a midsummer morning with a wicked sinus headache.”

“I guess some Snapple leaked onto my MacBook Pro keyboard so that now some keys are sticky and make a disturbing sucking noise.”

“I’m hoping that Richard can get someone to do a CAT scan of my kidney. It still hurts.”

Perhaps it’s always a mixed bag when we access the inner thoughts of our childhood idols. We don’t want them humanized. Don’t really want to know about their quotidian concerns, their insecurities. “Gods do not answer letters,” John Updike wrote of baseball deity Ted Williams, who refused to acknowledge even the applause of his own fans. Yes, contemporary pop celebrities take to Twitter each time they buy a new pair of sneakers. But ‘twas not ever thus. Twentieth century rock gods, in particular, ascended to pop-culture Olympus on the wings of their unreachable, unknowable cool.

In 2004, when Bob Dylan wrote Chronicles: Volume One—the first installment of his planned three-part memoir—Dylanologists clamored to peek inside the skull of this notorious enigma. They were thwarted. Dylan remained a puzzle. He burnished his myth even as he claimed to be nothing special, flitting from aw shucks to thou shalt kneel in the course of a single sentence: “I really never was any more than what I was—a folk musician who gazed into the gray mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze.”

Keith Richards’ 2010 autobiography Life likewise lifted a few veils while preserving the legend. The book reads as though you’ve flopped down in Keef’s country manor house sometime in the wee hours, lit a few candles, and have settled in to let his roguish monologues wash over you. In Richards’ telling, he’s less a protagonist than a bemused bystander—just a guy who happens to have a knack for guitar riffs and nonfatal substance abuse. He never sought the world’s attention and was unfazed and indifferent when it found him.

Now come these annals from Fagen, another rock hero born, like Dylan and Richards, in the 1940s. He’s nowhere near the star those other two fellows are. But to a small, proud band of aficionados—those with a yen for jazzy 13th chords and waggish drollery—he’s a colossus all the same. I’d hoped this book might confirm my notion of Fagen as a dark lord of nebbishy cool. I eagerly anticipated dish about Fagen groupies (surely a unique, beguiling breed of woman) and tales of dissipated, sun-bleached, ‘70s California angst.

No dice. For one, Fagen eschews the typical memoir form and instead pieces together something he terms an “art-o-biography.” The book consists mostly of critical essays (many of them previously published) about musicians and performers that have caught Fagen’s fancy over the years, topped off with that dyspeptic tour journal and a gentle remembrance of his college years at Bard. At its worst moments, Fagen’s writing descends into a bitter screed: He rails against modern music, the Internet, and what he calls “TV Babies”—by which he means pretty much everybody born after 1960.

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