2013-12-02

Book Review: Eminent Hipsters

While travelling over the holiday weekend, I picked up a copy of Donald Fagen's new book, Eminent Hipsters. I say "new book" and not "new autobiography" for the obvious reason: it is not an autobiography.

This is not to say that the book isn't autobiographical, or that it does not contain any autobiographical information in it; it does. But Fagen declares early on - in the introduction, I believe - that he doesn't want his book to be another one of those aging-rock-star tell-alls, and as far as I can tell, he succeeded.

Eminent Hipsters is an odd collection of previously written material. The first few chapters are music "reviews" of sorts. In each of these chapters, Fagen writes a personal tribute to one artist that touched or influenced his life and his art in a unique way. At times, his love for these artists really shines through, and Fagen manages to deliver the kind of eulogy that only a serious music-lover and serious fan can offer. At other times - such as when he is seemingly making excuses for Ike Turner's bad behavior - the tributes fall a little flat.

The final chapter of the book, which makes up the majority of the book's actual content, is the personal journal Fagen kept while on tour with Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs. It is worth noting (and Fagen repeatedly notes) that this tour was not a Steely Dan tour. So fans hoping for a backstage pass into the rock tours of Steely Dan's heyday - or even their modern-day - are sure to be disappointed.

The entire book is written with a witty, albeit crushingly pessimistic, voice. Donald Fagen is an excellent writer, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Steely Dan's lyrics. Less obvious from Dan records, though, is the pervasive outsider-ness that seems to have permeated Fagen's life from early childhood. All up-in-your-face as it is in a book, though, it becomes obvious. And impossible to ignore. And impossible to get past. Truth be told, for those of us who consider ourselves optimists and Steely Dan fans, reading all that misanthropy, page after page, wears a little thin.

That said, this is a valuable book for me to have read. My mind immediately drew comparisons to The Real Frank Zappa Book. The reasons are many-fold.

First, Fagen and Zappa are part of the same generation and came from the same socio-economic category, and thus shared many similar experiences from their wonder years. Fagen and Zappa both describe the birth of post-war suburban subdivisions and weight it put on their spirits. Both had loving parents who nurtured their children's idiosyncrasies. Both grew up with a love for science-fiction (although Zappa seemed to have preferred movies to books, and Fagen the reverse). Both grew up with a similar love for the same kind of music (although Zappa leaned more toward orchestral work, and Fagen more toward jazz). Both got to experience the dawning, fawning, and yawning of the psychedelic 60s. Both got to experience rock stardom in the 1970s. Fagen even mentions the Mothers of Invention a few times, and owns up to being a fan.

But Zappa and Fagen dealt with these experiences in remarkably different ways. Zappa spent his whole life as an outsider, hanging out with "freaks," cultivating his aesthetic and writing herculean amounts of music out of pure commitment to himself and his work. Fagen, on the other hand, comes across in his book as though he was always desperately searching for cool. Zappa was smart enough to eschew drugs and hippie culture as the lie it was. Fagen imbibed, joined the fray for a while, and then ultimately turned his back on it.

Throughout Eminent Hipsters, Fagen exposes a strange confusion about the world. He's convinced he's too cool for what's going on out there, but can't seem to wrap his head around his depression. He doesn't seem to be aware of the cause-and-effect relationship between the two, that constantly viewing himself as an outsider with his thumb on the pulse of cool produces an irreconcilable snobbery that prevents him from experiencing the joy felt by the rest of us.

After all, I'm an outsider, too. I even exalt a little bit in my individuality. But I see this as a source of joy, not as a means by which to put myself asunder of "the other slobs out there."

Ultimately, it's tough to take anything away from Fagen's book other than the weight of the world he feels on his shoulders. I never got into Steely Dan because I thought I was better than anyone. Maybe I just missed the trolley and it was always just vintage to me. When I started listening to Steely Dan, people made fun of me. I laughed it off because the music is amazing, and you need a music-freak's ears to be able to hear it. But in my world, Steely Dan was never cool. They were just awesome. That's different.