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Steely Dan's Fagen: Houston Hotel Was "Old and Ailing, Just Like Me"

The always happy-go-lucky Donald Fagen
The always happy-go-lucky Donald Fagen
Reprise Records

Eminent Hipsters By Donald Fagen Viking Adult, 176 pp., $26.95

Fans of Steely Dan know that singer/keyboardist Donald Fagen usually dips a wry, sardonic, sarcastic, and sometimes poison pen into the pitch-black inkwell with his lyrics. And they cherish it.

Many of his songs have become singalong radio mainstays. But were the losers, perverts, hustlers, sluts, beatniks, druggies, and damaged souls who populate his songs actually encounter his listeners, the latter would probably run screaming for the hills and -- as in one of his tunes -- "turn up the Eagles" to muffle the sound of the sick carnival coming to town.

Fagen is just as accomplished a journalist as lyricist, as readers of his periodical writing and postings on the Dan's Web site can attest. So this slim volume of memoirs and observations is more than welcome. But those looking for a Steely Dan bio or expecting Fagen to dish on, say, the sacking of original vocalist David Palmer, the identity of the real "Peg," or the band's return after a lengthy hiatus with Two Against Nature will be, sadly, just shit out of luck.

In fact, reflections or storytelling on his 40-plus career with partner Walter Becker in Steely Dan rate not a single paragraph. It's as if Robert Plant wrote a book and failed to mention he was in this hard-rock group that had a measure of success some time ago.

Instead Fagen produces short but substantive chapters on things he likes, be it the music of long lost 1930s sister group the Boswell Sisters, Henry Mancini, and a reevaluation of the musical (not popular) legacy of Ike Turner or his appreciation for the radio programs of Jean Shepherd, '60s sci-fi novels and his time at Bard College, where he was thrown out of the music department for skipping classes. Eminent Hipsters is a mish mash of a memoir, but never boring or with any wordy fat.

And while the self-described teenage Fagen, a "first-tier nerd...and pitifully lonely" finds solace sipping nonalcoholic drinks in New York jazz clubs or pining for girls, it's easy to see how the scrawny Jewish kid became the Ultimate Outside Observer to what he saw as the charade of latter 20th century American life around him.

"Contrary to all the popular depictions of the fifties as a time when teens danced on counters of a thousand pastel-dappled soda shops to the sounds of twangy guitars," he writes, "the decade was, in fact, characterized by nail-biting paranoia."

There is so little about Fagen's musical career that the book jumps from his 1969 graduation at Bard to excerpts from the diary he kept on the 2012 Dukes of September tour with Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs.

The diary -- which takes up a full one-third of the book -- further reveals Fagen as (after Van Morrison) one of Classic Rock's Greatest Curmudgeons. The amount of needling and bitching he does about life on the road, shitty hotels, his health, and his own audience ("They must have bused in people from the nursing homes. There were people on slabs, decomposing, people in mummy cases") is fast and furious.

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Review continues on the next page.

 

And while undoubtedly funny and infused with Fagen's especially espresso-colored brand of black humor, after awhile it becomes a bit petulant and churlish, the Rock Star savaging the same people who have paid to see him, and whose only crime is wanting to hear more of the songs they either grew up with or absorbed from their parents vinyl collection. "TV Babies" he dismisses them as, though deeper fans (like this writer) loved the Dukes' take on classic soul and blues songs.

Houston makes an appearance in the July 17 entry, from the show played that night at the Woodlands Pavilion, and reviewed by Rocks Off.

"Exhausting show in Houston," writes Fagen. "Outdoor gig with a rare air-conditioned stage, but the humidity was still crushing. The whole effect was that of an irritating polar draft in hell. And the luxury hotel in, say, Houston isn't what you might expect. It's a depressed town right now, and the hotel is old and ailing, like me."

Not sure which Houston hotel served as Fagen's home away from home, but that line is not likely to appear in its marketing brochures.

We do learn, though, that while in the Bayou City, Fagen takes one of his frequent swims in the hotel pool, becomes entranced by a dark, bikini-clad girl of Persian or Israeli descent, and orders a lemonade while reading The New York Times.

So while Eminent Hipsters is in no way the musical bio that Fans of the Dan hoped for -- that one will have to be written, and not by Messrs. Fagen or Becker -- it is a perfect literary extension of the author, and a fun and informative read.

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