Eminent Hipsters

Eminent Hipsters

Donald Fagen’s new memoir Eminent Hipsters (Viking 2013) is an interesting ride through the mind of its author.  The book is primarily a collection of essays on the cultural figures that have influenced Fagen’s work throughout the years, but it’s also a first person look at what makes Fagen tick.  Or should I say tic?

It’s clear from his writing that Fagen’s childhood years were primarily spent in his room listening to jazz and reading science fiction books, and he describes in detail how these two pastimes brought out his intellectual side, and helped him to interpret the world around him.  While growing up in the New Jersey suburbs of the 1950’s and 60’s was clearly stultifying, Fagen found refuge in everything from Henry Mancini’s take on modern jazz to A.E. van Vogt’s “The World of Null-A”, and Jean Shepherd’s nightly broadcasts on New York’s WOR Radio.

Sprinkled throughout the first part of the book are also some essays by Fagen on musicians who have influenced his music throughout the years.  Whether it’s the jazz vocals of the Boswell Sisters, who he was introduced to by his mom, the sold my soul to the devil R&B of Ike Turner or the genius of Ray Charles, it’s Fagen’s ability to get to the core of what made these artists important that sheds light on how he applied their influence to his own music.

So while the first half of the book focuses on Fagen’s influences, the second part is primarily focused on Fagen himself.  Beginning with a look at Fagen’s collegiate years at Bard, it touches on his first meeting with Walter Becker (his eventual partner in Steely Dan), his clashes with authority, and how both had a profound effect on how he would interact with the outside world.

A large part of the second half of the book is culled from a personal journal  he kept during a 2012 tour with the Dukes of September Revue that also featured Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs.  It’s this section that really illuminates what makes Fagen tic(k).  It’s a revealing journal not only because it lays bare the hardships and crushing boredom of life on the road, but also because it reveals Fagen to be an unapologetic misanthrope.  In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a more honest piece of prose from an artist, especially as it pertains to how he feels about his audience.  [Spoiler alert, he doesn’t think much of them most of the time.]  While many may read this journal and view Fagen as a cranky old fart (and they wouldn’t be off base for doing so), it’s Fagen’s honesty about his own insecurities, maladies (both real and perceived), musicianship, and role as an aging rock star that prove he’s also his own worst critic.

Fagen doesn’t suffer fools lightly, that’s abundantly clear, but his writing also reveals a sarcastic streak tempered by a healthy dose of humility which makes the second part of his book a very funny and revealing explanation of what it’s like to be him – for better or worse.

So if you are looking for a straight forward autobiography of Donald Fagen, “Eminent Hipsters” is not for you.  This is a well written book about an artist and his influences, and an unapologetic rebuttal to those who only want to hear his greatest hits.

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