Book Review: Donald Fagen reels in the years with sour reflection

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEDecember 8, 2013 

  • 'EMINENT HIPSTERS'

    by Donald Fagen; Viking ($26.95)

If you like Steely Dan's greatest hits too much, Donald Fagen, of that band, probably hates you already. You may be one of the "TV babies" who illegally download those songs, show up at his concerts expecting to hear familiar hits, have no patience for anything soulful or adventurous or obscure, yet, rather humiliatingly, are paying part of his rent these days.

The phrase "TV babies" comes from the film "Drugstore Cowboy," which used it to the same contemptuous effect.

But the TV babies in his concert audiences probably won't be the readers of his book, "Eminent Hipsters." It's too sly and idiosyncratic and unpredictable for them: The book begins with a string of short reminiscences about cultural influences from the author's New Jersey childhood then quickly changes form. Midbook, there are a few works of actual journalism, including Fagen's hilariously intense interview of Ennio Morricone, the renowned Italian composer.

"Eminent Hipsters" includes a brief glimpse of Bard College in the late 1960s, where Fagen and Walter Becker began the collaboration that would be Steely Dan (with Chevy Chase sometimes on drums). Tales of early LSD use and a drug bust led by G. Gordon Liddy - then an assistant district attorney in Dutchess County, N.Y. - may cast some light on the vituperativeness of Steely Dan's "My Old School," in which the singers vow to leave Bard in the dust and never look back.

Then the book switches gears and becomes a road journal about his summer concert tour of 2012. The whole second half of "Eminent Hipsters" is devoted to describing Fagen's complaints about the bus tour.

As "Eminent Hipsters" reveals, Fagen has changed from an alienated suburban kid, "a subterranean in gestation with a real nasty case of otherness," into somebody's crabby Uncle Morty. He doesn't like long, claustrophobic bus rides. Arriving at a destination isn't much better, since all it promises is one more depressing, shabby hotel room.

"Eminent Hipsters" is as bleakly funny about the aging rocker's plight — What's he going to write songs about? His kidney stones? — as Steely Dan always has been about its perversely chosen subjects.

If you'd like to know what the lyrics to their song "Deacon Blues" were really about, and whether it has to be played at an Alabama tour stop just because it mentions Alabama, take comfort: Fagen's cranky new incarnation is just as entertaining as his cranky old one.

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