Eminent Hipsters

[Amazon Link]

For some reason, now and then, I've been reading books by musicians. Previously this year: Willie Nelson and Eric Clapton. And now Donald Fagen, co-inventor of Steely Dan. If I'm looking to gain some insight into the wellsprings of musical genius, I'm coming up empty so far. Especially here.

Unlike the Clapton/Nelson efforts, this book isn't close to an autobiography. Instead, it's a collection of essays Fagen wrote over the years for various periodicals (Slate, Harper's Bazaar, Jazz Times, Premiere). Autobiographical details appear here and there, but they are haphazard and coincidental.

The first part of the book contains shorter works:

  • An appreciation of Connie Boswell and the Boswell Sisters, jazz vocalists from the 1920s-30s. Is it fair to say they are relatively unknown today? Well, they were totally unknown to me. But Fagen shows why you should have heard of them.

  • Henry Mancini. OK, at least if you're of a Certain Age, you've definitely heard of him, because his music was everywhere on TV and in the movies. Fagen describes his roots in jazz.

  • Veering away from music, Fagen provides an essay on his teenage science-fiction fandom. As one might expect, he was into the wacky Philip K. Dick, Jack Finney, A. E. van Vogt, Pohl and Kornbluth. (I was more of an Asimov/Clarke/Heinlein guy myself.)

  • Jean Shepherd, another guy best known for writing that movie they show around the clock at that most wonderful time of the year: A Christmas Story. Fagen was a fan of Shepard's New York radio show

  • A memoir of the NYC jazz clubs of Fagen's youth.

  • Remembering "Uncle Mort", one of the jazz DJ's that inspired Fagen's solo album "The Nightfly".

  • A brief interview with Ennio Morricone! We all know and love him from the inspired soundtracks behind Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns.

  • An essay on the genius of Ray Charles.

  • Ike Turner, also arguably a musical genius, turning himself into a monster/punchline.

  • In the closest autobiographical segment, Fagen lays out his (sort of) academic career at Bard College.

That takes us up to page 85. The remaining half of the book is Fagen's diary of his summer 2012 tour with "The Dukes of September", with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald, and a host of talented backing musicians. Some Amazon commenters found this segment hilarious, but it's the kind of hilarity that doesn't involve laughing very much. Fagen comes off as mostly cranky, endlessly griping about his transportation, the accomodations, the venues, his access to pharmaceuticals, his various (physical and mental, real and imagined) maladies, the audiences. Oh, and a references of suicide, two actual, one fantasized.