The Pequod Review:
Donald Fagen is a founding member of the criminally under-appreciated jazz/rock band Steely Dan, and Eminent Hipsters is an impressionistic memoir of key moments and artistic influences in his life. The book's first half is comprised of ten cultural essays — on subjects as diverse as Cold War-era science fiction, the legendary jazz DJ Mort Fega, and the film composer Henry Mancini — and at least eight of them are absolutely first-rate. Fagen has the remarkable ability to not just convey his enthusiasm for each subject and how it influenced him, but also to provide intelligent and well-researched insights. In one of the best essays, he describes the manic radio storyteller Jean Shepherd:
[L]ong before A Christmas Story was made, Shepherd did a nightly radio broadcast on WOR out of Manhattan that enthralled a generation of alienated young people within range of the station’s powerful transmitter. Including me: I was a spy for Jean Shepherd.
In the late fifties, while Lenny Bruce was beginning his climb to holy infamy in jazz clubs on the West Coast, Shepherd’s all-night monologues on WOR had already gained him an intensely loyal cult of listeners. Unlike Bruce’s provocative nightclub act, which had its origins in the “schpritz” of the Catskills comics, Shepherd’s improvised routines were more in the tradition of Midwestern storytellers like Mark Twain, but with a contemporary urban twist: say, Mark Twain after he’d been dating Elaine May for a year and a half. Where Bruce’s antics made headlines, Shepherd, with his warm, charismatic voice and folksy style, could perform his most subversive routines with the bosses in the WOR front office and the FCC being none the wiser. At least, most of the time.
He was definitely a grown-up but he was talking to me — I mean straight to me, with my twelve-year-old sensibility, as if some version of myself with twenty-five more years worth of life experience had magically crawled into the radio, sat down and loosened his tie. I was hooked. From then on, like legions of other sorry-ass misfits throughout the Northeast, I tuned in every weeknight at eleven fifteen and let Shep put me under his spell. Afterwards, I’d switch to an all-night jazz station and dig the sounds until I conked out. Eventually, this practice started to affect my grades and I almost didn’t graduate from high school.
Listening to Shep, I learned about social observation and human types; how to parse modern rituals (like dating and sports); the omnipresence of hierarchy; joy in struggle; “slobbism”; “creeping meatballism”; nineteenth-century panoramic painting; the primitive, violent nature of man; Nelson Algren, Brecht, Beckett, the fables of George Ade; the nature of the soul; the codes inherent in “trivia”; bliss in art; fishing for crappies; and the transience of desire. He told you what to expect from life (loss and betrayal) and made you feel that you were not alone.
Shepherd’s talk usually fell into one of four categories. Fans of A Christmas Story will be familiar with the basic comic tone of his Depression-era tales, elaborations on his experience growing up in Hammond, Indiana, a Chicago suburb in the shadow of U.S. Steel on Lake Michigan. These stories featured his manic father (“ the old man”), his mother (always standing over the sink in “a yellow rump-sprung chenille bathrobe with bits of dried egg on the lapel”), his kid brother, Randy, and assorted pals, bullies, beauties and other neighborhood types. While the film preserves much of the flavor of Shep’s humor, not much remains of the acid edge that characterized his on-air performances. In the film, the general effect is one of bittersweet nostalgia. On the radio, the true horror of helpless childhood came through.
Then there were the stories culled from his three years in the stateside army during World War II (a juvenile ham radio and electronics freak, he was assigned to the Signal Corps). The third hunk of material was informed by his adventures in postwar radio and TV. He seems to have done every possible job, from engineer to sportscaster to hosting live cowboy music broadcasts. Finally, there was the contemporary stuff, comments on the passing scene.
In between, he’d sing along to noisy old records, play the kazoo and the nose flute, brutally sabotage the commercials and get his listeners — the “night people,” the “gang” — to help him pull goofy public pranks on the unwitting squares that populated most of Manhattan. In one famous experiment in the power of hype, Shepherd asked his listeners to go to bookstores and make requests for I, Libertine, a nonexistent novel by a nonexistent author, Frederick R. Ewing. The hoax quickly snowballed and several weeks later I, Libertine was on bestseller lists. (Shep and sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon eventually codged together an actual novel of that title for Ballantine Books. I owned a copy.)
Another strong chapter profiles the Boswell Sisters, an obscure 1930s jazz duo:
The Boswell Sisters — Martha, Connie and Helvetia (called Vet) — grew up during the 1920s in a big white house in New Orleans, on Camp Street, near the Garden District. The cause of Connie’s disability was either polio or, as she used to tell it, a nasty soapbox-on-wheels accident. In any case, after the age of four, she could walk only a few steps at a time. Their father, Alfred, a well-to-do executive and amateur musician with Italian roots, sent his daughters to study music with a local professor. All three showed great talent, and they started performing chamber music at local venues at an early age — Martha on piano, Connie on cello, Vet on violin. But this was New Orleans in the Jazz Age, and the girls couldn’t escape the syncopated music they heard all around them every day. They listened to the sounds coming from black bars and churches, and attended shows at the local “chitlin’ circuit” theater (whites were allowed to sit in the balcony for the Saturday “Midnight Frolic”). They bought hot jazz records by Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines, and blues sides by the Smiths (Mamie and Bessie)...
“Harry Woods’s tune “We Just Couldn’t Say Good-bye” was a popular one in 1932, spawning versions by Guy Lombardo and Mildred Bailey as well as the Boswells. It’s interesting to compare the Sisters’ version with one recorded just ten days later by Annette Hanshaw at a session including some of the same players. Hanshaw, promoted as “The Personality Girl,” relied more on her flapperesque charm than any excess of musical talent, but she had a kind of loosey-goosey style that seemed to work, especially when teamed with fine players like Lang and Venuti.
After the introduction, Hanshaw sings the tune in her usual fashion, sounding both nervous and slightly tipsy. Benny Goodman comes to the rescue with some flashy support on clarinet. Soon, Joe Venuti’s violin enters, doubling the melody. A pause for a trumpet line by Phil Napoleon, and then there’s a nice moment when everything slows down and Hanshaw, accompanied only by Rube Bloom’s piano, sings the verse of the song, which has been transported from its usual position at the top. When the refrain comes back in tempo, Hanshaw scats and ad-libs, trading off with the soloists. Then there’s a bit of hokum. After the lines, "The chair and then the sofa broke right down and cried / I’ll tell you confidentially the tears were hard to hide" the trumpet and clarinet “act” them out instrumentally. There’s even a ticking clock sound effect accompanying a line about the clock striking twelve. For me, the whimsy in the lyric satisfies without these goofy asides: the mood has been broken. Even so, it’s a cute effort, and the level of musicianship raises it above the standard market value of the time.
The Boswells’ rendition starts out at a slower tempo, with Bunny Berigan immediately establishing a down-home New Orleans feel. Sounding a bit like Ethel Waters, Connie sings the tune down once, her intonation, as always, dead-on. Whenever she comes to the hook line, “We couldn’t say good-bye,” she reaches up an octave and, thrillingly, blue-notes (flats) the third. Prefiguring the Hanshaw recording, the verse has also been moved forward. But instead of the normal tempo drop, the band speeds up and the girls sing the verse in harmony. And for giggles, they’ve tossed the original chord progression and substituted a modernistic sequence of chords that changes the key from F major to F minor. The juxtaposition is startling: it’s as if we’ve been instantly teleported from the sleepy Delta to Times Square on Saturday night.
In order to accommodate a chromatic melody line in the last bar, they’ve also rewritten some of the lyrics. As this manic, urban mood continues into the main body of the song, a chord pattern is set up that changes the key center from F major to D major every other bar. It’s the kind of Gershwin-like effect that Otis Redding and Steve Cropper would employ at Stax sessions some thirty years later. Connie takes the bridge alone and then the girls come back in for the last shout chorus, with Connie adding some wailing licks at the finish for good measure. The Boswells have taken care that, from the downbeat to the last cymbal hit, there’s not a boring bar in this arrangement.
Among the seventy-five or so tracks that the Boswells recorded from 1931 to 1936, it’s hard to find one in which they didn’t use their subversive genius to enrich the given raw material. Aside from the innovations already mentioned, they imitated jazz instrumental effects with their voices, devised tricky phrasing, switched from straight time to swing time, employed “speed singing” and even raced through whole choruses in “Boswellese,” a childhood language of their own invention (“ love” would break down to, I think, “luggle-duv”). They may not have invented the word “yowzah,” but, as far as I’ve been able to find, the first recorded “yowzah” occurs on their 1932 version of “The Sentimental Gentleman from Georgia.”
When singing solo passages, Connie — this formidable musician in a Louisiana belle’s ball gown — is simultaneously hot and cool: she’s emotionally connected to the lyric and at the same time reveals a self-reflexive, ironic quality that’s astonishing for the era.
The book then skips over most of Steely Dan's peak years of success and jumps ahead to a somewhat cantankerous diary that Fagen kept during a 2012 tour with Boz Skaggs and Michael McDonald (as members of the Dukes of September). This portion of the book has been mostly panned by critics but in fact it is no less fascinating than the first half. Fagen is grumpy and irritable for sure, but even his most ridiculous complaints have an honesty and candor that are missing from other music autobiographies:
The crowd sat through our versions of some of the great sixties soul tunes, hating them, waiting only for the amygdala-comforting Doobie Brothers hits that Michael sings, Boz’s dance numbers and the Steely Dan singles that remind them of high school or college parties. They despised the old Ray Charles tune, and I started to despise them. Toward the end of the show, during McDonald’s piano introduction to “Takin’ It to the Streets,” I think I really made [backup singers] Carolyn and Catherine uncomfortable by walking back to their riser and telling them, as a way of venting my rage, that I’d been imagining a flash theater fire that would send the entire audience screaming up the aisles, trampling each other to get to the exits, ending up in a horrible scene outside on the sidewalk with people on stretchers, charred and wrinkled.
Yeah, call me old Uncle Fuckwad, I don’t care. William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” of the industrial revolution may have enslaved the bodies of Victorian citizens, but information technology is a pure mindfuck. The TV Babies have morphed into the Palm People. For example, those people in the audience who can’t experience the performance unless they’re sending instant videos to their friends: Look at me, I must be alive, I can prove it, I’m filming this shit!
You know what? I refuse to look at you. You’re a corpse. And you prove that every day, with everything you do and everything you say. Wake up, ya dope!
Mike, Boz and I are pretty old now and so is most of our audience. Tonight, though, the crowd looked so geriatric I was tempted to start calling out bingo numbers. Nevertheless, by the end of the set they were all on their feet, albeit shakily, rocking to Mike’s performance of Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes.” So this, now, is what I do: assisted living.
You know that most musicians are thinking many of these same thoughts, even if they are too polite to put them into print.
Overall, this is an eccentric, humorous, disgruntled and totally engrossing memoir. Highly recommended.