[BOOKS] So Hip It Hurts

Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen Looks Back

Eminent Hipsters, by Donald Fagen (Viking, 176 pp., $26.95)

steely-danIan Penman  writes:  In January 1974, Joni Mitchell released the exquisite, deceptively sunny Court and Spark; two months later, on the penultimate day of March, the Ramones played their first gig. The year obviously had some fine diversions and big surprises in store for the clued-up rock fan. But if you had to identify a dominant trend that year, it was huge stadiums echoing to the roar of monumentally heavy boogie. A lot of endless, finesse-free jamming. A lot of stack-heeled get-down. A job lot of stretched-thin double-live albums. A brutalized 12-bar blues without end.

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker sat uneasily in this world of earnest sentiment and antediluvian riffing. An impassively odd couple with encyclopedic jazz smarts and a glowering, gnomic mien, in some ways they sat exactly midway between Joni and the Ramones: pinup idols of the urbane Los Angeles studio scene but with bags of spiky, shades-after-midnight New York City attitude.

[Check out Fagen’s book Eminent Hipsters at Amazon]

Dorm buddies who met at Bard College in upstate New York, Becker and Fagen started out in a band called the Bad Rock Group, with Chevy Chase, no less, on drums. They were over-literate beatniks with midnight-cafeteria tans and their own hinky, Beat-derived argot. Their second band found its name courtesy of William Burroughs: Steely Dan 111 is a garrulous sex aid, a minor player in the fizzing mind/body loop of Naked Lunch. Musically, the Dan were more jazz-inflected than rock-driven, filled out by a movable feast of session musician pals. For their debut single, they picked “Do It Again,” a baleful lament about finding nothing new under the sun. At a time when sitars played as prettily exotic signifiers of limpid bliss, they amped one up for a biting, nerve-jangled solo. At a time whenRolling Stone ran long, fawning Q & As with addled vocalists and the counterculture was sold on faux revolutionary emblems, Becker and Fagen essayed a light samba to declare that it was all bunk: “A world become one, of salads and sun? Only a fool would say that.”

steely-dan-book-coverPutting the hook up front, taking things easy, capering along to the prevailing ethos—none of this was the Steely Dan way. Even so, 1974’s Pretzel Logic seemed like the oddest work of an already odd career. The front cover gave little away—a monochrome shot, school of Winogrand or Arbus, of a New York street-food vendor. The title track is a surreal roadhouse blues, which switches lanes into an awed reverie on Napoleonic hubris. Other songs are gossamer light, over in a minute or two, like demos that a more popular act rejected for being too spectral, morbid, tart.

Becker and Fagen started out as songwriter hacks for hire, pale ghosts in the all-business Brill Building. “Through with Buzz,” “Charlie Freak,” “With a Gun”: a rough sketch of how hit singles might sound in some spooky alternate universe. Chart hits that got lost in a notorious park one night or missed civics class to stay in bed and read Henry Miller. As if to prove the point, Steely Dan then scored the biggest hit of their career with “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” a hesitant, mnemonic in-joke, strung around the card-shuffle chord changes of jazz pianist Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father.” To date, it remains the only chart smash that kicks off with an unaccompanied, 23-second marimba solo.

But the strangest confection on a strange menu may have been their retooling of Duke Ellington’s 1927 composition “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.” It sits at the end of what we used to call Side One, as the real-life East St. Louis sits on one side of the Mississippi, facing the slightly tonier St. Louis. Ellington’s original is a lilting chameleonic vamp, perfect accompaniment for a pleasure cruise down the River Styx. It starts out mournful as recollected sin (you can see the bowed heads, the black frocks snaking behind a stately hearse), but then the dark clouds disperse and the band starts to raise everyone’s knees, as if to prove that succor and sunshine were hiding under the heart-sore funk all along. It sounds in two minds—sad and ornery, yet elegantly drunk—and ends where it began, Bubber Miley’s trumpet growling like a hungry bear.

Becker and Fagen take their own “Toodle-Oo” at a slightly brisker clip, as though they’re downing cheap champagne on a fast train home from the funeral. They usher in some unexpected guests to the wake: willowy pedal steel, gravelly wah-wah guitar, and tingling stride piano replace the two-toned horns of the original. “Toodle-Oo” II shouldn’t work, but does; shouldn’t swing, but really does. It feels deeply affectionate, not glib. Steely Dan were later sampled, in their turn, by thrusting young hip-hop acts: wheel turning round and round. Nothing on Pretzel Logic is overstressed or overplayed; it’s seriously hip but devilishly playful. “Parker’s Band” may slip in clever nods to certain Charlie Parker titles (“You’ll be groovin’ high or relaxin’ at Camarillo”), but primarily it duplicates the joy of being floored by a polyphonic bebop rush for the first time. The drums are a rising heartbeat; when a multitracked squall of saxophones blows in without warning, you may want to rise and offer your own syncopated hallelujahs.

Still, many pop/rock fans were suspicious and remain so to this day. For the doubters, Steely Dan personified the infamous Terry Southern put-down: “You’re too hip, baby! I just can’t carry you.” Even Dan fans started to read the work as if it was one big put-on—a prophylactic, perhaps, against the real pain and melancholy that some of these songs contained. Maybe all along, it was the audience that was too hip, not the band; there was definitely a stripe of intellectual snobbery among would-be acolytes like my teenage self. Other spoiled rock superstars maybe “didn’t give a fuck about anyone else” (in the words of “Show Biz Kids”) because they were empty-headed snots; if Becker and Fagen also didn’t, we Dan fans agreed, it was coming from a far better, or at least a wiser, place—or maybe a far crueler place…

Read the rest…

City Journal

Ian Penman is a journalist and author of Vital Signs: Music, Movies, and Other Manias. He is working on a book-length study of the mythology and music of Billie Holiday, and he tweets at @pawboy2.


One Comment on “[BOOKS] So Hip It Hurts”

  1. […] Pundit from another Planet Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen Looks Back Eminent Hipsters, by Donald Fagen (Viking, 176 pp., […]


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