Wednesday, September 13, 2017

On the road with Donald Fagen

I sort of lost track of Steely Dan for a while and to be honest it's partly because I haven't really felt much for their work since "Two Against Nature." But that album - or at least the one song... I was in a bookstore in Manhattan and as I was browsing I heard music playing from above and I thought what is that beautiful sound? I knew SD was scheduled to release a new album so I quickly realized they were my angels. Specifically, "Jack of Speed." 

But because of Walter Becker's recent death I've been reading up on the Dan and just realized Donald Fagen had put out a book of writing, "Eminent Hipsters", so I bought it and read the whole thing in a sitting. In the credits at the back Fagen thanks Hendrick Hertzberg for reviewing his manuscript, which led me to wonder why Fagen has never written for the New Yorker. 

In the New Yorker archives there are some articles which mention Steely Dan in passing and just a few that focus on them, including one about Becker's death, and that's it. The closest they get to a review is Sasha Frere-Jones odd summation of them as "a band that could not come to be now."

But no Fagen bylines and why not? He knows Hertzberg, he's a bona fide god of rock, there's probably a greater concentration of Dan fans among New Yorker readers than most other places and he writes beautifully, as you might guess from some of the finer Dan lyrics, but especially in the second half of the book, which is almost entirely Fagen bitching about the discomforts of touring with a sub-Dan band. I found those stories more interesting than his essays about the monsters of jazz and other childhood heroes.

The second half of the book isn't only an old guy complaining about the kids these days and health problems, although even that is far more interesting than you have any right to expect. There's also jarring moments of tragedy (his wife's son's suicide) and unexpectedly hysterical humor and just solid nuggets of wisdom. Some of my faves:
...sheets and pillowcases smell like soy sauce, a common occurrence in hotels. Is it because they use some particular noxious detergent? Or is it what everyone's thinking, that the launderers are Chinese people who eat while they're working and allow certain elements to mix with the cleaning elements? Or would it seem totally paranoid to imagine that certain disgruntled, vengeful workers might actually pour their bottles of soy sauce into the washing machines or dryers?

...Back to the artist as a megalomaniacal dick Just like in the civilian population, a nasty, rude fucker is nasty and rude - because they're scared of what you think of them. It's a defense. Sometimes the same stuff that made them so scared has also contributed to their creative nature, though I've found that the most unpleasant ones are usually mediocre artists as well. This is because real art - I'm generalizing here - requires a certain amount of empathy.

Of course, an artist has to maintain control. This means making sure conditions are right, which includes being unsentimental about tossing people who aren't doing their job or who reveal themselves to be psychos or whatever. But even firing folks can be done with kindness...
...Probably right-wingers, too, the victims of an epidemic mental illness that a British study has proven to be the result of having an inordinately large amygdala, a part of the primitive brain that causes them to be fearful way past the point of delusion, which explains why their philosophy, their syntax and their manner of thought don't seem to be reality based. That's why, when you hear a Republican speak, it's like listening to somebody recount a particularly boring dream.
When everything's working right (while performing in concert), you become transfixed by the notes and the chords and the beautiful spaces in between. In the center of it, with the drums and the bass and guitar all around you, the earth falls away and it's just you and your crew creating this forward motion, this undeniable, magical stuff that can move ten thousand people to snap free of life's miseries and get up and dance and scream and feel just fine.

So it's five years since Fagen wrote the book and he just lost his long-time collaborator and friend and must be going through a lousy time. I hope he's OK. 

And also I hope that the New Yorker will ask him to write pieces now and then. And give him one of those nifty headshot cartoon icons like Hertzberg has.