Book review: Eminent Hipsters

IT USED to be said of Roxy Music, gentlemen of taste and discernment, that rather than trash hotel rooms in the clichéd way, they would want to redecorate them. Donald Fagen’s memoir would seem to confirm that Steely Dan, Roxy’s equals as aesthetes in the 1970s and that bit more cynical, would go further and seek to have all the drab or over-fussy or pretentious stopovers shut down.

Pools with fake-rock surrounds filled with “a tepid solution of semen and swamp water”. Waiters who chirrup “Absolutely!” Pillows that smell of soy sauce. Masseuses like Rosa Klebb. Sirens lying in wait by those swampy pools to flutter and flatter you into ordering lunch. Cards left by beds displaying Aerosmith lyrics (“Not exactly Yeats or Auden”). These are a few of Don of the Dan’s least favourite on-the-road things, and in this all-too-slim volume he’s as sneering, gloomy and hilarious as we fans dared hope. “This room in the Hyatt is dang ugly, cowboy,” he writes from Tulsa. “Isn’t there some design rule that says the floral pattern on the wallpaper can’t be duplicated on the carpet? I feel like I’m inside one of Aunt Lottie’s doilies.”

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The largest part of the book is given over to a tour diary, not for the band or more accurately the visiting-professor double-act with Walter Becker for a run-through of Do It Again, Reelin’ In The Years, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number and the rest, but a megamix of grizzled groovers with a combined age of 195 – Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs and Fagen. I could have taken all of Eminent Hipsters being about this, not least for those moments when our man observes how “sleek, tipsy Dallas babes” who you know would be “real goers” without husbands in tow shout out their love for Scaggs and McDonald, while our man gets “some poor dude yelling ‘DONNNALD!’ in a crazy, tortured voice”.

The rest of the book rounds up some short essays on the cultural figures who made a big impression in Fagen’s formative years, including Ray Charles, assorted sci-fi writers, and all the cool cats he saw in New York’s jazz clubs when he was the youngest person in the audience. Equally I could have taken a whole book of this – a whole book, too, about his college days. The writing is sharp, wry and elegant, without a single wasted word: the Dan, doncha know, were never Aerosmith, On the subject of his combo, though, he teases and tantalises and there’s part of me which wishes this most unconventional of rock stars had published a conventional rock biog.

Among the namechecks for Mailer, Vidal and Nabokov, he mentions William Burroughs without mentioning it was the latter who gave Steely Dan their name. He mentions an old college pal called Lonnie and leaves you wondering if this is the same Lonnie in the Dan song The Boston Rag. And the first encounter with the “severe-looking, bespectacled” Becker is over in a page. Dang you, cowboy! n