Smart Alec at the Disco

Steely Dan and the sleazebag seventies, through the ironic lens of Donald Fagen’s Eminent Hipsters.

October 24, 2013

Alexandra Molotkow is an editor at Real Life magazine. She was a founding editor of Hazlitt, an associate editor of the Hairpin and arts columnist for...

I love Steely Dan, but until recently I had them all wrong. When I was a kid they seemed to me like ambassadors of the ‘70s, the decade in which it was socially acceptable for grown men in tight pants to cruise high schools in muscle cars and when “VD” (in the parlance of those times) was considered a sort of tangy condiment atop sex that was already rank and shaggy. A sleazy era of unbreathable fabric and statutory rape. All to a soundtrack of Steely Dan.

When I got a little older I started to warm to my dream ‘70s, which are not the ‘70s at all but rather impressions from dreams I’ve had about Heatwave videos, as well as primordial murmurs stirring from an image of John Lennon naked alloyed to memories of my dad’s beard. I also started to love ‘70s bands, because they evoked a somewhat perverse fantasy of mine, a diamond-lit world of decadence and squalor that I would be terrified to partake in were I ever invited. Also because it was OK, by the time I reached my 20s, to like anything—enjoying a band’s music didn’t require joining their tribe. I suppose I liked Steely Dan “ironically,” but that’s a legitimate form of like: irony is a loophole, a way of holding an object aloft because it stands for something you don’t necessarily identify with. It’s less fun than going whole hog, but it’s the consequence of knowing too much, and we all know too much.

Since reading Donald Fagen’s Eminent Hipsters—a collection of essays so smart and fluidly written that it’s kind of depressing, because the world would seem fairer if everyone could only be great at one thing—and doing some investigation into what people actually like about his band, I’ve realized that I completely misjudged the Dan, who weren’t ambassadors for their time but rather satirists thereof. Or something. (A popular phrase in Steely Dan write-ups.) Donald Fagen and co-founder Walter Becker aren’t simply talented sleazebags but rather funny, grumpy perfectionists who love jazz and know a thing or two about rock and write smart lyrics that take the piss. You probably know this; I didn’t. So I’ve had to reconceptualize Steely Dan completely. Turns out they have more to do with the life I know than the one I’ve imagined, and that these two songs represent my vision of their heyday better than “Deacon Blues.” I still love the band, but I’d like to preserve my initial impressions, too.

I never thought I would identify with Donald Fagen, but I do. He grew up neurotic (touring in the early years, he’d have “recurring dreams that someone in the front row would mimic all my gestures as I was doing them”) and middle-class, a fanboy for a musical genre that had fallen out of vogue by the time he came of age, and got into rock ‘n’ roll not out of restlessness or indignation but as part of a “quest for relevance and authenticity (plus a not unsound instinct as to where the most desirable girls were gathering).” He was there, but only in body: he attended the Human Be-In but found it “underwhelming”; he spent some time in Haight-Ashbury, which was “fascinating, for about a week, anyway. Then you started to notice that a lot of the kids looked all waxy and wild-eyed and that they were talking much too slow or much too fast, and then you got that Oh shit feeling like Lou Costello thinking he’s talking to Abbott and then realizing he’s talking to the Wolfman.”

He does not seem heavily debauched, though I’m sure he knows from debauchery: Fagen is a guy with a great view from the sidelines, blessed or cursed with critical faculties that makes it nearly impossible to enjoy anything without a measure of ironic distance. Despite the book’s theme (“a sort of art-o-biography”), he seems constitutionally incapable of reverence—take, for example, his essay on Jean Shepherd, whose nightly radio broadcast taught him “about social observation and human types” and “how to parse modern rituals” and brought some comfort to his lonely teen years. (Mind you, there’s a difference between being a lonely loser and a lonely snob.) On break from his first year at college, Fagen drove to New Brunswick to see Shepherd speak at Rutgers, and realized quickly that his hero was more desperate than hip: “He blared and blustered like a carnival barker, as if he had the scent of failure in his nostrils and was ready to do anything to get the crowd on his side.” Thus an essay on an early idol becomes an essay on falling out with your idols, an experience that Fagen describes lucidly but without much regret. Maybe buying in was a strain in the first place.

Nick Hornby, in a New Yorker review of 2000’s Two Against Nature, wrote that Fagen and Walter Becker “were never properly young, even in the seventies... [they] have always given the impression that middle age was wasted on the middle-aged.” Fagen, in other words, is the King of the Dads. I’m not especially into Dad Culture, but Steely Dan is one of a few exceptions, and reading the 2012 tour diary reproduced in Eminent Hipsters—in which Fagen, on tour with his Dukes of September Rhythm Revue, rails against both the “TV Babies” and the “geriatrics” who loved his band the first time around—I somehow shelved my hater-hating instincts. Fagen hates iPhones. He hates the Internet. He hates audiences who don’t appreciate soul classics. But I do believe he’s a lover deep down: he’s just nested in his own interests, and, if I can speculate, loyal to a sense of wonder more precious for its scarcity.

“You’ll find that many chapters in this book are about people and things that intersected with my life when I was a kid,” Fagen writes in the introduction. “I apologize up front: I tried to grow up. Honest. Didn’t quite happen. I guess I’m someone for whom youth still seems more real than the present, or the half century in between.” I think this is a bit of curmudgeonly posturing, since Fagen seems pretty up-to-date for a musician in his 60s. Still, what’s touching about his essays is how much he seems to pine for life before it started. In an essay on Henry Mancini—whom he dug as a teenager stranded in rural New Jersey—he writes about a New York that seemed like “a kind of Disneyland of Cool.... a carefree, womblike Manhattan in which the bohemian ruled with a magical, child-like omnipotence.”

Back then, he used to save up his allowance and journey out to see jazz acts in the Village. “When the whole band pumped out one of those thirteenth chords, you could feel the breeze on your face.” How could anything be that good again? Sure, whatever, the times have changed—much as I deplore youth-bashing, I would rather have seen Mingus at the Village Vanguard at age 13 than Moist at the Air Canada Center—but I’m talking about the difference between a 15-minute subway ride through the centre of your aesthetic universe and an hour-long bus trip to the Port Authority from the middle of nowhere. In hindsight, fantasy trumps fulfillment. And if you’re a certain kind of person, wherever you are in the world, you’d be having just as much fun inside your own head, nesting in your interests.

It’s hard to be a smart alec at the disco. Donald Fagen is a smart alec by nature, but we are all smart alecs now. (We are all Donald Fagen.) Songs are not just phantoms in the radio but the products of people and producers and managers, all of whom are searchable; the bands you love are not just bands you love but ideas of the bands you love, the subjects of articles and books and Wikipedia pages and mug shots and masters theses you don’t want to read but might have to for a story. This is mostly a good thing—I’m glad I was born in 1986—but “getting it” makes it harder to lose yourself and easier to reminisce about a time in life when that was easier. If you work hard, though—and I think my generation is particularly well-adapted to this—you can develop the skill of overlaying your earliest impressions of a thing onto the thing itself. Drugs help, but so do earbuds.

Alexandra Molotkow is an editor at Real Life magazine. She was a founding editor of Hazlitt, an associate editor of the Hairpin and arts columnist for the Globe and Mail. Her writing has appeared in The Cut, The Believer, The New Republic, and The New York Times Magazine.