Saturday, 9 November 2013

Reelin' in the Years

I'm a fan of 70s beat combo Steely Dan, the creation of the dystopic duo, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.  Or maybe a partial fan; I've never been a completist, and see no point in following the downs of any career that has plenty of ups.  I also don't listen to their albums very often, these days, but then I don't really need to. In common with a select shelf of recordings like Dark Side of the Moon or Blue, every bar, every solo, and every inflection of every word on two of the earlier discs in their recorded oeuvre is permanently engrooved on what remains of my brain.  I can play them, at will, on my own private, internal jukebox.  If there's a swing to my step as I go down the road, it's because "Bodhisattva" or "Black Friday" is on the mental deck.

I'm sure you feel the same about some music, too; though most likely some other music.  Being a fan is a curious condition, and much more common than it used to be.  Enthusiasms used to be encouraged in the young, but you were expected to grow out of them: only the lonely continued to collect stamps in adulthood. In one view, the established canons of literature, music and art -- "official" culture -- existed to channel the dangerous energy of enthusiasm into safe, approved outlets.  Ironically, perhaps the true outcome of the "revolution" of pop culture in our lifetime has been to burst the levees of official culture, only to turn us all into fans, "kidults" indulging in the narcissism of small differences.

On the other hand, admiration is the precondition of emulation and achievement. It seems that Donald Fagen -- the dark star at the heart of Steely Dan -- is a fan, too.  I'm reading his recently-published book, Eminent Hipsters, and it's a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an über-fanboy.  This is not a straight-ahead, 12-bar rock autobiography.  Well, what would you expect from Donald Fagen? In large part, it's a series of honest and self-aware insights into his New Jersey suburban roots and influences.  What other rock musician would discuss the hipness of Henry Mancini?  Or insist on seeing the full picture of Ike Turner's career, the man who dismissed Jimi Hendrix as a second-guitarist because he was a "big show-off" who "wouldn't stay inside the lines"?

It's nicely written, too.  So far, my most amusing takeaway has been the expression "herbal mood augmentation" (as in, "All this provided me and my droll companions with a lot of great material for after-dinner analysis, with or without herbal mood augmentation").  For fans, there are also many quiet little revelations:  Lonnie actually exists ("Boston Rag"), and the whole situation at Bard College, where Fagen and Becker met, clearly underpins much of that greatest of great albums, Countdown to Ecstasy.

Fagen defines his "hipsters" as "artists whose origins lie outside the mainstream or who creatively exploit material from the margin or who, merely because they live in a freaky space, have enough distance to see some truth".  I'll drink to that.  Mind you, that doesn't mean he appreciated his Bard room-mate listening to Albert Ayler's Ghosts at 1 a.m., and I'll drink to that, too.

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