I’ve just finished reading ‘Eminent Hipsters’, Donald Fagen’s erudite and witty homage to his favourite musicians of the 1950s and '60s. I’m not going to review the book, but something in it really caught my eye and I’m compelled to pass comment.
Some of my friends (particularly those who have, over the years, been bored rigid by my missionary zeal), are aware of my admiration and love for Donald's work, both as a solo artist and as part of Steely Dan. I was too young to appreciate The Dan when they were in their prime; my love affair with their music only started after a friend made me a compilation tape back in 1989. He knew that I was a big fan of the Scottish pop outfit Danny Wilson and, as he handed me the tape, said: “If you like Danny Wilson, just wait until you hear this”. It was the start of a love affair which endures to this day. Indeed, so great is my fan-boy love for this band that when, after a twenty year hiatus, they released their comeback album ‘Two against nature’, I took the day off work just to listen to it. Tragic, I know, but I relate this information in order to establish my Danorak credentials. Believe me, I’ve got lots of good stuff in the bank with Donald Fagen.
It gives me no great pleasure, therefore, to state that ‘Eminent Hipsters’ contains one of the most dismal paragraphs I’ve ever read (and, believe me, I’ve read plenty dismal).
Just to set the scene: the second half of the book takes the form of a tour diary, wherein Donald writes (amusingly and with no little degree of acerbic insight) about life on the road with the Boys of September, an occasional combo he fronts along with Boz Scaggs and Michael MacDonald. Their act consists of standards, personal favourites and, of course, some of their hit singles (between them, they’ve had a few over the years). Although he loves the music they’re playing on the tour, there is a sense in which Fagen is slumming it a little, because he has to play smaller venues and stay in cheaper hotels than he would ever be required to do on a Steely Dan tour. He bitches amusingly about the travelling, the hotels and the crowds, many of whom he classifies as ‘TV babies’; by this he means folk who are not particularly fans of his music (nor that of Scaggs and MacDonald), but who expect to hear a shedload of hit singles at every gig. Having selected a really tasteful set of songs, Fagen makes it clear that, at certain gigs, his believes his under-appreciated band to be placing pearls before swine. I can live with his snooty disdain for the audience, particularly as he writes so honestly about the fact that his mental health and well-being is not always entirely robust when he is living the nomadic life. He gives an honest account of the psychic damage he endures through endless bus journeys, faceless hotels and interminable sound-checks; at one point, he even fantasises about a venue catching fire during one of their gigs.
I’m fine with all of that stuff, but I’m not so good with this paragraph, written after a gig in Texas:
I'm back from the show. The house was a legion of TV Babies, maybe tourists from Arizona. I don’t know. Probably right-wingers too, the victims of an epidemic 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.
In the sixties, during the war between the generations, I always figured that all we had to do was wait until the old, paranoid, myth-bound sexually twisted Hobbesian geezers died out. But I was wrong. They just keep coming back, these mouldering, bloodless vampires, no matter how many times you hammer in the stake. It’s got to be the amygdala thing. Period, end of story.
Polite society frowns upon prejudices like sexism, racism and homophobia, yet here’s an outrageous example presented by an intelligent, sensitive, artistic man, that glibly dismisses around half of the population of the United States for their ‘primitive brains’. How, I wondered, could a cultured person succumb to such wretched complacency?
As if this tribal prejudice dressed up as intellectual rigour wasn’t ridiculous enough, Donald’s inability to comprehend the implications of what he said is mind-blowing. Because, at the heart of that statement about those ‘right-wing’ brains is something even more depressing than weapons-grade arrogance; there is a literal failure to understand and respect the ‘otherness’ of folk whose ideas don’t correspond to his own. That might save him the bother of having to negotiate the pesky minefield of intellectual argument, but if you ever find yourself resorting to the old Stalinist tactic of pathologising your opposition, you should perhaps give some thought to the intellectual company you’re keeping. It’s not, after all, like the 20th century didn’t provide us with plenty of examples of where this kind of thinking leads.
I’m using broad brush strokes here, but I feel obliged to point out that I encounter this kind of thinking more among friends and acquaintances on the political left than among friends and acquaintances on the right. And, still using those broad brush strokes, I’d hazard the guess that this might be because folk on the left are more likely to believe in the perfectibility of humankind, a belief that is invariably underpinned by a self-regarding moral vanity which tends to overlook or ignore any inconvenient truths. Moreover, my experience has been that anyone who believes in that perfectibility is likely to fancy that it has already been achieved by … guess who? Why, by them, of course; by people like Donald Fagen. All of which leads me to conclude that Donald, in that one horrible paragraph, has inadvertently provided a perfect illustration of the complacent authoritarianism that seems to have infested a great deal of left-liberal thinking.
As I’ve already stated, I have enough in the bank for me not to fall out with Donald over this (and I’m sure he’ll be relieved to hear that). I love the guy’s music and will continue to love it. If I were to decide that, from tomorrow, I was only going to listen to music made by people who broadly share my political views, I’d have to throw out about 95% of my record collection.
Listening to music because you agree with the politics of the folk who made it seems a bit silly to me. But it's nowhere near as silly as pretending that there is a neuro-scientific explanation for folk disagreeing with your interpretation of the world.