Steely Dan singer Donald Fagen just 'being honest' in new book

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Donald Fagen

Donald Fagen of the band Steely Dan has a new book and tour diary, "Eminent Hipsters." (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune / July 29, 2013)

He spoke truth to power.

"Yeah, I guess," he said, rolling his eyes. "But it was important. I remember I didn't feel as though I had done anything wrong. It gave me confidence to write, though I stopped for years to write songs with Walter."

When he started writing again, in the 1980s, then off and on ever since, it was for the movie magazine Premiere, Harper's Bazaar, Slate, "which calls whenever an important musician dies." Several of these pieces make up the first half of "Eminent Hipsters": Appreciations of Ike Turner, Ray Charles, radio legend Jean Shepherd (who wrote "A Christmas Story"), thoughts on jazz clubs and 1950s science-fiction novels.

At Barnes & Noble, Fagen stopped and went inside. He drifted to the sci-fi section, picking up a paperback of Ray Bradbury's "The October Country," with its spare, autumnal image of orange trees. "Nice cover. Better than a picture of a girl who looks like Charo being chased by a lizard …" He browsed the shelves. "I don't know most of these guys in this section now …. And I don't like fantasy. I love Philip K. Dick. This guy (William Gibson, who wrote the classic 'Neuromancer'), big Steely Dan fan. And this guy (Robert Heinlein, who wrote the classic 'Starship Troopers'), big fascist — sci-fi guys are either liberal or very conservative."

He crossed in front of a stack of memoirs ("I doubt I could do a real one without Walter") and stopped before a wall of music books. He slouched, sipped his Starbucks and considered each title: "I haven't read (Bob Dylan's) 'Chronicles' yet, but I should. And that Miles Davis book, not great."

He thought of something: "You know, my book, it's not about a musician facing down his audience but an older musician feeling alienated from the world he's forced into. I get into a car now, everyone is immediately looking at phones. What the (expletive)? I have tech rage. Daniel Day-Lewis, whom my wife (singer Libby Titus) knows, doesn't have a cellphone. I resisted email a long time. It's destructive to the human soul."

He looked around.

"Where's the, you know, books?"

At the Nabokov shelf, he brightened.

"Nabokov, this is a good test of someone," he said, "whether or not they like Nabokov. Walter and I loved 'Lolita.' My mother had a copy and insisted she never got through it. 'Pale Fire,' Walter and I were inspired by that, this false document, annotated, the annotation having nothing to do with anything. It's hilarious."

He grew bored and left.

On the sidewalk, he bummed a cigarette from his tour manager. "I don't smoke," Fagen said, smoking.

Twitter @borrelli

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