Eminent Hipsters (9781101638095)

BOOK: Eminent Hipsters (9781101638095)
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A Penguin Random House Company

First published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2013

Copyright © 2013 by Donald Fagen

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

Portions of this book appeared in different form in
Harper's Bazaar, Jazz Times, Premiere,

Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint excerpts from the following copyrighted works:

“Heebie Jeebies” by Boyd Atkins. Copyright © 1926 Universal Music Corp. Copyright renewed. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Reprinted with permission of Hal Leonard Corporation.

“Deacon Blues,” words and music by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Copyright © 1977, 1978 Universal Music Corp. Copyright renewed. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Reprinted with permission of Hal Leonard Corporation.

“The Hip Gan” from “The Tales of Lord Buckley” by Lord Buckley. Used by permission.

“Hell Hound On My Trail,” words and music by Robert Johnson. Copyright © (1978), 1990, 1991 MPCA King of Spades (SESAC) and Claud L. Johnson (SESAC). Administered by MPCA Music, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of Hal Leonard Corporation.

“Jumpin' with Symphony Sid,” lyrics by King Pleasure, music by Lester Young. © 1953 (renewed) Unichappell Music Inc., Elvis Presley Music Inc. and EMI Unart Catalog Inc. All rights in the U.S. administered by Unichappell Music Inc. All rights reserved. “Jumpin' with Symphony Sid,” words by Buddy Feyne, music by Lester Young. Copyright © 1949, 1953 (renewed 1977) Atlantic Music Corp., Travis Music Co. and EMI U Catalog Inc. International copyright secured. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of Hal Leonard Music.

“Plastic People” by Frank Zappa. Used by permission of Munchkin Music.


Fagen, Donald.

Eminent hipsters / Donald Fagen.

pages cm

ISBN 978-1-101-63809-5

1. Fagen, Donald, 1948– 2. Rock musicians—United States—Biography. I. Title.

ML420.F2E45 2013




Penguin is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences, and the words are the author's alone.

For Libby


ou may be thinking, oh no, another rock-and-roll geezer making a last desperate bid for mainstream integrity by putting out a book of belles lettres. The fact is, until I got out of high school, I was pretty sure I'd end up in journalism or teaching English or working in a bookstore or something along those lines. I had a little piano trio in high school but, by jazz standards, I was strictly an amateur. Then it was the summer of '65 and my friend Pete gave me that psychedelic sugar cube. After the universe stopped squirming around and the colors dimmed down a bit, I was left with a new sense of possibility. When I started college that fall, I noticed that guys who played even worse than I did were all in bands and seemed to be having major fun. By the time I hooked up with my partner, Walter Becker, a couple of years later, I'd pretty much given up on a literary career.

In the mid-eighties, when I was in the midst of a severe episode of creative torpor, Susan Lyne, who was starting up
magazine, asked if I'd be interested in writing a film music column. Although I didn't know that much about the subject, I'd seen a lot of movies and I thought it might be therapeutic. It turned out it was, and Susan didn't seem to mind if the stuff I turned in was a little on the self-indulgent side. I got a lot of nice mail and kept writing.

From time to time, people have suggested that the pieces I've written over the last thirty years might be arrayed in such a way as to form a kind of art-o-biography—that is, how the stuff I read and heard when I was growing up affected (stretched, skewed, mangled) my little brain. That's the organizing principle here. When my editor, Paul Slovak, agreed that my grouchy tour journal from the summer of 2012 might be entertaining, we stuffed that in too. Also written especially for this book: an account of my college days and an essay on the magnificent Boswell Sisters. I don't want to be a critic. It's fun only if I'm writing about creative work that, as Willie “The Lion” Smith would say, is “what you call . . .
real good

You'll find that many chapters in this book are about people and things that intersected with my life when I was a kid. 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. And why not? I'm deeply underwhelmed by most contemporary art, literature, music, films, TV, the heinous little phones, money talk, real estate talk, all that stuff. The Internet, which at first seemed so fascinating, appears to be evolving into something even worse than TV, but we'll see.

So here it is. Folks around my age might recognize incidental references to various Cold War and “counterculture” phenomena: Oldsmobiles, fish sticks, nuclear war, Bosco, psychedelic drugs, Haight-Ashbury, the “Groovy” murders. My mom, my dad and my baby sister Susan make occasional cameos. But the main subjects are the talented musicians, writers and performers from a universe beyond suburban New Jersey who showed me how to interpret my own world. There are countless definitions of the word “hipster.” In the title of this book, I'm using it to refer to 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.

One more thing: some folks bug out when they see their names in print. On the advice of the Penguin legal department—I know, that sounds so cute—I've changed the names of a few people and places.

DF, January 2013

Boswells' V

The first jazz I remember hearing was in my cousin Barbara's basement. Barbara was a knockout, gorgeous and curvy, a great dancer, and hip too. Hanging out at jazz clubs in the Village, she had no trouble getting to know the major players, including Miles and Monk. (For a while she was married to Phil Woods's piano player Mike Melillo.) On family visits, she'd bring her little cousins down to the basement, where she'd play us LPs by the hard boppers—Wynton Kelly, Hank Mobley, Johnny Griffin and others. But it was my mom who introduced me to the music of the great Connie Boswell and her sisters.

or what it's worth, my mother's married name, Elinor Fagen, was just a couple of letters away from Billie Holiday's given name: Eleanora Fagan. Although no Lady Day, my mother was a fine swing singer who from the age of five through her teen years worked with a trio in a hotel in the Catskills—the “Jewish Alps.” Her career as “Ellen Ross” came to an end at sixteen when stage fright prevented her from walking up to the microphone on
Major Bowes Amateur Hour
, a radio program that was the
American Idol
of its time. After that, she performed only at ladies' club functions and while she was at her housewifely chores, waking the kids up, vacuuming, cooking and cleaning.

Ellie had very specific taste in popular singers. She was a
connoisseur of what jazz people refer to as “phrasing,” the way notes or groups of notes are precisely placed, syncopated or “swung,” as they used to say in the thirties. Some of her favorites were Billie, Peggy Lee, Helen Humes, Frances Faye, Ethel Waters, Anita O'Day and the now forgotten Gertrude Niesen. She loved Judy Garland and, of course, the bobby-soxer's main man, Frank Sinatra (“I hate him, but I love him!”). She thought that Fred Astaire was underappreciated as a singer, and often mentioned Cliff Edwards, who, as “Ukulele Ike,” was a big star in the twenties and thirties. Edwards had a late career bump in the fifties as the voice of Disney's Jiminy Cricket.

Once, in an old musical we were watching on
Million Dollar Movie
, a pretty, healthy-looking young woman sat on a bench in a nightclub and sang a number. My mother said, “Do you know who that is? That's Connie Boswell. She was crippled from polio, but she was the best.” Years later, when I became familiar with the early work of Connie and her two sisters, I discovered that the Boswells had created a body of work rivaling that of Duke Ellington.

The Boswell Sisters—Martha, Connie and Helvetia (called Vet)—grew up during the 1920s in a big white house in New Orleans, on Camp Street, near the Garden District. The cause of Connie's disability was either polio or, as she used to tell it, a nasty soapbox-on-wheels accident. In any case, after the age of four, she could walk only a few steps at a time. Their father, Alfred, a well-to-do executive and amateur musician with Italian roots, sent his daughters to study music with a local professor. All three showed great talent, and they started performing chamber music at local venues at an early age—Martha on
piano, Connie on cello, Vet on violin. But this was New Orleans in the Jazz Age, and the girls couldn't escape the syncopated music they heard all around them every day. They listened to the sounds coming from black bars and churches, and attended shows at the local “chitlin' circuit” theater (whites were allowed to sit in the balcony for the Saturday “Midnight Frolic”). They bought hot jazz records by Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines, and blues sides by the Smiths (Mamie and Bessie). As Martha told an interviewer in 1925:

We studied classical music, compositions by the world's artist(s) for more than seven years and were being prepared for the stage and a concert tour throughout the United States, but the saxophone got us . . .

By the mid-twenties, the girls had started playing the new music and focusing on the sound of their distinctive three-part vocal harmony. Vet switched to banjo and Connie was playing a raucous tenor sax. Young jazz players, especially the Italian-American contingent, started hanging out in the Boswells' parlor. There were Louis Prima and his brother Leon, Tony Parenti and Leon Roppolo, and the legendary cornetist Emmett Hardy (said to be Bix's mentor), who quickly became enamored of the beautiful Martha (he died of tuberculosis, at twenty-three). The boys must have been astonished to find three white, upper-middle-class girls so deeply immersed in the rhythms of the city.

On “Cryin' Blues,” one of two sides recorded in 1925 by a Victor talent scout, Connie, then eighteen, is already a convincing
blues shouter in the Mamie Smith mode. Earlier, there had been white blues singers in minstrelsy and vaudeville, but, unlike Mae West or Sophie Tucker (Tucker actually hired Mamie Smith to give her blues lessons), Connie sings with an authentic rhythmic feel and her bent notes are Bourbon Street perfect. Moreover, because her Big Easy accent matches up with the blues inflections, the listener never experiences any of that “This ain't right” ethnic or class tension that can vitiate the performance of an otherwise talented blues singer.

In 1929, after enduring a grungy cross-country vaudeville tour, the Sisters landed in Hollywood, where, a year later, they waxed some sides for the Okeh label. With “Heebie Jeebies,” we can hear the Boswells beginning to apply their classical background to some hot material. “Heebie Jeebies,” written by New Orleans altoist Boyd Atkins, had been made famous by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five in a 1926 recording that included a famous scat chorus. Actually, the original record is nothing much, just a hokum (novelty) number that gives Armstrong a chance to do his thing. The Boswells could have just remade the record in their key. Instead, they bust the piece out by giving it a nuanced dramatic structure complete with tempo changes, ritenutos (slowdowns), additional lyrics, new melodic material, special vocal effects and their unmatchable group dynamics. This process would become the Boswells' signature.

After a wordless introduction, the Sisters rip into the chorus. They've got the heebie jeebie blues and the only cure is to bring the feeling to critical mass by doing the heebie jeebie dance. Then Martha's piano slows to an easy blues tempo and Connie, in an ethereal solo, explains the situation:

I been havin' 'em—havin' 'em all day long

I got the heebies but I can't go wrong

'Cause when I got 'em I just roll along

Now listen everybody while I sing this song . . .

•   •   •

he newly composed melody and lyrics in this section totally change the character of the piece. Suddenly, having a case of the heebie jeebies isn't all that funny. It's a specific sort of agitated depression, and moreover, now stated by Connie as a gentle blues, it's a state of mind specific to women. Banishing the blue devils with a beat, Martha and Vet then join in at the faster tempo. One chorus later, they paraphrase Armstrong's scat vocal, but arranged as an ensemble for all three voices. Finally, they correct the Hot Fives' famously flubbed hokum finish, and all is well again on Camp Street. The Boswells have transformed Armstrong's party tune into a sonic moving picture of a woman's inner life over a day's time. And all this without sacrificing any jazz heat.

By 1931, the Boswells had caught on, especially with young fans, and they had begun to work with Jack Kapp at Brunswick Records in New York. In the studio, Kapp brought the girls together with the best musicians in the city (i.e., the best white musicians). The core group, mostly out of the Dorsey Brothers' nascent band, included Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey on alto sax and trombone, guitarist Eddie Lang and his partner Joe Venuti on violin, trumpeters Jack Purvis, Manny Klein and Bunny Berigan, pianist Artie Schutt, bassist Joe Tarto, and drummers Stan King and Chauncey Morehouse.

As Joe Tarto testified, the collaboration of the Boswells and
the band was “a whole new idea of voices and instruments together.” Years later, Connie described the process to interviewer Michael Brooks:

Most of our Brunswick sessions were cut between midnight and dawn. We'd finish up our show at the Paramount or the Roxy, then go over to Plunkett's, a tiny bar on Fifty-third Street about four doors off Broadway frequented by New York studio, pit and dance band musicians and get the Dorseys, Bunny Berigan, Manny Klein, Stan King and the rest of the boys. Then there'd be a sobering-up session while we pumped black coffee into them and we'd finally get to recording. In those days we didn't have tape but recorded directly onto wax. The boys'd often be juiced and there'd be mistakes galore. Sometimes we'd spoil twenty to thirty waxes before we'd get an acceptable take. That would be labeled Take “A” and we'd ruin a few more and get to Take “B” and then so on. I used to write the arrangements and they were pretty tightly scored although I always tried to get a loose, swinging sound and give the boys room to blow. They were just the greatest bunch of fellas to work with: crazy, but all wonderful musicians who understood exactly what we were trying to do and we had a ball, I can tell ya.

In other interviews, Connie gives Martha and Vet more credit for their creative input. The unworldly precision of the group singing alone proves that some sort of sibling telepathy was in operation. Said Vet:

I'd be in the bedroom, Martha would be in the kitchen and Connie in the living room, and we'd start singing the same song at the same time and in the same key. That's how in tune we were to each other.

To keep things running smoothly, the Dorseys' arranger, young Glenn Miller, was on hand to quickly write out ideas for the players as they came up.

Harry Woods's tune “We Just Couldn't Say Good-bye” was a popular one in 1932, spawning versions by Guy Lombardo and Mildred Bailey as well as the Boswells. It's interesting to compare the Sisters' version with one recorded just ten days later by Annette Hanshaw at a session including some of the same players. Hanshaw, promoted as “The Personality Girl,” relied more on her flapperesque charm than any excess of musical talent, but she had a kind of loosey-goosey style that seemed to work, especially when teamed with fine players like Lang and Venuti.

After the introduction, Hanshaw sings the tune in her usual fashion, sounding both nervous and slightly tipsy. Benny Goodman comes to the rescue with some flashy support on clarinet. Soon, Joe Venuti's violin enters, doubling the melody. A pause for a trumpet line by Phil Napoleon, and then there's a nice moment when everything slows down and Hanshaw, accompanied only by Rube Bloom's piano, sings the verse of the song, which has been transported from its usual position at the top. When the refrain comes back in tempo, Hanshaw scats and ad-libs, trading off with the soloists. Then there's a bit of hokum. After the lines,

The chair and then the sofa broke right down and cried

I'll tell you confidentially the tears were hard to hide

the trumpet and clarinet “act” them out instrumentally. There's even a ticking clock sound effect accompanying a line about the clock striking twelve. For me, the whimsy in the lyric satisfies without these goofy asides: the mood has been broken. Even so, it's a cute effort, and the level of musicianship raises it above the standard market value of the time.

The Boswells' rendition starts out at a slower tempo, with Bunny Berigan immediately establishing a down-home New Orleans feel. Sounding a bit like Ethel Waters, Connie sings the tune down once, her intonation, as always, dead-on. Whenever she comes to the hook line, “We couldn't say good-bye,” she reaches up an octave and, thrillingly, blue-notes (flats) the third. Prefiguring the Hanshaw recording, the verse has also been moved forward. But instead of the normal tempo drop, the band speeds up and the girls sing the verse in harmony. And for giggles, they've tossed the original chord progression and substituted a modernistic sequence of chords that changes the key from F major to F minor. The juxtaposition is startling: it's as if we've been instantly teleported from the sleepy Delta to Times Square on Saturday night.

In order to accommodate a chromatic melody line in the last bar, they've also rewritten some of the lyrics. As this manic, urban mood continues into the main body of the song, a chord pattern is set up that changes the key center from F major to D major every other bar. It's the kind of Gershwin-like effect that Otis Redding and Steve Cropper would employ at Stax sessions
some thirty years later. Connie takes the bridge alone and then the girls come back in for the last shout chorus, with Connie adding some wailing licks at the finish for good measure. The Boswells have taken care that, from the downbeat to the last cymbal hit, there's not a boring bar in this arrangement.

Among the seventy-five or so tracks that the Boswells recorded from 1931 to 1936, it's hard to find one in which they didn't use their subversive genius to enrich the given raw material. Aside from the innovations already mentioned, they imitated jazz instrumental effects with their voices, devised tricky phrasing, switched from straight time to swing time, employed “speed singing” and even raced through whole choruses in “Boswellese,” a childhood language of their own invention (“love” would break down to, I think, “luggle-duv”). They may not have invented the word “yowzah,” but, as far as I've been able to find, the first recorded “yowzah” occurs on their 1932 version of “The Sentimental Gentleman from Georgia.”

When singing solo passages, Connie—this formidable musician in a Louisiana belle's ball gown—is simultaneously hot and cool: she's emotionally connected to the lyric and at the same time reveals a self-reflexive, ironic quality that's astonishing for the era. Her self-awareness as an artist (if not her sense of modesty) is borne out by quotes from interviews in later years:

At that time I'm sure that to the average ear we must have sounded like little green people from outer space . . . We revolutionized not only the style of singing, the beat, the placing of voices, the way-out harmony, but also the musical world in
general . . . I used to work wee hours in the morning, but Martha and Vet were loaded with talent and contributed much to the trio arrangements. The band background, intros, fill-ins, and special endings were usually planned by me. Some parts were as free as the breeze, while others were kept right in the saddle . . .

BOOK: Eminent Hipsters (9781101638095)
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