Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock & Roll &

The Cynic and the Bloke

Quiet as it's kept, the early '70s were not the dark ages of rock'n'roll. They were its economic heyday. Pop music is too big to shrivel up artistically overnight, and with the record business booming more confidently than it ever would again, the magic of venture capital was juicing durable artists of enormous potential and profitability. Think Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Bonnie Raitt, John Prine, Linda Ronstadt, all creating music of substance as they embarked on long career paths about whose quiddities we are free to quibble, and all flowering between 1970 and 1975, before punk and disco rendered them passť without tempting them to find another line of work.

In Rod: The Autobiography and Eminent Hipsters, early-'70s arrivals Rod Stewart and Donald Fagen bear witness to their own artistic choices and the career opportunities that ensued in what no one will be surprised to learn are very different books. Credited to Stewart alone, Rod is a straight-down-the-middle celebrity memoir presumably put on paper by the only person name-checked in its 97-word acknowledgments section, "wonderful editor and confidant" Giles Smith of the London Times. Written entirely by the auteur himself, Fagen's slim Eminent Hipsters is memoiristic only in passing. Its first 85 pages sequence 10 critical essays, eight previously published, to trace a rough chronology of a "rotten little bookworm's" early life: Boswell Sisters, Henry Mancini, science fiction, Jean Shepherd, '60s jazz clubs, jazz DJ Mort Fega, Ennio Morricone, Ray Charles, Ike Turner, four years at Bard. Although only the Charles and the Morricone flop totally, these pieces tend slighter than I'd hoped from a very bright guy who can write, and I didn't look forward to the 2012 tour diary with which Viking lards them into a book. But that diary proved an exceptionally sharp and entertaining inside overview of life on the road.

Stewart predated Fagen by a few years. A Scottish plumber's son born in London in 1945, he was singing for his keep before he was 20, hit the States fronting the Jeff Beck Group in 1968 (at an enthusiastically received Fillmore show where I booed his every overstated white-blues affectation), released his first solo album in 1969, and was propelled into stardom in 1971 by a long, chorusless reflection on May-October romance called "Maggie May." A Jewish accountant's son born in 1948, Fagen is an escapee from the Jersey suburbs who hooked up with his equally jazz-obsessed partner, Walter Becker, at Bard. After college the two worked as contract songwriters and then as backup musicians for the biracial Jay and the Americans (who came back briefly in 1969 with a Drifters remake after going Top 40 five times in 1965). Shortly thereafter, they named a band for William Burroughs's favorite dildo and began Steely Dan's unlikely chart run with "Do It Again," a devilishly catchy 1973 hit about self-destructive obsession.

I know it's hard for those who weren't there to understand, but both Stewart and Fagen were counted art heroes in an era when prog, boogie, country-rock, and singer-songwriter mawk were vying for next big thing status. Stewart's Every Picture Tells a Story and Steely Dan's Can't Buy a Thrill and Pretzel Logic are great albums straight up. Moreover, both were accounted "hard" before that word was taken over by the metal that was also rearing its head -- "hard" meaning merely not soft like all that other crap. Steely Dan were hard by virtue of their concision, their cynicism, and Fagen's unshowy vocals, Stewart by virtue of his simple eagerness to rock -- in the dynamically Band-like band who backed his solo sessions and especially on his job fronting raucous road dogs the Faces, who broke up only when the Stones poached Ronnie Wood and whose running-around-and-falling-over box set should be heard by anyone who thinks Five Guys Walk into a Bar . . . is as evocative a title as I do.

Everybody but the millions of fans who attend Rod's shows thinks he was never again as good as solo on Mercury and clowning around with the Faces pre-1975, and I agree. True, I'd say something similar of every other artist named up top while granting that, Mitchell excepted, the drop-off was somewhat more drastic with Rod. Whether the same applies to Steely Dan, however, is a trickier question. Steely Dan were and remain perfectionists, chord-obsessed jazz nuts who in 1974 made what seemed a rational economic decision--they quit the road to turn out better and better records, because records were where the money was (and also because they're neater). Commercially, their coup was 1977's Aja, which apotheosized the sonically opulent AOR aesthetic at a level of difficulty glossy rivals like Supertramp and Journey couldn't approach--and which won them a jazz-lite following that makes their original fans very nervous, because we're not suburban cornballs and want everyone to know it.

Stewart, meanwhile, recorded a lot and toured a lot, sporting his rooster haircut and peacock finery all the while. Soon he came to symbolize corporate-rock sellout via two number-one singles: 1976's seductive "Tonight's the Night," where rather than Maggie May showing her age Rod's sex object is a "virgin child," and the deal-killer, 1978's flat-out disco "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" Because I had nothing against megahits and considered punk's disco problem small-minded, I liked these records. But I never thought either matched up to "Maggie May" or "Every Picture Tells a Story" or "You Wear It Well" or Jimi Hendrix's "Angel" or especially Mike D'Abo's "Handbags and Gladrags," which won me over to Stewart in 1970 by protesting the generation gap from a granddad's p.o.v. And by the '80s, Stewart's few keepers were covers.

Rod doesn't admit it got this bad, but you don't have to squint to see it happening. I only wish Stewart had told us why he got into music to begin with. Fagen had a swing-singing mom and club-hopping cousins and explains how an adolescent jazz snob might turn to rock in college if enrolled there from 1965 to 1969. Rod the Mod is a football-mad youngest child transformed utterly by Bob Dylan's debut album for reasons he may not even grasp himself, just as he doesn't seem to understand his vocal knack except as a "quirk of fortune," on the one hand claiming with kinship the ductile Sam Cooke and on the other responding to a request to clear the frog from his throat by exclaiming, "Oi, that isn't a frog. That's my voice." Nevertheless, the reckless abandon of the long and terrific Faces chapter makes his long subsequent career seem like a natural fact. For once we meet a rock star who not only loves performing, preferably with a drink or two to loosen him up, but loves touring.

Admittedly, he also loves making more money than most mortals would know what to do with (hint: collect enough "pre-Raphs" to decorate all four of your houses.) And he loves many, many fabulously beautiful, unfathomably long-legged blondes (and one redhead)--three of whom he marries, three more of whom he might well have married, four of whom bear him seven children (plus the one he gave up for adoption when he was 18), and every one of whom is a warm and genuine human being, you bet. He also did coke for 30 years without buying a line, and steroids for his voice until he was saved from that perdition by the invention of the earpiece monitor. And somewhere amid all the showbiz drama, the songwriting that never came easy got lost altogether. The best he could manage was the occasional generalized bestseller like his fatuous rewrite of Dylan's "Forever Young," a major comedown from, say, the anti-gaybashing tale "The Killing of Georgie," which somehow went Top 30 in 1977.

But if you're thinking the punks were right about his sellout after all, not so fast. I hate the rich more than you do, but I didn't emerge from Rod hating Rod Stewart. Instead I admired his persistence, enthusiasm, and chutzpah, its latest manifestation a much-mocked series of mega-selling 21st-century Great American Songbook albums that I praised back in 2005 for marking pantheon standards as rock with that Cooke-smitten croak rather than "interpreting" them. I also admire his blokedom--quite a lot of this book is about football, the sport he's not just followed but played into his 60s, and the subculture where he finds his best pals. The least appealing of his blondes is social climber Alana Hamilton, who, Stewart notes with cocked eyebrow, regularly inquired as to the rest of the guest list whenever they were invited out. Warm and genuine human being though she may be, he doesn't seem to have come out of that one craving more of the same.

One reason I ended up so impressed by Stewart's cheerful cheek was the contrast it provided with Fagen's sour puss. Don't misunderstand me--the man's mordant dolor has always been tonic at its best, and one virtue of Eminent Hipsters is its glimpses into the elective affinities of a 65-year-old cynic who has a life even so. His terse recounting of his stepson's suicide, for instance, leaves no doubt that he bleeds like you or me. Still, for me the most striking essay wasn't the most informative, which would be the one connecting science fiction, L. Ron Hubbard, and something called General Semantics. It was the sketch of radio raconteur Jean Shepherd, who, with his voice "cozy yet abounding with jest," inspired me as he did so many teenage "nonconformists" in the Greater New York of the late '50s and early '60s, and who Fagen followed all the way to a petulant late-'65 lecture by a Shepherd turned "aging diva," whose "'hipness' was revealed as something closer to contempt."

Contempt is the great peril of mordant dolor, and the foremost virtue of Fagen's tour diary is how he sometimes indulges, sometimes sidesteps, and sometimes transcends it. This was not one of the Steely Dan tours Fagen and Becker reinstituted in 1993, major profit-takers that induced them to record two more albums decades after falling back exhausted from 1980's stillborn Gaucho. But Fagen--accustomed to a level of affluence well below Stewart's and well above most people's, less savvy economically than he once thought, and a musician to his bones in the end--has also toured intermittently in a de facto r&b band co-led by fellow old-timers Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs. The latest edition, dubbed the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue, spent the summer of 2012 zigzagging in six buses and two trucks between what Fagen emailed his nasty little manager were "dumps"--amphitheaters, arts centers, hotels, resorts, music sheds, music tents, pavilions, bandshells, and ordinary theaters in greatly varying states of refurbishment. Having reported that Scaggs and McDonald often sack out on their respective buses to economize, he also devotes much literary attention to sleeping accommodations that too often become insomnia accommodations as he sinks into ATD--Acute Tour Disorder.

In his affection for touring, Stewart is the exception. Hating touring is state-of-the-art. But few have diagnosed its symptoms--including, among others, panic attacks, stage rage, flashbacks, memory loss, paranoia, diarrhea, and the inevitable insomnia--with Fagen's gimlet eye. Nor does Fagen's cynicism help him cope--as a grouchy old man in autumn plumage, he seethes with contempt for "TV Babies," subliterate young casuals oblivious to "In the Midnight Hour" who use their infernal Internet skills to purloin the laboriously perfected tracks to which he sacrificed his youth. I'm grouchy enough myself that I often sympathized. But that was possible because the contempt proved anything but unmitigated. Fagen isn't in it for the money--not exclusively. A part of him loves performing. He's not a blithe spirit like Stewart; he's neurotic as hell. But as a musician he always loves it when the band grooves, a miracle impossible to predict, and as an artist who against all odds believes art requires "a certain level of empathy," he usually loves it when the audience has a good time, a less technical matter.

Touring is hard. ATD would seem an inevitability. But it's more complicated than that, and richer. "Every night in front of an audience, no matter how exhilarating, is a bit of a ritual slaying. . . . On some level, you're trying to extinguish yourself. Because, corny and Red Shoes-y as it may seem, that's what you are, and they need it."

Career paths do differ. Cynicism more pathological than Fagen's looms for some. But it says worlds for pop music's vitality that two men as different as Rod Stewart and Donald Fagen could find it so sustaining for so long.

Barnes & Noble Review, November 13, 2013