All photos © Jon Randolph
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Donald Fagen’s Eminent Hipsters is one of those rare books that’s over way too soon. That’s probably cause it’s short — only 159 pages.
I found myself reading it the way I eat a particularly delicious macaroni and cheese — with tiny bites, in the ill-fated hope that it will last forever.
You probably know Fagen, if you know him at all, as the singer, keyboardist and co-founder of Steely Dan.
Along with Walter Becker, he wrote a bunch of great songs, including Deacon Blues — one of my all-time favorites!
That’s the one that goes…
“They got a name for the winners in the world
I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues…”
I’ve heard that song a zillion times without really knowing what it’s about. You should read Eminent Hipsters if for no other reason than Fagen offers an explanation.
Fagen even looks like a grumpy guy…
The books starts with stories about the writers, musicians and DJs who influenced Fagen’s life.
Then, without warning, he launches into this hilariously grumpy diary covering the six utterly miserable weeks he spent on the road, as he rode from one end of America to the other.
It was all part of a `70s oldies tour, where aging Boomers, like me, bellowed things like: “Play Deacon Blues!”
You can’t blame him for being grumpy.
The dude’s got a darky funny way with words. Like this sentence: “The Internet, which at first seemed so fascinating, appears to be evolving into something even worse than TV, but we’ll see.” That’s from the intro.
Don’t feel too sorry for these geezers — they made a ton of dough touring Japan…
As he tells his story, he was a skinny, little nerd, who grew up in suburban New Jersey, obsessed with things that no cool kid could possibly give a shit about — jazz, science fiction and late-night DJs.
Obsessions that apparently remain: “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.”
That’s also from the intro.
You know, maybe I should quote another part of the book just to show that I read it.
Okay, here goes. I’ll open the book and randomly quote the first thing I see…
“I guess the filmmakers couldn’t resist the idea that when Igor got to shag Coco, he was inspired to compose this wild, atavistic, new kind of music, in a sort of reversal of George Clinton’s slogan, `Free your mind and our ass will follow.'”
That brilliant sentence is from his mini-review of Coco and Igor, some dumbass movie about the romance between Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky that he watched one night in his room at the Henry Hotel in Dearborn, Michigan.
Hey, Mr. Fagen, break’s over. Start writing. I’m ready for the sequel.
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I’m sitting on the throne, reading a book about the Beatles, when I see something that makes me shout out loud…
“Holy, shit! Please Please Me is about cunnilingus!”
A few words of explanation…
I’m reading A Hard Day’s Write, a book my wife bought at a Barnes & Noble remainder sale. As the title suggests, it’s a compilation of short essays about each songs the Beatles wrote.
Special shoutout to Steve Turner, the author.
A wonderful read, its a perfect example of what famed literary critic, Milo Samardzija, calls a “shithouse read,” in his brilliant literay essay entitled, Shithouse Reader.
In case you’re wondering, yes, that’s the same Milo, who’s my partner in this vast blogging enterprise.
In his essay–required reading in university literature courses throughout the world–Milo writes: “Early on I discovered that I could not move my bowels unless I had something to read. There seems to be a direct connection between my eyes and my ass, a sort of optical/lower intestinal tripwire that, once engaged, releases the fecal floodgates.”
He goes on to write: “The secret to good bathroom reading material is that the books have be easy reads yet compelling, with passages that you want to read over and over again.”
I’m telling you, the man’s the second coming of Leslie Epstein.
Anyway, the Beatles book has a prominent place in my bathroom, taking the spot recently filled by Michael Jordan’s 50 Greatest Games, which is about the 50 greatest games Michael Jordan ever played. As you may have guessed.
Oh, those Beatles…
But back to Please Please Me…
Emboldened by my discovery, I run to the bedroom, where my wife’s doing yoga.
“Did you know that Please Please Me is about cunnilingus?” I ask.
“Really? she says.
“Yeah. Actually, I guess you could say it’s about oral gratification in general.”
There and then I start reading the relevant passage from Turner’s classic…
“Please Please Me was one of those innocuous sounding pop songs with a subversive subtext. Some critics have seen it as a plea for equality in sexual pleasure. Robert Christgau, music editor of the Village Voice, has more controversially claimed that it’s about oral sex.”
“Wow,” says my wife. “I never thought about it that way…”
“Who did? Except for Christgau, that horny bastard. But it makes sense, if you think about it.”
And I recite from memory, as any Beatle fan can do.
“Last night I said these words to my girl
I know you never even try, girl
Come on, come on, come on, come on
Please, please me, woah yeah, like I please you…”
“What he’s saying is–do to me like I do to you,” I say.
As impressed as she obviously is by my literary prowess, I can see she wants to return to her yoga. So I call Milo, speaking of horny bastards.
“Milo, do you know Please Please Me? is about cunnilingus?”
Long pause. Then he says: “Nothing wrong with that.”
Like I said–the man’s a literary genius.
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Every once in a while I get a song stuck in my head. It’s not a bad thing if it’s a decent number, but God forbid I should get fixated on a worthless ditty like In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. A day or two with that ridiculous tune rumbling in my head would probably be the end of me.
Recently, I got obsessed with If I Were a Carpenter, written and recorded by the late Tim Hardin. I walked around the house humming the tune for most of the day, occasionally breaking into song, belting out the lyrics in my loud, manly and pleasing baritone.
For some reason this aggravated the lovely Mrs. Milo. “Will you please stop that?”
“Stop what, honey?”
“Stop singing that stupid song. You’re scaring the cat.”
“That rotten cat can go fuck himself. The dog doesn’t seem to mind my singing.”
“Milo, in case you’ve forgotten, the dog lost its hearing about two years ago.”
I don’t know what my wife’s got against Tim Hardin, but I’ve always enjoyed his music. His best songs have an ache to them, a melancholy sense of loss and longing, that appeals to my sentimental Slavic soul.
Hardin had a hot streak in the 60’s. Those were the years he wrote If I were a Carpenter and Reason to Believe, as well as a personal favorite, The Lady Came From Baltimore. His songs were covered by artists as diverse as Bobby Darin, Rod Stewart, Johnny Cash and Joan Baez. Hardin even appeared at Woodstock, in 1969, playing his songs to an audience of a half million people.
Hot streaks don’t last forever. By the middle 1970s, Hardin was washed up, a mental and physical wreck. He was also in dire financial straits. He had no income from his song catalog because he had sold the rights to his music a few years earlier to settle a pressing problem.
The problem was heroin, a drug he had become very fond of while in the military and stationed in Vietnam, during the early years of the war. The fondness grew into an all-consuming obsession and it stayed with him the rest of his life. He was, by all reports, a degenerate junkie, erratic and unreliable, prone to putting on terrible performances, that’s if he even bothered showing up at all. He became virtually unemployable. By the late 1970s he was reduced to playing second rate clubs for chump change.
In early December of 1980 I was sitting out a snowstorm with the help of some bourbon and reefer, when I got a call from a dear friend. “Hey, Milo, are you doing anything tonight?”
“I’ve got a couple of free tickets to see Tim Hardin at the Quiet Knight. You want to go?”
Maybe it was the bad weather, but I doubt more than 40 people showed up for the show. The upside of the sparse crowd was that my friend and I got a good table, close to the stage.
Hardin appeared about 30 minutes late. It might have been better if he had never showed up at all. He looked terrible — bloated, pasty, in dire need of grooming and a bath. And he was obviously high, riding with the white witch.
Hardin stumbled through the first few songs, mumbling the lyrics, hitting sour notes on his guitar, nearly nodding off in the middle of a tune. A few people walked out after he stopped to lazily scratch himself in the middle of Reason to Believe. Others began to heckle him, “Come on, Tim, pick it up, man.”
I didn’t want to be there. It was painful watching Tim Hardin trying to put on a show. He had once been a well-paid, popular and honored entertainer. Now, he was just a lost soul, a ghost of glories past, incapable of even going through the motions.
I was thinking about leaving. I didn’t want to be a party to this train wreck any longer. Then Tim started playing If I Were a Carpenter and the fucker nailed it. He stood tall and straight, closed his eyes, and sang:
If I were a carpenter
And you were a lady
Would you marry me anyway
Would you have my baby
His voice was sweet and clear. His guitar playing was crisp. He sang the song like it was his testament, the one pure and true thing in his life. It was the song that defined him and he seemed determined not to fuck it up. He gave the audience the best he had. And when he finished, he was spent. Tim Hardin had nothing more to give. He fumbled through another song or two, made an incomprehensible apology, and left the stage. There was no applause.
About three weeks later, on December 29, 1980, to be precise, Tim Hardin died of a heroin overdose.
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A few days ago, a bracing wind whipped through Chicago, and I awoke one morning to find a big-ass branch in my backyard.
Obviously, it had blown off a tree while I lay sleeping.
My wife told me to drag the branch out to the alley because she didn’t want it cluttering up her backyard.
But, I said, no–I want to conduct a science experiment.
Now, I know you’re thinking–damn, Benny Jay, you’ll say anything to avoid doing a little yardwork.
Okay, maybe there’s some truth to that. But way down inside, I think I’ve got a little Louis Pasteur trying to break out.
Anyway, I told my wife…
“Let’s see how long it takes that big-ass tree branch to disintegrate.”
“Oh, no,” she said. “You can’t just leave that thing in my backyard.”
“Why not? It’s biodegradable.”
Great word, biodegradable. Very scientific and environmentally-friendly.
Cleary, my wife was impressed.
“Okay,” she said. “You can keep it there for the winter.”
Just call me a great scientist…
So the big-ass branch sat in my backyard for several days.
And each morning I’d give it the once over, dutifully reporting to my wife on its condition. I’d tell her important scientific stuff, like…
“The branch’s still there!”
“Still a branch!”
“Man, who knew science could be so fun!”
And my wife would say other scientific things right back to me. Like…
If I didn’t know better, I’d say she was starting to develop her own interest in my science experiment. Just call her Madame Curie.
Alas, yesterday I went to the backyard to check in on my experiment and what did I discover?
The big-ass tree branch was gone! The yard man had carted it away when he came to rake the leaves.
I guess he didn’t recognize an important scientific experiment when he saw one.
I was devastated. Imagine if some Parisian janitor had tossed out Louis Pasteur’s petri dishes.
“Fils de pute–va te faire foutre!” as Louis might say.
“Oh, well,” said my wife.
As you can see, some of us are taking it harder than others.