Steely Dan Was the First Brooklyn Hipster Band


Donald Fagen Photo: Danny Clinch

Donald Fagen Photo: Danny Clinch

A few weeks ago, I got an advance copy of Eminent Hipsters, a new book written by Donald Fagen, who is best known as the co-founder of jazz rock group Steely Dan. I had been planning to review the book for–and admittedly I’m a huge fan  like all the other rock nerds of a certain age.  Eminent Hipsters is not a music memoir in the strictest sense–nor is it a book about Steely Dan–but more like a collection of essays drawing from Fagen’s childhood as a jazz-loving baby boomer growing up in suburban New Jersey during the Cold War, through his experiences at Bard College in the late ’60s, and through the present day as a solo artist touring with the likes of Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs. If you thought Steely Dan’s lyrics are as funny as they are enigmatic, you’ll find that humor present in Fagen’s book as well.

One thing that struck me while reading Eminent Hipsters was the chapter titled “Class of ’69,” which recounts Fagen’s experiences at Bard. It is important because that is where he met his future Steely Dan bandmate and partner, Queens’ own Walter Becker. But what really piqued my interest was learning that both Becker and Fagen lived for a time in Brooklyn,  specifically Park Slope before it was, as he calls it, “Hipster Heaven”–this was a few years prior to Steely Dan releasing their 1972 debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill.  Fagen writes of Park Slope: “Back then, it was still Archie Bunker Heaven. It was the sort of neighborhood where shoulder-length hair could provoke comments like ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ and ‘Go back to the Village!’”

There’s a song on Can’t Buy a Thrill called “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me).” It’s not as recognizable as some of the album’s biggest hits like “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” and it’s one of the few songs that does not feature Fagen’s lead vocals, and rather is crooned by David Palmer, who was briefly a member of the original band. Whether that song–which is a kind of melodic jazzy soul pop number with touches of pedal steel guitar–was a result of Becker and Fagen’s experiences in  Brooklyn is uncertain. Really, it’s another example of Steely Dan’s enigmatic lyric writing–what do lines like, “A race of angels/Bound with one another” or “A tower room at Eden Rock/His golf at noon for free” mean?

Fagen and Becker  later relocated to the West Coast where they would begin their 40-year, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame careers. So if you happen to be at a bar, supermarket or a cafe somewhere in Park Slope and you hear “Peg” or “Hey Nineteen” on the speakers–just remember, Steely Dan slept here, and were inspired by our fair borough, if only briefly.

Donald Fagen’s new book, Eminent Hipsters, is out now.

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