“‘‘I Got a Woman’ appeared on Elvis Presley’s first album,’ Fagen says in a tiny but packed essay about Ray Charles. ‘Elvis wasn’t the white Ray Charles, though. Tennessee Williams, maybe, comes closer.’ Are we still producing musicians who can think and talk like that?”
(Nick Hornby, reviewing Eminent Hipsters, a memoir by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, in The Believer, March/April 2014.)
I could be snarky and suggest that admitting the white guy who was completely full of himself did indeed have more in common with the black guy who was completely full of himself than the white guy who was a truly restless seeker and a truly artful dodger had in common with either is maybe not the precise combination of praise and put-downs Fagen intended or Hornby salutes.
But why get complicated?
This thing’s juicy enough on its own. It’s certainly the first instance I’ve come across that could fit equally well in the “Stupid Stuff People Say About Elvis” and the “It Isn’t Only Elvis They Say Stupid Stuff About” categories.
And it’s also the first instance–in either category–where two men are struggling for the right to have their names entered as permanent additions to the “Stupid Stuff” file and I find myself struggling to choose between them.
Well, Fagen is “that guy from Steely Dan,” and they always were patting themselves on the back for squaring and cubing things that would have otherwise been completely beneath them. (That’s the long way of saying they were jazzbos, though I hasten to add they were also the kind of jazzbos who were way too smart to play, write, arrange, produce or sing like jazzbos until they had made a run of brilliant albums, a name for themselves and a boatload of dough–naturally they called this integrity.)
So I gotta give him the upper hand.
Okay, listen. Ray Charles was a genius. Tennessee Williams was a genius. Elvis was a genius.
None of them ever remotely tried to be–or remotely wanted to be–any of the others.
In point of fact, the only one who ever really tried to be somebody else at all was Charles, who started his career by trying very hard to be Nat “King” Cole, most especially the Nat Cole who appealed most readily to White America (and he was, incidentally, pretty darn good at it).
He gave that up soon enough, though, and went on to be something even better than a first class Nat Cole imitator or maybe even better than Nat Cole–which was, you know, Ray Charles.
After that (though before Charles began to appeal so readily to White America himself) came Elvis–who never tried to be Ray Charles or anybody but Elvis.
Before that came Tennessee Williams, who also never tried to be Ray Charles (not even all those years later, when he had actually heard of Ray Charles) or anybody but Tennessee Williams.
So the only remaining question–besides why Fagen is making such an ass of himself in the first place by acting as though he, “a musician who can think and talk like that,” really can’t think or talk at all–is why Tennessee Williams is “maybe closer” than Elvis to being “the white Ray Charles” rather than the other way around?
I mean, since Williams had already written the plays for which he is most remembered well before Ray Charles even got to the point of trying to be the new Nat Cole, why doesn’t Fagen ask whether the Ray Charles he is referring to–the one who did eventually become both himself and a genius–is “maybe” the black Tennessee Williams?
Is is maybe because then he would not only be a guy being praised–by the likes of Nick Hornby–for making stupid assumptions rather nakedly rooted in the notion that the black genius (more by dint of his blackness than his genius) must have been inherently superior to any white genius who walked the same turf (only with the distinct disadvantage of being white), even if the white guy walked it much earlier and it wasn’t even really the same turf at all, but also be a guy in danger of being accused of being, well, a racist or something?
Could that be it?
Well, he is Donald Fagen.
And he does like to cube things so that he won’t be caught looking down.
In this case he cubed himself into a corner–the corner where the benighted liberal intellectual makes curious assumptions which, under the surface, where it counts, are hardly distinguishable from those of the white (or black) supremacist.
Fagen’s statement–meant to assure us that he’s living up to the title of his book–is actually a return to the most primitive of the primitive basics–to the notion that race comes first and foremost in all considerations that seek to codify human character and (by extension) genius.
The sort of thinking, in other words, that the revolution Elvis led, Ray Charles sort of reluctantly (though also brilliantly–reluctance was his signature) participated in, and Tennessee Williams never really knew quite what to make of, sought–however naively, given the vicissitudes of human nature–to challenge and overturn.
That was the thing about jazzbos.
They always thought rock and roll was somewhere underneath them, when really they should have been looking up.
Case in point below…(Nice lyrics, though–and, hey, notice who constitutes his own category):