Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Name Game

Part 3 of The Squonk

At the conclusion of my discussion of the Buoys’ “Timothy” the day before yesterday, I observed that some readers might take issue with my interpretation of that somewhat obscure pop song, thinking it to be an aberrant decoding of the song’s meaning. An aberrant reading is simply a way of remotivating an artistic object, the switching of the external context surrounding it. Perhaps the most famous illustration of a remotivated art object is Marcel Duchamp’s goateed Mona Lisa, retitled “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1919; pictured).

Duchamp later said that the new name of his remotivated art work was a phonetic game. The most common claim is that L.H.O.O.Q., when said out loud in French, sounds like “Elle a chaud au cul,” meaning “she has a hot ass" (or is "hot in the ass"), suggesting that the famous subject of the painting was not only in a state of sexual arousal, but sexually available as well. In a 1966 interview, Duchamp said, “I really like this kind of game, because I find that you can do a lot of them. By simply reading the letters in French, even in any language, some astonishing things happen” (see Pierre Cabanne, p. 63).

The androgynized, goateed figure of Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q is the visual equivalent of the androgynous figure of "Rikki" in Steely Dan’s "Rikki Don’t Loose That Number," a song title that proves Duchamp's insight that with any series of letters, some astonishing things can happen. Like Duchamp’s letters, L.H.O.O.Q, the name RIKKI likewise invites us to play a phonetic game. While spelled Rikki, phonetically speaking, of course, it is the diminutive form of that most familiar of American nicknames, Rick—Ricky. For instance, Ricky Ricardo of I Love Lucy; in Casablanca, Ricky is what Captain Renault (Claude Rains) calls Richard Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), rather than the more formal “Mr. Richard” that Sam uses, or the “Richard” Ilsa uses (at least in Paris). Rikki shares the same unusual spelling as the titular figure of Rudyard Kipling’s children’s story, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. And yet, the lyrics of “Rikki Don’t Loose That Number” suggest not a world of innocence, but rather a sophisticated world in which people play sophisticated games:

We hear you’re leaving, that’s okay
I thought our little wild time had just begun
I guess you kind of scared yourself, you turn and run
But if you have a change of heart

CHORUS:
Rikki don’t lose that number
You don’t want to call nobody else
Send it off in a letter to yourself
Rikki don’t lose that number
It’s the only one you own
You might use it if you feel better
When you get home

I have a friend in town, he’s heard your name
We can go out driving on Slow Hand Row
We could stay inside and play games I don’t know
And you could have a change of heart

CHORUS

You tell yourself you’re not my kind
But you don't even know your mind
And you could have a change of heart

CHORUS

I assume the "you" referred to is Rikki. Although initially the singer says he hears Rikki is "leaving," in fact Rikki is a coward ("you turn and run"). Rikki is a coward because he is "scared," scared of himself, that is, scared of what he is doing and what he has done. What is he doing, what has he done? We're not told, just that he was having a "little wild time" with the singer, a "little wild time" that had just started. Rikki has a number, the singer's phone number, and he's invited to phone (call) once he feels better about himself. Rikki is invited to "send it off in a letter to yourself," which I take to mean, "look at it to remind yourself who you are," the number in the letter serving as a reminder to himself of who he really is.

In the song, "Any Major Dude Will Tell You," also on the same Steely Dan album, Pretzel Logic, the singer tells the unnamed you (Rikki?), "You can try to run but you can't hide from what's inside of you," a virtual restatement of what is being said, in this song, to Rikki. "We could stay inside and play games," the singer says, meaning hide away and pretend, but again, the implication is that Rikki can try to run, but can't hide avoid the truth about himself, despite what he pretends to be true. Rikki's "change of heart" I take to mean the moment when he comes to terms with who and what he is, when he eventually can "feel better" about his true self. I've said "himself" because the rather inescapable implication is that singer is trying to make Rikki come to terms with his homosexuality, to feel comfortable about it, to stop denying it. "You tell yourself you're not my kind," a highly ambiguous phrase susceptible to many meanings, but its meaning in this context is highly suggestive of the similarity between the singer and Rikki. ("But honey, he's not our kind," is used in Janis Ian's "Society's Child" as a sign of racial difference, but in light of Janis Ian's subsequent outing, the song takes on an added level of meaning. Racial (external) difference is not the issue in Steely Dan's song.) That the relationship between the two is sexual can be inferred from the meaning of "our little wild time," "wild" a word in English having the same colloquial meaning as Duchamp's "chaud au cul," hot ass, or hot in the ass. I should point out that there's nothing to prevent my decoding of the song in this way, as I've simply expanded the meaningful context of the possible meanings of the deliberately ambiguous spelling of "Rikki." It seems to me I'm being invited to play this name game.

In my discussion of "Any Major Dude Will Tell You" of a couple blog entries ago, I linked that song with "Timothy" and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," and subsequently I've queered all three songs. Initially, the key figure for me was the figure of the Squonk, invoked in the context of an unnamed figure in the midst of a personal crisis. In that song, the singer asks, "Have you ever seen a squonk's tears? Well, look at mine," the use of a fantastic creature suggesting some fundamental difference, an otherness, that the singer and the unnamed "you" share. The same idea is used in "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," although obviously without the figure of the Squonk.

I also earlier mentioned the song titled "The Squonk" on the Genesis album, Trick of the Tail (1976), made a couple years after Pretzel Logic. The song is used in that album as part of its general concept, songs about realities or things that no longer exist, are imaginary.

1 comment:

laura noname said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-KvRwbbgbME