Showing posts with label Steely Dan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Steely Dan. Show all posts

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

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


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


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.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Squonk: Part 1

Please forgive the splitting of my recent blog entries into parts, but I have a number of writing projects going on at the moment and as you know usually what I’m writing about on these blogs demands a rather time-consuming, detailed exposition.

The Squonk, an imaginary being whose existence was first written about in a book of American regional folklore published in 1910 titled Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods by William T. Cox, became popularly known in the late 1960s after the English language publication of Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings (E. P. Dutton, 1969; co-authored with Margarita Guerrero). I’ve always believed the word is a portmanteau comprised of “squawk” and “honk,” both onomatopoeic words (that is, derived from a primarily oral culture) the squawk associated with a chicken and the honk with a goose. But the Squonk is described by William T. Cox not as a fantastic, bird-like creature but rather as a four-legged beast having “a very retiring disposition” and having “misfitting skin . . . covered with warts and moles” (pictured, image courtesy of the online edition of Cox's book).

The first edition of Borges’ and Guerrero’s book, containing 82 pieces about mythical creatures, was published in Mexico in 1957, titled Manual de zoologia fantastica (Handbook of Fantastic Zoology). A second edition, re-titled El libro de los seres imaginarios (The Book of Imaginary Beings) was published in Buenos Aires a decade later (Editorial Kier, S. A., Buenos Aires, 1967), with thirty-four additional articles (now totaling 116 pieces). For the English-language edition, several of the original articles were corrected, emended, and/or revised with four new ones added. Thus the E. P. Dutton edition, published in 1969, contains 120 entries about fantastical creatures.

I do not know the year of the Italian translation of Borges' book, but so far as I know the Squonk was first referred to in the popular arts in Mario Bava’s film Ecologia del delitto (Ecology of Murder, 1971), released in the U. S. in 1972 first as Carnage and subsequently as Twitch of the Death Nerve. According to Tim Lucas, in his IPPY Award-winning Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark (2007), the Squonk was, rather interestingly, first popularly invoked in the context of post-coital pillow talk, when the character Frank asks his sex partner Laura, "Can't you hear it calling? It was a squonk." When asked by Laura what a Squonk is, Frank says the Squonk is a "dark-colored creature...covered with moles...And do you know what it does when it's captured? It dissolves into tears. Some of its peculiar qualities are sulkiness, diffidence, and possessiveness" (864). Tim subsequently observes that the Squonk is a figurative substitution for the figure of the female (Laura), who also has the traits of "sulkiness, diffidence, and possessiveness." Hence, early in its popular usage, the Squonk serves as a heteroclite, figurative displacement for a sexualized human being.

The Squonk soon reappeared in Steely Dan's song “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” included on the album Pretzel Logic, recorded late in 1973 and released in March 1974. One wonders whether Walter Becker and Donald Fagen learned of the Squonk through Mario Bava’s horror film or through the 1969 English-language version of Borges’ book. Given the lyrics it is hard to tell.

I never seen you looking so bad my funky one
You tell me that your super fine mind has come undone

Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you my friend
Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again
When the demon is at your door
In the morning it won’t be there no more
Any major dude will tell you
Any major dude will tell you

Have you ever seen a squonk’s tears? Well, look at mine
The people on the street have all seen better times


I can tell you all I know, the where to go, the what to do
You can try to run but you can't hide from what’s inside of you


Although Borges placed the Squonk in the category of fantastic creatures, I prefer to say that the Squonk is a cryptozoological creature. I know this is not precisely the correct usage of the word cryptozoological, but the reason I prefer this term is that carries the meaning of “hidden” or “hidden away" or even “secluded,” all behavioral characteristics associated with the Squonk, a solitary, acutely self-conscious, innately morbid creature that lurks in the woods, avoiding civilization and hence human beings, preferring to keep its own company. The Squonk hides itself away during the day, preferring, according to Borges (and his source, William Cox), the twilight and dusk.

The singer of “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” asks “you”—the unnamed person that would seem to be in the midst of some personal crisis—the rhetorical question, Have you ever seen a squonk’s tears? assuming that the answer has to be no: since the Squonk is a very retiring creature that leads a solitary lifestyle and is rarely seen by people, the singer assumes you has never seen a Squonk, let alone a Squonk’s tears. “Well, look at mine,” the singer says, the point of which is to tell you that while the singer may not be a Squonk, he is figuratively much like a Squonk, and perhaps even strongly identifies with a Squonk—an unhappy creature with a misfitting skin covered in warts and moles—that is, a highly singular, solitary species given to a morbid personality which, as the result of a certain genetic birthright, not a curse as such, simply a matter of genetics, has a rather unattractive, if not ugly, appearance (hence the self-consciousness). Moreover, the unnamed you can “try to run” but cannot “hide from what’s inside” of himself, meaning despite himself he must be acutely aware of his real self, his true identity, the ineluctable reality that you wants to run away from, to hide from, to deny—but cannot. He—you—cannot escape what he is; like the Squonk he cannot escape his own freakishness. The singer speaks to you as one can do only when one is like the one to whom one speaks. They are two of the same kind, equals: I and Thou. The same. Hence the Squonk is used here, figuratively, as a creature with whom one can identify that is not like other people, one that is different because of genetics, a certain ugliness as perceived by others.

Steely Dan likes such singular, solitary creatures, especially crepuscular ones—those who come out when the sun sets, like the Squonk. A bat is a crepuscular creature, as is the rather ungainly, awkward creature known the opossum, the closest actual living analogue to the Squonk, I think. Steely Dan likes such crepuscular figures; take, for instance, the figure of Deacon Blues, a figure that likens himself to a snake (viper), a creature that comes out at night. He tells us:

I crawl like a viper
Through these suburban streets
Make love to these women
Languid and bittersweet
I’ll rise when the sun goes down
Cover every game in town
A world of my own
I’ll make it my home sweet home

The next appearance of the Squonk was in the eponymously named song by Genesis, on the album A Trick of the Tail (1976), where the text of Cox's 1910 depiction of the Squonk was more or less re-told in narrative form. As in Steely Dan's song, there is a figure referred to as "you" to whom the lyrics are presumably addressed, but "you" is a much different kind of figure than the one in Steely Dan, the latter the one that interests me the most.

Part 2: "Timothy," Cannibalism, and the Queering of "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"