Showing posts with label The Doobie Brothers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Doobie Brothers. Show all posts

Monday, September 22, 2008

What's In A Name?

In one of the most famous scenes in all of dramatic literature, Juliet, one of the two very young star-cross’d lovers in Shakespeare’s tragedy, asks, “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet; / So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d, / Retain that dear perfection which he owes / Without that title.” So is one’s name incidental to one’s identity, as Juliet avers, or, on the contrary, is there a sort of destiny bequeathed by it? Does one’s proper name carry one’s Fate within it? Would John Wayne have become an iconic Hollywood star had he retained his birth name, Marion Michael Morrison? The actress born with the name Lucille LeSueur became Joan Crawford because her last name reminded a studio boss of the word “sewer.” Frederic Austerlitz, Jr. became Fred Astaire. Joe Yule, Jr. became Mickey Rooney. The iconic rock figure Iggy Pop was born James Newell Osterberg, Jr. Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman. Don Van Vliet became Captain Beefheart.

So what’s in a band name? Why weren’t The Beatles content with their earlier name, “The Quarrymen”? What if they had remained named The Quarrymen? Or The Silver Beetles? There have been bands named after the group’s leader (The Paul Butterfield Blues Band), last names (Simon and Garfunkel, Hall and Oates), colors (Deep Purple, Pink Floyd), novels (Ted Nugent and The Amboy Dukes), movies (Black Sabbath), anonymous occupants of a street address (The Residents), generic motor vehicles (The Cars), and an existential moment (Free, Nirvana).

The more imaginative names of bands invite us to explore the latent possibilities of meaning inherent in them. For instance:

QUICKSILVER MESSENGER SERVICE – Quicksilver is another name for the element mercury. The word comes from hydrargyrum, a Latinized form of the Greek word hydrargyros, meaning watery or liquid silver, which happens to serve as an apt description of the appearance of the Pacific Ocean in and around the Bay Area of San Francisco, where the band had its beginning. The element was named after the Roman god Mercury, a courier or messenger known for his speed (quickness); mercury is also the name of a neighboring planet. By the late medieval and early Renaissance period, to discover a woman was “quick” meant that she was “full of life,” that is, pregnant. The poet Walt Whitman associated the ocean with the womb (“out of the cradle endlessly rocking”), suggesting that the sound of the ocean gives us peace because it reminds us of our fetal, utopian existence within our mother's womb. Subsequent metaphorical elaborations of the word “service” came to mean a sexual partner’s dutiful obligation to provide sexual satisfaction to one’s lover. Alchemists once believed that mercury was the fundamental element from which all metals could be derived, and the purest of all metals was gold. Hence the derivation of one of Quicksilver’s songs, “Gold and Silver.” And the name of one of their compilations on CD is titled “Sons of Mercury.”

THE DOOBIE BROTHERS – “Doobie” is a slang term for a joint (marijuana inhaled in the form of a cigarette), possibly a pun derived from “Doob grass,” a perennial, creeping grass (Cynodon dactylon). “Grass,” of course, is slang for marijuana. The name seems, vaguely, to invoke the widely accepted view (at the time) of Native American cultures, which were thought to have included some form of drugs during religious rituals. It suggests the existence of a drug subculture on the order of those that flourished in Paris in the 1840s such as the Club des Haschischins, whose members included Charles Baudelaire, Alexander Dumas, Gerald de Nerval, and Thèophile Gautier. The word “brothers,” in this context, is vaguely subversive of brothers in the monastic sense, a group of men devoted to an ascetic ideal and religious devotion. Given this later connotation, the collocation “doobie brothers” is something of an oxymoron, or at least suggests the existence of a brotherhood based on the ingestion of hallucinogenic drugs, as a shared form of mystical experience. The band’s biggest hit, “Listen to the Music,” suggests the existence of a widespread, if anonymous, grass roots brotherhood (comprised of both brothers and sisters).

THE MEKONS – Widely believed to have been named after the Mekon, a green-headed, evil alien intelligence featured in The Eagle, a 1950s British comic strip, the name has other latent meanings. For Michael Jarrett, the word mekon “conflates dope and shit: Rock ‘n’ roll is the opiate of the people; it’s the fecal matter of popular culture” (144). He’s right: “mekon” is the Greek word for poppy, and meconium—from the Greek mēkōnion, dim. of mēkōn, poppy; akin to Old High German mago, poppy—is the substance that comprises the first bowel movement of a newborn baby, black-greenish in color and consisting of epithelial cells, mucus, and bile. The word meconium derives from meconiumarion, meaning “opium-like,” possibly a reference to the tarry appearance of a newborn’s excrement, or possibly to Aristotle’s speculation that the substance induced sleep in the fetus. The lyrics to the band’s song, “Brutal” (on The Curse of the Mekons), about the nineteenth-century Chinese Opium Wars, explicitly reference the poppy, suggesting the band members’ awareness of the latent meaning of the word “mekon.” “Cocaine Lil” (The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll) is another instance.