Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Masterpieces of Pop: "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"

Let’s continue our survey of the Masterpieces of Pop with a song from 1974. The band Steely Dan is basically a two-member operation with a rotating cast of studio musicians. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have been at the core of the group since its inception in 1967. They came to fame in the 70s with fantastic hits like “Reelin’ In The Years,” “Do It Again,” and “Peg.” But for me, the greatest Steely Dan song, and a masterpiece of pop, is the cryptic “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number.” It seems there was an entire subgenre of rock music in the 70s that I like to call “Cryptic Rock” but “Rikki…” is by no means the most cryptic—just listen to “Blinded By The Light” by Manfred Mann or “The Year of the Cat” by Al Stewart to see what I mean.


A flopanda solo (a type of electric marimba) sets the tone right at the start of the song, acting more like a sound effect than a prelude or intro. With this sound, something is mysterious, odd, amiss. But the song begins, slightly sultry with its measured pacing bass (lifted directly from “Song For My father” by jazz legend Horace Silver), tinkling acoustic guitars and a wood block, rendering it a sort of chilly, urban-rock bossa nova. Lead singer Donald Fagen punctures this texture with one of the most intriguing voices in rock history. A mix of reedy and full, a little crispy around the edges with an appealing lazy vibrato, his vocal lines were recorded twice to give them a subliminal “thickness” that adds weight –both aurally and emotionally—to this enigmatic tale. This little recording trick is very different from the fantastic harmonic overdubs Fagen recorded to accompany himself. (To hear the former, listen to the lines that begin with “You tell yourself you’re not my kind”—to hear the latter, listen to any of the choruses and swoon at the glorious, smoky harmonies.) With Fagen’s entrance, we are immediately introduced to the musical logic of the song. Steely Dan were highly influenced by jazz and it shows in their choice of note and chord progression. The notes never go where one thinks they will. They are peculiar, keeping the listener on the edge, trying to follow the bouncing ball.

But what is he singing?

“We hear you're leaving, that's ok
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 wanna 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

Rikki, don't lose that number
You don't wanna 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

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

Rikki, don't lose that number
You don't wanna 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

Rikki, don't lose that number
(Rikki, don't lose that number)
Rikki, don't lose that number”

video

Who is Rikki? Traditionally a male name, the spelling moves us into a gender neutral space. Could be male, could be female. Where is Rikki going? Where has Rikki been? And what exactly is wrong with Rikki? There are some ambiguous clues in the song and I admit that an interpretation depends upon who is interpreting. For a long time, I felt that Rikki was going away to a mental hospital, where the object is to “feel better” so as to be released. The image of someone mailing off a phone number to themselves so they will have it later is such a lonely, disconnected thought...

There is also a possible gay theme in this song, and I am not the only one who has ever thought that: out gay singer Tom Robinson recorded a version in 1984. It is easy to see that our narrator and the male friend he mentions are very interested in spending time with Rikki to, as he coyly puts it, drive on Slow Hand Row or to stay inside and play games, all sexually charged suggestions. Add to that a slick avoidance of pronouns as well as references to “you scared yourself, you turn and run” and “you tell yourself you’re not my kind, but you don’t even know your mind,” and one must admit that such secrecy, subterfuge, and veiled references are reminiscent of a certain common experience in gay culture.

But alas, at the end of the song we are left none the wiser. We are still unclear about who Rikki is, where Rikki might be going, and why Rikki is so skittish. That is if you only allow for the content of the song itself. I hesitate to write this, but we have since discovered in a 2006 article about Steely Dan that the Rikki in question is most likely author Rikki Ducornet—clearly female. Ducornet met Fagen while they were attending Bard College in New York. She was married and pregnant at the time Fagen gave her his phone number at a college party. But as any student of art—whether literature, lyrics, painting, dance, theater or sculpture, etc.—will tell you, “Ultimate meaning often transcends inspiration.” The creation exists on its own, independent of the creator. In a way, such works are universal. It’s not a Masterpiece of Pop for nothin’.

No comments: