Sunday, January 19, 2014


"Rikki Don't Lose That Number" / Steely Dan

1974. I'm in college, no longer listening to my parents' car AM radio, thrown upon the mercies of college FM, which has its own weird orthodoxy. But every once in a while I tune into the local AM station and hear -- between "Time In a Bottle" and "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" -- something strange and wonderful. Plenty of cheesy jazz-rock imitators came along later to muck up the waters, but these guys invented the sound -- the dense aural environment, underlaid with a slapping, commanding groove.

Calling Dr. Becker! Calling Dr. Fagen! Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the two mad scientists behind Steely Dan, crafted that sound and welded to it oddball lyrics with a distinctly snarky take on modern life. And snarky was just exactly what I needed to hear in those days.  "Reeling In the Years," "Do It Again," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" -- the music was compelling, the songs themselves rather disturbing. But hey, I was in college -- disturbing was what I ate for breakfast back then.

So what's the story here? To a spooky samba beat, the singer's pleading with a girl -- I don't even think a girlfriend, just someone he briefly dated. Or whatever. There's certainly a whiff of desperation in the way he reminds her of "our little wild time" and going "out driving on Slow Hand Row" (that's some evocative name for a lover's lane). Properly speaking, I'm not sure that Rikki even remembers this guy at first, not if he has to remind her of their connection.

Now, in college I assumed that the number she wasn't supposed to lose was his. I pictured something scrawled on a matchbook or a cocktail napkin; I actually had a few of those in those days. If they had been steadies, she'd have had his phone number on speed dial -- but instead he's pleading with her "Rikki don't lose that number."

It was a different era, that's for sure. You didn't text somebody, you couldn't email them -- if you wanted to communicate you had to use the telephone, and chances were they wouldn't even be home to pick up. (This is such a Neanderthal era, we didn't even have answering machines -- if you called when they weren't home you just had to try again later.) It took effort.

"You don't want to call nobody else," he adds, entreating her -- because if she doesn't call, he'll never hear from her again. "Send it off in a letter to yourself" (mnemonic tips from Dr. Becker!). Chords falter and diminish as he speculates, "You might use it if you feel better / When you get home . . . " He knows she won't, but a guy can hope, can't he?  ("And you might have a change of heart . . . " the line wanders upward, followed by a twiddle of piano).

But things are not well in Rikki's world. That ominous ticking bass line, the ambiguous lyrics, the faintly scolding call-and-response of the chorus, they all spell trouble. At one time she wouldn't have phoned him for anything . . . but now maybe she will. Because --

Now, all these years later, I see a different scenario. It has occurred to me that it could be some other phone number -- an abortion doctor's, maybe? He's trying to help her out of a jam, but also keep himself from being implicated in that jam. He wants her to have a change of heart and get rid of the thing. After all, he only knows her from Slow Hand Road, and the unwritten rule is, whatever happens on Slow Hand Road stays on Slow Hand Road. Unless there are complications....

Maybe this is the scenario. I don't know for sure. All we hear is the dialogue between the two of them, and they know things we don't. It's like being thrown into a Raymond Carver short story, and scrambling to figure out what's going on.

One thing I knew for sure: if I was Rikki, I'd keep that number.  

10 DOWN, 42 to GO


Alex said...

Loving this series!

Tom Robinson recorded a great cover of this in the 80s and said in interviews "Rikki" was the "best gay song ever written." To drive home that interpretation (or maybe just to score points with Steely Dan afficianados), Robinson's version includes the bridge from "Any Major Dude Will Tell You" ("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").

Definitely worth a listen:

Squuzingoutcolumbus said...

Use to love TRB!

Holly A Hughes said...

That IS a tasty cover. Amazing what a different sound he got out of it. Whether or not this was meant as a gay song, TR certainly makes a convincing case for it.

Anonymous said...

"If they had been steadies, she'd have had his phone number on speed dial"

No such thing as Speed Dial in those days, except for business phones.