May 1, 2015

Summer 1974: A Hint of Gay Romance on the Radio

When I was a kid in the 1970s, we never heard about gay people, not even in a whisper.  We assumed that heterosexual desire was a universal of human experience, that every boy on Earth longed for girls, or would soon, that every man was married to a woman, or wanted to be.

But I kept looking for...something. I didn't know what.  I didn't even know that I was looking.  But a few experiences became iconic, evidence that I was being lied to, same-sex desire existed, same-sex romance existed.  It was not raining upstairs.

In The Secret of Boyne Castle, Rich and Sean smile at each other.
In Archie comics, a statement that "My date must be a boy"

A boy sings about his love for a boy.

June 9th, 1974,the summer after eighth grade at Washington Junior High.

American Top 40, with Casey Casem, plays on KSTT radio every Sunday morning from 9:00 to 12:00.  My brother and I usually listen to the first 15 minutes while getting ready for church, and the last fifteen 15 after church, while changing into our everyday clothes, so we hear #38-40 and #1-3.

Today #38 is by Steely Dan, a guy I never heard of before

Someone named Ricky is leaving:

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...

Wild time, change of heart -- sounds like a boyfriend leaving.  That's impossible, of course, since Steely Dan is a boy.  They must be friends who had a falling out.

Ricky, don't lose that number, you don't wanna call nobody else
Send it off in a letter to yourself
Ricky,, don't lose that number, it's the only one you own
You might use it if you feel better when you get home

Feel better?  Ricky is leaving in anger. And Steely Dan is desperate for him to return, lost without him.  Sounds like...that's impossible, of course.  They're both boys.

I think about it all through Sunday school (another lesson on why God hates people who go to movies) and church (three funereal hymns and a blustering, Bible-pounding sermon on why God hates liberal so-called "Christians").

"Ricky" rises in the charts through the summer of 1974, as I go to summer enrichment classes, had our annual visit to relatives in Garrett and camping in the wilds of Minnesota.

It hits the Top 10 in July, while I am at summer camp, getting engaged and seeing Brother Dino in the shower.

I learn that Steely Dan is actually a group, originally the duo of Don Fagen and Walter Becker.  "Ricky Don't Lose That Number" has Don Fagen as the lead singer and Tim Schmit doing backup vocals.

It doesn't matter: it's still a boy singing about how lost he is without Ricky, and begging him to return.

A boy is lost without a boy.  How is that possible?  

I know better than to mention these mysteries to anyone.  Other kids will exclaim "don't be an idiot!", teachers will get all flustered and leave the room, and my Dad will force me into the back yard to throw a football around.

But I can't help myself.  I ask Mark, an older boy at camp: "Ricky is leaving, and another boy is anxious for him to return.  How is that possible?"

"Doofus!" he exclaims.  "It's not Ricky, it's Rikki, spelled R-I-K-K-I.  A girl's name!"

"That's crazy!  There is no girl's name RIKKI."  The only Rikki I know of is in the Rudyard Kipling story "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," and he was a boy mongoose.

When I get home, I go to the record store and look at the jacket. R-I-K-K-I.  But it's still a boy's name!

By August, when I am trying to win the Boy on the Prospect List and decipher the secret message that Brian left on the wall of the junior high, the song is off the charts.

Years later, I discover that other people jumped to the same conclusion, that the song was about a lost same-sex romance.  Steely Dan may even have intended the interpretation.  After all, Don Fagen has been the subject of gay rumors -- he didn't marry a woman until 1993 -- and his group was named after a dildo that appears in Naked Lunch, by gay writer William Burroughs.

Intentional or not, it helped me recognize that the adults were lying.

It is not raining upstairs.

See also: Brother Dino in the Shower.