Monday, August 23, 2010

Eli the Camel

Some people look at graphic art with an unassuming eye and see nothing but the literal content of what is presented to them. If they see a stick figure holding an umbrella, the only information they take in - or even try to take in - is "man with umbrella".

Me, I've always tended to look beyond the two-dimensional image and inject myself into a speculative version of its three-dimensional milieu. It's just one of the pecularities of my perceptions that's been evident since childhood. In other words, when reading comics, I'm always aware that these cartoon characters, in their own reality, must perceive themselves as living in a real and 3-D world. I can't read comics without trying to imagine the floor plan of Aunt May's house, to map out the layout of Camp Swampy in my head, to speculate what kind of underwear, if any, the Black Canary has on.

Great works of art seem to encourage this practice in the common viewer - lots of people study the background of the Mona Lisa or speculate on the circumstances of the setting of Munch's The Scream or imagine what it would be like to actually be standing on one of Dali's surrealist plains. But few seem to do the same thing with comics and with mundane advertising graphics.

Ferlin Husky knew just what I'm talking about. His song "Eli the Camel" analyzes the art on a pack of Camel cigarettes in the same high-functioning autistic deconstructionist way that I do, and speculates on the setting and the backstory and the literal reality of that world. Like a man who's probably gazed deeply into the picture on the pack like a gypsy staring into a crystal ball, looking for answers. A man who's meditated many a time on the meaning of the dromedary imagery, late at night as the bar's about to close and they're about to sweep him out with the bottles.

There's an old brown camel on a cigarette pack
He's a-waiting for his master but he ain't come back
Been standin' there for years in the same old place
With the same old look upon his old long face

Eli the camel, he never gets a drink
I wonder what old Eli thinks
Standing on the front of that cigarette pack
Eli the camel with the hump upon his back

Now, I have often wondered what his master did
When he went behind that big pyramid
Some say he got a sunstroke and the old man died
But, I think he's at the hotel on the other side

He probably found a harem and he moved on in
Forgot all about his faithful friend
Standing on the front of that cigarette pack
Eli the camel with the hump upon his back

I've always been fascinated with Camel cigarettes myself, as they're the last vestige of the 19th century Egyptian cigarette craze. I wonder if Ferlin also saw the subliminal naked man and leaping lion hidden in the picture?

- - JSH

No comments: