Tuesday, June 24, 2008

That Song: “Misfits” by The Kinks

I’ve decided to add a new feature: detailing how certain songs affected me at a certain point in life. I’m sure recording artists hear these stories all the time … overly-excited fans starting with “dude, you changed my life” and ending a few painful minutes later with “and that’s how ‘The Killing of Georgie, Parts I and II’ saved my marriage.” But if the artist has time, listens, and the person relating the story isn’t some sputtering maniac, this could be interesting stuff for him to hear – I know I can surely pull this off on a regular basis.

I can’t pinpoint when it was in the early 70s when I fell in love with The Kinks, but I can tell you it happened with hearing the song “Lola” on the radio. I thought it was the most intelligent, funny, creative and wild song I’d ever heard, on top of rocking. Most “rocking” songs had no meaning. They were just Robert Plant yowling “baby, baby, baby” over and over. With “Lola,” I could hear the story of a young guy going to a nightclub in London, meeting what he thinks is the love of his life, then realizing Lola was either a drag queen or a deeply masculine woman. The immortal couplet: “I’m not dumb but I can’t understand/Why she walk like a woman and talk like man.”

The Kinks were all over AOR radio back then, along with their early hits like “You Really Got Me” getting regular play on AM radio. Again, I can’t recall when I bought the monumental two-record set The Kinks Kronikles, but that day changed my life, as I heard all the great album tracks they weren’t playing on the radio: “Shangri-La,” “Autumn Almanac,” “Get Back in Line,” etc. Nearly every song killed me. I had been a huge Elton John fan, but he was blowing wind by the time of his Blue Moves album. The other key bands for me from that time, ELO and Queen, were good at what they did, but not quite what The Kinks were all about.

This all must have occurred around 1977, because I can recall the radio playing the shit out of their current album cuts, “Jukebox Music” and “Sleepwalker” … which weren’t bad, but nowhere near as good as the stuff on Kronikles. Every time I’d go to the record store, I’d see that bin full of weird Kinks “concept” albums, some on the ubiquitous Pickwick record label (for the uninitiated, Pickwick picked up albums that had bombed and reissued them with their no-frills vinyl and packaging … if you had an album on Pickwick, you knew hard times). I wasn’t buying (yet).

A year passes, and in the spring of 1978, I heard a song on the radio, that I immediately knew was by The Kinks, but had never heard before. Back then, I wasn’t so quick to assume this was new material. I recall that a few years earlier, I had heard The Beatles song “We Can Work It Out” on the radio and assumed it was a Paul McCartney and Wings song I didn’t know. Understand I was 11 or so, a Wings fan, and at that point only had The Beatles “Blue” greatest hits album … so much of their back catalog was new to me. One of the greater listening experiences of my teen years in the late 70s was going back and buying all those Beatles, Stones, Who and Kinks albums (at least the ones still in print), hearing landmark songs for the first time and having just enough listening experience to know it.

This song had a beautiful opening riff on acoustic guitar that repeated itself before Ray Davies came in with those first few lines: “You’ve been sleeping in a field/But you look real rested/You set out to outrage/Now you can’t get arrested.”

It was one of those songs that made me stop what I was doing and listen. That happened all the times with Kinks songs, because you wanted to hear the words, as you’d know they’d be worth your time. I was in my bedroom, doing school work at night while listening to WMMR on the radio, and whatever I was doing just stopped.

As with all great songs, I got it on the first listen. There are good songs that grow on you, but it’s been my experience that great ones hit you like a baseball bat upside the head, and there’s no mistaking it.

Let’s go back to 1978. I’m 14 at the time. This picture is a pretty accurate representation. Notice the goofy headphone hair – hair literally shaped by wearing those Radio Shack Nova 40 headphones – the ONLY good product the Radio Shack has ever produced. (Their in-house brand name for small electronic products was Realistic. The shit was realistic; it broke down all the time.) I went through two pairs in my listening years through the 70s and 80s, used them religiously. (Those were the days of dropping a needle on the start of the album, playing it all the way through Side 1, flipping it, and then Side 2, about a 40-minute endeavor I repeated thousands of times.) Notice the slight dose of acne – I never got it bad, just enough to be annoying. Notice the flannel shirt – my choice of clothes when not wearing goofy band, movie or comedian t-shirts. Throw in jeans and sneakers, and that’s my daily wardrobe.

I was a smart kid, but not too smart. My problem in school wasn’t so much lack of discipline as not caring enough about grades. I got Bs and As with ease. When it got to be crunch time in Math and Science classes, my least favorite, I’d even get Cs on occasion. I was good at sports, but not inclined to join the high-school teams. I tried basketball and golf, but gave up both by my junior year. (Golf I could have easily stayed with, but was getting bored with the game after hitting a plain of mediocrity I couldn’t surpass, and basketball, I didn’t like the stiffness of the plays and structure, a world away from the schoolyard ball I was great at.) I didn’t do drugs, but knew plenty of kids who did, and would go on knowing them, simply because we were kids and still in that groove of knowing each other by proximity and habit.

My friends were a like-minded group of stranded kids who weren’t “cool” by any standards, nor were the objects of derision. Most of us didn’t get laid. The ones who did, man, it was like they were already in a bad marriage. We were a pretty good bunch of guys: loyal, smart, not prone to head games, great senses of humor, which we should have exploited a lot more under the circumstances. The popular kids didn’t think we were popular enough, the jocks not athletic enough, the stoners not stoned enough. “Low profile” would be an apt description. You could be part of our gang, if you could find it, and didn’t mind our befuddlement with all things important to your average teenager.

So, it’s odd to me now that when I heard “Misfits” for the first time, it struck me with a thunderbolt of recognition that I was some type of misfit. I had always felt out of place in some sense – still do now. At the time, I didn’t know it was a condition many people feel in the same way, too. And I can look back now and see that I really wasn’t the huge misfit I made myself out to be: I was a pretty normal kid, all things considered. Very bizarre and developed sense of humor for my age, smarter and more well-read than your average kid, but aside from that, about as normal as a teenage kid could be. "Misfits" is a romantic sounding soung, and I gather there were kids and even older listeners who took it upon themselves to romanticize their sense of displacement just as I was doing.

I could point out the kids who were misfits. The handful of teenage guys in my class who were obviously gay and catching shit from all sorts of demented goons on a daily basis. The kid who smelled like shit and wore KISS t-shirts every day. Those wayward kids who seemed like they’d be a lot happier jumping boxcars headed west than sitting in “the rubber room” (where the bad kids went for being bad). The large kids who “overheard” fat jokes and comments all day, every day. The homely girls no one would pay attention to, much less ask out. These weren’t people who were waving their freak flags high. These were kids who seemed on the verge of being invisible, or willing themselves to be so. A lot of them were always angry and no fun to be around. There was nothing romantic about it; self pity is a quality that comes too easily to most teenagers. (And why I despised grunge and wasn't so hot on groups like Nirvana when they rolled around ... kids didn't need any extra encouragement to feel that way.)

What got to me about “Misfits,” as with so many other Ray Davies song, was it made the unusual universal – he let you know he understood that we’re all strange in some sense, and it’s all right. The song’s bridge said it all: “Look at all the losers and the mad-eyed gazers/Look at all the loonies and the sad-eyed failures/They’ve given up living because they just don’t care/So take a good look around/The misfits are everywhere.”

The song stops, then kicks in with a great country-sounding guitar riff. The whole song has that sense of building, like any good ballad, and “Misfits” has a few of the moments, when the song fades to nothing, then fades back in on an organ note, or that signature riff repeated on the acoustic guitar. This song wasn’t a hit – I’m not even sure if it was released a single. The big songs from the Misfits album was “A Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy,” a similar song in sound and theme, Ray singing about his uncertainty about the band, and his decision to keep on going because there were people out there who loved his music more than he did, and it touched him. The song seemed a bit cheesy and dishonest to me – of course, he wasn’t going to stop making music, what else was he going to do – but “Misfits” seemed real to me, like Ray was walking with me through those nutty high-school halls, where everything seemed to be some desperate competition I wanted no part of, and kids either chased that brass ring or turned too easily towards bitterness and rejection.

A cool thing about The Kinks in general that I discovered in my senior year. I was in one of those awful science classes again – Nuclear Science – with the legendary Mr. Welker, who actually made me learn my shit in Chemistry and get good grades via ass-busting and rote repetition. Nuclear Science was another story. Last semester, so I was feeling pretty lax to begin with, but on top of this, that shit may as well have been Chinese to me. I just didn’t grasp Nuclear Science. And I didn’t care – I was graduating in a few weeks, already accepted at Penn State, and I was just looking to get out of there.

Being a smart kid, I was in these smart-kid classes with that mix of eggheads and go-getters. Some kids were just smart. Some were smart and popular (i.e., into sports and school-related activities). Some were popular and faking the smartness to the best of their abilities. That class was no different. We all got along in that weird sort of “smart kid” camaraderie.

One day, we went on a field trip to the Berwick power plant – I don’t think that’s a nuclear reactor, but it’s a power plant, and Mr. Welker knew people there so we could get a detailed tour of how the place worked. (Mr. Welker also worked at Three Miles Island, and would go off on tirades about the movie The China Syndrome being a load of shit, not his exact words, but, boy, he hated when Hollywood turned what he recognized to be the future of electrical power into a horror story.)

The tour went as planned – we all wore hardhats and had a ball, being out of school, middle of May, 17 years old, about to graduate – just a great time. On the way back, we all had the van to ourselves. Since Mr. Welker knew we were the “good kids,” he trusted that we wouldn’t go apeshit and tear the thing up. We didn’t. But as we were pulling out of Berwick, I’ll never forget this, Mike and Dave, who were two best friends from the football team, pulled out a portable tape recorder and popped in a tape. I’d figure, “Jocks … nice guys, but probably assholes when it comes to music … here comes Journey, or Styx, or Def Leppard, etc.”

The fuckers popped in The Kinks Kronikles and were blasting “Waterloo Sunset”! I freaked out, as I was one of about five kids, the others soulful musically-inclined stoners, who seemed to know or care who The Kinks were. I asked them how they got into The Kinks, and just like me, hearing stuff on the radio, a stray King Biscuit Flower Hour here and there, etc. They said they played the album all the time after practice. I tried to imagine a busful of jocks grooving to “David Watts” and couldn’t. But that was Dave and Mike, two cool kids who shocked the hell out of me that day, but I should have seen it coming as they were obviously bright, insightful kids before this.

And I guess that was the point of “Misfits.” I took a good look around, and there were two kids on that bus just like me in some sense that I’d never considered before. This is a strange song for me, because it no longer has that direct emotional impact it once did. I still love the song and can listen to it repeatedly. But not in that same way I did when I was 14, and the song was like a veil being lifted on some important truth I’d yet to grasp, the recognition that no matter how fucked up I felt at any given time, I more than likely wasn’t alone, and might even be surprised by who was feeling the same way. It was a good song to listen to at the time.

1 comment:

Andy S. said...

"I tried to imagine a busful of jocks grooving to “David Watts” and couldn’t."

One of the things I've noticed over the years is the unexpectedly large jock fan base of certain rock acts, including The Kinks, Springsteen and Bob Dylan. I've never figured out why that is, but I've been to enough shows to witness the phenomenon repeatedly. They show up in loud, obnoxious hordes, seem completely at odds with the musical and social image of the artists in question, and seem to know every song backwards and forwards!