Sunday, October 26, 2008

Help, My Life Has Turned into One Big Kinks Song

Sitting here now, with the Phillies battling Tampa Bay in crucial Game 4 of the World Series. It’s been a great fall for me sports-wise. Penn State’s football team has been kicking ass, third in the nation, undefeated, way above anyone’s expectations, as 80+ year old coach Joe Paterno, who has been the head coach since I was three, hobbles around on a cane, in pain from a hip injury, but smiling his ass off with the situation his team is in. The Phillies, what can I say – a good year, turned into a great one in the playoffs, and even if they somehow tank this, I’ll still be proud of them.

But I have the sound turned down, partially because I can’t stand the blathering of game commentators Joe Buck and Tim McCarver. When I hit the mute button, I popped open the iTunes library, did a search for The Kinks, and I’ve been sitting here listening to various songs from their great catalog, only to realize …

My life has become one big Kinks song! I never thought this would happen. I don’t think this is a bad thing. I just never thought it would happen. What I’m going to do here is list some of the lyrics that are grabbing me from the songs I’m listening to and draw parallels to my own life. This may not work – it may come off half-assed. But it’s worth a shot. I’ll list the song after each set of lyrics, of course. If you don’t know them, feel free to youtube, LastFM, or google these songs to find a sound clip: you won’t be sorry.


Cause he gets up in the morning,
And he goes to work at nine,
And he comes back home at five-thirty,
Gets the same train every time.
Cause his world is built around punctuality,
It never fails.
And he's oh, so good,
And he's oh, so fine,
And he's oh, so healthy,
In his body and his mind.
He's a well respected man about town,
Doing the best things so conservatively.

“A Well Respected Man.” This is how my life feels most week days. Work in the office, work-out after work. I am reasonably healthy in my body and mind. People respect me (for the most part). I’m punctual as hell. Question: should I feel like the pompous dick as was Ray Davies intent for the character of this song? Ray Davies, what in the fuck am I supposed to do?

Breeze blows leaves of a musty-colored yellow,
So I sweep them in my sack.
Yes, yes, yes, it's my autumn almanac
I like my football on a Saturday,
Roast beef on Sundays, all right.

“Autumn Almanac.” This song is my life right now, the way the leaves are coming down. As noted numerous times before, I spend a good bit of time each Saturday morning sweeping out my landlord’s property, sidewalks and back patio. A good bit of work, generally takes about two hours: dirty, sweaty and afterwards I feel like I’ve accomplished something, especially when I stand and look at what I’ve done, nice clean walks that were leaf and/or garbage-covered before. It’s a good feeling. Makes me feel like I’m watching after nature, sweeping up after her, taking part in the seasons. The leaves are going to be coming down like snow the next few weeks, and I love it. I think in this song, Ray commiserates with the little man keeping his property in order, so I guess I should take a thumbs up from this one. I like watching Penn State football on Saturdays and making chili on Sundays. All right.

But all I want to do is make some money,
And bring you home some wine.

“Get Back in Line.” A poignant song about a man standing in a welfare line (in the UK, receiving money on the dole), reasoning why he wants to make money. Doesn’t want to get rich. Wants to bring home some small personal comfort to the people he cares about. It’s that simple. Should be that simple. Is that simple for me. I love this song for that reason. It’s hard to get across this concept to many New Yorkers, who have no identity without money and status. It’s where I’m from in Pennsylvania and who I’ll always be in many respects. Not some "in your face" faux humility -- you want to get rich and do what that requires, go right ahead. I just want some minor creature comforts (music, movies, books), a roof over my head and some money in the bank. Saving money will always be important to me, thanks to Dad's stern Depression-era stories. But that's enough for me.

All life we work but work is bore,
If life's for livin' what's livin' for?

“Oklahoma USA.” Another beautiful Davies ballad, about a woman living in a run-down house in Oklahoma who imagines her life as the more romantic musical Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain. There aint shit sweeping down this woman’s plain. I know the feeling, and I guess we all do at one time or another. I’m not sure what the above couplet means, save that it conveys a sense of emptiness that’s part of life on bad days. Hopefully, not something you’re feeling every day! I don't know what's livin' for.

I've gotta start facing up to what I really am.
I've got to realize l'm just an ordinary man.
I think that I'll just settle down.
And take my place in the crowd.
I don’t want to lie to myself anymore.

“A Face in the Crowd.” From one of The Kinks' horrible concept albums of the mid-70s, but a great song about a rock star choosing anonymity over his high-profile lifestyle. When I listened to this song as a teenager, I’d imagine that I was the rock star making the same humble choice … never quite realizing I already was that face in the crowd, and would go on being that face in the crowd the rest of my days. I think Ray was a little full of shit here – then again, he was just playing a character in a rock opera. Dare I say it now, Ray Davies could probably walk down any street in America and go unrecognized by a vast majority of people. He got his wish. But having had minor brushes with fame along my way, I can see that anonymity has its benefits. Things get strange when people who don’t know you act like they know you.

Go to my office, sit at my desk,
Predictably just like all of the rest.
I sit and I dream about far away places,
Away from the people with frowns on their faces.

“Predictable” – from one of those great early-80s Kinks albums where Ray got his groove back. Again, this is a pretty typical work day. Actually, that’s a good day. A bad day is encountering any variety of bullshit and head games that make high school seem like a gathering of Greek philosophers on Mount Olympus. I gather Ray Davies never worked in an office, probably never held a job outside of being a rock star. I think he loathes the idea of sitting behind a desk … without ever having sat behind a desk. Which, I have to admit, is not as bad as he makes it out to be – it surely gets worse. Springsteen did the same thing with working-class jobs: imagined how the world was without actually living it for real. As a result, I sometimes think both miss the boat and shoot a little broad in their characterizations. Still, I give Ray a huge edge for empathizing much more clearly with his characters, seeing himself in them more than doing third-person character studies. I imagine being a rock star is pretty dull when you’re not on stage or creating music. I suspect Ray just transferred that boredom into an office and figured he had it nailed … and he did, in small ways.

Somehow you feel that the world's been passin' you by.
Can't help thinkin' somehow they're living a lie.
Now I'm asking questions, I never thought I'd ask them before,
Like "why" or "how" or "what am I doing it for?"
Will I reach my destination,
Or will I get off along the way?

“Return to Waterloo.” From Ray’s mid-80s solo album based on the kind-of-dull movie he made at the time about a guy with serious family problems going off to a typical work day in London from his town in the suburbs. The theme is one he’s tackled many times over in his songs: world is passing you by, and you’re not moving with it, living a lie of sorts. I think we all feel like we’re living lies to some small extent – maybe even a larger one if you really hate what you do. I made peace with office work once I realized I was good at it. Doesn’t necessarily mean I like it, although I thrive on staying busy and feeling productive. Fuckin’ A, I like to work: it’s that simple. I don’t LOVE to work. And I like to work eight hours a day – not 10, or 12, or more, like many fiends do in New York. It’s work. You’re not necessarily supposed to like it. But if you’re smart, you learn to love that act of working as opposed to whatever you’re actually doing. If it makes you feel empty, find a cure for cancer already, or go save a whale. Find a cure for cancerous whales. When you're not busy getting hammered.

What I also remember about this song, actually the album: I bought it the first day upon returning to campus in last August for my senior year at Penn State. Knew it was coming out that day, busted down to the small indie store and snagged it. Warm sunny late summer day. Walked back to Headquarters, where the gang was sure to be gathering, a few blocks away on the main drag. Sure enough, Justin was there, warm greetings, welcome back, what's that you got there, why it's the new Ray Davies solo album, Return to Waterloo, break it out, let's have a listen. Title track was the first song, and it floored us. Both being young iconoclastic bullshit artistes, we marveled at how well Ray had nailed the middle-class hypocrasy again and that feeling of dread 'neath the suburban hedges ... again, not quite realizing, we never forsook or in any way escaped similar existences, save to say we went away to college and got drunk a lot in that insular little hipster world of English majors. We were dicks, of course. But tasteful dicks. Now Justin has 15 kids and lives in a shoe in central California. We weren't fooling anybody!

Put on your slippers and sit by the fire
You've reached your top and you just can't get any higher
You're in your place and you know where you are
In your Shangri-la
Sit back in your old rocking chair
You need not worry, you need not care
You can't go anywhere
Shangri-la, Shangri-la, Shangri-la.

“Shangri-La.” Could be Ray Davies best song, from the Arthur album, based on a brooding British melodrama about the desperate suburbanite (which I’ve never seen, although I’ll bet it’s ham-fisted and over-wrought). This song perfectly nails the concept of ev’ry man a king, in his own little domain. Am I being shallow to admit I love the concept and see the beauty in it? I gather Ray was laying on the sarcasm heavily in this song. Sometimes he’d have an entirely sympathetic take on the working/middle class (like “Autumn Almanac”), other times, he’d launch a subtle attack, like in this song. Man, when I get home from work, I do want to sit back in my old rocking chair, and not worry or care. Is this wrong? Hell, no. I don’t have slippers, or a fireplace, but motherfuckers, if I did, I would put on my slippers and sit by the fire. I wouldn’t call it reaching my top and not being able to get any higher. I’d call it taking it easy after a hard day at work. Shoot me!

"Shangri-La" also has the lines: "Here is your reward for working so hard/Gone are the lavatories in the back yard." Again, the song is all thinly-veiled sarcasm over a "little man" taking comfort in the creature comforts and safety of his home. I got news for you: there's a radical, positive difference between using a toilet in a home and a lavatory. Before Dad built an extension to our house in the early 70s (something that would have thrilled Ray Davies, when he wasn't too busy scoffing at the concept), we had a lavatory to handle the overload of seven people in one house with one toilet. We called it the out-house: an outdoor shithouse. It was just a small wooden shack at the very end of our backyard, with a wooden bench inside with a hole in the middle, through which you pissed an shat, then hopefully wiped with paper, unless you made the grave error of not taking note before sitting down.

I don't know how deep the out-house hole was -- it didn't seem very, i.e., you could peer inside and see the murky sewage just a few feet away. Allow me to summarize: IT SUCKED! Try dumping in your pajamas in winter snow, with splinters in your ass. Indoor plumbing and toilets were a HUGE reward! Then again, I suspect most of Ray's adult existence was spent in the relative luxury of upper middle classdom, as opposed to the lavatory-ridden existence of freshly post World War II London, which had been bombed into oblivion. If he wanted to get sassy about a topic like this, he could have easily had his indoor plumbing removed, erect an out-house in his backyard and go there. I suspect he was a thousand times more pampered than the "little men" he often wrote about, and possibly his mild loathing expressed so often in the songs was really self loathing because he recognized how spoiled he was in comparison to those spartan days of picking through bombed buildings and vacant lots as a child.

If my friends could see me now, driving round just like a film star,
In a chauffeur driven jam jar, they would laugh.
They would all be saying that it's not really me,
They would all be asking who I'm trying to be.

“Sitting in My Hotel.” A big ballad from the early 70s, in which Ray’s pitying himself while looking out a luxury hotel window on tour and thinking the world is going by without him. He remembers his working-class friends as a child, and thinks they’d be laughing at and with him – glad that he made it in some sense, but wondering where he’s going with all this poofy rock-star stuff. Again, as a teenager, I’d play a song like this, and imagine I was a self-pitying rock star. Now? It makes me think of my friends back in Pennsylvania and the minor dislocation between them and that world and the one I’m living in here in New York. Where everything is glitter to the outside … but is really just as mundane as anywhere else. You get used to it, believe me. It has its good and bad points. And sooner or later, you get tired of running around in your spare time and just settle down, the same way you would in a small town. I may have detailed this once before, but I made a brief stab at living on the west coast, just after college, in Venice, California, and one day seeing a lost dog on the beach, cowering in the shadows as scores of people milled around on the beach on a Saturday. I saw myself in that dog, and felt an unbearable sorrow that presaged me getting my ass out of there a few weeks later. That was surely a “Sitting in My Hotel” moment in my life. Just because you leave home doesn’t mean home leaves you. A feeling that fills some people with dread, but makes me feel all right.

I was riding in the car with my mum and dad,
He was drivin' the car, the kids were drivin' him mad.
Dad looked at us, then he looked at his wife,
He must have wondered where we all came from.
And then mum said, "Dad, you know it won't last for long,
Before you know it, Summer's gone."

“Summer’s Gone.” Another great 80s Kinks song, a period well-worth checking out for anyone who hasn’t. What a beautiful scene he sets – parents in a car full of squabbling kids, and the mother looking at the father and saying, “You know it won’t last for long” – in a sad way, not in a “shut the fuck up, kids” sort of way. And, boy, does this song nail that vibe. Dad’s gone in my life, Mom’s getting on in years, and every time I get in a car with her, I think, this won’t last forever, sooner or later, it’s going to be just me in that car wondering where both of them went and truly grasping what it means to no longer have them in my life. I’m obviously in the “autumn of my years” – and I like it. But it’s like being perched between two worlds. I still feel young, but I can see death coming, can feel it and sense it in little ways that I couldn’t have in my 20s or 30s. I remember a lot of those little moments with my parents when I was a kid or a teenager, and being a total asshole with them, like the time I made Mom cry when she bought me a Philadelphia Phillies t-shirt that I claimed to hate on sight (but later loved and wore to shreds). God, I wish I could take moments like that back. But what can you do. We’re still here, and she’s still my mother. I’ll take it.

I wish my eyes could only see
Everything, exactly as it used to be
It's too late, so late
Young and innocent days
I see the lines across your face
Time has gone and nothing ever can replace
Those great, so great
Young and innocent days

“Young and Innocent Days.” Again, from the Arthur album, one of my favorite Kinks song, cascading harpsichord lines and wonderful background vocals from brother Dave Davies. A good song about growing old. Only I don’t subscribe to getting all misty-eyed over lost youth. You move with time, you get lines on your face, sure, time marches on, but you can’t overly concern yourself with this stuff. Those young and innocent days weren’t always so great. Sort of like how I don’t really like the message of the song “Imagine” by John Lennon (I don’t like being told to imagine having no possessions by a multi-millionaire), I don’t like the message of this song … but the melody and everything else about the song is so incredibly good, that I forgive the message. Ray wrote a song about the same time called “Days” that’s simply the best song about the death of a friend that I've heard. I like it so much I won’t quote it here and draw parallel lines, but I’ll
give you a copy if you want. Next to “Lola” (my favorite song choice in my high-school yearbook … which I’ll still stick by), the best Kinks song.

Man, the Phillies are kicking ass in the 5th inning! This is looking good tonight. But this game is surely far from over. Just like your average Kinks song where nothing ever works out the way you though it would, but you get somewhere worthwhile anyway. Shit, man, I’ll be going to bed tonight at 12:30 and only getting six hours of sleep. Can’t have this if I’m going to be a productive worker in the office tomorrow. Can’t have this at all!

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