Kink Goes Pink
Other People’s Lives by Ray Davies
Hugh Hefner had his reasons for not “going pink”—showing pussy—in Playboy. Then Bob Guccione came along, with his own reasons for showing it, and pussy became overdetermined, part of the shinyl-vinyl. Imagination? Extraneous.
Ray Davies is showing a lot of pink himself these days—not writing explicit lyrics, but shining too much light on meanings he once left his listeners free to infer. On his debut solo album, Other People’s Lives. That’s sad, because his subtle lyrics, with their open-ended allusions and quick, funny transitions, were what always set Kinks’ songs far above the riffs-and-hooks crowd. Think of “Waterloo Sunset”: Did Ray ever come right out and say that the guy never leaves the house? What he observes of/projects onto Terry and Julie is told, in part, by the actual structure of the song:
But I don’t need no friends
As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset
I am in paradise…
But they don’t need no friends
As long as they gaze on Waterloo Sunset
They are in paradise
You made the connection yourself and making it was one of the pleasures of listening to those songs. In This Is Where I Belong, did Ray ever say where it was that he belonged, or why? No. But there he was, big and awful, and he wasn’t leaving. Even those “ohhhs” on the fadeout, they were halfway between the singer’s exaltation and his partner’s keening lament. The production was always subtle and eloquent, in tandem with the lyrics. On the ubiquitous Lola, for instance, have you ever noticed the premier appearance of Pete Quaife’s bass? It comes in when Ray first spells Lola’s name, about thirty-five seconds into the song, after the acoustic guitar, banjo, and drums. Then it drops out immediately but comes back a few seconds later when the guitars kick in. It’s like the bass did something to you when you weren’t looking: It created foreshadowing, like a mysterious masculine rumble—the “dark brown voice”—underneath everything. Ray never wrote down to you, except now.
The songs on the glossily produced Other People’s Lives speak of hard-won truths, epiphanies wrested from the hands of excess, but the overdetermined, pedantic lyrics undercut the eloquence and mystery of those revelations. On Things Are Gonna Change, Ray says, “The barrier we cross/Is somewhere between heaven and hell,” and “When reality bites/The morality kicks in.” True, but I think I might’ve heard Oprah say exactly that to John Travolta five years ago (maybe quoting Deepak Chopra?). After the Fall, which immediately follows, echoes those lines: “When morality kicks in/Who will catch you when you fall?” The bittersweet is a shadowy thing of personal yet universal recognition—desire and regret constantly shading into each other—and it’s just too garishly illuminated here. Similarly the title track, a media slam in the manner of Joe Jackson’s “Sunday Papers” and Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry,” is a broad caricature that doesn’t define the aims of the album (which are better defined by Things Are Gonna Change). Its refrain, “Feed the reporter…Read the reporter,” doesn’t even seem like something Ray Davies would write. The Tourist also covers the familiar—the old “jaded traveler” motif—in a bald, bland way: “Just another tourist checking out the slums/With my plastic Visa, drinking with my chums.” But compare that with Holiday in Waikiki (from the Kinks’ 1966 album, Face to Face), which approaches the motif from a slightly different, much funnier, angle:
Across the coral sands I saw a hula hula dancer, looking pretty.
I asked her where she came from and she said to me,
“I come from New York City,
And my mother is Italian,
And my dad’s a Greek.”
I’m just an English boy who won a holiday in Waikiki.
That transition from “My dad’s a Greek” to “I’m just an English boy…” is quick enough for you to make the connection yourself, without a nudge to show you where to laugh (or a soapbox to declaim the already obvious contradictions).
Speaking of laughs, Stand Up Comic, with its echoes of Ian Dury, ironically provides few, if any:
Jack the Lad has become Oscar Wilde
And the followers of style say it’s the latest thing
And William Shakespeare is the schmooze of the week
And anyone who says different is a fuckin’ antique
This, from the guy who wrote “Willesden Green” (from the 1971 Percy soundtrack) and spoke/sang it like a cowboyed-up Elvis:
Well, I tried to settle down Fulham Broadway
And I tried to make my home in Golders Green
But I gotta get that train
And go back home again
Oh, how I miss the folks back home in Willesden Green
(In the March issue of Mojo, Ray blames Stand Up Comic on his alter-ego, Max, the narrator of X-Ray, Davies’ “fictional autobiography.” Maybe Max needs a fictional restraining order to keep him away from the recording studio.)
Still, there are moments. In The Getaway (Lonesome Train), with its “Born on the Bayou” guitar gently twanging in the background, the connections are subtle, yet exceedingly clear:
In a suburb somewhere someone’s quietly planning their getaway
Traveling light, in case they might get a change of heart
It’s the bravest move they’ll ever make, but they have to make the break
That’s the risk that they take…
And likewise in the charming and truly bittersweet Thanksgiving Day (written after spending the holiday in the U.S.):
He thinks back to all the mistakes that he made
To a time when he was so young and green
Innocent days when they both looked forward to that
Great American dream
Now it’s all over, it’s all over, all over
And all over America people are going home
On Thanksgiving Day
One of the most interesting things about the album is that its songs were written before Davies was shot in New Orleans in 2005 chasing a mugger who’d grabbed his girlfriend’s purse. Some of the lines—“My turn to get pushed in the face” (Things Are Gonna Change) and “I just had a really bad fall/And this time it was harder to get up than before” (After the Fall) — are eerily prescient. But isn’t that the nature of transitional moments? Don’t we always see them coming, out of the shadows of our understanding? And in their wake understanding itself may show its face:
I know it’s not the same
And everything changes
But behind front doors people think that they can hide
We win and lose, we laugh and cry
Live and learn, at least we try
Oh, give it a try
(from Next Door Neighbour)
Other People’s Lives also communicates that things aren’t what they used to be—they’re a lot worse, and it’s all our fault, though there’s always room for hope and deliverance if we can just be honest with ourselves. True, but I wonder if Ray didn’t say this just as well, if not better, back in ’66:
Well, yesterday was such an easy game for you to play
But let’s face it things are so much easier today
Guess you need some bringing down
And get your feet back on the ground
Won’t you tell me
Where have all the good times gone?
SHARON MESMER's most recent poetry collections are Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books, 2008) and The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose, 2008). Fiction collections include Ma Vie a Yonago (Hachette, 2005) and In Ordinary Time (Hanging Loose, 2005).
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