Vol. LXII, No. 10
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Nobody knew who I was,” rock legend Ray Davies says in a YouTube interview about his new album Working Man’s Café (New West/Ammal Records). He was referring to his experience in the intensive care unit of the New Orleans hospital he was taken to after being shot; he’d been chasing two men who had snatched his companion’s purse. “Just another body off the street…. They put me in the emergency room, hooked me up to the machines, and I was thinking, ‘How do I stop myself panicking myself. I was really terrified. So I started writing lyrics. I wrote the first draft of ‘Morphine Song’ on a LSU notepad.”
When Ray was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, with his group, the Kinks, the citation recognized him as “almost indisputably rock’s most literate, witty, and insightful songwriter.” This is still true in 2008, no “almost” about it. But there’s another quality he has that transcends wit and insight: his humanity. You could call it his human touch. People who love his music feel close to him. He’s a friend. He’s Ray. That’s why I could never comfortably write about him as Davies or Mr. Davies. Trivial though it may seem, this distinction reflects a truth about the nature of his appeal and his following. He brings you closer even when he’s writing about estrangement, as he does in “Do you Remember Walter,” an early Kinks song that illuminates a familiar fact of life: the childhood friend you share the same dreams with, only to grow apart as you reach adulthood. Can you imagine Ray’s only living peer as a songwriter, Bob Dylan, writing such a song? Dylan is Dylan, Ray is Ray.
In the 1989 song “How Do I Get Close to You?” Ray’s doing what he does in his best and most characteristic work, balancing the personal with the universal. At the same time that he’s expressing the frustration of a lover (“my heart is reaching out to you”), he’s talking about “a world without feeling,” “a planet full of emptiness,” a place “where designer feelings are in vogue.” Dylan writes about the same world but not in those terms; he doesn’t want to get close to you, at least not so explicitly. His near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966 resulted in an experience comparable to Ray’s hospitalization, although Dylan was only in his twenties at the time. Ray, who was pushing sixty, responded to the situation with an intimate, first-person piece like “Morphine Song.” Dylan wrote “All Along the Watchtower,” a fully imagined masterpiece. One of the virtues of “Morphine Song” is that it appears to have no such ambitions. Rather than transposing the experience into a fictional third-person narrative, Ray brings you into the ICU with him in that unguarded moment of panic and fear and tells you about the orderlies taking his blood and turning him over “just like that.” When he sings “Listen to my heartbeat” (you can’t get much closer), he’s once again projecting an intimate moment into the wider world, addressing his audience as well as the people who are actually doing what he’s talking about (“He tucks me in touches my feet/‘Hey buddy you know you got a slow heartbeat’”). “Listen to my heartbeat” could serve for his aesthetic mantra, one of the keys to his musical identity.
In “Morphine Song” Ray brings in the orderlies, Nelson and Starr, who’s “got ten grandkids,” is on “his third missus,” and “grooves around Intensive Care.” When Starr walks in he “gives a little wiggle” that “makes old Nelson grin.” In the bed opposite Ray is “Brenda the alkie” who “coughs so deep” from “the drugs and the drink” (“nobody visits nobody grieves”), and though she “looks so mean,” when “they wheel her out she starts to cry/’If I don’t get better, I’m gonna die.’” Ray’s genius as a singer and composer is to be at once inside the moment and musingly above it. Rather than allowing the song to be merely maudlin or morbidly whimsical or one-dimensionally solemn, he pulls it all together and lifts it up with a catchy trad-jazz marching-band riff evoking the celebratory spit-in-death’s-eye spirit of the New Orleans funeral anthem, “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You.”
You could say Ray was looking for America when he got shot. In fact, his own film record of the first stages of a journey that began shortly after September 11 is available on a DVD that comes with the slightly-higher-priced Deluxe Edition of Working Man’s Café. As he told a Mojo interviewer in 2006, “America is the place that made me want to pick up the guitar” and “the real origins of the music that attracted me there come from the South, down that incredible river. That’s why I ended up in New Orleans.” He also almost ended his life there when the wound became infected.
Don’t Ask Ray
For any artist with a compelling presence (the singer-songwriter equivalent of a brilliant bedside manner), getting close to the audience can have distracting consequences. The combination of an invitingly open, intimate persona with a message that resonates both emotionally and intellectually encourages people to think they have access to the singer’s ear (or shoulder, if they need one to cry on). No doubt Ray spawned legions of faithful followers with brilliantly suggestive works such as “Big Sky” or the greatest London song ever, “Waterloo Sunset.” Listeners begin to think the singer and composer knows all and sees all, even as he’s declaring that there are no answers (“Big Sky’s too big to sympathize”). Ray sums up the situation most memorably in 1978’s “Rock and Roll Fantasy” where “fans of our music” are warned against living so deeply in the songs that life “passes them by.” He delivers a sterner version of the same message in “You’re Asking Me,” the second song on the new album. This time passion displaces compassion as he pounds out the earlier song’s unstated message get a life get a life get a life. Musically and metrically, it’s a stunning departure, as if he’d verbalized a snare drum rimshot and set it to music, and it moves as far beyond the conventions of the genre as Dylan’s fascinating arrangement of “Ain’t Talkin’,” the closing track on his last album, Modern Times, which resonates with a similar meaning. Don’t ask me; I’m not talking.
Again, Ray’s statement could pertain both to a specific person and a world of listeners who have been touched by the message of his music and need answers as surely as if they’d sent a call for help out of some lonely bedsit dark night of the soul. “I could say there will be laughter,/you will never cry,” he tells them: “I could just as easily go tell a lie couldn’t I?” And in case the listener feels affronted or gets defensive, he sings: “I’m telling you because you’re asking me.”
“Imaginary Man” takes the issue of Ray’s persona still further. In the YouTube interview he claims it’s a song about a love relationship, the message being “I like you but don’t get involved with me.” It works even better, however, when you imagine him addressing all those faithful, needful listeners as he sings, “I was always in your head/To raise your expectations/And always let it be said/I offered my very best to you/Gave you my dreams to aspire to/Involved you in all my crazy schemes/And took you to places you’d never seen.”
If you know the music of the Kinks, you know the love-hate saga of the Brothers Davies. It’s interesting and somehow novelistically right that these two should both land in intensive care in the same six-month period, Ray after the shooting, Dave after a stroke. Earlier, in the mid-1990s, Dave answered Ray’s autobiography, X-Ray, with Kink, in which he lamented the contrast between the beauty and heart in his brother’s music and what he knew from experience of the difficult, standoffish, conflicted “real Ray.” According to Dave, when their mother was dying Ray chose not to fly home from the States to be with her. Instead, the composer of one of the most touching anti-war-meets-motherhood songs ever written (“Every Mother’s Son”) wrote a letter that made her “cry and smile and laugh”: “Ray told her how he would never have written a single word had it not been for her. That she was at the heart of his inspiration.” It makes sense somehow that the artist who keeps his distance from his listeners even as he gets close enough to charm them would write a beautiful letter instead of dealing with the emotional reality firsthand.
Outside of Lennon and McCartney, it’s hard to think of a more productive dynamic than the one created by these two talented and fiercely competitive siblings (both mad as hatters, each in his own way). If you watch the YouTube interview with Ray, you find out that a meeting with Dave figures in the title song on Working Man’s Café. Both having presumably recovered at that point, they’d planned to meet somewhere near Dave’s residence in Devon but they were talking on mobile phones and having trouble finding each other or determining a meeting place. Ray said, “Look for the nearest cafe. I’ll call you from there when I’ve found it.” In the song you don’t know who Ray is talking to when he sings, “There’s gotta be a place for us to meet/I’ll call you when I’ve found it./I only hope that life has made us/a little more grounded.” Referring to the moment Dave shows up at the door, he sings, “Hey man I see you now.” Once again, he’s created a song that covers both a specific situation and all such situations. That could be you at the door, looking in, looking for Ray.
Thanks to the manifold wonders of the virtual worldwide proselytizing and togetherness vehicle called YouTube, you can finally see Ray perform one of his greatest compositions, “Shangri-La.” It’s hard to believe what he tells the packed, adoring audience at North London’s Roundhouse — that he’d never performed so central and hallowed a song in public before. Maybe he kept it to himself for so long for the same reason he couldn’t manage an in-person visit to his dying mother. Maybe it was, like her, too near the heart of his inspiration. Or maybe it was because when it came out in 1969 it was (incredibly) disdained by some as a “put-down” of the “little man” who lives in a tract with a fanciful name “where all the houses look the same.” The Kinks version is a straightahead rock and roll treatment of a highly complex song. At the Roundhouse, Ray is magnificently accompanied by the Crouch End Festival Chorus (“my North London angels”), many of whom had not even been born when the song came out on Arthur: Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire. The visible joy and love the chorus puts into the singing suggests that they knew they were performing a tribute to the singer who wrote this impassioned hymn to the “little man” with “the mortgage hanging over his head.” When at one point the camera settles on a tearful, middle-aged member of the audience singing the words “You’ve reached the top and you just can’t get any higher,” you’re looking at the face of someone who has been close enough to hear Ray’s heartbeat, one of the many he’s touched over the years and for whom he has no answers but his music.
Both editions of “Working Man’s Café” are available at the Princeton Record Exchange.
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