June 13, 2018

“A Beautiful Place, a Dangerous Place” — Rock and Roll, Baseball and the American Dream

I had this dream America.

Ray Davies, from “The Great Highway”

By Stuart Mitchner

The fate of this week’s column was decided when I saw a boyhood hero on the obituary page of Friday’s New York Times. The AP photo under the charismatic words St. Louis Cardinal Star shows Red Schoendienst leapfrogging over a baserunner and firing the ball in the direction of the greatest Cardinal of them all, his roommate and close friend Stan Musial.

Until that moment, I’d been thinking about the American story told in a book and a record album by another hero of mine, Ray Davies, the poet laureate of British rock, who was a North London teenager when he had the dream he sings about on Americana (Legacy 2017). Singing to “rock’n’roll cowboys” whose “time has passed,” he asks “where do you go now? Do you give up the chase like an old retiree? Do you live in a dream or do you live in reality?”

The old rock’n’roller will be 74 in a week. The old ballplayer made it to 95 and stayed in the game for seven decades, spending most of his life in a Cardinal uniform either as player, coach, manager, or, at the end, “senior special assistant to the GM.” The only time I ever saw Red in a suit and tie was when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown.

A year later Ray and his band, the Kinks, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Although he put on a suit when the Queen awarded him a CBE in 2004 and again when the Prince of Wales knighted him in 2016, he’s wearing a plaid flannel shirt in the studio videos from the Americana recording session. His answer to the question he asks movie cowboys comes loud and clear in “The Great Highway” when he tells himself “life is not a road movie, so wake up to reality.”

Reality Bites

In his memoir, Americana:The Kinks, The Riff, The Road: The Story (Sterling 2013), Davies provides a vivid and unsparing account of his near-fatal New Orleans moment of truth on January 4, 2004. Given his adolescent fascination with cowboys and the Wild West in “the land of ice cream, apple pie, and guns,” there’s a western-movie-showndown irony in his cinematic description of what happened when he “foolishly” chased after the mugger making off with his girlfriend’s purse: “It was already dusk, so the flash from the gun seemed to light up the street. Just as I saw the bright-colored light come out of the gun, I dived to my left … and felt a heavy thump as the bullet hit me. It was as though the whole right side of my body had suddenly gone dead.” If he hadn’t fallen to the left, the bullet might have hit him in the chest or stomach. In the ambulance on the way to Charity Hospital, he heard the paramedic say his heartbeat was “dangerously slow.” Being a songwriter forever on his game, he made some notes on the gurney and turned the slow heartbeat that almost terminated him into a powerfully delivered rock and roll home run about life in Intensive Care that appears three years later on his LP, Workingman’s Cafe (2007). His first post-trauma solo album Other People’s Lives (2006) is charged with the same born-again rock’n’roll energy. While “Morphine Song” draws on the ER experience, the cheery feel-good tune “Life After Breakfast” was inspired by the ordeal of getting from the bedroom to the kitchen and back on crutches. “Anything to do with mobility became arduous,” Ray writes in Americana. “I would manage to make a cup of tea in the kitchen, and then realize there was no way to transport it to my bedside.”

Cowboys and Ballplayers

In the title song, “Americana,” Davies refers to his “school boy world” and “that great silver screen” with its “Wild West heroes.” Like Ray, I grew up immersed in cowboy movies, but it wasn’t long before I was trading my Hopalong Cassidy bubblegum cards for the far more precious baseball cards I kept in scrapbooks where pride of place always went to the Cardinals. What made Red Schoendienst one of my favorite players was knowing that he was best friends with my idol Stan Musial. If I thought of Stan and Red as grown-up Mark Twain characters, blame the baseball writers who hyped the freckled redhaired rookie as a Huck Finn who played hooky to go fishing in the Kaskaskia River and hitched from Germantown Illinois to St. Louis in a milk truck to try out for the team.

Cardinal Summers

In postwar summers my Republican grandparents would drive me the 60 miles from Topeka through fields of giant sunflowers to my Democrat grandparents in Overland Park, where my room overlooked U.S. 69 and I went to sleep every night to the road music of cars and trucks. Once the grandmothers realized how seriously I took the Redbirds, they each gave me a Cardinal uniform to wear while playing baseball on makeshift neighborhood fields. The grandmother in Topeka provided a regulation cap with the redbird on the front and a storebought jersey. The grandmother in Overland Park, who had a gift for painting watercolors of birds, made me a uniform complete with two beautiful cardinals with yellow beaks she had created herself and sewed in place on the somewhat clumsily shaped branch of a bat. She also did the red piping on the sleeves. Though the kids I played ball with made fun of me for it, I wore the handmade uniform until I outgrew it a year later.

Playing With the Jayhawks

One prized souvenir of the Kansas summers was a statuette of a cartoon jayhawk, the KU mascot, blue body, yellow beak, red head, yellow feet. Though Ray doesn’t mention Kansas by name in the songs on Americana, my birth state is a presence on “the mighty plain.” Singing the title track with a wide-open-spaces country-music twang, he borrows the first line (“I wanna make my home where the buffalo roam”) from the Kansas state song “Home On the Range.”

It’s as strange as it is gratifying to hear this “dream America” coming from the songwriter who helped make me an Anglophile with songs like “Waterloo Sunset,” “Shangri-La,” and “Victoria,” and he’s doing it with an American alt-country band called the Jayhawks.

“A Place in Your Heart”

Kinks fans may need more than one listen to recognize the Davies style in take-down songs like “The Deal,” about L.A. (“Isn’t it wonderful, marvelous?/Utterly surreal/Totally fabulous, fraudulent/Bogus and unreal”) and passionate rockers like “Poetry” (“And in a shopping mall somewhere you’ll be down on your knees/crying out loud/Where is the poetry?”). There’s a brilliant slice of Americana in “The Great Highway” (“Bright eyes like wishing wells/Instamatic kiss and tell”), including this snapshot: “A girl stands looking at the stars/Dressed in denim wearing shades/And Outside is the Great Highway …. She sips a coke walks away/It’s just a second in a day/But all her culture’s on display.”

The highlight of the album mates two songs and two solo voices, “Message from the Road” and “A Place in Your Heart.” The first voice is Ray’s singing a chorus from the road, low and intimate, about being in another town (“but still I find that you are always on my mind”) answered by the lovely voice of Jayhawks keyboardist Karen Grotberg, haunting and tender, singing “Right now you’re in a far country … Out of sight and out of mind/Always somewhere on the road.” The first time I heard the female voice it seemed almost intrusive; the next time it seemed just right; the time after that it was somewhere between heartbreak and sublimity, particularly when everything flows into “A Place in Your Heart,” the male and female voices singing poignant counterpoint while the ensemble comes together for a rousing rough and tumble road narrative around the refrain “West to East till we reach Omaha.” It’s exciting to hear a group of musicians making something beautiful and unique that at the same time evokes the days of movie cowboy nostalgia — a whole era of Americana brought into a brave new world of music.

The back story of this remarkable two-part creation is told in the chapter in Americana about Ray’s musical adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, composed in the early 80s after his breakup with Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders: “It was sung by a love-struck princess as a group of hillbillies took [Jules] Verne and [Phineas] Fogg across the American Wild West. The hillbillies sang about the landscape while the princess supplied the romantic counterpoint. When I’d first met Chrissie Hynde, we discussed how difficult it would be for us to stay together …. I remember saying to Chris that even though things might not work out for us, I hoped we would both have a place in each other’s hearts. Overly romantic and ‘naff,’ to say the least, but true. Now I had to write a song that would encapsulate these emotions.”

“Our Country”

Thanks to flat-screen TV, HD, and major league baseball on demand, I can get closer to the game than I ever could in my wildest boyhood dreams. A few weekends ago I was right there with the big crowd during the ecstasy of two walk-off Cardinal wins against the Pirates, thanks to home runs by a Dominican named Yairo Muñoz and a guy from Hawaii named Kolten Wong (you know, the state Trump says Obama wasn’t born in). It’s hard not to be moved whenever the camera scanning the crowd zeroes in on a young couple or some kids like me and my friends 60 years ago or a grandmother like the one who made me the uniform or even some beefy red-faced guy in a Cardinal jersey I know may well be one of the people at Trump rallies cheering as the mad king raves on. If that guy and I were talking about the Cardinals, we’d get along fine, until we remembered the elephant in the White House.

Ray Davies’s American dream sits on the same brittle borderline. Our Country: Americana Act II is due for release on June 29. Davies is quoted in Rolling Stone saying that people who like the first album know where it’s going. Our Country “is what happens when you get there.” In an interview on ultimateclassicrock.com, he says, “I do hope America balances itself out. It’s slightly off-kilter at the moment …. It’s a beautiful place, but a dangerous place — as I found out.”