October 9, 2019

Singing Along With Ray Davies and the Kinks on John Lennon’s Birthday

By Stuart Mitchner

The first and only time I heard John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy” was on the car radio the night he was killed and the news was still raw. I had to turn the radio off after he sang the line, “Before you cross the street, take my hand: life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” What happened to me, what caught me by the throat, was realizing that at the same time John had been seeing a son through his first five years of life, so had I.

Fifteen years later, Ben is standing beside me at the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island singing “Autumn Almanac” along with the composer, Ray Davies, and three thousand Kinks fans of all ages, including numerous other fathers and sons, mothers, sisters, and brothers. The entry in my journal for August 1, 1995, begins,”Tonight was like a fantasy come true, almost as good as seeing the Beatles playing live, up close.”

Actually, it was better, because only in your wildest dreams are you going to see and hear John, Paul, George, and Ringo up close, unless of course you were on the rooftop of 3 Saville Row when the Beatles gave what would be their last public performance, January 30, 1969. And even that wouldn’t equal the one-on-one excitement of sharing a song you love with the man who wrote it.

Put Some Toast On

Time to go slumming, from 3 Saville Row to a two-room apartment on “Dead End Street,” where there’s a crack in the ceiling, the kitchen sink’s leaking, no money’s coming in, the rent collector’s knocking on the door, and instead of a Sunday roast we’re dining on bread and honey. While “kitchen sink” may suggest “the Angry Young Men” of the British sixties, Ray’s having the time of his life. Sure, people are dying on Dead End Street, we’re all gonna die on Dead End Street. Not to worry: keep singing and keep moving to the beat of this rock march sung by someone who savors all the melodic multisyllabic sweetness of cee-ee-ee-ling and leak-ee-ee-ing, does the same with money and honey, and then, as you’re marching along, brings you, casually, intimately, into a “cold and frosty morning” in the bedsit heart of his country: “Wipe my eyes and stop me yawning/And my feet are nearly frozen/Boil the tea and put some toast on.”

A man of many voices, with a persona for each, Muswell Hill’s toast-and-tea winter-morning yawner becomes a cheerful town crier marching at the head of the parade, telling the world “People are dying on Dead End Street” in a clipped, proto-reggae-rapper style as the other Kinks chant “Dead end!” Marching off into the distance with you following along, the song is a call-and-response hand-clapping trombone-driven celebration of the street that asks the questions, “What are we living for?” and “How’s it feel?” The answers are “rock’n’roll” and “it feels great.”

According to the dead pan wikipedia entry for “Dead End Street”: “The song, like many others by the group, deals with the poverty and misery found in the lower classes.” 

Hymning Autumn

That summer night at Westbury proved to be the last time the Kinks performed in America, a possibility suggested when Ray began the show all by himself on a stool with an acoustic guitar singing his ode to autumn. 

Now I’m asking myself, “Were my son and I actually standing in a public place with a congregation of the faithful singing ‘La-la-la-la, la-la-la-la, oh my poor rheumatic back,Yes, yes, yes, it’s my autumn almanac’?” Yes, yes, yes, it was the church of rock, and we were singing a hymn to the land of hope and glory, kitchen sinks and rheumatic backs. This is what Ray does. This is why I call Sir Raymond Douglas Davies by his first name (knighthood was inevitable). It’s his feeling for the human comedy, the human condition, that makes songs like “Autumn Almanac” at once personal and universal, witty and warm, joyous and wistful. In a November 1970 Rolling Stone interview, he says, “After I wrote it, for a whole month I was thinking about it. I wasted a lot of time, really, because I was sweeping up dead leaves and putting them in the sack. I’m susceptible to that sort of thing …. What I do is to do something very personal, and then suddenly I look at it, up in the air, I look at it. I blow it up and look at it and then I come down again. A better man.”

What he finds when he comes down is a jaunty, sing-along tune that matches the rhythm of sweeping “leaves of a musty-colored yellow” into his sack after a catchy opening line, “From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar,” possibly an unintended echo of the “hedge-crickets” in the last stanza of “To Autumn” by John Keats, whose father worked in a London livery stable. As the Kinks sing of “Friday evenings,” when “people get together,” it’s an open community for anyone of any class “hiding from the weather” when even “tea and toasted buttered currant buns/Can’t compensate for lack of sun.” If you’re singing along, the emotional essence of the song is in the lines, “This is my street, and I’m never gonna leave it,” and “all the people I meet seem to come from my street.”

On that night in August 1995, everyone came from his street.

Sir Ray’s U.K.

Although “Dead End Street” and “Autumn Almanac” never appear on a Kinks album (unless you count anthologies like Kink Kronikles), the two great songs epitomizing Ray’s celebration of kitchen sinks and English autumns are “Victoria” and “Shangri-La,” the first tracks on the A and B sides of Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), released 50 years ago tomorrow and hailed byRolling Stone’s  Greil Marcus, among others, as “the best British album of 1969.”

Sir Ray’s U.K. was there long before the Common Market and the European Union, Brexit and Boris Johnson. The scope of his vision of “this realm, this England,” from the the commoner who says “Victoria was my queen” to the “the little man” who lives “with a mortgage hanging over his head” inspired the massive choirs and full orchestras that have accompanied Davies singing “Victoria” and “Shangri-La” in venues like Royal Festival Hall and Glastonbury. There’s really no “decline and fall” when the Kinks perform “Victoria.” It’s a straight-ahead, energized, relentlessly upbeat vision of the “land of my Victoria,” rising to the rousing, irrepressible summit of the song (with Ray’s brother Dave yelling gleefully in the background), “Canada to India, Australia to Cornwall, Singapore to Hong Kong, from the west to the east, from the rich to the poor, Victoria loved them all.”

In the incomparable “Shangri-La,” which puts England, then and now, on the head of the same pin William Faulkner put the Lord’s Prayer on, “All the houses on the street have got a name/’Cause all the houses in the street they look the same.” I just listened to the song (too small a word for it) on YouTube, and I’m as moved by it (even “incomparable” may be too small a word) as I was when I first heard it 50 years ago. The song’s mixture of lyrical compassion and ironic detachment has been mistaken for disdain, an idea Ray almost seems to encourage in the 1970 interview when he’s asked what he thinks of the people he sings about in “Shangri-La”: “I’m not laughing at those people in the song at all. They’re brainwashed into that, they brainwash themselves….Their minds are like that; they’re happy, really. It becomes a religion to them. The glory of being boring. It’s a glory. He shows you his stamp collection. It’s a sense of greatness he’s got around him that you can’t penetrate because you feel you might upset him.” Listen to the song and you’re in touch with “the sense of greatness” the composer himself is at a loss to express as he goes on to say the chorus is “a bit of a chant…It’s a religious thing. You accept it as your religion because you can’t have anything else.”

The story of “Shangri-La” is what happens to the song after the heavy, seemingly brutal middle eight, with drummer Mick Avory driving home every statement: “The gas bills and the water rates, and payments on the car/Too scared to think about how insecure you are/Life ain’t so happy in your little Shangri-La.” But then the song shifts from tough love to “Shangri-La-la-la-la-la-la-la,” the pressure’s off, and a kinder, gentler, caring singer tells the little man to put on his slippers and sit by the fire: “You’ve reached your top and you just can’t get any higher.” Then the devastating line, sung in a passion of compassion: “You’re in your place and you know where you are, in your Shangri-La.”

John Lennon (1940-1980)

Today being John Lennon’s birthday, I’ve been listening to “Working Class Hero” with “Shangri-La” fresh in mind. Both songs, as various YouTube bloggers say, “couldn’t be more relevant today.” Ray has many voices at his command while John has the voice that gave the Beatles their edge, as incomparable a singer as “Shangri-La” is a song. It’s a voice that can take you anywhere he wants to go, and in this quietly searing song he goes where Ray goes and farther. There are definite echoes of the fate of the “little man” in John’s lines: “As soon as you’re born they make you feel small”; “they hurt you at home and they hit you at school”; “when they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years, then they expect you to pick a career, when you can’t really function you’re so full of fear”; they keep you doped with religion and sex and TV” and “you think you’re so clever and classless and free.” Then the last line, which makes me think of the line in “Beautiful Boy” that I found so hard to listen to: “If you want to be a hero, well just follow me.”