Remembering Cormac McCarthy and Listening to Ray Davies
By Stuart Mitchner
It’s a Father’s Day scene. Harrison Street park, Sunday afternoon. The father is a bearded oldster, the son is wearing a New York Rangers sweatshirt. As the camera zooms in we see the two peering through a fence at the houses on Patton Avenue, looking for the duplex where the son spent his first three years of life back in the day when they would stroller up Harrison to play in the sandbox and the slide, both long gone.
“There it is!” they say at the same time, looking through foliage at the only house in sight that has a third floor, a garret where the father wrote novels and rocked the son to sleep to music ranging from Bollywood soundtracks (Sangam and Gumnam) to the Beatles and the Beach Boys, whose 1970 LP Sunflower offered the best bedtime lullabies.
Now they’re on the swings, side by side — the son swinging high, the father slowly, musingly, his thoughts swinging between novelist Cormac McCarthy, who died last week, and singer/songwriter Ray Davies, whose birthday is June 21, the day Town Topics will hit the driveways on Harrison and Patton and all over town. Ray has long been a family favorite, while McCarthy is the author of The Road, one of the most harrowing and brilliant father-son adventures ever written.
After the swings, they sit at a picnic table talking about sports, the son lamenting the end of the NHL season while the father wonders if his Cardinals can hold an early 2-0 lead over the Mets. Later that night the son tells the father the crazy dream he had about going to a Rangers-Islanders game at Madison Square Garden where there was a fight on the ice that ended with players from both teams singing “Beach Baby” by the First Class (“Beach baby beach baby give me your hand….”) and the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” with everyone in the building joining in. The dream ended with an affordable housing demonstration that resulted in the son’s finally moving into his own apartment.
Ever since the death of Cormac McCarthy (1933-2023), I’ve been haunted by “Ain’t Talkin’,” the last song on Bob Dylan’s 2006 album Modern Times where the singer is walking “through the cities of the plague” in a “weary world of woe.” The walk leads to where McCarthy’s acclaimed 2006 best-seller The Road begins: “In the last outback, at the world’s end.”
McCarthy’s unnamed father and son journey through a post-nuclear wasteland where the menace is unending. The presence of the boy, who was inspired by McCarthy’s own son, keeps the father going, his only reason for living. Born into a world of death and evil, the boy is devoid of hatred; even justified survival violence sickens him; the father sees his flute-playing son in typically lofty McCarthyesque prose as “some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a traveling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves.” In another exalted moment the dying father says: “Look around you…. There’s no prophet in the earth’s long chronicle who’s not honored here today.” At the end of the novel the boy survives and the last word is “mystery.”
Among the Ray Davies songs on the extraordinary, greatly underrated, and all but forgotten 1993 Kinks album Phobia, there are celebrations of endurance and survival as passionate as McCarthy’s tribute to the power of parental devotion. One of the most productive and far-seeing songwriters of his time, Davies knows how to put a charge into a single word, using the dynamics of rock and the rhythm of poetical repetition to deliver the power of his message.
In “Surviving” he’s the embattled everyman (“I’m surviving, that’s all I am”) who thought he was brave until he saw his “frightened reflection in a dark corridor.” Now he’s surviving “to be a better man, surviving with an emotional plan.” And as he always does, Davies opens the song to everyone and everything, the “millions of people out there … smiling through clouds of despair, protecting the wounds until they repair, surviving the best way they can.” Back in the first person, the singer admits his fear of “emotional ties — don’t let them in, otherwise you’ll smile like a fool,” so “I’m smiling through all the insanity, surviving, surviving … that’s all I am, surviving, surviving.” One word sung like a mantra becomes glorious during the two-minute-long choral crescendo that rivals the renowned Beatles fadeouts in “All You Need Is Love” and “Hey Jude.”
In “Scattered,” the album’s finale, Davies takes the one word beyond mere repetition, extending and exploring all its meanings and nuances, putting both the cosmic and earthly possibilities in play. Composed after the death of Davies’s mother Annie and dedicated to her memory, “Scattered” provides a thrillingly transcendental conclusion to the wall-of-fire dynamics of Phobia (“liberals shout and cause concern while we all burn”; “Democracy’s a shadow of its former glory / Law and order broken-down / End of story”). As the song begins (“Like a seed that is sown all the children are scattered”), we’re moving forward (“By a breeze that is blown / Now the crops are all scattered”), the wind at our backs: “To the fields we are scattered from the day we are born, to grow wild and sleep rough till from the earth we are torn.” After describing the empty room his mother left “so soon, the scattered clues she left behind,” he brings his listeners in again: “We get bruised, we get battered, but we’ll pick up the pieces that scattered.” Still thinking of his mother (“ever since she went away”), he’s “watched the stars and wondered why they’re scattered up there in the sky, and is she up there out of view, on some higher latitude.” Using this one infinitely extendable word to shape and move and center the song, he returns to the free forward movement of the first line: “To the fields we are scattered, then from the dust we are born…. We survive somewhat battered to a new life, a new dawn.” Still he wonders: “In the end what will it matter, there’ll only be my ashes to scatter,” before coming back to us, face to face this time, life to life: “To the earth you are scattered — you’re going home, so what does it matter / to an atomic mind / Scattered here while you travel time.”
All the while the music keeps moving straight ahead, the rock and roll energy of the band keeping the word rhythmically alive. Thirty years later on the composer’s 79th summer solstice birthday, this song scatters the fallout of subterfuge and sleaze, misinformation and conspiracy theories like so much wind-blown dirt.
On walks in our old neighborhood, I always make sure to visit the site of the large sandbox near the Harrison Street park entrance. Not only was it the place where my son made some of his first friends, it was where my mother Ann and I sat watching him play one late October afternoon in 1978. Six weeks later, like Ray Davies’s Annie, she died of cancer. Although I was at her bedside that day, my last and most haunting memory of her is of that late fall day at the sandbox, smiling as she watched her grandson play. At the time she’d been advised that her health problems were no longer life-threatening. But in photographs from each of her last two visits with us, including the one where she and her grandson are reading together, he in her lap pointing to something, she has that familiar happy-sad expression, always more sad than happy, as if she knew what was coming, whether in a month or a year.
Two popular songs at the time were “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas and “Time Passages” by Al Stewart. While she would have been moved by both, she would have understood and appreciated the message and the poetry in “Scattered,” particularly these lines: “In the end what will it matter / There’ll only be my ashes to scatter / And all the logical answers / To a worrying mind / Will be scattered in time.”