Wednesday, December 13, 2006

"Complicated Life" / The Kinks

It isn't easy being a Kinks kultist -- you can never find their records in stores, their songs never pop up on the radio, and most people know only a handful of their songs if they've heard of them at all. My "This-Is-Who-the-Kinks-Were" speech is a ragged tape loop I've had to play way too many times. But sometimes you've just got to accept your fate -- I am a Kinks fan, and a Kinks fan for life. It's no longer an option to be anything else.

But come on, you've got to love a band that can do a song like "Complicated Life," from their brilliant 1971 album Muswell Hillbillies. The wheezy old-time country sound cracks me up -- where do a bunch of North Londoners come from, doing this bluegrass routine? And they know it's funny; Ray Davies is trilling in his most campy voice, like testifying at a Salvation Army mission (a role perfected on the previous track, the wickedly funny "Alcohol"), while brother Dave clanks and slides around on a steel guitar, Mick Avory bashes his cymbals, and John Gosling leans on the creakiest stops of his organ. The tempo shuffles and stumbles good-naturedly along; backing vocals kick in on the cheery "la-di-dah-di-dah-dahs" like a gospel choir. It's exaggerated just enough to be parody, but it had to be -- the Kinks never played anything straight. They never took themselves too seriously; that's one of the most endearing things about this band.

And yet, here is the sleight-of-hand genius at the heart of the Kinks: this song may be funny but it is also so true it hurts; you have to laugh to keep from crying. The theme is one that Ray frets over in song after song -- how to escape the hassles of the modern world. (Track 1, "20th Century Man," kicks off the album with a savage anthem rejecting the "technological nightmare" of the modern age; the narrator of track 2, "Acute Paranoia Schizophrenia Blues," is in the throes of a full-scale breakdown.)

The narrator of "Complicated Life" seems simply baffled by his existence, but even he suffers all sorts of psychosomatic pains, and he earnestly takes his doctor's advice to slow down. He begins sensibly enough: "Well, I cut down women, I cut out booze" -- but as he plods on through his dutiful regimen, it gets more and more absurd: "I stopped ironing my shirts, cleaning my shoes / I stopped going to work, reading the news" and eventually this dropout is completely unfit to compete: "I can't go to work 'cos I can't get a job / Bills are rising sky-high" and life becomes even more complicated than ever. The poor bloke just can't win.

Frankly, most days I feel the same way. Life is a bitch -- but what's our alternative? And when I start to feel overwhelmed and miserable, it is extremely comforting for me to hear Ray's voice in my head, saying with a puzzled shrug -- "Gotta stand and face it / Life is soooo complicated." It's not an answer; it's not a solution. It's just...well, at least Ray knows how I feel. I don't feel quite so lost, knowing that. And that is why this is my band for life.


IƱaki said...

Life is overrated, life is complicated,
must alleviate this complicated life.

It isn't easy being a Kinks kultist, but Kinks fans are the best in the world and that makes it already worth. Thank you very much for writing this. It made me smile. :)

Complicated Life said...

Dearest Holly - Your essay perfectly explains why I chose "Complicated Life" to be my Forum Name on Ray's Message Board.

It took a band from Muswell Hill to make the most shit-kicking song in the history of rock music!


La-di-da-di-da da
Gotta get away from
The Complicated Life, son
Life is overrated
Life is complicated
Gotta get away from
The Complicated Life

PS - kudos to Dave's outstanding slide guitar work.

TomT said...

I LOVE this song and you did a great job of capturing its feeling holly.

I have heard this one quite a bit lately and it seems to reinforce the notion that I need to slow down and simplify things. A very tough thing to do in 21st century America.

It's simply a great song.

lennart.lindstrom said...

Dear Holly,

Thanks for writing this one. You´ve said exactly exactly what I feel in better words that I could write.

Mr L

ILEE said...

Yes, yes yes!

Holly, thanks to this review I know understand why I love the Kinks so much, and while I feel all the better for doing so, and why I know nothing will ever get me down. There are countless times where I have fallen back on a Kinks song to stop and me think and to make me laugh and smile.

Complicated Life is a song that you can easily pass over, or, because of the catchy tune, fail to appreciate the lyrics. But not any more!

Anonymous said...

It's great to come back to this entry while playing the song and finding all of the comments. It's like we're all singing along.

My life feels very complicated right now, but Ray seems to counter with a "please -- when is it NOT complicated?"

I second Inaki's comment. The hardship of being a kinks fan is lessened by looking around at the company you keep. :-)

Anonymous said...

A great entry indeed. Wow. I'm not sure I've heard this tune?
I will look it up soon.

It's amazing after all these years, Ray's still got it. I love his solo record from last year!