"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.