It's not as if I haven't written about the Kinks before -- but here, for a change, is a Dave Davies original, which has been echoing in my brain ever since I saw the Wes Anderson film The Darjeeling Limited last weekend. The Darjeeling Limited is about three brothers and their complicated love-hate relationship, so how perfect is it to use songs by the warring Davies brothers. ("This Time Tomorrow" and "Powerman" are the other two Kinks tunes on the soundtrack.)
"Strangers" is one of those songs I tend to forget about, and not just because it's a Dave song -- with that heavy guitar strum, the distant echoing vocals, the lurching rhythm, it has a folky vibe I don't often associate with the Kinks. It could almost be a track from the Band; Dave's lonesome vocal here is distinctly Levon Helm-like. And the riddling question-and-answer lyrics definitely feel like a folk ballad: "Where are you going? / I don't mind / I've killed my world and I've killed my time / So where do I go, what do I see? / I see many people coming after me." I get a fugitive image there, for sure -- those people coming after him could easily be a posse riding him out of town. A classic folk ballad image, the exiled wanderer.
It's folky, yes, but apocalyptic too, and Dave is in truth-seeking mode here. Later on he says, "So you've been where I've just come / From the land that brings losers on / So we will share this road we walk / And mind our mouths and beware our talk / 'Till peace we find..." Whatever guru or messiah beckons at the end of this road, he's on some kind of a spiritual journey. (Though, as Owen Wilson says matter-of-factly late in the film, "We came here on a spiritual journey...but that didn't pan out.")
As the song lurches on, Dave begins to rebel against the whole spiritual shtick: "In a promised lie you made us believe / For many men there is so much grief / And my mind is proud but it aches with rage / And if I live too long I'm afraid I'll die." That's more like the Dave I know. I think back to 1970, when this song was released on the album Lola Versus Powerman and the Money-go-round Part One (by the way, Dave and Ray, we're still waiting for Part Two), and I recall George Harrison and all the hazy Eastern philosophy going around London's music world at the time. And there stands bad boy Dave Davies, wanting to believe in all this peace-and-love stuff, yet at the same time hating the idea of jumping on anybody else's flower-festooned bandwagon. Powerman is an album full of songs that reject accepted orthodoxies --labor unions, record company executives, music promoters, lawyers, bankers -- so why not kick back against religion while you're at it?
Still, the plaintive way Dave sings the chorus make his yearning for connection seem totally geniune. The quest still beckons, and it isn't a quest anyone should undertake alone. "So I will follow you wherever you go / If your offered hand is still open to me," Dave declares, leading into the refrain, "Strangers on this road we are on / We are not two we are one." It's a gorgeous hook, with its fluid, rippling triplets morphing from one key to another; I love how the voices split into harmony on the line "We are not two we are one," finally resolving on a major chord. Of course it's about the brotherhood of man, but for some reason I've never been able to hear this line without also thinking of Ray and Dave and their intense love-hate bond. Like it or not, it's been the one constant in their turbulent lives.
So what in the end does this song mean? I haven't got a clue. But then, neither does the singer of his song; he's just sitting at the side of the road, rubbing his aching feet and musing wistfully. The drums slap wearily along, an organ sighs like an exhaled breath. And somehow, all of this manages to come out haunting and evocative and tender. The moment when it bursts into the film, about two-thirds of the way through --well, I won't give away the plot, but it's a beautiful moment of acceptance and enlightenment, and this is the perfect song for that moment. Kudos to Wes Anderson for an absolutely inspired choice.