Sorry I checked out for a few days; I got seriously distracted by the release of Ray Davies' new album, Working Man's Cafe. Of course, getting my hands on it required tenacious sleuthing -- at first there were three tracks on Ray's MySpace page, but they soon disappeared (they've since materialized again, but who knows for how long?). Then all 12 tracks were available on iTunes, but only for 48 hours. For weeks it was listed on Amazon as a pricey import, but last I checked you could only get in the queue to be advised when it was available (hopefully this means that a deal with a US label is pending -- cross your fingers!).
Luckily for me, I grabbed the MySpace tracks early on, downloaded the rest during that fleeting window of opportunity on iTunes, and last week received the CD itself as pre-ordered from a UK on-line record store, CD Wow. I also had friends in England poised to scoop up an extra copy of the free 10-track promo given away with the 21st October Sunday Times. (GIVEN AWAY FOR FREE -- why can't American newspapers do giveaways like this!!?) But how many of Ray Davies' potential US listeners would do all this to finagle a copy of Working Man's Cafe?
Well, I've been a Ray Davies fan a long time -- by now I should be used to his perplexing marketing logic. It's business as usual in the bizarro world of Kinkdom. If the music wasn't so damn good, we'd never put up with this, that's for sure.
And this music is gooooooooood. The WMC track I'm currently obsessed with is called "You're Asking Me," a particularly snarky little number in which Ray Davies irritably shrugs off the mantle of Wise Old Man. I'm not sure whom he's addressing in this song -- a daughter pleading for fatherly advice? a younger musician eager to learn at the feet of the master? a youthful girlfriend, leaning on Ray for wisdom and guidance? Whoever it is, he's having none of it. "If you're asking me, don't take my advice!" he snaps at the end of every other verse.
Sure, part of this is simply Ray dodging away from emotional entanglement (the latest in a long line of songs, dating back to "Stop Your Sobbing"). "Don't make me responsible / For you living your life," he warns her. "It’s up to you to go and make / Your own mistakes / Have a go and break a leg but / Please don’t come home crying when you do." There's genuine panic in his voice as he repeatedly spits out, "Get a life, get a life, GET A LIFE!"
But it's also the bafflement of a man who's been around long enough to know that there are no easy answers. In the bridge, against a rueful Beatle-ish background of wistful "oohs" and strummed seventh chords, Ray laments: "Do we learn from all the questions that we ask? / Do we listen to the past? We never do." In verse two, he puts these words in her mouth: "Because I’ve been around, I have the insight / And I was there the first time / So I must know what it’s like." But he turns that misconception on its head in verse three: "Because I’ve been there before / Doesn’t come to pass / That I have all the answers." I love those falsetto doubled vocals when he "quotes" her. Ray's voice here bears an eerie resemblance to David Bowie -- those punched-out syllables of "cry-ing when you do" and "noth-ing left to fear," the octave-jump flourish on "ad-vi-hice!" Only fitting, of course, since Bowie imitated Ray like crazy in the early years of his career.
There are no answers, and if there were, Ray'd be the last bloke to have them. "First time around it was really grand," he admits in the second bridge, "But inside something said to me / 'Go get a life, get a life.' / Now that I’m here I can’t understand / Why anyone is asking me -- if I could give a damn." That last part's important. He just doesn't care about being anybody's guru. I can't help thinking of John Lennon, wearily singing "a working-class hero is something to be." Who wants the responsibility of so many dreamers hanging on his every word?
Lennon, though, used that melancholy ballad to blast away at the constricting tangle of modern society. Ray just seems . . . well, pissed-off. That twiddling guitar riff at the beginning sounds exactly like someone slithering out the door; the tempo skips around like a boxer bobbing and weaving, and behind those snide "get a life's" there's an aggressive flailing of drums and crunchy guitar. It's gritty and astingent -- definitely not the sound of a mellow old man. Ray has found his own way to grow old, and it's anything but graceful. But Ray Davies has never been like everybody else -- why start now?