"I Go To Sleep" / The Kinks
You can usually tell a true Kinks fan by whether they know this song--surely the greatest unreleased song in the Kinks catalogue. This song is so plangent, so haunting, so unforgettable--it could have been a hit, should have been a massive hit.
Here's the story. In 1965 Ray Davies cut a demo of the tune (now included as a bonus track on the reissued Kinda Kinks album), but it was never properly recorded, not even on the The Great Lost Kinks Album. Apparently the Kinks' manager at the time, Larry Parnes, took the song from Ray and sold it to other artists, first Peggy Lee and then (brace yourselves) Cher. I've never been able to find the Peggy Lee track, which appeared on her out-of-print 1965 LP Then Was Then, Now Is Now; I did hear the Cher version once and it's just as atrocious as you'd expect. I'd love to hear Peggy Lee's take, though--her sultry intelligence would perfectly fit this number. I imagine Peggy Lee's version was similar to jazz singer Judith Owen's wonderful cover version, on her 2006 CD Here. (Note to self: Blog some day soon about the gifted and delightful Judith Owen.)
The less said the better about the Pretenders' 1981 recording of "I Go To Sleep," the version most people know. Chrissy Hynde's habit of ripping the guts out of every song she sings absolutely destroyed this tender, haunting little song. There's a whiny cover out now by Sia that doesn't seem like much of an improvement to me, either. But then I'm prejudiced--that original demo is so beautiful, it's pretty much impossible to top.
I've read that Ray Davies wrote this the night his daughter Victoria was born. That's a very cool image, the exhausted young father looking at his sleeping infant and being awed by the immensity of this new life. However, Ray (ever the professional songwriter) re-cast it as a romantic love song, and it works so well that way, I think I'll stick with it. Because this isn't a song about looking at a sleeping loved one--it's a song about sleeping alone, yearning for your lover to be there. That's the ultimate loneliness, isn't it?
The demo recording is, oddly enough, just about perfect, so underproduced, such a light touch. Ray's wispy voice skips over the cascading staccato words of the verse: "When I look up from my pillow / I dream you are there / With me. / Though you are far away / I know you'll always be near / To me." He sounds groggy, unfocused, disorientated. The chorus switches to a more legato line, but still drifting and vague: "I go to sleep, / Sleep, / And imagine that you're there / With me." In that half-state between waking and dreaming, he's groping for some sort of contentment -- but the way that last line wavers and stutters, ending on an unresolved chord, it's pretty clear that the sleep thing is just not happening.
In the second verse, the plot thickens (this is classic songwriting craft, something Ray Davies had--and still has--to the very tips of his fingers). He just happens to mention "Each tear that flows from my eyes / Brings back memories of you / To me." Oho, so that's it -- that's why he can't sleep, because they've split for some reason; she's not just off on a business trip, but something bad happened. In the bridge, he rouses himself a little, to protest "I was wrong, / I will cry, / I will love you to the day I die. / You alone, / You alone and no one else, / You were meant for me," but the diminished key sounds tentative and tortured, all mixed up with self-pity and confusion and regret. By the last verse, when he gets back to the home melody, it's not much comfort: "When morning comes once more / I have the loneliness you / Left me. / Each day drags by until / Finally night time descends / On me." This is the song of a soul in hell, and he's way too numb to scream and yell about it --which makes it even more painful and sad.
Years later the Kinks would do a whole album of insomniac songs called Sleepwalker, but the germ of it all seems to be in this plaintive 1965 demo. The title may be "I Go To Sleep," but it's anything but sweet dreams. Breaks my heart, everytime I hear it.