Saturday, December 13, 2008

"Working Man's Cafe" / Ray Davies

Darn! I came on here this morning, all charged up to write about two of my favorite Kinks songs, which Ray Davies performed last night at this over-the-top fabulous show at the Hammerstein Ballroom. I never thought I'd hear either of them performed live, and there they were, more glorious and wonderful than I could ever have expected. But lo and behold, I've already written here about Shangri-La and Starstruck. (Well, I said they were two of my favorites, didn't I?) Then I was gonna write about The Getaway, one of my favorites among Ray's solo tracks -- but guess what? I wrote about that one last March, the last time I saw Ray live.

But never fear -- Ray's got a million of 'em! And now I realize I haven't yet gushed sufficiently about "Working Man's Cafe," the title song from Ray's most recent album. (It's impressive how Ray can perform this new solo stuff alongside the vintage Kinks classics, and it fits right in.) Last night Ray prefaced this one with an anecdote about trying to meet his brother Dave for a chat at some cafe Dave knew about, and when Ray got there, it had disappeared. Anytime one of Ray's songs references Dave, you know it runs deep -- that tortured relationship he has with his little brother is all tangled up in his own ambivalence about being true to his working-class roots and yet being a rich and celebrated artist.

So on the surface, yes, this song is a passionate cry against the loss of the English High Street, to be replaced with samey chain stores and those bland wannabe-American mini-malls. (Check out my book 500 Places To See Before They Disappear for my own lament on this topic.) But as always, Ray goes introspective and brings his personal conflict into this song. He sounds genuinely lost and befuddled as he begins, "Looking for the working man's café / In the shopping centre of the town / Looking for somewhere to fit in / In among the retail outlets." I love how those lines toggle melodically back and forth between two notes, like he's looking for a chord that fits; he sings it so plaintively, too. He can cope just fine in this brave new world, but a sense of loss still haunts him -- " Bought a pair of new designer pants /Where the fruit and veg man used to stand /I always used to see him there /Selling old apples and pears / Chatting up the pretty girls /With knocked-off goods in the van." Now you tell me, which type of store has more character?

Ray's even willing to admit that this is progress: "We've really come a long way down this road / Improving our surroundings as we go / Changing our roots and culture / But don't you know..." This is more nuanced than the anti-modernization protests of "Village Green Preservation Society" (another amazing song he sang last night). Now, Ray plumbs the situation for all its poignancy, raising a howl of sorrow as he swings into the chorus: "Long ago / There was a working man / Don't you know / We were all working men." And what's lost is the gentle humanity of that past, when "we'd sit and pass the time of day / At the working man's café."

Next verse, he's trying to meet up (with his brother, we now know, via cell phone), and the rhymes disappear, the melodic line falters, as he stumbles uncertainly: "I thought I knew you then, but will I know you now / There's gotta be a place for us to meet / I'll call you when I've found it / I only hope that life has made us a little more grounded / Hey man, I see you now." Later on, he gets more topical, though still bemused, as he sings about loans and mortgages (hmm, he does that in "Shangri-La," too -- financial dealings really do make Ray nuts) and contrasts the working man's cafe to the internet cafes that have replaced it. And then he bursts out in a poignant self-assertion -- "I'm the kid with the greasy spoon / Firmly held in my hand." That is, in the end, who he wants to be; at any rate, he never wants to lose that part of himself.

With some performers, at this stage in their career, this would just be a pose. Does anybody believe the common-man attitudes the Rolling Stones and Bruce Stringsteen still crank out? (I buy it from Paul McCartney, because I think he's deluded enough to really believe he's still an ordinary guy.) But Ray? He's not trying to sell us a bill of goods; he's just fretting over whether he's working-class anymore. Of course he isn't; what's important is that he wants to be (well, sometimes at least). That sense of loss, and that struggle, make this song so much more interesting than a simple diatribe against malls.

Introspection, irony, poignancy -- this is why Ray Davies is my favorite songwriter. In case you're wondering.

Working Man's Cafe sample


The Modesto Kid said...

Lovely song -- that chorus "Everything around me seems unreal/ Everywhere I go it looks and feels/ Like America" (which I didn't even catch the last line of on first listening) really has potential to take me away.

Does anybody believe the common-man attitudes the Rolling Stones and Bruce Stringsteen still crank out?

This is always a problem for me with listening to "Salt of the Earth", a song I love but that I have trouble believing.

randolph said...

There are two versions of "Salt of the Earth", did you know? There's the original Stones and then there's Judy Collins. Small changes to the lyrics, but very different songs.

But I think Justin Sullivan and New Model Army got the last word in on this, years ago: "The shopping mall it is teaming with life/Fighting for the goodies on the shelf./But there's those funny old people on the escalator/Talking to themselves..." *

randolph said...

A later thought...Bruce Springsteen never was "working class" or "a common man" or whatever; he was, and is, of the working class, but he's an artist, and was one from a very early age. I suppose that also applies to Jager, though I know less about him. Springsteen's loyalties are in any event with the working class.

The Modesto Kid said...

two versions

The video you have posted at Advice Unasked (from Rock n Roll Circus) is certainly my favorite performance of the song I've seen. Your description of the Stones' version as "snarky" is worth thinking about.

Didn't know about the Judy Collins version, thanks. Weird, her voice sounds different in that than I'm used to hearing her -- almost more like Grace Slick or something.

Betty C. said...

Oh Holly, I too have been listening to this song a lot lately. I'm so glad I got onto your blog!

I'm with the Modesto Kid -- the best line of this song, in my opinion, is 'Everywhere I go it looks and feels/ Like America." And I can attest that this is so true! I go to London often and can't even find fish and chips places anymore, but there are plenty of Starbucks...

Anonymous said...

Ray Davies is in a class all to himself and sekond to none...God save Ray Davies and also the Kinks and Dave too! dan the fan, the montvale, new jersey hillbilly boy!

Holly A Hughes said...

Ditto, Betty -- I'm digging yours too!

Randolph, despite the bluesy swagger, both Jagger and Richards came from much more middle-class backgrounds. And if anyone can be described as "an artist from a very early age," it would be Ray Davies.

I love Judy Collins' version of "Salt of the Earth." I've always thought that the Stones' version is ironic; they don't really have any intention of helping to gain more power for the working man. But who knows, maybe if they performed it now, they'd sing it sincerely. Nick Lowe says that when he first wrote "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding," he meant it as a satire on hippies, but now he sings it with complete sincerity.

Anonymous said...

Songs like this would ring true if Ray Davies had ever worked a day in his life at a genuine working class job.

His family were working class, he never was.

Betty C. said...

Anonymouse, have you ever heard of artistic license? And what are you suggesting, exactly? That Ray Davies should have just put off the Kinks' career for ten years to go work in a factory, and THEN pick things up again so he could write even more authentically about the working class?

His roots obviously had a huge influence on his work. But you can't ask any artist to only stick to his or her own reality 100%. Where would we be if artists did that?

Nite Owl said...

I saw Ray in Asbury Park on Saturday and he played WMC there too. A lovely, lovely song. All Ray's ballady songs have a certain poignancy to them that the Stones could never match. Even Ray's "rocking" tunes are usually tempered with a section or a riff or a hook that just takes your breath away. I love how Ray almost literally SIGHS the last line of the song.

I've noticed that what makes so many of Ray's sad songs doubly beautiful is the sweet lullaby quality of them. Sing "Imaginary Man" or "One More Time" out loud to see what I mean... the "La la" part of "One More Time" could be used to rock a baby to sleep. And yet, when the need arises, Ray can rock harder than the best of them!

That's why I love his music so much.. but don't get me started. HAHA!

Thanks for stopping by my blog, by the way! :)


Holly A Hughes said...

That's an intriguing observation, Glenn -- I'll enjoy listening for that from now on. I really enjoyed your review of the show!

Oh, sure, anonymous, growing up in a working-class family doesn't count. You don't absorb anything from your childhood; it has no shaping force on your world view. All that matters is whether you have the actual callouses on your own grubby hands.

It's the identification, the empathy, that I'm looking for, and Ray has that down to a T. I think he says it outright in "Working At the Factory" -- having to slog out songs, and drag yourself around on tour, and hammer out a record album, is not as different from hard labor as everyone thinks it must be. I know people also rag Paul McCartney about his work ethic, about how manic he is about cranking out a new album every few months -- but hey, if he's not working he feels worthless. Same with Ray. You don't catch him lounging around falling out of coconut trees!