"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