Thursday, November 12, 2009

"Sitting In My Hotel" / The Kinks

I'm shocked -- shocked -- that I haven't yet blogged about this song. So far in this Kinks album-a-day project, every time I hit a new album I discover that I'd already written about my favorite song on the LP. And considering that 1972's Everybody's in Show-Biz was such a major record in my life (check out the story here), I was sure I'd already discussed my favorite tracks. And yet, no -- not "Here Comes yet Another Day," the world's best wake-up tune; not "Maximum Consumption," my favorite food song ever; not "Motorway," my favorite highway song ever. Not "Look a Little on the Sunnyside," which ranks right up there with the music-biz satires on Lola v Powerman. I can understand why I might have avoided tackling "Celluloid Heroes," Ray's plaintive-yet-campy peek behind the tinsel curtain of celebrity. But "Sitting in My Hotel" -- well, I have pondered this song so deeply for so long, this is a post that practically writes itself.


On one level, "Sitting In My Hotel" is simply a navel-gazing, oh-poor-celebrity-me song, and there are way too many of those around. When Everybody's in Show-Biz first came out in 1972, plenty of critics bashed Ray Davies for writing an entire album of whining about how hard it was to be a rock star. Even brother Dave got into the act, writing "You Don't Know My Name" to pout about how Ray got all the attention. (I think of this as his Jan Brady song.) Enough already!

Of course the critics are right. The world is big and wild and half insane, and the troubles of five long-haired Englishmen on a tour bus don't really amount to a hill of beans. Still, I find that the stresses Ray writes about on this album -- the traffic, the bad food, the constant pressure to perform -- crop up in my daily life too; Ray's zany desperation in these songs helps me to put my game face on every morning. And so when Ray shifts into poignant mode for "Sitting In My Hotel," I'm ready to listen. Hey, I'm a travel writer; I've stayed in my share of lonely sterile hotel rooms. I know exactly what he's talking about.

Besides, I love to indulge Ray Davies in his self-pity moments. I know perfectly well that he's not really as fragile and frail as he portrays himself -- but I like to believe he could be. (With the love of the right woman, et cetera, et cetera.) And there are delicious moments of self-mockery in this song -- like when he describes himself as "dressed in satin strides and two-tone daisy roots" ("daisy roots" being rhyming slang for "boots"), or, best of all, in verse two: "If my friends could see me now, dressing up in my bow-tie, / Prancing round the room like some outrageous poove." (Okay, I'm a sucker for the way he pronounces "prahn-cing".) That limo he's riding in? It's a "chauffeur driven jam jar." He knows this is all ridiculous.

But the brilliant thing about this song is that it's not just a whinge about celebrity life. In a genius move, Ray filters the whole thing through the eyes of his friends -- and if they could see him, they would just laugh. "They would all be saying that it's not really me, / They would all be asking who I'm trying to be." That's how he keeps himself from taking it all too seriously. And with that perspective to keep him grounded, he can then admit that his isolation is a cop-out, a way of "hiding from the dramas of this great big world" and "trying to hide the gloom." Stardom doesn't solve anything.

In fact, toward the end he gives us a snapshot of himself that's almost like an Edward Hopper painting: "They would see me in my hotel, / Watching late shows till the morning, / Writing songs for old time vaudeville revues." Ah, Ray the insomniac, the harshest critic of his own paltry tunes. And when he imagines that "All my friends would ask me what it's all leading to," he's really asking himself. He's questioning celebrity culture, not just moaning about his own personal loss of privacy.

Flickering in and out from major to minor keys, this melody dances between gloom and humor; it's really an amazing high-wire act. The simple piano accompaniment of the first verse captures that air of late-night loneliness, but on the chorus it swells with drums and organ and horns (I love that wistful little fanfare in the chorus), like the self-pity surging in his heart. But then the thought of his friends' laughter keeps him honest, and the arrangement strips back down for the second verse, to train the spotlight on him prancing around the room in his bow-tie. It scales back at the end as well, to finish on a wry, crooked smile.

Late-night crises of the soul get me every time. I'm so swept up in it, I forget to wonder Who are these down-to-earth old friends of Ray's? Because I have to say, he doesn't strike me as a guy who still hangs with his old mates from the neighborhood. And come on, Ray, no one made you put on that bow tie -- in 1972, he was just on the threshold of his most theatrical period, not casting it all off. So yeah, "Sitting In My Hotel" is a pose. But here's the catch: Ray believes it. At least while he's singing it, he does. And listening to this song is like getting a lesson in how to wrestle with one's own demons, whatever they are.

TOMORROW: Preservation Act 1 and "Cricket"


Alex said...

The horn riffs also remind me of "Penny Lane" era Beatles and I wonder if part of what's keeping him awake at night is the fear that his best work might be behind him (and that that best work might be forgotten even as Beatle songs are remembered and celebrated). And maybe there's a bit of mockery in boasting about being "seven stories high," which is certainly above street level, but hardly up in the (personal or profession) stratosphere.

Anonymous said...


wwolfe said...

Oh, I love this song! What a beautiful melody, arrangement, and delicate balance of conflicting emotions. Some of my favorite Mick Avory drumming and Dave's patented harmonies help, too. And kudos for singling out the "chaffeur-driven jam jar" line. I remember a critic citing "Soft white dreams with sugar-coated outsides" from "Young and Innocent Days" as an example of Ray's singular lyrical gift, adding that a lesser writer would have written something like "Eating from the cake of life." This line from "Sitting in My Hotel" is an equally good example of why Ray has a greatness that no one else has ever quite been able to reproduce.

Anonymous said...

...whenever I want to truly bathe in melancholia.

I remember when I was "short" to get out of the Army many, many years ago. I only had a couple of days left, so I basically had license to do anything I wanted. I got home from an evening of indulgement at the EM club just across post. I staggered in (that's what those Mai Tais can do) and turned on the last cut of side two (I've always been a "Side Two" guy) of the studio album from "Showbiz" and turned my Pioneer amp up to eleven. Soon a big bear of a guy, (Mark Harbarger was his name) from Ohio comes up to me and said, I thought confrontationally, "What the HELL is that?!?!!"

I knew he could beat me to a pulp, but I was short, I loved the Kinks, and I just didn't care about any consequences.

I said, "It's The Kinks, "Sitting In My Hotel."

He just walked away and said, "I love that song."


For me this song always showed that maybe even if Ray didn't have the world's greatest voice, he would always be the worlds greatest singer.


Holly A Hughes said...

Beautifully put, Rich! And a great story...