Friday, June 24, 2016

"Shangri-La" / The Kinks

In the wake of the Brexit vote...

I'm a Kinks fan, and will be until the day I die. So when the Davies brothers' country does something so weird, so inexplicable, I can't help but turn to their vast catalog of songs to figure it all out. 

And this gem, from September 1969, leapt into my mind this morning, as soon as I learned of the Brexit result. Because how else can we understand the middle-class-(or-aspiring) Englishman whose home is his castle? 

These late 1960s Kinks satires of English life -- these were the songs, much more than the power chord hits ("You Really Got Me," "All Day and All of the Night") that made a Kinks fan of me. From the barbed comedy of "Well-Respected Man" (1965) to the ambivalently sympathetic "Autumn Almanac" (1967), singer/songwriter Ray Davies saw all too well how England's class system was playing out in real time. 

And if you look at the map of who voted to stay in the European Union, and who voted to leave -- well, it pretty much plays along class lines.

Granted, I'm not sure that "Shangri-La" -- from the enormously underrated concept album Arthur -- even qualifies as satire. The melancholy minor-key melody sets us up for something entirely different. That first verse is unbearably poignant: "Now that you've found your paradise / This is your kingdom to command / You can go outside and polish your car / Or sit by the fire in your Shangri-La." This isn't just some snide put-down of middle-class complacency -- though there's surely a strain of that in there -- it's also an epiphany about the moment when one's dreams ring hollow. "Here's your reward for working so hard / Gone are the lavatories in the back yard / Gone are the days when you dreamed of that car / You just want to sit in your Shangri-La." I love that detail about the lavatories -- talk about fixing a cultural reference in one sharp stroke.

And I think of young pop star Ray Davies, living with his wife and kids in a mansionette in North London, inextricably severed from his working-class roots and still not feeling ready to join the upper class that he'd been taught since childhood to abhor. (Never mind that his posho managers hadn't managed to get him his fair share of songwriting royalties -- forcing him to file a lawsuit that's apparently still a landmark case in British law.)

Oh, the satire comes stealing in in the later verses, as Ray describes the "little man" catching his commuter train and fretting over his mortgage; it's a pathetic trade-off, on a time-installment plan: "Got a TV set and a radio / For seven shillings a week." Then Ray pans out, almost cinematically, for the wide-angle view:  "And all the houses in the street have got a name / 'Cos all the houses in the street they look the same ' Same chimney pots, same little cars, same window panes" -- that's such a resonant observation, about the English penchant for giving their houses cutesy names, even in a cookie-cutter development. It's details like that that make Ray Davies one of our greatest living songwriters.

Eventually Ray does dismiss the character as "Too scared to think about how insecure you are / Life ain't so happy in your little Shangri-La." But I don't know -- I still think he's identifying with him, and more than a little bit. Because it's the poignancy of the first verses that stays with me, in the end.

And here's the Brexit paradox: People who aren't happy with their tiny slice of the pie honestly do think that by building a wall they can make their pie bigger. 

Which, alas -- those of us who have studied economics know -- is just not the case. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Summer Shuffle June 2016

First of all, I'm freaked out that it's 2016. But I'm moving past that, truly. And offering a panoply of tunes to make your June celebratory to the nth degree. 

1. I'm On an Island / The Kinks
From Kink Kontroversy (1965)
Oh, my man Ray Davies, the presiding genius behind the Kinks. And here, even as early as 1965, he was sectioning off the experiences.  I've heard that he will only ever sing this song on Iceland, the island for which he wrote this tune. Damn, I have a whole cabinet of Icelandic experiences, but Lord if I don't want to go to Iceland ONLY to hear Ray sing it.

2. Wake Up / Alan Price
From Rising Sun (1980)
Alan, you'll never know how much of my life was devoted to chasing you down, But here's a taste -- and a pretty good tune to connect to your iPhone alarm.

3. Man in the Bottom of the Well / Bill Kirchen with Elvis Costello
From Word to the Wise (2010)
Elvis, Nick, Bill. Need I say more? I cannot help but dig those majestic riffs, climbing out of the depths of whatevs..

4. Mondays / Killer Tuesday / Black Uhuru
From Liberation: The Island Anthology (1993)
I do love the random logic of the shuffle. Because how else would we get this exTREMEly copasetic track, which does go on and on, but hey, what else did you have to do with your time?

5. I Swear I Saw Christopher Reeve / Jill Sobule   
From Dottie's Charms (2014)
A Midwestern interlude, courtesy of my girl Jill. Who seriously I just. I've never been there but I know the place like the back of my hand. Check it out.

6. Staten Island Baby / Black 47
How much do we love Larry Kirwan's celebration of the Irish-American  experience?

7. Islands in the Stream /Bonnie Raitt and Nick Lowe
Oh, Bonnie my girl. I so love you. And yet -- you sang this with Nick? I can't even.

8. Birds in Perspex Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians
Quirky -- yeah, that's the RH thing.

9. Fire Island / Fountains of Wayne
How much do I love this deeply resonant, yet laidback track? This sums up summer to me.

10. House of the Rising Sun / The Animals
Lord. So much began here. Honor paid to Eric Burdon's iconic voice, but also to the rest of the Animals (including oh yes my hero Alan Price.)

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

RIP Guy Clark 1941-2016

"Mud" / Guy Clark

Honestly, I'm so distressed by the number of obituary posts I've have to put up this year, I couldn't make myself do another one, not even for Guy Clark. But I do/did love Guy Clark. In the end, I just had write something.

When I drove out to the depths of Long Island that winter night in 2006, I had no idea who Guy Clark was.  I was there to see John Hiatt; the other guys in the Songwriter's Circle were unknown quantities to me. (Well, I knew who Lyle Lovett was, but only because of his oddball acting role in The Player.)  A massive snowstorm had all but shut down the Long Island Expressway. I'm still not sure why I persevered and drove out there.

But man, am I glad I did.

Hiatt was fabulous, of course, as always.  Lyle Lovett was a downright revelation (more on that another time.)  Joe Ely was a find indeed.  But mostly, as I left, I was simply astonished that I'd never known Guy Clark's music -- and I needed to hear more of it.

And of all the songs he sang that night, this one transfixed me most.

Yeah, it seems simple. But it's deceptively so, like most of Guy Clark's songs. For in fact these are songs that traffic in the profound; these are songs about Life with a capital L. (It's no surprise that so many of his country/folk/Texas peers felt moved to contribute to the tribute album This One's for Him.)

Like the best magicians, he's all about misdirection. Oh, yes, he oh-so-casually gives us the river mud, waylaying us with specific details: green-backed herons, water moccasins, the way water dapples between reeds. He focuses us on the here and now, the way mud squishes up between your toes. (Can't you just feel that?)

And in the chorus, he hauls up a host of simplistic mud-based cliches -- "mud pie, mud in your eye." Oh, sure, it's all just about getting a little dirty. "Take a little rain, take a little dirt / Make a little mud, get it on your shirt."

But in the third verse, he deftly cuts a chink into metaphor territory: "Now when I die please bury me down by the this old muddy creek / Let the crawfish have their way / It's mud to mud and that's okay." Technically, the liturgical language isn't "mud to mud" but "ashes to ashes" -- but it's close enoughAnd for good measure--just in case theology isn't your thing--he throws all of us good Darwinians a bone: "We all just crawled out of the mud." 

The key to this song isn't the lines Guy sings, it's the lines he song-speaks. At the end of verse one, "Life and death just dancin' around in the mud." Verse two: "You got to get it between your toes, the mud." And at the end of the song: "We're all just sloggin' through the mud."

Because here's the Gospel According to Guy Clark: Life is about engaging with people, engaging with sorrow, engaging with failure, engaging with reality. Taking a hit, taking a loss. It ain't pretty, but it's real. And if you're not wading into it, you're not fully alive.

Amen, Guy. And godspeed.