too much typing—since 2003



My friend Miles recently sent me a homebrewed comp of Kinks tracks, in the process reminding me that even on their lamest records, they still generally had at least one good song. Of course, it's hardly news to state that Ray Davies is among the finest rock lyricists - but in listening to the compilation, it struck me that one of his sharpest skills is a precision-balanced sense of ambiguity. This is most obvious in what I still contend is the single best line of any rock song ever, the punchline of "Lola": "I know what I am, and I'm glad I'm a man - and so is Lola." In this case one really has to thank the Powers-That-Be that the English language is ambiguous regarding grammatical gender - since otherwise, Davies wouldn't have been able to finesse the complement of "so is Lola" with such exquisite equipoise.

A subtler example is "Waterloo Sunset." Setting aside lyrics, it's simply one of the most beautiful recordings ever made, and the instrumental backing establishes the song's bittersweet mood even before you look at the lyrics. A virtue of lyrical ambiguity is its generosity: the listener must, perforce, participate in making meaning, since the specifics of that meaning are left open. Much of this song's pathos is carried by what it doesn't say: the narrator, in fact, claims that "as long as he [can] gaze on Waterloo sunset," he's in "paradise." He labors to assure you that everything's fine, that he has any number of reasons for staying home: he's just lazy, it's chilly in the evening, the city's busyness makes him feel dizzy, and my, isn't that a beautiful sunset? At first you might think "Terry and Julie" are friends of his, whose meetings at Waterloo Station he just happens to be able to see from his window. Yet he says that he doesn't need friends - and so, we're left to deduce that, in fact, he may not know "Terry and Julie" at all: he probably doesn't even know whether those are their real names. To me, the narrator's situation seems unutterably sad: he simply can't bring himself even to leave his house, and the way Davies sings the word "paradise" evokes a desolate irony, even more so than that house named "Shangri-La" Davies sings about elsewhere.

But it's "Art Lover" that's Davies' most audacious exercise in delicately balanced portraiture. At first, most listeners probably assumed the song was Davies' attempt at punk-influenced, "shocking" subject matter: "ooh look, Enid - he's writing about a child molester!" But in fact Davies is quite careful to lead you only so far down the path of that conclusion: far short, in fact, of any such unambiguous characterization. Yes, the narrator likes to look at little girls; yes, he hides his glances behind sunglasses; yes, he follows the girls around (at a discreet distance?) - but he also tells you that he's aware of the impression he makes, and takes pains to deny that it's the case: he's not a "flasher in a raincoat" or a "dirty old man"; he has no intention of snatching girls from their mothers. Davies could be playing coy about his narrator - he might expect us to disbelieve his assertions - but Davies' songs often address interior musings, rather than action, and so a familiarity with Davies' work might lead us to assume that this man is exactly who he says he is: a rather sad soul, similar to the narrator of "Waterloo Sunset," if perhaps less depressive and more willing to engage in risky behavior (and knowing it: the character is not, as I said, oblivious to the way he's perceived). He tells us directly that he knows it would be wrong to actually act on his attraction and try to take home one of these girls; he even knows why he's attracted, and what the girl's beauty means to him: "She's just a substitute / For what's been taken from me."

At first, that line struck me as problematic, nearly cliched. It's saved, once again, by Davies' careful sense of ambiguity: the narrator doesn't tell us what, specifically, has been taken from him - and his use of the word "substitute" moves us away from a simplistic reading that the man's own daughter is lost to him (although it doesn't rule out that possibility).

And here's where Davies, I think, makes the sort of moralistic move typical of many of his songs - but he does so, subtly, by forcing us to analyze our own judgment. Obviously, a man who would act on lecherous impulses toward young girls (but wait - who said anything about lechery? Not our narrator...) is a moral monster - but if a man has such feelings, is aware of them, and knows better than to act on them - and even knows why he has those feelings - doesn't the pathos of his situation deserve our pity, rather than our scorn? And isn't there something rather pathetic about our rush to judgment, our own imagining that the narrator's actual motivations are sexually twisted, our own assumption that he will act and lacks the self-restraint we presume ourselves to possess when our own desires can't legitimately be indulged in? Isn't reading this song as being about a "pervert" more a judgment on our own predilections than on those of the narrator?

Davies' subtle use of ambiguity is one element of the incisiveness of his portraiture, the sense we get of knowing these characters from the inside. In a sense, we do - because Davies paints us at the same time he paints his characters and situations.

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