Perennial Themes in the Songs of Ray Davies
by Jim Mello
It seems as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern....
We had the experience, but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness.
-- T.S. Eliot,
"The Dry Salvages"
"TWO WALTERS: Perennial Themes in the Songs of Ray Davies"
There are two recorded versions of the Kink's song, "Do You Remember Walter?" The first is part of the song cycle which constitutes the album Village Green Preservation Society released in the 1960s. The second is an in-studio, "live" version recorded for the Kinks archives, and released on the 1996 collection To The Bone. Together they serve as bookends to the Ray Davies/Kinks canon, serving as a type and antitype for the songwriting of Ray Davies. The latter version serves as a retrospective, in the best sense of the word, to Ray's progress as a songwriter, person, performer, and artist. In a thoughtful listening to this reading of the song, one can hear many of the thematic and personal concerns of Davies throughout his carer. The quintessential and perennial themes revolving around the quest for freedom-- personal, cultural, and artistic, in the late twentieth century context are found here. This paper attempts to explore these themes in a line-by-line analysis of the song, tracing these themes, not only in the context of the song, but also in the context of the Kinks/Davies corpus.
Listening to the Kinks' second recorded version of "Do You Remember Walter?" on 1966's To The Bone is an exercise in double nostalgia. First it takes me back to my adolescent days when my musical world was being shaped by the "British Invasion". Then, through Ray Davies' wistful reading of this Village Green chestnut, I am carried back through the entire Kinks/Ray Davies catalog and hear the echoes of many of his themes. The song, grounded in 1969"s Village Green Preservation Society, already shows Ray, at around twenty-five years of age, casting at least one eye to his past. The spirit of retrospection which informs this song in both its incarnations, will inform this paper as well. Although Ray stated during the transitional time documented by "School Boys in Disgrace" that there would be "no more looking back", the setting and reading of "Walter" on To The Bone belies rock music's Proustian best efforts to leave the past behind. Ray's historic/nostalgic marrow proves to be too strong.
First, a few caveats and comments: as mentioned above, my own appreciation for the music of the Kinks, especially the lyrics of Ray Davies, dates back to the early 60's British Invasion, but really coalesced with the "Classic/Golden Age" albums of the mid to late 60's, beginning with Face to Face and on to Arthur. It was here that I learned via the liner notes on the album Something Else, not to take any Ray Davies composition at face value. I became willfully conditioned to listen for the Daviesian lyrical and/or musical twist that would lift me out of one level of meaning to another key, another thought, another angle to consider the song, and, over time, another song from the still-growing body of work. That's what fueled this look back through the lens of "Walter".
Another set of liner notes, this time from King Kronikles, added to the equation. There, Ray was labeled a "self-plagarist", and I have found over the years that description to be particularly apt. Ray appears to take actual quotes from, or make allusions to his own lexicon of lyrics more than any of his contemporaries that I am aware of. The net result of this is that Ray's work tends to truly be a "body" of work, making cross-references not only a pleasurable pastime, but also a guide to gaining deeper appreciation, if not understanding, of his songs. For example, the opening stanza of 1993's "Drifting Away" from the CD Phobia hearkens back lyrically and thematically to the song and the album VGPS. This phenomena is the catalyst for looking back through Ray's corpus through the reading of "Walter" on To The Bone.
When I listen to Ray sing "Walter" on this collection of songs, other works from his collection are "Triggered". There is even a trigger for me to the film "Return to Waterloo". On to cautions. As we venture into this portion of Kinkdom, it needs to be with an awareness of the shadow cast over us by Ray's song "Fancy"; most of this may be pure speculation and nothing more than my projections and "fancies". But to counter that fear, are statement Ray has made in his book, "X-Ray" and in his NPR Fresh Air interview promoting that book. In both places Ray is looking back and commenting on his journey as a songwriter, which was borne out of necessity, if the Kinks were going to survive the dismal failure of their initial release. Here he comments on the work of his unconscious, and how his unconscious was writing. For example, as he wrote about the two characters in the song "Two Sisters", he was actually writing about himself and his brother, Dave. These revelations about his writing process help us to realize that we may also see meanings which Ray is not aware of as well.
He also comments, on songs such as "YRGM" and "Tired of Waiting", that this unconscious process was propelling him forward as a composer. As he reexamines this line from the latter song, "it's your life and you can do what you want", Ray states he hears the call of the writer and the writing process as well as, I believe, the call to individuality which is perhaps the hallmark of Ray's writing, underscored by the intensity of his singing on the To The Bone version of this song, which is the most impassioned on the album.
In this light, as we take this double nostalgic walk through Ray's songwriting catalog, via a retrospective look at "Walter", it would be helpful for us to bear in mind the root meaning of the word nostalgia, which includes not only the longing for home or the past as we have come to understand it, but also the actual homecoming which the longing points to.
Before analyzing the lyrics of "Walter" line by line to examine the perennial themes of Ray Davies. let's consider the song itself in its original context on the album, VGPS. The song's major theme is change, cultural and personal, and how those changes affect relationships, the memory of those relationships, and, by implication, memory itself and its reliability and/or power to fuel the changes and choices that have been made. The closing lines acknowledge that "people often change, but memories of people still remain", but to what effect? To freeze them in the past or in memory, or to reinforce the hopefully growth-producing changes that have been made, serving as a plumb-line for self-analysis? As usual, Ray strikes a note that is at best ambivalent, allowing us to consider more than one option or implication.
The song sits in the middle of a collection of songs which discuss people, relationships, and cultural changes in a light which views many of the cultural changes affecting these people negatively. The struggle of these individuals and their relationships to each other and to the surrounding culture, in an attempt to wrest beauty, meaning, and hope - if not acceptance - from these changes, serves as an apt template for the songwriting persona of Ray Davies. This is a microcosm and type of the themes which reappear throughout Davies' ouvre. In this light, it is easy to see the twin versions of "Do You Remember Walter" as bookends to these themes. To change metaphors, the 1969 recording of the song serves as a foreshadowing of the themes, while the "To the Bone" arrangement serves as a retrospective of this thirty year enterprise. It is significant that Ray allegedly had a copy of VGPS under his arm when the band played at Carnegie Hall on their second and long delayed U.S. tour.
"Walter, remember when the world was young and all the girls knew Walter's name"... Here, on one of the most personalized lyrics on VGPS, we have the narrator looking back at a very specific relationship, invoking both a particular person, Walter, but also invoking memory itself, calling on the other person in the relationship to reminisce as well. To compare notes, to bask in the glow of the memory itself. This is a central recurring theme in Ray's songbook. calling to mind such songs as Preservation's "Where Are They Now?", or "Arthur" as he sits in "Shangri-La". This also serves as the first example of how Ray's lyrics are self-allusive and conjure up associations with works throughout his career. Not only are the two songs from Arthur recalled, but also "Young and Innocent Days", the theme of which is an echo of 'Walter" as it again speaks of an innocent world lost.
"... isn't it a shame the way our little world has changed..." The changing world (and Ray's difficulty adjusting) is, of course, a major, if not central theme of Ray's and flashes me back to such social commentary gems on Face to Face as "Party Line" and "Holiday in Waikiki", where Ray begins to chronicle the ironies and disparities of 20th century culture. From the frustration of technology in "Party Line" to the exploitative/deceitful charlatanism of "Waikiki" which includes steep prices for "genuine Hawaiian ukeleles" and the Italian/Greek heritage of the hula girls. This theme widens into the major themes of "Lola vs. the Powerman" and "Muswell Hill", both of which chronicle Ray's personal and traumatic encounter with the music industry and his family's uprooting from the London suburb. If you've seen or heard Ray's "20th Century Man" performance art presentation, the theme resurfaces with a vengeance in the new song "Americana", which tells the tale of the Kinks' first U.S. tour and the underlying violence in American culture.
The way our little world has changed is also the context of Preservation, Acts I &II, where we are reintroduced to the exploitation of "The Village Green" and all it represents by rampant capitalism in the person of the character, Flash. Even in later works, such as UK Jives, Down the Road to 1992, and Phobia, this theme is still present. Ray documents a changing world that continues to have devastating effects on culture and the individuals in that culture.
"Do you remember. Walter, playing cricket in the thunder and the rain?..." Here three allusions are immediately evident: "Cricket", from Preservation, Act I, "Rainy Day In June", from Face to Face, and the recurring scene from Return to Waterloo, which shows the young schoolboys in their athletic pursuits.
In the context of the song it concretizes the memories the narrative is built on and personally pulls me back to my own childhood games and friends. Of course the reference to the English game, cricket, is an example of the Anglicanization in Ray's songs which often alienates American audiences. "The thunder and the rain" serve as an example of lyrical/pictorial self-allusion that occurs in Ray's writing. I immediately begin to replay "Rainy Day In June", appreciating once more Ray's wonderful evocation of a thunderstorm.
"Cricket" does not evoke childhood memories, but instead becomes a vehicle for Ray's moral concerns to find expression through the mouth of the vicar, as a metaphor for life and moral order; the vicar refers to the Ten Commandments as the rule for both the game of cricket and of life.
"Do you remember, Walter, smoking cigarettes behind the garden gate?... The secret sins which Ray and Walter engage in foreshadow and sometimes parallel the corruption in the changing world, becoming themes of such songs as "Big Black Smoke", and "Polly", from the same period. It also hearkens back to "Harry Rag" on the earlier album, Something Else.
"Yes, Walter was my mate, but Walter my old friend, where are you now?..." This question echoes throughout Ray's work, surfacing in two songs separated by several years. It is a musical question he asks of London's swinging 60's culture, and its heroes and villains in the song entitled, "Where Are They Now?" on Preservation, Act I. In "Walter", the song has an intended audience of one, but on Preservation the question is asked of a series of people who once made "news", and by extension to the audience and witnesses of that period of time.
There is also an echo of a song from the much maligned Think Visual album, "How Are You?" in which Ray paints a brief encounter with a friend who, in contrast to the rigidity of Walter, acknowledges his shortcomings, showing evidence of growth.
"Oh Walter, ii you saw me now you wouldn't even know my name?" There are some interesting implications here: that the childhood friend of the "famous" Ray Davies would not even know his name is a great ironic twist. It also alludes to Ray's confessional song on the Everybody's In Showbiz album: "Sitting in My Hotel". In that treatment of the theme Ray projects his ambivalence and self-deprecation as he muses about his role as a "rock star"! He states at that point along the road that his friends would not recognize him as he "dances like some outrageous poove" in order to keep a steady job and entertain the masses, while he writes unheard vaudeville scores in his insomnia.
Dave actually invokes this theme and wording on his song on the album But You Don't Know My Name: I suspect here that there is a reference to the American mispronunciation of the brother Davies' surname.
This theme of the ambivalences of celebrity becomes central in Soap Opera and gains special focus in the song "Ordinary Man" where the conflicting tensions of hero worship and art making come together.
"Do You Remember Walter, how we said we'd fight the world so we'd be free--" This may be the most resonant line in the song, regarding the major themes of Ray's songs. Here Ray addresses the pursuit of freedom and that may well be the keynote theme of Ray's songs and his personal journey. On earlier songs such as "I'm On An Island", Ray begins to tap into this central vein so that by the time he gets to Lola Vs. Powerman, the theme reaches clear unadorned expression in the song "I Just Want To Be Free". Ray's quest for artistic and personal freedom resurfaces throughout his career in such songs as "Working at the Factory", where he expresses the disillusionment and frustration that not even music could accomplish the feat of creating freedom, and "Art Lover", where the economic conflicts of art making collide with the provisional freedom of artistic expression.
The illusiveness of freedom in society and culture is addressed on UK Jive's "The War Is Over" and "Aggravation", on the futility of materialism to provide it on the live cut "It" on The Road, and is a central theme of Preservation, personified in the two protagonists/antagonists, Flash and Mr. Black and how neither system, unrestrained capitalism or socialism which the characters represent, provide freedom for its people.
"We'd save up all our money and we'd buy a boat and sail away to sea".
The wanderlust that fuels the boyhood dreams/fantasies of Ray and his mate Walter, later become the bittersweet emigrations of loved ones on Arthur's "Australia" and "Sleepwalkers"; Brothers; there is also evocation of Ray's island escapism that appears in "I'm on an Island", "Apeman" and Phobia's "Drift Away".
"But it was not to be"
Though we're never told why in the song, we can infer that due to the inevitable losses of growing up, the dream is never realized; that part of the "changing world" is to move us away from our aspirations. Other dreams that never get realized for Ray are the subjects of other songs in his catalog: failed marriage in "Genevieve", and To The Bone, personal and artistic dreams in "Art Lover", and social dreams throughout his songs, but most explicitly in the albums Arthur and Preservation.
"I knew you then but do I know you now?"
Revisits the theme mentioned above.
"Walter, you were just an echo of a world I knew so long ago."
This line strikes the keynote of Davies' ongoing search and exploration of that lost world; his journey of nostalgia, which is the central focus of the album Village Green Preservation Society. It is also a central thread in his autobiography "X-ray", which has as a recurring motif Ray's family and upbringing, with a particular emphasis on the family front room as a source of inspiration. That theme is extracted and embellished in the consequent presentation, "20th Century Man". It also reverberates throughout the album Arthur and in particular is evident in the ruminations of Arthur as he ponders his past in Shangri-La.
"If you saw me now, you wouldn't even know my name". A more definitive statement regarding the elusive nature of notoriety and identity as mentioned above.
"I bet you're fat and married and you're always home in bed tucked up safe" Here is the only lyric change that I find in the reworking of the song on To The Bone. The original line is "You're always home in bed by half past eight". which immediately raises the theme of the safe conservative lifestyle versus the creative and free lifestyle of the artist as the middle class bohemian. "Well Respected Man" is conjured up as well as the central characters on the train in Return to Waterloo. The arduous and supposed glamorous lifestyle is chronicled by Ray on Everybody's In Showbiz. Ray's own ambivalences may be seen in the conservative lifestyle he lived during this time as a settled "married man", and the wild, tumultuous ride of the Rock Star. There is also a later version of this theme, I think, revisited in the song, "Long Distance Call" where the narrator, (Ray), contrasted the parting of his band with the umbilical cord connection via the long distance phone to his wife/lover back in England. As usual, ambivalence reigns.
If I talked about the old times you'd just get bored and have "nothing more to say"
The closing phrase of this line prefigures the song "Nothing to Say" on Arthur and also finds a long distance echo on Phobia's "Drift Away". For me, it also hints at Ray's broader historical view than most of his critics and even his audience. In a cultural context that has disconnected to a large degree with the past, living only for the moment, Ray has often had his eye on not only his personal historical past, but also the western world's, particularly World War II and the post war years. The whole of Arthur is culturally conditioned by WWII and Ray alludes to Hitler's Germany on "Nobody Gives A Damn" on Preservation Act II. The aftermath of WWII re-emerges on UK Jive and Ray has said recently that he is "working on" a play based on characters from the song "Come Dancing", dealing with the post war cultural ambivalence.
"People often change. but memories of people can remain".
Other songs on VGPS interact with this theme as songs and characters attempt to capture and validate the past in songs like "Picture Book" and "People Take Pictures", where such efforts to preserve the past are made to "prove that they really existed". The narrator of "Steam Powered Train" "lives in a museum" and Ray plays off the tension of change and constancy through the power of memory.
Which brings us full circle. By listening to To The Bones' "Walter" with an ear to the 30 years of songwriting between, we can see the original version as the seed bed of themes that Ray would resurface and develop over the years, and continues to explore to this date. And we, his audience, are called upon to experience this tension of change and memory, and to struggle with becoming stuck in the past, like we imagine Walter to be, or evolving in the future seeking meaning in an ever changing cultural landscape.