Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Gnome Thoughts ... 9 (Ray is in the details)


This is more of a postscript to the previous two entries than a new undertaking, but worth placing separately as the ideas haven't come from me.

 Still fizzing with thoughts after the last entry, I was talking to a colleague about Waterloo Sunset and its possible influence on Bowie's songwriting. After a bit of mulling he cited Heroes - which instantly seemed obvious. It too couldn't really be described as a narrative, but it does have that image of a couple kissing which seems central to the song.


He suggested that the image may point to a possible difference between the writers' approaches:  in Heroes Bowie appropriated an actual embrace (Tony Visconti and his partner) and put it in an entirely different context whereas Waterloo Sunset (whatever it may actually be) feels more like direct experience: however much he may empathise with the couple, Davies makes no secret of his separateness from them. The conclusion (assuming I'm representing the conversation accurately) seemed to be that Davies is less likely to play fast and loose with source material. Not quite sure how useful the distinction is as a general rule but I record it here anyway.

If you're becoming slightly confused (and I think I am), perhaps Bowie's comment about Be My Wife, as quoted in Hugo Wickens' book about Low (see earlier post here) may make things clearer:
 "It was genuinely anguished, I think," Bowie once said of the song, before adding: "It could have been anybody, though."
It's hard to imagine Ray Davies expressing a similar ambivalence about any of his songs.

Prompted by my thinking more about Big Black Smoke in the last few days, we also talked about the remarkable economy of means in Ray Davies' lyrics. The song is a kind of mirror image of Waterloo Sunset - the city threatens to swallow up and corrupt the girl - but it feels like a complete, and very effective, narrative rather than a single image. Not because the story is told in in exhaustive detail but because the details seem particularly well selected and compressed.
She took all her pretty coloured clothes,
And ran away from home
And the boy next door,
For a boy named Joe.
And he took her money for the rent
And tried to drag her down in the big black smoke,
In the big black smoke.
Those last three lines, for example, are all that we need for the essence of her relationship with the more exciting boyfriend. That first line is also rich with suggestion: the clothes that weren't appreciated or suitable in the stifling country setting? Could it hint at the possibility of prostitution to come, the being dragged down? That would add another layer of meaning to
Till she walked the streets of the big black smoke
Diversion: by an understandable associative process, that opening line calls to mind the opening of Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town (composed by Mel Tillis). Lines in that song such as
The shadow on the wall tells me the sun is going down
seem on the money: the invalid forced to rely on such signs as that and
the slamming of the door
rather than being able to walk over to the window to check the time of day or go and physically stop her leaving, but I'm never quite sure about the song's opening couplet. A masterpiece of concision, as I sometimes think, or overfussy?
You've painted up your lips and rolled and curled your tinted hair
Oh Ruby, are you contemplating going out somewhere?
If it's meant to be a question addressed to her, doesn't it contain a certain amount of  detail more appropriate for third person narrative? The couplet calls to mind a line in a spoof radio play by actor Timothy West highlighting the pitfalls of exposition for inexperienced writers:
Whisky, eh? That's a strange drink for an attractive auburn-haired girl of twenty nine.
In short, why did Ruby's husband need to point out to her that her hair was tinted? Still a great song, though. And a great, spare production from Jimmy Bowen, too. When I heard his 1957 I'm Stickin' With You much later, it wasn't too difficult to see the family resemblance.

 Diversion over: back to our conversation which then took a quirkier turn: what David Bowie songs might Ray Davies convincingly sing? I suspect the correct answer is "None; I can't imagine him wanting to;" but my colleague mentioned Panic in Detroit from the Aladdin Sane album. Not because it's a London song but because of that Davies-like use of small but telling detail to suggest a bigger picture:
He looked a lot like Che Guevara,
drove a diesel van
Kept his gun in quiet seclusion,
such a humble man
His final provocative suggestion was that with such songs as the above, and with America rather than England as his subject, it could be argued that Bowie was attempting in his songwriting what Ray Davies had been doing closer to home.

Any thoughts on the matter - preferably from those with whom I have no professional association - gratefully received in the box below.

1 comment:

  1. innocent bystander16 July 2015 at 01:58

    'Big Black Smoke', like 'Waterloo Sunset', is in my opinion one of The Kinks' certifiably great records. Both are also exquisitely cinematic and both end on quietly hopeful notes - although 'BBS's' hope is hidden in the last line "... and tried to drag her down in the big black smoke". The keyword is 'tried' and there's no indication that Joe succeeded. Meanwhile, the girl's mother, who "pines her heart away, looking for her child" - may well have found her and brought her home. Keeping in mind Ray's overwhelmingly positive view of women in his song catalog (compared to say, Jagger-Richards'), I'd wager that, like Terry and Julie, everything turned out fine in the end. I do wonder about the intimation of death, though, in 'Waterloo Sunset'. The references to 'crossing the river' always make me think of 'See My Friends' - another great Kinks record - that has death written all over it, both lyrically and musically. Tell me that the opening and closing instrumentation aren't the sound of mourning London church bells.

    Nice job, Pismo. Sorry for the ramble.

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