For today’s song, which will be the last from the 21st century, I wanted to select someone who was past 50—like yours truly since 2009—when the song was recorded. Ray Davies, whose songwriting for The Kinks was some of the best in rock in the Sixties and Seventies, came back in 2006 and 2007 with solo albums, and both have songs on them that could well be added to the canon of his great stuff, not least today’s song, released when Davies was three years into his sixth decade and seven years into the 21st century. And that’s fitting since long ago Davies sang “I’m a twentieth-century man, but I don’t want to die here.” Well, he made it.
Davies has made films, and there’s a documentary on him by Julien Temple called Imaginary Man, that I haven’t seen yet. But film and Davies have long gone together, since his song on Muswell Hillbillies (1971) “Oklahoma U.S.A.” which looked, in bittersweet fashion, at how Hollywood fantasies both sustain the dreams of the working class and also poison them with unreal expectations. Then, in “Celluloid Heroes” (1972), he took the fascination with films to personal heights of vicarious experience: “Everybody’s a dreamer / Everybody’s a star / And everybody’s in movies / It doesn’t matter who you are.” Going so far as to sing “I wish my life were a nonstop Hollywood movie show” because the folks in the pictures “never really die.”
So, hear Davies begin today’s song with: “You know it’s been great to watch the sights / Playing the edited highlights / And all the out-takes you did not see / Were only my unreality.” Davies, who has written a memoir, knows about “edited highlights,” but with “out-takes” we’re back in the film business and it’s clear that this is still a conception of life as a spectacle, as something for others to watch and take away something from. It strikes me, nearing the end of these song posts, which if not confessional have at least been memoiristic, as a note I can feel the charge of. What we don’t talk about is always there somewhere, lurking in the background. But, what’s more, whenever one, through whatever medium, has “translated” one’s experience into some other thing, one risks that sense of “unreality” that Davies is getting at.
He goes further with this idea, and that’s because, for a listener like me, it’s true that “[he] was always in [my] head.” Davies is a figure for a certain literate style of songwriting, a person who makes of himself a “show” for the sake of what he can show. If I didn’t write about today’s song, I would’ve gone back to the Seventies (yet again) for “Sitting in My Hotel Room,” a song that puts it out there as the solitary adventure of creating a persona and then trying to live up to it, and also trying to imagine what that persona says to you. Here, Davies revisits that situation, realizing that a good part of his life, because it’s refracted through the perceptions of others, is “imaginary.” “I’m the imaginary man, yes I am.”
So when he says “went down to Preservation Hall / Seeking the old trad band,” if you weren’t with him back in the days of Preservation Act II (1974), then you just aren’t going to feel the same. It really is a long look through the past, a fond echo of a time that was, a persona that existed—but only in our imaginations, thanks to Davies. But, as is often the case with Davies, he’s not simply an autobiographical writer; he has the kind of imagination that’s able to find a means to comment on “everyman” issues via his own peculiar perspective. At least, he does when he’s really on top of his game. It’s a valued ability to be within the persona and on the outside of it too. We never feel that a song fully encapsulates Davies, though it may fully encapsulate an imagined experience.
Here, the part that speaks to all of us past a half century in whatever guise we’ve developed to get by on the earth really comes home: “I saw my reflection in the glass / Watched as the world went flashing past / I knew the face but could not tell / Why I couldn’t recognize myself.”
There you have the literal face-to-face recognition—through lack of recognition—that one is not, in appearance, as one feels, in reality. So, what is real? The appearance, obviously. What everyone sees, what gets shown. What is “within” is unreal. Imaginary. That’s where Davies pins us, wriggling, in that moment, a moment that pins him too, and that’s what makes it “real,” as we say. Some part of each of us is wholly imaginary, even if we haven’t, as Davies has, made our livelihood from creating imagined things and inviting people to share in them. We get this image of “behind the scenes,” almost. If we stay with Davies himself and don’t apply it to our lives, then we can say that Davies is letting the mask slip, but what’s more, he’s making a song—another mask—out of that slip. And what’s more, he knows it. That’s why I love the guy’s songs. He can do that. So when he says “I offered my very best to you / Gave you my dreams to aspire to” I’m there with him. Yup, thanks, Ray.
It’s really been quite a trip.