Thursday, November 17, 2011

Equality vs. Freedom?

I wrote this in response to a Jason Lewis commentary in last Sunday's Startribune. Since the letter wasn't printed, I'm publishing it here:

Besides being a possible act of plagiarism (see George Will's 2004 Washington Post column, "Freedom vs. Equality"), Jason Lewis' "Do You Want Equality or Freedom?" posits what might just be the most obnoxious straw man/false choice in American political discourse. Is it helpful to examine a nation founded on ideals of both equality and freedom, then build a fence between those two ideals and demand that we live on one side or the other? (Sounds a bit like intellectual eminent domain.) 

The real dividing line between our current conservatives and liberals is the idea of whether you see interrelatedness or individualism as the more dominant force. Liberals look at the internet, social media, pandemics, global supply chains, climate change and European economic contagion as evidence that, for both better and worse, our world is smaller and more interconnected than ever before. Conservatives hold to the narrative of a basically fair world in which self-made men and women make individual choices and rise to the top (while others fall to the bottom) because they deserve it.

A conservative says there is no shame in being a rich and powerful man. A liberal merely points out that other people helped form that man, and that to some degree, the well-being of those other people is also in his self-interest.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why Ray?



After seeing Ray Davies perform last night at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, I am once again driven to intense self-examination. Why has this 67-year-old suburban Londoner always stood apart as my favorite pop musical artist? For now, I've devised four families of explanation. Tomorrow, the reasons might be completely different. (If I do this long enough, I might just get it right one day.) 

1. The Contrast

The same guy who wrote "You Really Got Me" also wrote "Waterloo Sunset." On one hand, that's an incredible compositional achievement. On the other hand, so what? All decent songwriters work from a full palette. Bob Dylan's catalog speaks for itself. And remember, the same Beatle who wrote "Back in the U.S.S.R." also wrote "Yesterday." The same Beatle who wrote "Revolution" also wrote "Julia." And the same Beatle who wrote "Taxman" also wrote "Something." And they were all different Beatles.

But there's something so stark about the Ray Davies song style contrast, it's almost impossible to believe that he isn't actually two people. As has been often discussed, Ray (and his brother, Dave) arguably invented the guitar riff. Songs like "All Day and All of the Night," "I Need You," "'Til the End of the Day" and "So Tired" get more mileage out of simple two- or three-chord hooks than any other (though it should be noted that their structures are deceptively complicated). But on "Waterloo Sunset," "Misfits" and particularly during the chorus of "Too Much on My Mind," which (amazingly) was performed last night, something else happens. A lush, lilting, melancholic contentment spreads through the air -- a scent that's even more "Kinks" than the crunchy power chords of "You Really Got Me." For me, this is their true sound.  

2. The Search

I've been asked by non-Kinks fans to name the "definitive" Kinks album. Some would say "Village Green," others "Arthur." I'd toss "Face to Face" and "Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround" into the ring. "Sleepwalker" is also a sleeper, and "Give the People What They Want" is actually what first hooked me on the band. But the truth is, there is no definitive Kinks album. Much as I love the band, I can't think of a single album that shines all the way through. Even The Kinks' best efforts are uneven. Despite his reputation for pickiness and perfectionism in the studio, Davies' talent for self-editing has never matched his talent for songwriting. 

I've often thought that listening to a Kinks album is like listening to a great outtakes compilation taken from some other definitive, ground-breaking record. An ongoing tragedy of being a Kinks fan is that this ground-breaking record simply doesn't exist. The Kinks don't have a "Sgt. Pepper," "Exile on Main Street," "Led Zeppelin Four" or "Who's Next?" And yet, you keep imagining that they do.  

3. The Theater

Ray Davies' face resembles many things -- most immediately, The Joker. But throughout a live performance, it basically wavers back and forth between the Greek masks of comedy and tragedy. And this is fitting, because Davies has always possessed a unique talent for conjuring dramatic images. This is a man trained first as a painter, who sings often about cinema, and whose mashup of stories and music paved the way for VH1's Storytellers series -- a feat that ranks among his most significant accomplishments.

Songs like "Sitting in My Hotel" and, of course, "Waterloo Sunset" create a sense of place unlike anything produced by the other British Invasion songwriting giants. Yet, although Ray Davies is an observational songwriter, you seldom get the feeling that he's actually standing in the thick of what he describes. One of the most telling lines from "Waterloo Sunset" is "every day I look at the world through my window." A similar voyeuristic feel permeates songs like "Sitting in My Hotel" and "Art Lover." Ray Davies is always a step removed, always looking through a plane of glass. To see him perform live is to watch a theatrical production in which you are watching Davies watch the world. 

4. The Extra-ordinariness

But if I'm truly honest with myself, my love of Ray Davies as an artist probably comes from his irrepressible normalcy. Look at the songwriters to whom he is often compared: Lennon, McCartney, Townshend, et al. These guys always had (I hesitate to use the heinous phrase) an "it" factor. They were exceptional people doing exceptional musical things. 

Ray Davies has always seemed like an ordinary man doing occasionally extraordinary things, and that's something very different. As Davies himself has said, his brother was the real rock star. Dave was the guy doing (most of) the carousing and drugs. Almost from day one in the Kinks' long career,  Ray was actually married and pushing a pram. He sang "I'm not like everybody else," but I imagine that he felt that way because he was an artist who actually was a bit like everybody else.

At the Fitzgerald show, Davies told the audience about a time in British cultural history when the national mantra became "mediocrity rises." And then he followed that with what are now my favorite words ever spoken by an artist on stage: "And being slightly mediocre myself," he said, "I rose."