Saturday, 9 May 2009

Beautiful songs: Strangers

My good friend Josh Raskin recently sent me this song, after a long discussion of amazing stuff we're enjoying at the moment. I said the Junior Boys' latest album Begone Dull Care, which I find a really beautiful and excellent collection of songs. Josh mentioned the cable television series Peep Show and a couple of songs: a cover of Prince's "1999" by a band called Dump, led by Yo La Tengo's bass player, and "Strangers" by The Kinks (written by Dave Davies, to be precise). I haven't heard yet what Josh thinks of my recommendation, but I have at long last been converted to The Kinks. I am ready to listen!

I've always appreciated The Kinks on a superficial level—well, I guess since I was properly introduced to them, probably in my teens. Who doesn't like "You Really Got Me", "Till the End of the Day", and "All Day and All of the Night"? But, while these songs helped fill in the gaps in The Beatles' grand music- and world-changing scheme, I'm not sure they ever properly represented what the band was about. They sang more political and satirical songs, like "Well Respected Man" and "Dedicated Follower of Fashion", and I was never quite sold on this other, more thoughtful, side of The Kinks, probably because I didn't consider those songs sufficiently danceable. (That was a prime concern of mine from about 18 on.) I guess I liked this "other" stuff just fine, but being stubborn I wouldn't go out of my way to listen to it. I'm sure that once in a while I even scoffed at "Dedicated Follower..." or other "non-dancey" Kinks songs at clubs. (Before you call me crazy, let me say that I was wrong on the danceable factor, too, since many of what I call the "other" songs are perfect for the dancefloor!)

But most of the music fans among my friends—the ones who know the bands, their albums and songs—said that The Kinks were great. For my part, I just couldn't quite place them in the Pantheon of the British Invasion: where did they fit among The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Zombies? (The latter, they were my type of group, the one I really loved. But, heck, much of what I say about The Kinks I could also say about the Who.)

Anyway, eventually I discovered "Victoria", which became a great favourite and opened my mind some, and then The Village Green Preservation Society, an album that clearly showed The Kinks were doing their own very worthy thing, and they didn't much care what anybody else said about it. I'm not sure that prepared me for the assault of genius I experienced when I heard "Strangers" though.

I can't tell if I have some real memory of this song from before or not because it is so clearly reminiscent of others and so generally nostalgic. I feel like Wes Anderson must have used it in one of his quirky nostalgic films—he used The Kinks' lovely "Nothing In this World Can Stop Me Worryin' 'bout that Girl" in Rushmore, what feels like ages ago—but I can't place "Strangers" among his soundtracks. ... Well, now some accidental research tells me that in fact it was in The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson's most recent film, along with a couple of other Kinks tracks. (It seems he's become far less creative in his musical research as time goes by: all three are from the same album.) The song makes sense in that film, with its searching and cynical quasi-spiritual theme: "Where are you going? I don't mind. I've killed my world and I've killed my time." Of course, since I've seen the movie, now I can't tell whether my feelings are as genuine as I initially thought. No matter; the song will certainly outlast the film, and I can hardly fault Mr. Anderson that his work sowed a seed so deeply that I would think its flower came straight from my soul.

Regardless, I found "Strangers" instantly recognizable—uncanny—the way incredible works often are upon first (or subsequent) experiences. It felt right and good, like it just gets right to the heart of things—of me and you. Mostly it reminds me of "The Weight" by the Canadian-American rock group, The Band (and which, surely not coincidentally, was released and became a hit in the United Kingdom in 1968, just a year or so before "Strangers" was written and recorded). The two songs share many similar elements, from the slow but forceful bass drum beat and acoustic strum to the rolling piano flourishes and organ. But as beautiful as that song is, I find "Strangers" the more affecting, possibly because it's more intimate, and captures the feelings of love, alienation, and the lost promise of the spiritual/love revolution that had occurred in the mid- to late-1960s (and which feeds our current cultural condition); while "The Weight" seems less personal and more narrative—more neutral. It might also have something to do with the fact that I've just heard "The Weight" so many darn times; for example, at the Sports: the Band show at the Tranzac club last winter, I heard a group of ageing hippies jam to it—poorly. I don't know.

To me, "Strangers" synthesizes the roots rock of the time in the United States and the balladeering of the later Beatles; and it seems to predict David Bowie's "Soul Love" and "Five Years" from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and some Pink Floyd yet five years away. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that The Kinks were covering this American rootsy rock ground (the sound is evident elsewhere on the album Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround, Part One). Certainly others—notably, both The Beatles and The Stones had gone there—and The Kinks' already eclectic and influential late-60s output justifies any diversion.

There is another aspect to hearing this song besides its uncanniness: a sort of surprise. And I think that comes from the lovely lyrics: at turns passionate and cynical, wise and powerless, patient or lazy. These are real troubled, if not especially heavy, thoughts: "So where do I go what do I see? I see many people coming after me. ... So I will follow you wherever you go, If your offered hand is still open to me." They are thoughts that could easily come off as too simple or too sincere, and the surprise is that something that teeters on the edge of trite can maintain balance so well throughout.

In fact—and if you know the song, I'm sure you understand—at the chorus, the feeling reaches a new level, and grows into a sort of awe. "Strangers on this road we are on; We are not two we are one." It's so obvious, but the performance gives the words life and allows them to tell a thousand stories that, alone, the words are incapable of expressing. Now don't get me wrong; I find the lyrics quite nice on their own, but I don't think they're poetry. Many many musical artists had trod the same ground before, some with far greater flair. And now I can't tell whether the repetition of the word "on" is clever or unnecessary. But it's genius for all these reasons and just because I say so. I tend to find awe in simple things, because I think it's the simplest things that are best able to describe to us our world and our place in it. And music seems to hold a special ability to tell a near-infinite number of individual stories, in a very-finite package of two to seven minutes.

At last, "Strangers" maintains the uncanniness and surprise throughout. I find I become entranced, and I want to climb inside of the song, to see and feel its inner workings, to sing it aloud, to grab my guitar and play it, as it appears that many others have done before me. Or I can just sit and listen and enjoy, which I look forward to doing many more times.

Thanks Josh!
___

Where are you going? I don't mind.
I've killed my world and I've killed my time.
So where do I go what do I see?
I see many people coming after me.
So where are you going to? I don't mind.
If I live too long I'm afraid I'll die.
So I will follow you wherever you go,
If your offered hand is still open to me.

Strangers on this road we are on;
We are not two we are one.

So you've been where I've just come:
From the land that brings losers on.
So we will share this road we walk
And mind our mouths and beware our talk,
Till peace we find, tell you what I'll do
All the things I own I will share with you.
If I feel tomorrow like I feel today,
We'll take what we want and give the rest away.

Strangers on this road we are on;
We are not two we are one.

Holy man and holy priest,
This love of life makes me weak at my knees.
And when we get there make your play,
'Cos soon I feel you're gonna carry us away.
In a promised lie you made us believe,
For many men there is so much grief;
And my mind is proud but it aches with rage,
And if I live too long I'm afraid I'll die,

Strangers on this road we are on;
We are not two we are one.
Strangers on this road we are on;
We are not two we are one.

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