A Well-Respected Man About Town

At the end of high school I was obsessed with the Kinks and, in particular, Ray Davies.  It was the late 1970’s and I was already quite familiar with the full oeuvre of early sixties’ rock and roll.  I was the youngest of four in a household led by a man who had been a working musician since the 1920’s.  There were eighteen guitars in our house (two of them were mine) and I knew the lyrics of the hits of the Zombies better than I knew Mother Goose. 

But I somehow waited until my mid-teens, when my elder siblings had all departed and there was finally some calm and quiet, for me to develop my own particular favorites.  I was emerging from my Joni Mitchell poet-girl with long hair stage and ready to launch myself into the toothpick thin arms of the overlooked genius of the British Invasion. 

I don’t know what got me started.  Perhaps “Victoria,” with its ironic ode to unquestioning devotion to class structure, or “Village Green Preservation Society.”  Who could resist an artist who put the line “God save little shops, china cups, and virginity” into a pop song?  And then “Lola,” when for the first time I started musing about ambiguous sexuality and gender roles. 

In any case, I found several albums left behind by my oldest brother Jack when he had moved out a year or so earlier and I made them my own.  I lay on my stomach on the wood floor in my room and listened and listened and listened, staring out at the clouds and the trees in our front yard. 

I loved how squashed up the mixing was on the songs, how the music was so primary and Ray’s vocals sounded like he was almost in a different room or pressed up against the ceiling as they were recorded.  His voice was light and delicate and didn’t seem to match the driving guitar, especially the barking dog lead guitar of his brother Ray Davies.  The records seemed like they were made in someone’s garage and distributed only to people in the know.  They felt like an enormous, beautiful secret.

I asked Jack about the Kinks the next time he came over.  He was eleven years older than me.  He had started college the same day I started kindergarten and always represented an unachievable level of taste and sophistication.  I needed to phrase the question just right.  I didn’t want him to make fun of me. 

            “Why don’t the Kinks ever come here?” is what I chose.

He still looked at me as if I was the stupidest person to ever exist.  He reeled off facts that it seemed everyone in the world knew but me – the brothers fought; they’d been banned from coming to the United States because of bad behavior on early tours in the mid 1960’s, Ray had a drinking problem and drank directly from champagne bottles on stage. 

I nodded and fell back into silence.  That made them even more intriguing.

            I poured over the lyrics to “Arthur” and “Muswell Hillbillies.”  I studied the cover art of “Muswell Hillbillies,” which was a photo in a pub, with two of the Kinks standing at the bar on the left hand side.  The rest of the bar is filled with what I imagined by be normal Londoners, all men, having a beer on a sunny afternoon.  When you opened the cover there were the other Kinks, including Ray, looking out at me, with his skinny red pants and a plaid shirt.  He looked as uncomfortable and unkempt as he did in every other photo I’d ever seen.  I liked him more for that. 

            I wanted to be there.  I wanted to live in Muswell Hill.  I knew enough about London to guess that it wasn’t a fashionable area.  I didn’t care.  I wanted to be there, in skinny jeans and high-heeled boots, to walk and be ironic and be a social critic. 

            Based on this, it would be reasonable to guess that I lived in a small town where I had no opportunity to express myself or observe people who lived different kinds of life.  But you would be wrong.  I lived in New York.  I went to Stuyvesant High School, an intense, math and science public school where I was well on my way to absorbing the physics and trigonometry and German that would get me into Stanford not too far in the future.  And when I wasn’t spread out on the floor contemplating London suburbs I was a student at American Ballet Theatre, throwing myself into a pre-professional classical ballet curriculum that I had no business attempting.  I see now that I’ve always sought particular passions with absurdly unlikely, unachievable goals.  But I didn’t see that then.

            At ballet school, I watched Baryshnikov and Makarova and Kirkland rehearse almost every day, I watched Jerome Robbins lead rehearsals, and with my eagle eye on the street, I saw Balanchine walking back from lunch or John and Yoko waiting in line for a movie. 

I haunted the stretch of Broadway from Columbus Center to 72nd Street.  I went to performances at the Met, I window shopped, I edged along the park and never dared actually going in unless I was with friends, I bought cups of tea and dried pineapple at delis to keep me going on my limited caloric and financial budget.  I bought nothing but leotards and tights, I read nineteenth century British novels, and I went home to listen to music, study, and get ready to do it all again the next day.  Sometimes I would stray down to the theater district to see a show. 

            I liked being a savvy city kid.  I liked taking the subway late at night and feeling impervious and unapproachable.  As insecure as I was, I felt like I knew what I liked and what I wanted and as long as I didn’t need to talk to anyone about it or express an enthusiasm that might not be reciprocated I was fine.

            But I guess my eyes were not as open and observant they should have been.  I turned down invitations from classmates to go see new bands like Blondie and the Ramones.  What could they possibly offer to me?  While I liked Springsteen’s music and had seen Patti Smith on the cover of “Horses,” I didn’t realize that if I looked harder as I walked to the Union Square subway station from school I would likely have seen them wandering around, let alone whoever might have been coming in and out of the Lee Strasberg Institute, that I passed twice every day.  No – all of my attention went to ballet and to the Kinks who waited for me at home. 

            Many years later I learned the true cost of my tunnel vision.  When I was in my forties I read an interview with Ray Davies.  He was visiting New York and he and the writer were walking through the neighborhood he had lived in in the late seventies, when the Kinks were not recording for a while.  I held my breath.  I read further.  Yes, he lived on the upper west side.  They walked along Broadway, down to the newly built Warner Center.  They stopped into a grocery store Ray used to go to. 

            I felt true pain.  I had missed him.  We had been wandering the same blocks at the same time for months and months and months.  And I had never noticed.  I didn’t think further to realize that if I had recognized him I most likely wouldn’t have done anything.  Just as I had never spoken to Balanchine or John and Yoko or done anything other than nod to Baryshnikov on the stairway.  I would have noted him walking to the end of the block and I would have hoped to see him again.

            I am still an enormous Kinks fan.  I listen to one or another song several times a week.  I’ve gone to see Ray when he’s been in Los Angeles in recent years and they have been among the best shows I’ve ever seen.  And in the past few years, as we’ve seen Bowie and Prince and even Dolores O’Riordan leave us before they were done, I know that it will be a very difficult day for me indeed when Ray Davies dies.  Because he doesn’t know it, but he’s been one of my best friends for over forty years. 

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