A. Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire

Actually, about the Kinks

The last time I was in Santa Cruz, I met a friend for coffee at the Cat & Cloud café near Pleasure Point. It was at that delightful moment in the early mid-morning when the fog lifts and the shivering surfers arrive exhausted, and my friend regaled me with funny stories about a friend of her brother’s friend, who, she said, was always going to this club nearby to see crusty 60s cover bands, and then space danced at the front of the stage. “She thinks she’s being edgy!” she said, aghast. And because I am a bad person, I chortled away at this description, and egged her into more confidences, so needless to say within a week there I was, at said club, eagerly awaiting a crusty 60s cover band.

I felt superior because it was called “The Village Green Preservation Society” and promised to play only songs by the Kinks, but obviously, I should NOT feel superior, since a cover band is a cover band is a cover band. But I did. But I do. Because the Kinks, right? And also because it was the first live music I had seen in over a year, unless you count that ukulele band at the Sunken Golf Course in Sunnyvale who also played covers. (And actually, now I come to think of it, the last live music I saw was the Wild Honey Tribute to the Lovin’ Spoonful, and THAT was kind of a covers thing too, although the actual Lovin’ Spoonful did perform a couple of their own numbers.)

Anyway, the point is, I was super excited to be going to any kind of a club again. Just putting on earrings was a bit of a thrill. I’ve seen the real Kinks and they were always great, but the thrill of those experiences probably could not equal seeing a band, any band, after twelve months of lockdown. During it, one has had to deliberately forget that music always sounds better when heard live, but hearing it again, one was forced to remember.

Seeing music live transports one to another universe, and few bands’ mental universes are as clear to me as the Kinks. I don’t know why. I didn’t grow up in post-War England, a prey to the terror of class distinctions. I didn’t break free of that by listening to the delta blues and recreating it in my own image. And yet, when I listen to the Kinks, I feel like I was there. When I hear it in my bedroom, I am still there – Muswell Hill, Carnaby Street, Piccadilly Circus, etc. But when I hear it in a club, the music lifts me out of London and consecrates the present - in this case, a tiny California beach town in the midst of global pandemic. When the music plays, the past isn’t over. But also when it plays, it makes the present better.

(Photo: Village Green at Michael’s on Main, April 17, 2021. suitably socially distant, yes?)

So what more really needs to be said about this gig, other than it happened? The members of the cover band were pretty good musicians, and I can’t actually think of a bad Kinks song. I’d have liked to have heard “Big Sky,” “Picture Book,” and a number of others, but I’ll take what I can get, which was pretty much a greatest hits set, plus one song each from the earlier albums. (The song from Arthur, the ostensible title of this entry, was “Victoria.”) Happily, they played “Days,” which is in my top five songs of all time ever. It reminds me of that poem by Philip Larkin, also about days, which coincidentally is what I always think about on the very rare occasions I myself go surfing in Santa Cruz. Larkin: “What are days for? Days are what we live in.” Davies: “Thank you for the days, those endless days, those sacred days you gave me.” There’s simply no way in hell anyone can wreck that song, just as there is no way you can wreck the experience of reading Philip Larkin. Or surfing.

As for “Waterloo Sunset”…I feel about that song like a fundamentalist Christian must feel when they hear their favorite hymn at church, i.e. felled by the rapture. It’s not in my top five because it’s too good to be included in something as lowly as a list.

“See My Friends,” “Dandy,” “Holiday in Waikiki.” “Alcohol.” “The Hard Way.” “Misfits.” “Lola.” Inevitably, that was the last song of the set, except for the encore, “You Really Got Me,” and as those memorable opening chords rang out in the courtyard in which I sat, I remembered a passage from Ray Davies’ memoir X-Ray about a time in 1965 or so when the Kinks played it for the first time in front of a theater full of screaming Beatles fans. “For the first few minutes the predictable happened: the audience were chanting for ‘John, Paul, George and Ringo,’” he writes. “The sound of their voices was like swift punches to the head, and every time the blow connected, there was a flash of white light…We were supposed to play Slim Harpo’s “Got Love If You Want It’ next but instead I shouted to the others to play “You Really Got Me.’ Dave turned up his amplifier, which caused it to feed back slightly, and the high-pitched frequency cut right through the screams of the Beatles fans. For a moment the audience was silent. And as soon as Dave played the opening chords, they were with us. It was as if we had taken the first round off the Beatles.”

One can so easily imagine it. How incredible hearing that riff for the first time must have been, so incredible that there is some weird half-life of the feeling that is still resounding on down the years, such that me and the old grey-haired hippies at Michael’s on Main are clearly still feeling the ripple from it. It is a riff that tears off the fabric of the space-time continuum, and that seems to be true no matter who is playing it.

Which makes me wonder: why it is that we pay so much money to see the real thing? What is it that we are paying for again? I know, I know, the aura, the celebrity, the proximity to the person who’s vision it all was in the first place – yes, yes, I get it, of course, but I wonder if yet another thing that this wretched COVID-interlude is going to ruin is that somewhat ignoble desire to be in the real-life presence of greatness. Just as we are learning to make do with fewer trips and long-distance friendships, will we start to appreciate music qua music, that is, will we foreground the fact that it is made by instruments played by people, rather than by people playing instruments?