God Save Self-Indulgence

[15 August 2007]

By Emily Thomas

Last Labor Day I woke up early on my friend’s bedroom floor, unrested and restless. The vague light of dawn depressed me, daunted me like the symbolic end of summer always had. But it was the first September since I was four that did not signify a new school year, and I felt panicky, completely ill prepared. My peaceful friend was fast asleep, dreaming of the cold, hard comfort of academia she was still entitled to. Her bookshelf was extensive and I picked something off of it, one of those Continuum 33 1/3 books devoted to an entire album. This one was written by Andy Miller, about The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, an album I had bought years earlier but never really listened to, despite an intangible fascination.

I was already a little in love with Ray Davies. I had read his book of short stories. I believed he was a genius of vulnerability, allusively writing main characters that bore him a resemblance, isolated and aloof. I had a couple of Kinks albums, pricier reissues with retrospective critical commentary. I had read about the public’s reception of “Arthur” in the liner notes, the dismissal and unfair comparison to the Who’s “Tommy.” I would bitterly lament it and conclude he was underappreciated, nerdily relate to him, and listen to Elliott Smith’s grainy live cover of “Waterloo Sunset” on repeat.

But The Village Green Preservation Society felt inaccessible by comparison. The first song was catchy, but the rest faded into the background of whatever else I was doing, and I don’t think I made it to the end of the album that frequently. I like to believe that I ignored the album on purpose, saving it for when I would really need it. Because I needed it desperately, on Labor Day on my friend’s bedroom floor, feeling old and nervous and violently mourning the past four years.

A month earlier, my roommate of three years and one of my best friends got married, hastening a move that I would have preferred to delay until the shock of graduation had worn off a bit. We moved out of the apartment that had gotten us through school, where everything that felt like anything had happened, and Laura moved in with her husband. I didn’t move in anywhere, probably grasping at a semblance of young adulthood. For three months I slept at friends’ houses and refused to take any action. I told myself and other people that sometime in the future I would quit retail and pull it together. I would go to college and get some kind of career-oriented certificate. I would teach English in Japan. At the very least I would move in with my parents, save some money and buy a car.

I remember waking up late one morning a couple years ago, when I was still in university. The luxury of noon was lost on me and I was weighed down with midterms and perhaps some remnants of teenage moodiness. I went into Laura’s room where she was working on her fourth year independent study essay on Percy Bysshe Shelly, listening to the Kinks, quietly because I had still been asleep. I remember standing there and listening to it and loving it and suddenly feeling quite good about being in school and living with my friend, being young and waking up at noon. I was suddenly, sickly aware of graduation, as though I had only just realized its imminence. I know now that it was The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society she was listening to. It all stopped me

By Labor Day, I realized that going back in time was the only plan left I had the incentive to act on. Everybody else had initiative and ambition. I just missed being in school and felt sort of pathetic, like a 20-something 1990s archetype. But it wasn’t the 1990s and I couldn’t get there if I tried. So when I read in that miniature book that the Kinks had been pegged for consistently trying to relive their glory days of the early 1960s, I felt a lame pang of solidarity. And I read that Ray Davies felt old at 24, a wave of affection washing over me like an external force as the sun came up. The Kinks felt left behind, while the Rolling Stones and the Beatles got revolutionary, experimental, and weird. I felt like Ray Davies to my old roommate Laura’s John Lennon, because she was trying something new and daring while I actively sulked and resented the change. And Davies had been charged with resentment too, was told he was merely attempting to preserve the past and lacked innovation. But he had made an album about it.

I still felt pathetic, but I hoped that at least I would have a suitable soundtrack for a while.

Eventually I found an apartment and moved in with a younger friend, a student. I unpacked my music, boxed up for months, and stuck The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society on my iPod. On days off, bored and lost without essays or mandatory reading, I would walk around in the snow and listen to it, brooding. North of my new home the houses were big and rich and I thought they exaggerated the conservative English themes of Davies’s lyrics. I would dare to walk by the university campus and miss it intensely, aggressively, as though my presence was a retort against its abandonment. The Kinks were ensconced in nostalgia with me, their own retort so sarcastic that it was also aggressive.

The first song, The Village Green Preservation Society was still catchy and it was still my favorite. But when I thought of Davies having to justify his career at 24 years old, I understood the first track differently, loved it fervently. I heard a comeback, hurt and offended and ironic. The rhyming is so smooth and smart, so excessive it sounds frustrated. Vernacular/Dracula, affinity/virginity—they fit together nicely, but they are so extravagant, they practically constitute arrogance, like he channeled animosity into sarcastic poetry. And Davies’s voice is so strained, the song can barely contain it, as though the rhythm, the melody, and the lyrics will have to break apart and go their own way alone.

Subsequent songs lacked this desperation, the indignation and sense of injustice. The bitterness on tracks like “Picture Book” is so quiet, like permission to take the clichés seriously. “Big Sky” sounded out of place with mild and seemingly contemporary social commentary masking the barely discernible honesty. It reminded me of Davies’ short stories with depressed and isolated main characters feeling alone in big cities. And I thought “Monica” was essentially heartfelt, far from the initial nostalgic hyperbole of “Johnny Thunder” and “Sitting by the Riverside.” I would listen to “Days,” unable to detect the angst that surrounded the production of the album and it seemed to lack lyrical, instrumental signifiers of the past. Sarcastic but genuine, there is disunity and incompleteness and struggling for an idea on the record as a whole.  Davies seems perpetually conflicted about the past—his own and England’s—and his critics’ charge of mere preservation. He accepts and rejects it, loves it and hates it.

I read that there had been confusion and disagreements in the eventual release of the record. I read that preparation of the final track list was hasty with an ill-timed release date, and did not include “Days.” I like to think this track was pulled because it is a song about love, devotion and memory. It betrays a sincerity that does not seem to fit on an album loaded with sarcasm, and was perhaps perceived as too earnest to include. I see its omission as evidence of the Kinks’ futile but marvelous attempt to make a record about nostalgia, a phenomenon inherently conflicting because it is a love for something that is over and gone, a longing for something no longer attainable. Nostalgia’s unavoidably conflicting and troubling nature is manifest in the indecisive, hasty manner in which the album was released. All around him the bands pounded out tunes about drugs and politics, new and fleeting ideas being devoured by their fans. But the Kinks had suffered rejection by their contemporaries and the public. Blessed with isolation and unindulged, perhaps Davies was thankfully left little choice but to indulge himself with a concept too difficult and ambitious to really complete. Like those initial strained vocals, the album could not contain Davies’ impossible idea, the past and the present, the tension in between.

Months of this tension has indebted me to him with gratitude. Lonely with a future that looked boring, old and unappealing, paling in comparison to the past four years, I stole his disappointment and rejection, his disillusionment. I stole his love and his hate for the past and neither knew what I thought of it. Unindulged, abandoned by academia and my youth and superficial distractions, I indulged myself with a timely soundtrack that validated my stasis, made it valuable. And I still think Davies is a genius in vulnerability. Too ambitious to grasp, nostalgia burst apart and he could only gather it in pieces, a futile but marvelous attempt. It all still stops me.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/god-save-self-indulgence/