Monday, October 31, 2011

Across The Bridge: The Kinks: "Waterloo Sunset"

As I have said before, part of the reason I started this blog was to understand where I live - the UK - better, through the, uh, unique if not oblique angle of its #2 chart hits. Very few of them are as acclaimed for their Britishness (not to mention their representation of London) as this song. Many believe it's the greatest song Ray Davies ever wrote; one critic called it "the most beautiful song in the English language."

For Londoners this may be their anthem, but what is going on? It's a very pretty song - with time it has become a bit vintagized* - wherein the narrator (who, as with "Penny Lane" may or may not be reliable) looks out his west-facing window to Waterloo station. He sees the sun set, from his chilly flat there in Lambeth, above the dirty ever-flowing river and the too-bright taxi lights; his only need is to see the sun set, to see the glowing sky. He 'gazes' at it (which kind of implies he has nothing better to do - he might be a senior citizen) and it is like a painting to him, maybe like this one. He is still; the sky changes and darkens slowly and (of course) naturally, just as the melody gently ebbs and flows... far, so good. Then he gives us another reason to gaze out the window, a clearer version. He sees two lovers meet at the station on Friday night (how does he know their names?); they are among the hordes who are like "flies" there, but he watches them meet and cross the bridge to another and better world, north of the river, and perhaps even out of the country altogether.** He's seen them meet up before enough to recognize them, but now they are going, and the word that crests this song - "paradise" - is not just his, but theirs. But it's theirs as long as they gaze with him, or alongside him. Once they are outside of London, they may or may not find life so wonderful.

Does the narrator know something we don't? Why is he so partial to this area when he says he's too "lazy" to go out? Why does he insist he's not "afraid" (afraid of what?) and that he needs no friends? Everyone needs friends, even Londoners. There is something quietly disturbing about this song that its fans (Paul Weller and Damon Albarn, hello) must admire and understand, but as someone who is still trying to understand London, I feel a bit baffled. The melody is melancholic, implying that the narrator isn't going to change because he sees no need - he is in "paradise", why would he? - and the couple he sees have each other and are (unwittingly?) there as well, but only just for now. The sunset itself seems to bestow something near magical on everyone who experiences it, but the song shows a sharp division between the narrator in the chilly evening flat and the lovers who have each other and who are crossing the bridge to another world altogether.

As you can see, this strikes me as an uncomfortable song - the narrator's satisfaction in just being able to see such a magnificent view is one thing, but the divide between the two ends up making me feel sorry for everyone, in a way. Terry and Julie are a bit like Adam and Eve, leaving paradise; the narrator is like God in a way, watching and judging but not actually doing anything. This is not my idea of an anthem, because it gets back to the notion that there is only one place that is any good, to the exclusion of everywhere else; it is an intense distillation of the "Little England" idea which fixes everything in its place, forever***. (Perhaps that is what I mean by vintagizing, though I also mean things like this, which are unthinkable in North American terms.)

I remain - and I think this is a good thing - an outsider to really 'getting' this song, I feel. I can appreciate why others would like it, why it would be their favorite, particularly as there is one thing the song does which puts us - unconsciously, unless you know your keys - in the literal center of the action. "Waterloo Sunset" is in C major, the middle of the keyboard, a cozy and indeterminate place. So maybe in hearing the song the listener is not supposed to side with the narrator or the couple, but floats between the two, light as a feather, resting on a beam of late sunshine. If that is the charm of the song, then I accept it; in effect it makes the listener almost like the sun itself, shining on everything indiscriminately, going, going, almost gone.

Next up: another narrator who is immobile. Hey, isn't this supposed to be the Summer of Love?

*By which I mean that it represents something that is typical of its time that is accessible now only to those who are interested in it; the word 'vintage' has a tendency to mean 'quaint' and the item is somewhat separated from what it actually sprang from at the time. The passage of time does this anyway, I know, but the separation isn't so strong. I have a sneaking hunch that some who love this song may not appreciate what's going on in it.

**Terry and Julie were names given by Davies to this couple who, in his mind's eye, were going to leave the UK for elsewhere.

***That the song was nearly called "Liverpool Sunset" and was inspired by Davies' love of Merseybeat is interesting but doesn't change the meaning of the song, for me anyway.

1 comment:

David Belbin said...

I think this is one of those songs like 'The Drugs Don't Work' that defy literal meaning because there isn't quite enough there to make sense.Yet these lacunae somehow make the song stronger. I think the Kinks are a hugely over-rated band (interestingly, it's Americans and Canadians who tend to love them most) but this song is the bee's knees. Great piece!