It is Christmas Day here on the old West Side of Grand Rapids, and a splendidly white one at that. Chalk one up for Bing Crosby. The snow came in thick and blustery yesterday, falling in fat flurries, and has left us with a white-frosted sheet cake all around. Lovely.
I’m thinking about time a lot this Christmas. I always do, recalling magical memories of Christmases past, little family tableaux played out in my mind like snow-globe scenes. This pandemic year especially takes me to other times, somehow. Much as I cherish these present moments with Andrea, I’m more conscious than usual of time’s telescoping effects.
Didn’t I just take down these Christmas lights on the porch? Was it really 60 years ago that I padded downstairs on Christmas morning to find a Wild West fort laid out under the tree? Could I possibly be, um, the age that I am?
Yes, yes, and yes, and furthermore it really was Christmas 50 years ago that I received (thanks Jenny!) the Kinks album “Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One.” Now elaborately reissued, this was the LP that opened up for me a lifelong love of this band and its brilliant songwriter, Ray Davies. Listening to it with renewed interest now, after having received the remastered CD version from my brother, Mike, I’m struck by its musical and thematic durability, and by the telescoping effects of recalling my original experience of it.
At 18 then, I was wholly uncertain of where I wanted to go in life, sort of dinking around as an English major at Michigan State University, entertaining thoughts of being an important writer of short stories, or possibly perhaps a rock star along the lines of Ray Davies. I was not especially happy. But I found happiness in these songs of frustration, defiance and one highly ambiguous sexual encounter.
That would be Lola, the unquestioned hero or heroine of this album, depending on how you interpret the song’s devilishly clever last line: “I’m glad I’m a man, and so’s Lola.” Assuming Lola was a male in alluring female trappings, he introduced the callow young protagonist to the world of sexual adulthood in a kind and matronly (patronly?) way: “But Lola smiled and took me by the hand, and said ‘Little boy, I’m gonna make you a man.’”
The song not only stands the test of time but shows itself ahead of it, anticipating the gender fluidity and expanding acceptance of our own time. And it reminds me of a time when I was wholly uncertain of myself sexually, not in orientation but in how I should proceed as a hetero male turned up to 11 amid the first giant wave of feminism. Was it OK to discuss Vonnegut with women and also lust after them? Lola seemed to say, “Whatever, dear boy. It’s all good!”
In this corner versus Lola was Powerman, a bad guy with a great song. In the album’s story he is a record industry exec, squeezing the fame and dollars out of naïve rock stars like Ray Davies. But as with so much great art, the particular here resonates with the universal, namely the struggle between the common people and those who would rule them. Sings brother Dave Davies, ferociously over propulsive guitars:
“People tried to conquer the world, Napoleon and Genghis Khan,
Hitler tried and Mussolini too.
Powerman don’t need to fight, Powerman don’t need no guns
Powerman got money on his side.”
This song was recorded when Nixon was in power and using both money and guns to consolidate it. I needn’t elaborate on its resonance under today’s nearly departed, would-be Mussolini.
For this dear boy, however, the most resonant and time-telescoping song here is “This Time Tomorrow,” the dreamlike reflections of an airline passenger flying seven miles above “fields full of houses, endless rows of crowded streets.” Watching the clouds “sadly pass me by,” he finds “the world below doesn’t matter much to me.”
“This time tomorrow, where will we be? … This time tomorrow, what will we know?”
Well, here we are in tomorrow. The flight was a lot quicker than I expected, and the landing a lot rougher.
I do believe I know a lot more than I did at 18. But hearing these songs now, I feel pretty much the same as I did then – certainly happier and more grounded, with a loving life partner, but still wondering what this time tomorrow will bring.