I discovered The Kinks on a cruise to Alaska. It wasn’t one of those rock and roll cruises, where you set sail with your favorite bands, because this was the early 80s, and that kind of cruise hadn’t been invented. Rather, it was the kind of cruise where you embark at Long Beach with your grandmother, pick up passengers in San Francisco, and head up the coast to Alaska to review the glacier situation.
I remember a surprising number of things about that cruise. First and foremost, the seasickness. My friend Billy and I were not well for at least the first three or four days, and once had to sprint out of the dining room to the bathroom because we’d applied honey instead of syrup to our Swedish pancakes. I remember the big buffets—including the one at midnight—which included exotic, disgusting meats such as tongue. I remember the saltwater pool, which they filled up once for a few hours. I remember ping pong, shuffleboard, and Captain Kangaroo: he was a fellow traveler, unless it was a lookalike (you couldn’t be sure, because he didn’t wear the red jacket).
But most of all I remember hearing “Lola” for the first time. A kid named Michael, from the Pacific Heights neighborhood in San Francisco—which might as well have been Mars—had a cassette copy of One For the Road, which made the rounds. Did we have Walkmen then? Or, did we play it on some sort of portable contraption? Who knows, but that 1980 double live album had a big effect on me.
In case you missed it, One For the Road documented the 1979 tour behind Low Budget. Low Budget was their 17th studio album, and it peaked at #11 on the Billboard charts on the strength of the disco-influenced semi-hit, “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman.” They played a bunch of songs from that album on the tour, but also took on the mega hits— “All Day and All of the Night” and “You Really Got Me”—and classics such as “Victoria,” “David Watts,” “20th Century Man,” “Where Have All the Good Times Gone,” “Till the End of the Day,” and “Lola.”
Of course, I wasn’t able to fully absorb “Lola” as a pre-teen. I mean, I got that there was some sort of romantic entanglement, but I wasn’t equipped to process any far-reaching implications. That didn’t detract from the pleasure I took in the intro and the chorus. Ray Davies had this bit where he’d play the opening chords on his graphite, round-back Ovation acoustic-electric—C, D, and E—and then stop and say “we’re not going to play that one tonight.” Guess what? After a few minutes of hemming and hawing, he launched back into the song with a guitar figure and a firm demand for a sing-along. The whole thing still works for me when I revisit it on YouTube. Ray exhorts the crowd, Dave joins in with his weird high voice, etc. Dave also hits some screaming licks that make me think he can play after all. His sleeveless shirt and back-heavy hair are distractions, but I digress…
The first thing I did upon return to shore in Southern California was seek out my own vinyl copy of One For the Road, which I still have. I probably bought it at the Slippery Disc, which is where I started taking guitar lessons around that time. Lola was the first real song I learned, and I practiced it constantly. If you won’t take my word for it, just ask my mother, who still complains about being subjected to “Lo-lo-lo-lo Lola” for six months.
Before too long, The Kinks issued Give the People What They Want—featuring “Around the Dial,” an “All Day and All of the Night” re-write called “Destroyer,” and the deep cut/hidden gem “Better Things”—and embarked on another tour. Reader, I saw that tour, at the Forum in Inglewood, CA when it was still the Fabulous Forum. I’d been to two concerts before—Shaun Cassidy at the Greek and John Denver/George Burns at the old, open-air Universal Amphitheater—but this was my first rock-and-roll extravaganza. The t-shirt is my all-time favorite; I’d probably still have it if it hadn’t worn out.
I spent more time with The Kinks in my 20s, when I finally dug into their back catalog. I got to know the classic albums, and came to understand that I had experienced their arena rock phase, in which they were basically cashing in after years of obstacles to success in the U.S. I’ve read both of Ray’s books—X-Ray is fantastic, Americana less so—and Dave’s, which is hard to get through. Lately, I’ve been following with great interest the reunion rumors, in part because I’d like to see them again, but mostly because I am fascinated by the Davies brothers relationship, which has heavy soap opera overtones. I’ll keep you posted on what happens!