Everybody’s in Show-Biz is a transition album between the The Kinks’ golden period and their theatrical period, featuring a studio LP and a live one.
At least we can all agree on that!
The live album is a hoot! The Kinks sound loose, playful and like they’re having fun with the crowd. The live versions of the songs from Muswell Hillbillies sound much better than the originals, which were diminished on that recording by Ray’s insistence on using dated equipment. “Alcohol,” “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues” and “Holiday” are all show-stopping performances. “Top of the Pops” and “Brainwashed” are equally exciting. The snippets like “Mr. Wonderful,” “Baby Face” and “Banana Boat Song” were probably just as much fun for the boys in the band as they were the listening audience, adding some variation to the classic set list. The live disc may not make too many greatest live album lists, but it’s still a lot of fun.
The reason why the live performances don’t salvage the whole package is because the studio album is frigging awful. Most of the songs deal with the allegedly dreary life of rock stars, a topic most of the planet’s inhabitants can’t relate to and only wish they had it so bad. When asked about the album and specifically the subject of touring, Dave Davies remarked, “It doesn’t matter how luxurious your surroundings are, you go back to your hotel room and it is like a prison. We used to do 11, 12, 13-month tours of America and leave our families at home because we couldn’t afford to bring them over. It was hell.” Unfortunately, the songs on the studio album only hint at that hell and the existential pain of isolation and separation. Instead, we learn that rock stars don’t change their underwear and eat vast quantities of food in strange combinations. “Look a Little on the Sunny Side,” where Ray expresses his frustration about rarely being able to give the people what they want, is itself a song that no one would want. There are a couple of songs that explore other subject matter: “Supersonic Rocket Ship” is a rehash of “Apeman” and not nearly as effective; “Hot Potatoes” attempts to deal with a nagging wife and her layabout husband with little success.
So, Kinks fans, I am sorry to say that I only liked 30% of the studio album. That actually makes this a relatively positive review compared to those written by most mainstream critics, who only liked one or two songs. The songs I like are, in ascending order, “You Don’t Know My Name,” “Sitting in My Hotel,” and “Celluloid Heroes,” a song which in this context is like finding a 10-karat diamond in a garbage dump.
Dave Davies’ “You Don’t Know My Name” features a sprightly guitar, an enthusiastic vocal and a toe-tapping beat to go along with the description of the mad whirl of constant travel. It’s one of the best-arranged and tighter performances on the studio disc and one of Dave’s better efforts. Dave always brings a certain kind of energy to his songs that I find refreshingly compelling.
“Sitting in My Hotel” was obviously written at a moment when Ray was feeling fragile and uncertain about his artistic direction. There are hints of self-doubt as he imagines what his friends would say (“They would tell me that I’m just being used/They would ask me what I’m trying to prove”) and signs of depression (“Trying to hide the gloom/Sitting in my hotel room”). The device of using his friends to express the internal storm may have been an attempt to provide some aesthetic distance from the problem he was trying to deal with, but it plays out more like an avoidance mechanism. It also trivializes the fragility by confusing it with the cheap need to live up to the expectations of others. As in “Look a Little on the Sunny Side,” Ray expresses disappointment, frustration and hurt by critical and popular reactions to his work, but he never gets to the core issue. Am I here to please my friends, the critics and the fans, or am I here to write and sing about the things that truly matter to me? I wouldn’t go so far as John Mendelsohn and accuse Ray of indulging in self-pity, but I do think he missed the opportunity to confront the meaning of his life as an artist and/or entertainer. He poses the question but avoids the answer. Flaws aside, it’s a very pretty melody, and John Gosling is splendid on the piano.
All is forgiven with “Celluloid Heroes,” one of the greatest songs ever written, the long-form equal of “Waterloo Sunset.” Here Ray does confront the deeper issues hinted at in “Sitting in My Hotel” and then some. He also shifts his perspective from “me” to “we,” speaking to us as one human being to another, sharing a common and curious experience:
Everybody’s a dreamer
And everybody’s a star
And everybody’s in movies
It doesn’t matter who you are
At one time or another, many of us have fantasized about stardom, and that’s part of the meaning here. More importantly, “everybody’s in movies” because we project our hopes and dreams onto the screen, attaching ourselves to stars who have become archetypal symbols of human experience. Sometimes we relate to the stars on a more intimate basis than we relate to the people in our daily lives: we root for them, feel for them, empathize with them:
Don’t step on Greta Garbo
As you walk down the Boulevard
She looks so weak and fragile
That’s why she tried to be so hard
But they turned her into a princess
And they sat her on a throne
But she turned her back on stardom
Because she wanted to be alone
The reaction to Garbo’s exit from the scene is expressed in the tone of one friend standing up for another, justifying her decision through empathy and rationalization (“that’s why she tried to be so hard.”) This in itself is not “weird.” When a great actor touches our deepest emotions through performance, a connection is created that is as deep as any direct human experience. We can also relate to the evil of the invisible “they” who make our lives difficult through poorly understood but very real powers. In the end, we love Garbo for having the courage to make the choice to leave it all behind, to defy “them” and all the expectations that “they” heaped upon a weak, fragile creature who was one of us.
Ray takes us through a series of archetypal heroes, all of whom represent different aspects of the human personality. Valentino is our deliciously guilty lust; Bela Lugosi our fear of what lurks under the bed; Bette Davis is our defiant heroine who pays for her brash independence with isolation. It is absolutely true that “if you covered him with garbage, George Sanders would still have style,” and “if you stamped on Mickey Rooney, he would still turn ’round and smile.” The former evokes our yearnings for unruffled dignity in the face of disaster and the latter our eternal optimism. Ray shifts his tone to somber affection when he sings of “dearest Marilyn,” the modern archetype of beauty and glamour—and a woman who desperately wanted to escape the archetype and achieve recognition as an intelligent, sensitive actress. She simply did not have Garbo’s strength to sever the ties to “them.”
But please don’t tread on dearest Marilyn
‘Cos she’s not very tough
She should have been made of iron or steel
But she was only made of flesh and blood
Up to this point, the music has built gradually to a peak in the second repetition of the chorus, a set of lines that would have you believe that the song is both a tribute and an elegy to the great stars of Hollywood past and those who wound up in B-movies or worse:
You can see all the stars as you walk down Hollywood Boulevard
Some that you recognize, some that you’ve hardly even heard of
People who worked and suffered and struggled for fame
Some who succeeded and some who suffered in vain
The music then softens as Ray delivers a variation of the opening verse where he slowly approaches the issue that was gnawing at his soul in “Sitting in My Hotel.” Success and failure are the yin and yang of the choice to become an artist:
Everybody’s a dreamer
And everybody’s a star
And everybody’s in show biz
It doesn’t matter who you are
And those who are successful
Be always on your guard
Success walks hand in hand with failure
Along Hollywood Boulevard
Once he opens the door to his fears, he makes the exceptionally courageous decision to go even further. It’s not simply musical success or failure that is troubling him; it’s something deeper and more elemental. In achingly beautiful lines, he comes face to face with the most basic human fear of all. I can never read or hear these lines without crying; in truth, I’m crying right now as I write.
I wish my life was a non-stop Hollywood movie show
A fantasy world of celluloid villains and heroes
Because celluloid heroes never feel any pain
And celluloid heroes never really die
Though steeped in the existentialism of Camus, I find it very difficult to accept that I will die sometime in the future. On a factual basis, I understand that death is inevitable and that no one gets a pass. On an emotional basis, I love life and never want to leave it, even when it’s painful. This is why “everybody’s a dreamer, and everybody’s a star.” We are the stars of our life stories and we all want to avoid the final curtain. Whether it’s the fear of what lies beyond or the simple love of life, only the twisted or terminally ill lose that intense and illogical hope that somehow life will go on forever. I am usually an extremely logical person, but a part of me can’t help but “wish my life was a non-stop Hollywood movie show,” and I wish that for my parents, for my lovers, for my friends, for all of us. The thought of a final goodbye appalls me, frightens me and makes me want to scream “No!” with such power that death wouldn’t dare come near.
For the artist, the verse has even greater significance. “Celluloid Heroes” answers the song-ending question of “Sitting in My Hotel”: “What’s it all leading to?” As an artist, Ray Davies would have had to permit himself to hope that his work would outlive him, just as the work of the great Hollywood stars has outlived them. It is said that an artist attempts to achieve a form of immortality through his or her work, and while that may be a pale substitute for the real thing, it’s the only option open to beings limited by mortality.
I don’t believe that Ray Davies has anything to worry about on that score. His songs will be played and admired for generations to come; they will continue to move people a hundred years from now. His work will endure because few artists in any field have written more insightfully about the human condition and this mysterious experience we know as life.