Friday, September 24, 2010

Nobody Visits, Nobody Grieves

From the Timeline on the Official Ray Davies Web Site:
January 4th 2004 - Ray shot while pursuing a thief who had snatched the purse of his companion in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Ray recuperates in New Orleans hospital where he writes the Morphine Song and others.

No less a rock-poet authority than Pete Townshend famously considered Ray Davies a "poet laureate" because he "invented a new kind of poetry and a new kind of language for pop writing that influenced me from the very, very, very beginning". Townshend didn't call Davies merely a rock poet; but rather a POET ... full-stop.

It's hard to argue with this assessment1.

The knock against Ray Davies— as I wrote elsewhere, in a post that no longer exists — was always that his songs could tend toward the nostalgic, including, I guess, the sentimental. But that tendency is also a large part of the reason Davies is such a great composer: "Morphine Song" (from Davies' 2007 album Working Man's CafĂ©) skirts that territory — it could easily have fallen into the trap of becoming, on the one hand, either mean-spiritedly sarcastic (the noting of Nelson's "perfect mullet" could have devolved into ridicule, but doesn't); or, on the other, lachrymosely sentimental (with the character of Brenda the alkie, who is too complicated and well-limned to be that one-dimensional) — but manages, instead, to be deeply affecting and thoughtful and heartfelt; and it could only succeed if Davies took that chance, which he almost always did, both in his solo songs and with the songs he wrote for the Kinks. He probes deeply into his characters' inner lives, taking the chance that he might thereby become off-puttingly sentimental about them.

Even though this song was inspired by Davies experience in a New Orleans intensive care ward after he had been shot by a mugger, the song itself is not really about the "I" of the song, its first-person narrator: The narrator, like Davies himself, is an acute observer of the behavior of the people around him, with an eye for the telling details, both small and large, that are revelatory about their interior lives, about what makes them tick.

He can hear their hearts beat.

Listen to my heartbeat
Yeah, all fall down
Someone help me
Off of the ground
Listen to my heartbeat

The song starts off with a heartbeat (the narrator's own2) and a "London Bridge Is Falling Down"-like children's rhyme, sung in a child-like, sing-song way, which sets a certain tone for the song as a whole, suggesting that is will be about basic, essential, fundamental themes — which, indeed, it is.

In the first verse, Davies introduces the characters of Nelson and Starr, who on a certain level represent the life force; and in the next verse, Brenda "the alkie", who is afraid she is dying3, and with whom the narrator clearly identifies:

And opposite me
Brenda the alkie
Coughs so deep
It's the drugs
And the drink
It could happen to anyone
Sure makes me think

At almost exactly the halfway point of this 4:20 song — at, in other words, its very heart — it's heartbeat-like rhythm stops after the narrator notes that the bed beside Brenda "[i]s full of cables and leads/ Nobody visits/ Nobody grieves".

The caesura effectively underscores the especially devastating nature of this image: Cables and leads are lines that enable connections — between machines, between various types of technological equipment, and, when used for computer networks, they enable connections between people ... but here, in this image, they lie in disuse on a bed next to Brenda, who is alone and disconnected from anyone else.

Nobody visits. Nobody grieves.

Davies plants, at the very heart of "Morphine Song", this very basic, irreducible and, I would guess, nearly universal fear that we are all alone in the world; that nobody cares or even notices us when we're alive and that nobody will notice or care when we die. The fear that Brenda's fate is our shared fate.

And even though the slow heartbeat of the song starts up again with the life-affirming image of Nelson and Starr ("He's got ten grandkids/ She's the third missus"), we soon witness Brenda's heartrendingly sad departure:

They wheel her out
She starts to cry
"If I don't get better
I'm gonna die
I'll go cold turkey
Till I'm clean
I'll go to jail —
But you get the morphine"

Even if she recovers, she evidently has a jail sentence hanging over her4 and she envies the narrator because his wound allows him the morphine anodyne that Brenda herself — who has nothing else in the world — is no longer allowed.

The refrain "Listen to my heartbeat" is nothing less than a plea that someone notice your existence, and in the end, Davies asks us to notice Brenda, see that she's fallen down, care enough to want help her off of the ground. He asks us to acknowledge that it is our job to care and to help. Because it could happen to anyone. Even you.

And caring, helping is how you prove that you have a heartbeat.

It's this compassionate humanism in Davies' songs that I, for one, find so compelling and affecting. Because in the end, it's up to us to prove that it's just not true that "Nobody visits/ Nobody grieves" — in this instance, Ray Davies was there to listen to Brenda; he wrote a song lamenting her passing, so that we all might grieve for her and for all the Brendas of the world, about whom nobody seems to care, whom no one will miss because nobody noticed them in the first place.

Davies gently reminds us that we should care — we need other people.

Because we all fall down; and when we do, we all need help off of the ground.
The video with that stupid Dutch (or whatever it is) intro was the only one I could find on youtube that included the whole studio version of "Morphine Song". Sorry about that. The song itself starts about one minute in.
1 In fact, the only persuasive argument I can come up with to contend with it is that perhaps Townshend himself should be the poet laureate of rock — but that speaks more to Townshend's considerable abilities and is in no way a knock against Davies' poetic skills.

2 Which, we're informed, is slow:

"Hey buddy, you know
You got a slow heartbeat"

3 And probably does die at the end of the song. At least, her death is strongly implied in the lines:

Listen to my heartbeat
Lalalala, lalalala
Yeah, listen to my heartbeat
Lalalala, lalalala
And the marching band song
Plays in the morgue
At the charity ward
Yeah, the marching band
Plays its song

4 Or it's possible she just views her upcoming stint in rehab as a prison sentence.


  1. Oh no ... I'm not smart enough or awake enough to comment. Need coffee and more brain cells.

    BTW, thanks for calling me out as a cradle robber earlier this week. You are the only person who: a)did the math or b)had the bawls to call me out. I like it.

  2. The poet laureate of rock, if Dylan is relegated to folk and Leonard Cohen to whatever the hell he sings, is Patti Smith. Tom Waits' wife Kathleen is up there, too.

    I don't think the Twins are going to the big game. The Rays have fewer holes, the Yankees(douchey crap-addled billionaire thugs that they are) seem to find ways to win in the post-season.

    Gullepumpi Frenkendorf isn't Dutch. It sounds like something John Frink would say, though.

  3. Maybe it is the recovering addict in me, but I see the fear of being Brenda is that Brenda herself did not care about Brenda, and that makes it impossible for others to truly care for(versus pity) her.

    You big ol' sweetheart. I was going to come here and razz you for being the kindhearted, loving man that you are, but then you go and tell everyone already. Spoiler.

    Thank you for being you.

    For the record, I notice when you are not posting and I grieve. (Ok, 'grieve' is strong I just email, harass you.) You do not walk through this life unnoticed, nor uncared about, friend.

  4. Agree with RBR. I like reading you! Although this stuff is really over my hick farmer head, I still like it. I learn stuff.

  5. For the record, Chris Christie made it onto my political radar screen this week - I guess I'm a little behind (unlike some of the big behinds).

  6. This stuff is "deep"! Not that kind of "deep" you're used to!