“Yours truly strummed away with a slightly limp wrist” – The Kinks and Sexuality

One of the main subjects in several chapters of the Geek Rock book is the connection between popular music and gender. I briefly discuss the “women want them, men want to be them” allure of Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey, and Robert Plant, specifically with regards to the audience, in my chapter. Martina Topic’s essay on Captain Beefheart contrasts his stage persona and appearance with that of Robert Plant, which Martina described as the epitome of hypermasculinity: bare chest, a mane of locks, pants that are snug in all the right places, you get the picture. (That’s right, we picked on Robert Plant, not once, but twice, for being too good-looking!) Caroline Gates-Shannon did a wonderful examination of the Twee Pop genre, exploring notions of gender in covers of songs written by men, but performed by women – The Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl” and The Beach Boys “Surfer Girl” – as well as the nontraditional masculinity present in the music and performances of Beat Happening. Caroline’s chapter floats out the phrase “alternative masculinity,” that is to say a form of masculinity that deviates from the standard (whether it’s the Ron Swanson “manly man” or Robert Plant’s bulge is your pick. And I promise to leave Mr. Plant alone from here on out. It’s not his fault he’s criminally handsome.)

The Kinks are one of the most influential bands of their period; The Beatles’ impact was immediate – Fellas! Let’s start a band and have girls scream at us, just like THOSE GUYS! – while The Kinks’ influence on popular music took a little longer. Part of it is that they truly were ahead of their time. Part of it was that they were banned from performing in the United States from 1965 to 1969; it’s a long story, and one that varies depending on which author, journalist, or even Kink you are asking. Here come some lofty claims that I can comfortably defend with evidence: they invented heavy metal with “You Really Got Me” (courtesy of Dave Davies puncturing and slashing the speaker cone on his “little green amp”), their landmark album The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society is the Rosetta Stone of indie rock, they scored the first hit single that celebrates queer sexuality with “Lola,” and you know how bands these days change genres with each album like they’re changing their socks? Well, The Kinks did that first – bluesy garage rock, baroque British pop, hard rock, concept albums, a fabulous country/trad-jazz album (1971’s Muswell Hillbillies), and one of the greatest musical theater pieces of all time, Preservation Act One and Preservation Act Two.

Another pronounced influence The Kinks had was with how Ray Davies (the band’s lead singer and chief songwriter, though his younger brother Dave wrote some wonderful songs as well) presented, performed, and subverted the rock ideal of traditional masculinity. This can be traced as far back as the band’s first single, a cover of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” (where the narrator’s uncle John is “having some fun tonight” with a woman who may or may not actually be a woman – shades of “Lola,” perhaps?) backed with an original, “I Took My Baby Home.” The single’s B-side has Davies’ narrator taking a date back to his place, where he finds himself sexually overpowered:

“She had some pile-drivin’ kisses, they really knocked me out
They knocked me oh-oh-over,
She had a hug like a vice,
She squeezes once or twice and I moan…”

Okay, so Ray still had a little ways to go before becoming a man who Pete Townshend said should be England’s poet laureate, but consider this: the song was recorded in January 1964. At that point in time, The Beatles were ready to send all their loving to you, while their bad-boy counterparts The Rolling Stones were introduced to the British record-buying public with a press release (penned by their manager Andrew Oldham) urging the population to lock up their daughters. Across the pond, The Beach Boys were doing songs that treated women like objects. (Go read the lyrics to “California Girls,” a sublime melody and a textbook example in how to arrange a pop song that is also irretrievably sexist.) In “I Took My Baby Home,” however – Ray Davies’ first song on record – the man is the object, sexually submissive to his female partner.

Of course, this is only the band’s first single. There are countless instances throughout their catalog of Ray portraying himself as something less than a cock-of-the-walk alpha male, in defiance of typical rock and blues lyrics. Consider the narrator of “Sunny Afternoon,” where the man who has lost everything is hardly an object of pity, instead a newly-single abusive alcoholic who doesn’t pay his taxes. The Kinks also make plenty of references to queer sexuality, as well. There is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gay reference in “A Well Respected Man,” while the male main character in “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” is described as wearing “frilly nylon panties.”

On Preservation, Ray sings “Mirror of Love” in the voice of a female character, and it is hilarious, and yet this character is later voiced in the story by the great Maryann Price. There is a fey glam campiness in Ray’s onstage banter during the live cuts on Everybody’s in Showbiz (supposedly, he was hamming it up for members of Andy Warhol’s entourage sitting in the front row), while the eponymous track from 1987’s The Road (primarily a live album, this was its one studio cut) provided the title to this article. From 1978’s Misfits, “Out of the Wardrobe” portrays a married couple who not only cross-dress at home, they swap traditional gender roles entirely: “He does the dishes, she smokes a pipe.” Much like “Lola” eight years earlier, the depiction is one of bliss, however not normal it may seem by conventional standards.

Before wrapping it up, I would like to shift the focus from Ray and talk about Dave; occasionally overlooked, Dave deserves to be a focal point in any discussion of the band’s sound or appearance. At a time where the Stones’ shaggy hair caused an uproar and more than a few dirty looks while touring the American south, Dave sported shoulder-length locks. He writes at great length in his autobiography Kink about this, as well as his affinity for wearing campy stage makeup in their early days. Where Ray delivered subtle gay winks in his lyrics, Dave, the ever-smirking maniac whose guitar solos in the band’s early days injected an orgasmic rush into the proceedings, admitted to his own bi-curiosity in the 1960’s. (Homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967.)

As if you all needed another reason to listen to The Kinks. Do it. Now.

Medieval Irish Wisdom, Gnomic Verse, and Memes

Medievalists.net has a feature on short, pithy Irish sayings, like proverbs.  There was one odd pairing:

A prostitute’s lot is uncertainty.
A timid person’s lot is uncertainty.

So … if you’re a timid person, you might as well be a prostitute? That just doesn’t seem right.

When it’s written as verse, this type of writing is often called “gnomic verse” or “gnomic poetry,” and it has been a very popular genre through the ages. It occupied a similar social space to internet memes today — short, little bits of wisdom that are easily transmitted.

A good example of how easily these are transmitted is the advice that Polonius gives Laertes in Act I, Scene 3 of Hamlet.

Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice [….]
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all- to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Chances are that if you know any lines beyond “To be or not to be” from Hamlet, you know these sayings.

If you’re interested in more ancient and medieval gnomic wisdom, you can find Proverbs here, or Anglo-Saxon gnomic verse (with some riddles) here.

The Novelty of Geek Rock

Geek rock has frequently been conflated with novelty rock and artists like They Might Be Giants and Weird Al Yankovic have both appeared on Dr. Demento. The question of geek vs. novelty, however, is not a simple one. For me, the conflation of “geek” and “novelty” is largely due to the conflation of “geek” with “smart” with “trivial and exclusive knowledge.” Smartness is magic. Ask any geek the square root of 467,982 and they can answer, magically, off the top of their heads. Ask any geek about your computer, and they will answer in a language that the common person cannot understand. Knowledge, and especially geek knowledge, is esoteric, effortless (to the geek), and  exclusive. Geek knowledge does not appear to be easily accessible, even though anyone can learn math, or computers, or programming, or technology, or literature, or what have you. And it’s knowledge that is trivial in that it is not immediately relevant to a “normal” day. Who needs to know pi? Or phi? Or the date of the first Mercury mission? Or the author of “A Sweet Nosegay?”

Much like magic, geekness became associated with novelty. Or perhaps it always was inherently novel–after all, a “geek” was the dude biting heads of chickens at the carnival. (Which means, of course, that Ozzy? Total geek. Right?) A geek was a sideshow, a freak attraction, a ten-cent spectacle. An amusement. A novelty, like a pulp novel or a comic book or a sci-fi movie or sci-fi tv show.

In other words, like Star Trek.

Not Star Trek now, of course, because Star Trek, with the reboot movies, and TNG, and George Takei’s winning of the Internet is different from the original airing of Star Trek and the decades of marginalization and parody when cosplay was freakish and replica phasers were best kept at home. Now, in the heyday of geekdom, Star Trek is no longer a sideshow, but a mainstream blockbuster phenomenon. Much like the novelty band/song who has been geek rock all along.

You know where I’m going, don’t you?

“Star Trekkin’” is the perfect example of the dynamics between novelty and geek rock. Yes, it’s a parody. A loving parody, to my ears. A silly, joking, homage to the original series. Yes, it’s a novelty; at least, it’s classified as such. But it’s all in the ears of the audience, too. And this audience member hears it as a tongue in cheek homage to a groundbreaking show that, while breaking ground, also forayed into over-acting, Edens and Earth like planets, and stunningly literal rocky terrain. All flaws, perhaps, and worthy of parody, but all lovable flaws nonetheless. So maybe it’s time to reclassify “Star Trekkin’” from a side show, chicken-beheading novelty act to a clever early foray into geek rock (which is, of course, the final frontier).