7. A Song with a Name in the Title
‘Do You Remember Walter?’ – The Kinks
When I was a teenager there was a busker who’d play on the steps of the church in Muswell Hill. I’d often sit and chat with him about guitars, and one day I found him in particularly high spirits. He said that Ray Davies had walked past and told him that his guitar needed new strings. Five minutes later, Davies came by again and tossed a fresh pack of strings into his cap on the pavement. That was the late 80s, and if Johnny Rogan’s recent biography is anything to go by, it’s probably the last time anyone had a kind word to say about Davies.
I badly want to like Davies as a person, both because I like his music and because he comes from Muswell Hill. But it’s not just the anecdotes; the signs of his misanthropy are there in the music too. At his best, Davies does great wistful, but he doesn’t do empathy. For all the glamour and romance of Waterloo Sunset’s Terry and Julie, the song’s main theme is solipsism, the friendless observer who stays home at night, watching the world from a window. Meanwhile, in Do You Remember Walter?, the tenderness and admiration Davies musters up for a childhood friend is only nostalgic – it uses the past as a rod to beat the present with. This could have been impersonal, a general paean to lost innocence: “Isn’t it a shame the way our little world has changed?”. But Davies makes it personal. It’s not just the world that has let him down, it’s Walter too:
I bet you’re fat and married and you’re always home in bed by half past eight,
And if we talked about the old times you’d get bored and you’d have nothing more to say.
That “I bet” is typical Davies. Poor old Walter – these aren’t even observations, they’re assumptions. For Davies, disillusionment is a default position.
It’s a brilliant song, but not a kind one. For a long time I worked in an office job I was ashamed of. I played this song a lot, although it made me feel uneasy: I was Walter. Now I work at a university, which I find more fulfilling, so the song makes me think of some of my school friends instead: they’ve become Walter. How judgmental. But that’s Do You Remember Walter? for you: the romantic in the service of the judgmental. No wonder Davies is so often described as quintessentially English.
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