I’ve always hated when people asked me what my favorite song was. Impossible question! How could I pick just one song from the data base of music in my brain? To make matters worse, my mind blanked out and I’d be hard pressed to remember any song I liked well enough to identify as a favorite. So, I’d stammer until I came up with some stock Beatle tune like “Day Tripper” because of its catchy lead guitar riffs. In truth, the question really bothered me. Did I even have a favorite? I’d usually leave the conversation, scratching my head and begging the existential question: who the heck was I, any way?
Not so any more. One of the benefits of getting older is that with decades of music from which to choose, I can now confidently answer that question without hesitation: “Waterloo Sunset” by The Kinks.
“Waterloo Sunset” is a staggeringly beautiful song that I never appreciated when I heard it played on the radio back in the 1960s. The reason I overlooked it was because at the time, my interior musical landscape was dominated by The Beatles. I remember The Kinks for their dirty guitar riffs in songs like “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of The Night,” and for their intriguing lyrics in “Well Respected Man.“ Of course at the time, I didn’t know what social commentary was but I knew “Well Respected Man” had something going on besides “yeah, yeah, yeah,” -early evidence of Ray Davies’ under-appreciated poetic/prophetic insight. Even so, John, Paul, George and Ringo were the main performers on the stage of my memory while The Kinks and other bands like them were merely ambient noise.
Flash forward to me as an adult. I’m sitting in my car at the high school parking lot waiting for my son when Waterloo Sunset comes on the radio and I feel as if I’m hearing it for the very first time. Sure the melody is pleasantly familiar and the sha la las greet me like old friends asking me to hang out, but the gorgeous melody, the delicately layered vocals, the transcendent lyrics and intricate timing… How could I have missed this?
I’ve listened to “Waterloo Sunset” many times since that afternoon in my car and the song never fails to give me the chills. From the start, the driving riffs of the lead guitar take me to a surprising place. Fully expecting to rock out after the intense momentum of the opening beats - da da di dum da di dum da di dum, I am instead guided to a lyrical melody that meanders back and forth like the “dirty old river” referenced in the lyrics, and with all the symmetry of Mozart. Ray Davies voice is fragile, as charming as a whisper with a little bit of play. The background vocals sparkle and warm like the sunset. The plucky guitar glides the melody to a dreamy, harmonic bridge complete with oooooos and ahhhhs and rewards me with a chorus that satisfies like poetic justice -Waterloo sunset’s fine.
I’ve researched many commentaries on Waterloo Sunset and most people seem to agree that it is a very happy song, or at least a song that makes them feel happy as they imagine they are in paradise. I feel that the song starts out profoundly sad. The singer is isolated from the world as he gazes out his window. Although he sings that (I) “don’t need no friends”, I recognize the loneliness behind those words, an attempt at bravado when you feel others are out having fun and you’re left at home by yourself. Who needs them! “Chilly, Chilly is the evening time,” -it’s too cold to be outside anyway! I’ve felt lonely like that, craving connection but strangely comfortable and safe in my isolation. Who wants to risk being outside in the cold with “millions of people swarming like flies?” Better off alone, safe and warm, gazing out the window.
But the lyrics, like the melody, take on a transcendent twist. The sunset is the great connector, the eternal moment that joins him with everything. He is alone, together with everyone, united by the beauty of the Waterloo sunset. The song seems to say that as long as we can look outside our window, beyond our own pain and loneliness to appreciate beauty we are connected to something larger than ourselves. In a word, paradise.