Some songs are built around questions, a simple device and old trick of the trade, like call-and-response. What do the simple folk do? Will you still love me tomorrow? Do you know the way to San Jose? Do you love me, surfer girl? In the sixties some of those questions became rather serious: have you ever seen the rain? How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see? Writing about Eleanor Rigby, and its refrain that asked after all the lonely people, where they all came from and where they could all possibly belong, one author, whose name I wish I could recall, noted that some questions aren’t rhetorical – they’re just unanswerable. That’s what you get in Oklahoma, USA, about a woman who lives a fantasy life to escape the dreariness of her mundane working days, in which the great Ray Davies poses one that could only spring from the deepest fount of melancholy: If life is for living, what’s living for?
Pete Townshend once said in an interview, rather ruefully, that as the Sixties progressed he and Ray Davies had to get comfortable with the idea that The Kinks and The Who were never going to be as big as The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. Pete didn’t think that was quite fair, and when you listen to a song like Oklahoma, USA you can see why he’d feel that way. Concise, melodic, thoughtful, and sad beyond words, it’s one of Ray’s very best, and might seem off the beaten path to those who know him only for his early proto-power chord hits, like You Really Got Me and All Day and All of the Night. Ray could rock, all right, but he could also write songs that were out of time and for the ages – this is the guy who didn’t just give you Lola, he also gifted you the beautifully wistful and ethereal Waterloo Sunset.
Ray actually wasn’t so much a rock ‘n roller as a dreamer, a romantic, and his songs are often gentle and nostalgic – when it came to the state of modern England, fiercely nostalgic (who but Ray could write a rollicking pop tune celebrating the age of Queen Victoria?) – and very sad, in an understated sort of way. They only tugged at your heartstrings with full effect once you’d listened a few times, and absorbed the words.
So here’s our unnamed woman, head in the clouds, passing the time by imagining herself living large within the worlds depicted in big Broadway musicals and Hollywood romance pictures, while the days turn to years and time keeps evaporating.
She walks to work but she’s still in a daze,
She’s Rita Hayworth or Doris Day,
And Errol Flynn’s gonna take her away,
To Oklahoma U.S.A…
All life we work but work is a bore,
If life is for for livin’ then what’s livin’ for?
If I knew, dear imaginary reader, I promise I’d tell you.