And “Imaginary Man”?
I believe in individuality. “Imaginary Man” is the downside of individuality, about what can happen when one has tried so hard to be an individual, but now finds he has lost something.
Do you ever wish you could be like everybody else?
I try desperately to, but always fail at the last moment. I’m a bit like the guy in [One Flew Over the] Cuckoo’s Nest, who breaks a window to jump out but, at the last minute, he can’t do it. I can go into the room to join everybody else. I’m invited — “Come in, be one of us!” — I get to the door, knock on the door, and run away.
How did you decide what to include on the new album? “See My Friends" is not an obvious choice, but it sounds great.
I didn’t want to re-record Kinks hits. I think old Kinks hits stand for what they are, so I wanted, where possible, to reinterpret them. “Waterloo Sunset” is almost a no-brainer arrangement, the original vocals are so claret-clear. For “See My Friends,” I wanted to capture the spirit of where I wrote the song, in India, and revisit the feeling I had then. We tried it with a few instruments and it didn’t work, and in the end decided to do it a cappella. It was a brave thing to do — there’s no back-beat. But it works really well. On the other hand, on “Shangri-la,” from [the album] Arthur, I didn’t want the choir to be just backing vocalists. I wanted to integrate them into the song itself, so that they provide another voice. Shangri-la is suburbia, and the people in the chorus come from there. I feel like the people I wrote it for are singing it.
When “Shangri-La” came out, you got some flak for the lyrics, and I remember reading once that you said, looking back on it, you thought you were a brat when you wrote it [in 1969].
The interesting thing is the juxtaposition — now I’m singing it as a man later in life. Maybe the song was anticipating what I would become. It gives it a new slant, in a performing sense — a new point of view, new insight. I’m no longer just looking out observing people with dull little lives.
When you played here in September 2001, you opened the show with “Better Things,” which was pretty much the only song you could possibly have started with on that tour. It was the first time I had smiled in two weeks. Did you see the transformative effect you had on audiences?
It was very hard to think of any song to sing at that time. Everything in the world seemed to have a new connotation and new meaning. I made my home-video diary on that trip. We had to travel by road, because flying was difficult. To see the changing face of America, the devastating effect it had on the spirit of people. We stopped at a little diner in Texas, and people just were not talking, trying not to watch the TV, in shock. I have some works in progress on that, but I wouldn’t put them out, because I don’t like to capitalize on things like that. If the content of the songs is good, they’ll come out eventually, in a year or so.