Most days, I listen to Van Halen, Foo Fighters, or Green Day to help me through my “Thirty Minutes of Hell” workout, you know, something high energy and especially loud, which helps drown out the sounds of me panting and the occasional groan. Today, though, their brand of accompaniment doesn’t strike me right, and so I go with something else: The Kinks’ Live - The Road. As the title suggests, it is a mostly live album, a collection of songs recorded in concert by that most English of English bands circa 1987.
It seems an unlikely choice, I know, but it works surprisingly well. The Kinks happen to be my all-time favorite band, and they flat out know how to rock in concert. I crank through the first three songs, and before I know it, I’ve already whittled twelve minutes off today’s timed descent into suffering. The fourth song begins. It’s “Come Dancing.”
If you were around in the eighties, you might remember “Come Dancing.” It was the last big hit The Kinks ever had. It’s a bright, breezy song with a wistful, melancholy message, the kind that Ray Davies is so adept at writing. It’s the kind of song that seems crafted specifically to be remembered fondly. It’s the kind of song that you could easily imagine being sung in an English pub during the wee hours of the morning a hundred and fifty years from now.
“Come Dancing” has always reminded me of my older sister. The song is about an older sister, so I suppose that would explain it. But there’s more. The sister in the song loves to go dancing, as Ray makes clear early on:
Come dancing/that’s how they did it when I was just a kid
And when they said to come dancing/my sister always did
That was my sister too. When she was young (but old enough), my sister would go out to the clubs and go dancing every chance she got. To me, her passion for dancing was inexplicable. She would enthusiastically talk about where she had gone the night before, and what it had been like, but my eyes would glaze over after about thirty seconds, and eventually she stopped.
As the song progresses, it connects with my memories in such a way that makes me wonder if all older sisters are pretty much the same:
My sister should have come in at midnight/my mum would always sit up and wait
It always ended up in a big row/when my sister used to get home late
That was my sister, too. Except it was usually my dad who waited up, and my dad who laid into her when she finally cracked open that front door. A big row, indeed. I could never understand why my sister couldn’t learn to come home on time. I, in turn, learned a lot by watching my sister. I learned it was better to sneak out through a window and hop the fence when you wanted to be out late, and come back in the same way. Turns out there’s far less yelling that way, assuming you don’t get caught.
The song goes on to relate how his sister’s favorite place to dance was knocked down to make way for a bowling alley, and how she cried when it did, and how part of her childhood went with it. Oddly, I have no memory of my sister doing this.
But then comes the part that always gets me, and somehow today it gets me worse than normal:
My sister’s married and she lives on an estate
Her daughters go out/now it’s her turn to wait
She knows they get away with things she never could
But if I asked her I wonder if she would
Come dancing/Come on sister have yourself a ball
Don’t be afraid to come dancing/it’s only natural.
My sister is married now, and lives on something that, if you half-close your eyes and pretend not to notice the neighbors, approximates an estate. But, thanks to a really complicated set of medical problems she endured many years ago, she’s never been able to have kids of her own. She doesn’t have daughters, and she doesn’t have the unique privilege – or pain – of having the tables turned, of having to stay up late and wait for them to come home, for instance. I hate the fact that she couldn’t have kids. If anyone deserves them, it’s her, and she would’ve made a great mom. There are plenty of nieces and nephews in the family, and she spoils them. She gets to be the cool aunt, the one that they love. Especially the girls, I think.
I know that she relishes playing that role. But I also think that deep down, it has to hurt a little too. How could it not? And somehow this song makes me think of not just this, but of all the pain she’s had to bear in her life. More than her fair share, in my opinion. She’s handled her burdens with spunk, and dignity, and a perfectly unrepentant sense of humor, all without a trace of self-pity. Still, the song never fails to stir up the heavy mud of melancholy in me, far more than Ray Davies could’ve intended.
I can’t forget that stubborn, restless, fun-loving sister who loved to go dancing every weekend, and who always seemed to be getting into trouble with mom and dad. While my legs pump relentlessly away at 62 revolutions per minute, my heart wishes we could escape, my older sister and me, back to that time, if only for a while. I know that if I were given the chance again, I would listen to her babble on about dancing the night away at Mr. Lucky’s, or Graham Central Station, or wherever she had been, and I would soak up every word she said. I would even try to advise her on how she might be able to get away with coming in late. Most of all, I would watch with wonder at how she just seemed to come alive in those moments.
I start to choke up. I’m now fifteen minutes into my workout, and I have tears brimming in my eyes. I tell myself that it’s the damned elliptical machine’s fault; after all it’s designed to bring suffering to the surface. But I know it’s not the machine. It’s not the machine at all. The song, and my memories, and the vicissitudes of life, are to blame.
The song ends; the Kinks move on. I don’t notice, though. I’m still thinking about my sister. Like Ray, I wonder what would happen if I asked her to come dancing. I wonder if she would.
Come on sister have yourself a ball
Don’t be afraid to come dancing
It’s only natural.