Man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched. Pascal
This entry will wrap up the Songbook’s oft-interrupted series of “loneliness and individualism songs,” all from 1965-1967, which by way of review, began with The Beach Boys’ “That’s Not Me,” went on to consider two Simon and Garfunkel songs, “I Am a Rock,” and “The Sounds of Silence,” and then compared and contrasted the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” with the Zombies’ “A Rose for Emily.” Tocqueville, Rousseau, About a Boy, and wouldn’t you know, my own socio-cultural theories regarding Three Stages of Modernity were considered along the way. If you want to see what I say about these, just enter “Rock Songbook” into the Search First Things window in the upper right. I planned from the beginning to finish the series with “Waterloo Sunset.” Something about its humbly sad and yet life-affirming tone, and something about the poignancy of the But I don’t…need no friends line guaranteed it pride of place.
The song was hit in Britain, but is not very well known in the U.S. A shame, because it’s about as melodically beautiful as pop-song gets, at least in the genre of mid-to-late 60s “pop-art” rock. The Kinks even seemed to want to ironically lighten its perfection—or that’s why I think they sang the background choral parts with child-like voices. But as you can hear in this recent re-arrangement by its songwriter Ray Davies, the song also works great with the choral parts sung straightforwardly. (Hat-tip to chastity advocate and mid-60s pop connoisseur Dawn Eden.)
In the Eden-provided link, the song is introduced by Ray Davies answering a question about its lyrics. He says that its narrator is a “shut-in,” but one who observes people in the busy scene around Waterloo Station in London. The song’s chorus describes his situation:
(Sha-la-la) Every day I look at the world from my window. (Sha-la-la)
But chilly, chilly, is the evening time…
Waterloo sunset’s fine.
The chorus occurs with an up-swell in the music, and lyrically, it at least ends with a happy and beauty-evocative idea. Still, its effect is mixed–if a “Sha-la-la” is a sixties pop cliché that always signals a kind of youthful triumphalism, here it is sung in a rather muted and even distant fashion.
The three verses work as follows. The first introduces the narrator alone, the second contrasts him with the couple he observes, and the third stays entirely with the couple. Here’s the first:
Dirty old river, must you keep rolling,
flowing into the night?
People so busy, makes me feel dizzy,
taxi-light shines so bright.
But I don’t…need no friends…
as long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset,
I am in paradise.
And then comes the Sha-la-la and the chorus. So far, we can notice one obvious motivation for his withdrawing from society: its busyness unsettles him, rattles whatever inner equilibrium he has. The second verse reveals several more motivations: fear (of crime?), laziness, and “not wanting to wander.”
Terry meets Julie, Wateloo Station,
Every Friday night.
But I am so lazy, don’t want to wander,
I stay at home at night.
But I don’t…feel afraid,
as long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset,
I am in paradise.
But upon closer look, we’re not so sure about a couple of these motivations. True, the next verse suggests Terry and Julie have some concern about being in a part of the city where they feel “safe and sound,” which sounds like a fear of crime is involved, but the narrator’s statement about his not feeling afraid follows his report of staying indoors and is conditioned upon his gazing on the sunset. The possibility of his being afraid is not eliminated by his staying in. So if he is afraid of something, it seems to be more than just the threat of crime. In contrasting himself to Terry and Julie, he notes that he doesn’t go out at night, but of course, the chorus tells us that during the day-time he is shut in also. And is “laziness” really the major reason he doesn’t go out? If a person fails to work enough, exercise enough, etc., we might well primarily blame the vice of laziness. But if a person fails to make friends, or fails in some other way in interpersonal relationships, does it suffice to chalk it up to “laziness?” I think the narrator’s telling us he doesn’t want to wander is a more honest description of why he doesn’t go out—he doesn’t have friends, or anyplace to go like Cheers where “everybody knows his name,” and so he will of necessity be a wanderer in the modern city if he goes out.
And yet, as Peter Lawler has taught us many times in his books and in his blogging, there is a necessity for some wandering in the spiritually honest human life(it won’t quite do to say spiritually healthy human life). Wandering is discontented, needy, wondering, and vulnerable—and the last quality means it must to some extent involve feeling afraid, feeling unsafe and unsound. With Aristotle and common-sense, we know that the happy life must include friends; and we sense that our narrator does need them and deep down knows it, despite what he tells himself. And if we grant that, surely the echoing line in the second verse regarding fear similarly suggests that our narrator really does feel afraid. But again, we must ask, of what? Crime, noise, bustle, indignity, yes, but is there not something else he is afraid of?
Could we push further, and suggest that as Pascal, Percy, and Lawler would teach us, but which common-sense does NOT know, that feeling afraid (like feeling needy) is not to be avoided, but is a pathway to the true health? Could we say that it is not just friends he needs, and not just the fear of seeking them he needs to face, but also the admission of the depths of his neediness, a neediness which goes beyond the ability of any friends to meet, and, which is connected to the fear of death?
Whether this point about wandering works with the song or not, I am certain of this: weariness with life and a fear of death are factors here. Notice its beginning—must you keep rolling?–is a question the narrator directs towards the human pageant, and yes, towards his own life. It cannot simply be a throwaway line about the river itself. An eastwards flowing river, the dirty Thames flows away from the sunset, and into the night. Looking upon the darkening evening to the East is like old age’s ever-closer view of death’s prospect. For that reason, and perhaps also for reasons of social isolation, old-age can be chilly, and one looks away from it by looking at the sunset, and by looking at others’ lives.
But it will not do to simply look upon anonymous lives, as the third verse indicates:
Millions of people, swarming like flies round
But Terry and Julie, cross over the river,
where they feel safe and sound.
And they don’t…need no friends,
as long as they gaze on Waterloo sunset,
they are in paradise.
Terry and Julie are like the narrator in apparently not needing friends, in seeking to draw away from the general bustle and unsafe/unsound feeling of the Waterloo station scene, and in gazing appreciatively upon Waterloo sunset. The geography of the song invites us to imagine our narrator watching them, as they walk all the way across the river, where he can see them also watching the sunset. But they are unlike him in going out at night, in having at least one another, and, in being young. They are not a Mr. and Mrs., but a Terry and Julie, about to begin life, and likely to bring life into the world with their love; and I think we must also conclude, for the sake of symmetry and to account for the symbolic suggestions given the river and night, that our narrator is elderly, or at the very least a shut-in old enough to be tired of life and meditating upon death.
Is our narrator right about Terry and Julie? About their being, apart from their having one another, persons largely isolated and withdrawn from society, pretty much like he is? About their needing the serenity of Waterloo sunset, pretty much like he does? It is impossible to say. As far as we know he only observes them, has no other knowledge about them, and thus has probably made up the names for them. At best he could observe them regularly crossing the Waterloo Bridge each Friday night and see that they were lingering on the other side. He cannot observe them closely—he cannot look into their eyes, nor observe their behavior anywhere but here.
I have a sense, however, that the description of Terry and Julie might be more Ray Davies’ than the narrator’s. It is, after all, thematically neat if we just take it as fact that Terry and Julie feel they need no friends , for then, we have a song in which an old shut-in copes with modern loneliness by means of observing others, and sunset appreciation, presented alongside a young couple who cope with modern loneliness by means of couple love, and sunset appreciation. People-observing, eros, and beauty appreciation would then stand as three compared ways of coping.
Let’s consider the last of these. Is our narrator right to rely on Waterloo sunset? We must note here, as Davies was likely aware (recall the art-history savvy lyrics our John Presnall pointed out in “Twentieth Century Man”), that the painters Turner, Whistler, and Monet had all painted the sun shining through London’s fog and smoke right above the Waterloo Bridge that Terry and Julie cross. So, our narrator’s aesthetic appreciation of this particular sunset view has prestigious precedent. There is natural beauty to be discerned and savored even in the heart of one of the busiest modern cities; perhaps such beauty, artistically created or appreciated, can save us. Additionally, if I am right about the directional symbolism in the song, looking away from the night in the direction of sunset is a way for our likely elderly narrator to keep focused upon life’s goodness. That’s why it makes sense for him to also gaze upon Terry and Julie.
And yet, while it is horrid when we become so busy that we neglect to gaze upon the creation’s beauty, it is not ultimately the case that beauty, or the aesthetic way of life, can save us from our modern maladies. That is, the only responsible Christian answer is that it looks like our narrator has placed the sunset’s beauty between himself and his need for God, and relatedly, as any contemporary atheist psychologist might agree with as well, between himself and his need for other people. He needs to stop gazing and get out of his safety zone, both socially and spiritually. So we must say. But what he needs to do, and what he is capable of doing, well, those may differ quite a bit. Pascal reminds us that to be human is to employ diversion, and prior to coming home to heaven, no human employs no diversion. On those terms, we can respect our fragile narrator’s reliance on the beautiful diversion of sunset gazing. And surely the song itself causes us to celebrate this act, even to musically partake of it. The song is not, like “Eleanor Rigby” or “Sounds of Silence,” mainly about displaying or lamenting modern loneliness, but is rather mostly about how people cope with it, even if their ways of doing so are problematic, or indeed, part of the problem. And our narrator’s diversion is a dignified one, following in the footsteps of great artists—such dignity reminds one of the way the lonely maid in “A Rose for Emily,” keeps her pride somehow, but it goes even further, channeling raw human need towards gratitude and perhaps into artistic creation.
All the elements of the 60s “lonely crowd” song are present here: anonymity in the big city, isolating individualism, and particular persons, like our narrator or Eleanor Rigby, who seem forgotten by society. But the difference with this song is that the songwriting observer of the lonely actually steps into their experience. Davies says he enjoyed sitting at busy places like Waterloo Station to observe people. Perhaps he could tell how lonely some people were as he observed them; perhaps he even saw a person like our narrator peering out of a window. But Davies did not, as Lennon/McCartney did, assume hopeless things about such persons. He rather tried to imagine how he would feel as such a person, were he gazing upon modernity’s swarming crowds. Thus, he also explored how he, not himself a shut-in, nonetheless did really feel to some extent the things he imagined the shut-in would. And that allows, I think, this song to speak for all of us, to the extent we have ever felt despair about connecting with others, about making and keeping friends, and have whispered to ourselves: I don’t really need them.
Davies’ song has thus partially preserved the personally involved perspective Brian Wilson brought to “That’s Not Me,” while retaining the sociological perspective necessary for the big picture. “Waterloo Sunset” is thus simultaneously about particular lives of others, his own life, and our common modern life. We can see (shades of the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle) that couple-love is not the answer to the problem of modern loneliness, for Terry and Julie apparently use such love to delude themselves into thinking they do not need friends, and we can see that even the very beauty-appreciation the song itself cultivates cannot quite be the answer, for we see how our narrator has made himself all-too-dependent upon it. Maybe an E.M. Forster is correct to advise us all, in modern times more than ever, to “only connect.” Maybe Tocqueville and the Porchers are right to play up the societal cultivation of genuine liberty, to revive a sense of community and the communal practices of ruling and being ruled in turn. Or maybe it’s Pascal we need most of all, who reminds us that when the sun goes down, when the painting is finished or the music’s over, when the battle’s won or the meeting’s concluded, and when the friends have left, and nothing petty nor momentous can divert us any longer, we are left alone in a room, aware of our unhappiness, aware of our impending death, and needing to become aware that only Jesus can bring us to the only real paradise that we really were made for. “Waterloo Sunset” provides no opinion about these maybes, and makes no allusions to these thinkers, but it seems to me commendably honest about the situation we’re in. Unlike an “Eleanor Rigby” or a “Sounds of Silence,” it contains not a whiff of a suggestion that there just has to be some sociological/political/psychological solution to the problem, because otherwise we are utterly lost. It does not present us with the typical 60s Rock choice of either utopianism, or despair.
It knows that we shouldn’t be shut-ins, that is, extreme manifestations of “individualism” in the Tocquevillian sense, and why we might be tempted, in modern times particularly, to nonetheless become such lonely individualists. The song’s power, however, is that it can present such human misery while simultaneously embodying the ineradicable and linked element of human greatness. For there is not another creature on earth that can appreciate sunsets, or songs, as we can.