It was the late 1980s, and I was adrift. I was an undergrad at San Francisco State, and after a torturous breakup and indecision about my major, in a moment of clarity that occurs just a few times over the course of a life, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and that was write novels.
Music never sounds better than when you're 19, and with "Waterloo Sunset," I can remember listening to it while looking down on California from an airplane window. It was the song I played when I returned home to my apartment on the night of the earthquake that knocked over my bookshelves made from cinder blocks and boards. It was a song I played on a Sunday afternoon in October 1988 when I was deciding what to do to give my life direction. I have no idea why music makes me want to write novels — rather than, say, play in a band — but I'm glad it does. And "Waterloo Sunset" is my writing's emotional prototype, its first cause.
Like chocolate, "Waterloo Sunset" has a calming effect. It's the feeling of being in love, though with no one in particular. It's a rare love song that's about other people. Its sense of loss is impossible to separate from its lift.
"Waterloo Sunset" is a song about public transportation — not your typical rock 'n' roll motif (which is funny since The Kinks often get credit for inventing hard rock). The song hardly even feels like rock. It lacks that testosterone bloom characteristic of other male bands from the 1960s and sounds like a song from a bygone era that could have been a hit for someone like Nat King Cole, although no one quite compares to Ray Davies in my mind. "Waterloo Sunset" has the most sincere and haunting background vocals of any song I have ever heard. It can make you believe in angels because they are singing on the record.
While I was in college in San Francisco, I lived by Ocean Beach at the end of the Judah streetcar line in a district called, coincidentally, the Outer Sunset. One Friday night, I chose to walk home from work rather than ride the streetcar. I passed by apartments and flats where people filled with the weekend spirit were getting home and cooking dinner. I stood on the sidewalk and watched a streetcar cut through the rolling fog, and it was an awesome sight. It was a "Waterloo Sunset" kind of night.
The scene also reminded me of Walt Whitman, another artist whose "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" revolves around the lives and spirits of public transportation commuters. (I haven't often heard The Kinks and Walt Whitman mentioned in the same breath, but there you go!)
I described that night in a short passage in my first novel, Jokerman 8, which I was still writing several years after moving from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon. On the surface, the piece is far more Walt Whitman than The Kinks, which is appropriate, as Whitman is more boisterous, and the charm of "Waterloo Sunset" radiates from its subtlety.
Just as the novel was undergoing its last round of proofreading before going to press, the copy editor sent an email in the middle of the night asking what the short "Spinning Walt Whitman" chapter was about and whether it should be cut from the book. Groggy, I replied that if she thought the book would be better without it, she should take it out.
When I first saw a finished copy of the novel at a mall bookshop in LA, the first thing I did was flip through the pages to see if the chapter was in the book or not. It was gone. It was a "Waterloo Sunset" moment all over again — an ecstatic feeling of holding the book in my hand for the first time tempered with the knowledge of what was missing. In a way, it was perfect, that one of the last-standing pieces from the time when I decided to become a novelist should not appear in my first novel. The copy editor made the right call. It shows an evolution. Yet, set free, the "Waterloo Sunset"–inspired piece has taken on a life of its own as a showcase during book readings and in online literary journals, and as hard as I am to please by my own writing, I like it — because when I read it, I can hear the soundtrack.
The Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset" is like a secret that you want to share far and wide, a song about not needing friends just as you realize how much you need friends, a song that taught this writer a thing or two about emotional connection and atmosphere and what it feels like to fall in love with other people's love.
Note: Richard Melo will be presenting his book at Powell's City of Books on Tuesday, June 25, at 7:30 p.m.
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Richard Melo has written for Publishers Weekly, the Oregonian, Willamette Week, and the Believer. A graduate of San Francisco State University, he lives in Portland, Oregon, where the world's rivers and oceans are always falling from the sky. Happy Talk is his second novel.
Books mentioned in this post
Richard Melo is the author of Happy Talk