That is the question that Norman poses near the end of The Kinks Present A Soap Opera. And it is the crucial question of this whacky, lively, sad, and ultimately redemptive work, released in 1975, one of the Kinks’ series of flirtations with rock opera .
According to the entry for the album in Wikipedia, Soap Opera “tells the story of a musician named Starmaker who changes places with an ‘ordinary man’ named Norman in order to better understand life.” And that indeed is the way the story is generally understood. “I’m changing places with Norman / To get background for my songs” the Starmaker sings early on.
But I beg to differ.
The album tells the story in a mixture of songs, sound effects, and spoken words. There’s a wonderful recording of a live performance of the theatrical work on YouTube, unfortunately now broken up into YouTube-sized chunks of under ten minutes each, but it still allows you to get a feel for the crazy genius of the show. The Star arrives at “a suitably uninteresting house” and assumes the role of Norman, and goes to the office for a nine-to-five shift the next day. He has drinks after work, has a fantasy about an affair at the seaside, and comes home to a dinner of shepherds pie.
The shepherds pie is the last straw, and the Star cracks. There follows a bit that falls between “You Make It All Worthwhile” (the dinner song) and the glorious “Ducks on a Wall” (the symbol of all that’s boring, normal, and Norman). But this key plot element doesn’t appear on the record, and it’s not in the televised version. In fact, the live performance doesn’t have “Ducks on a Wall,” which is a shame in itself. But I’m getting off the point. Here’s what happens after dinner. It’s the key to the whole story, but it only appears in the printed liner notes of the album.
After dinner Norman becomes depressed.
STAR: Norman’s office got on my nerves today.
WIFE: What do you mean? You are Norman!
STAR: (Shouts) I am a star!
WIFE: You’re not a star Norman. You’re just a plain ordinary little bloke and even if you walked down the street in a silver suit people still wouldn’t recognize you. You’re dull, ordinary and uninteresting! You’re a drag!
Star rises from his chair and smashes the dinner plate to the floor.
STAR: I hate this house and I hate you, but more than anything I hate those ducks!
WIFE: Don’t you touch those ducks Norman! They were a present from my mother. Look, Norman, I’ve had enough of you and your ridiculous fantasies. First of all you wanted to be a painter, then you wanted to be an astronaut, then a footballer and now you’re playing at being a rock singer. If you touch those ducks I’m leaving!
So there is no Star; there’s just Norman, his daydreams and fantasies; and the Star is just the latest in a long line.
Norman’s final soliloquy follows, where he asks “am I just a face in the crowd?” And the answer is yes.
I’ve gotta start facing up to what I really am
I’ve got to realize l’m just an ordinary man
I think that I’ll just settle down
And take my place in the crowd
I don’t want to lie to myself any more
I think every one of us goes through this moment in Norman’s life in our own lives. In fact, I think we all go through it over and over again, because the belief that “I” am somehow special, unlike anyone else in the world, maybe even better than most, is probably inextricably bound up in our self-consciousness, and is the hardest belief of all to surrender.
What ties me to this album (apart from the fact that it’s great rock n roll imbued with the Kinks’ infallible wit and intelligence) is the fact that I was playing it all the time in my late twenties. That was mostly because I was bingeing on the Kinks in those days (see the previous posts).
But this was also the time in my life when I think I first came to that realization that I wasn’t the most amazing success story the world had ever seen. That in fact I was capable of failure, that I wasn’t as good as I’d always thought I was, or even as good as many of the people around me.
I’d been in graduate school for six years at this point in my life, pursuing a Ph.D. with the dream of becoming a professor of comparative literature and literary theory. And I came to understand that I wasn’t going to make it. The people I saw succeeding at what I was trying to do were a lot smarter than I was, and they were willing to work a lot harder and devote more of their life’s hours to the pursuit of that risky dream.
And I realized that I was happier with a mundane job at the university library. I dropped out of school, said goodbye to the dream of being a teacher that I’d carried for at least two decades, and settled into a nine-to-five job of my own. It was a relief to do it, but it hurt too, more deeply that I was willing to admit. Until I listened to Soap Opera one more time and made the connection. I’m just an ordinary man.
And so Norman decides to stop living out his fantasy of being a rock star and accept reality. This is the end for Norman but not for us because there will always be someone ready to take his place — after all, everybody’s a star!
God bless the Kinks, as they say. There are a million reasons to do so, but the way that Ray Davies was tying up the loose ends of his albums in the mid 70s is certainly high on my list. Soap Opera ends with a rousing, Shakespearean wedding-ceremony-to-end-the-comedy-tune (think As You Like It) that’s introduced by the commentary above. “You Can’t Stop the Music” implores us to raise a glass to the common man; it’s a bit like the Stones ending Beggars Banquet with their paean to “The Salt of the Earth.” But Davies’ sincerity comes through so clearly that you know this isn’t a construct, a social agenda, or politics as usual. The Kinks somehow always manage to be deeply personal and honest, even when they’re up to the necks in irony (which is not at all the case here).
Let’s all raise a glass
To the rock stars of the past,
Those that made it,
Those that faded,
Those that never even made the grade,
Those that we thought would never last.
Is Ray talking to himself? Or to me? Both of us, of course. That’s what makes him a great artist.