What most of Lou Reed's characters have in common is their extremity; if they carry with them the stuff of human essences, these essences are demonstrated in extreme circumstances. Extremity was much in evidence in 1967- the counterculture was becoming massive, the Vietnam War raised the stakes of generation vs. generation all through the West, and the feeling in the air suggested revolution in almost every major American and English metropolis. The Beatles, Stones, and Doors responded directly; Lou Reed went "left of center" by writing about deviance and transgression; but, among the major rock songwriters, the most notable outright rebellion was enacted by Ray Davies of the Kinks. His major achievement of 1967, the single "Waterloo Sunset" (which reached #2 in England but barely charted in the U.S.), is a portrait not of countercultural or marginal solidarity but of absolute populist normalcy. It's a song about a poor old man nearing the end of his life. He lives in a poor section of London and watches average people from his window. It's voyeurism, but not the deviant voyeurism found in Lou Reed's characters- it's the harmless voyeurism of the kind of quotidian figure that most rock fans found (and still find) banal. What's remarkable about Davies' song is that he finds a way to make the old man not only not banal but lovable- he's a sympathetic figure, even in his loneliness. His emotional life is dictated by his solitude, but the imaginative vista opened by watching people from his window allows him to transcend his loneliness. What Davies accomplishes in this song is no less than a complete realization of the task William Wordsworth set himself in the early nineteenth century- to take simple lives and make them interesting by tracing in them the timeless, profound laws that bind the entire human race together. As such, "Waterloo Sunset" has a greater claim to timelessness than anything else in rock that was released in '67, and perhaps for all time. It is an almost perfect work of art.
What's most perfect about "Waterloo Sunset" is the complete economy with which Ray Davies paints his portrait. Details tumble out about the figure in the song in such a way that we can see him and his abode clearly- it overlooks the dirty Thames, and the Waterloo tube station, and the old man has weak enough sight that taxi lights hurt his eyes. What winds up being most interesting about the old man is that we can see in him the basic nature of the artist, the visionary- he makes up the story in his head of "Terry meeting Julie" at Waterloo Station, and is diligent enough to see the same people meeting at the same tube station every Friday night. In his own consciousness, the figures he has created ("Terry and Julie") triumph over the filthiness and overcrowded quality of Waterloo Station by "crossing the river," a solitary couple who have no need to join any herd. That, in a certain sense, is where the fun starts for active listeners, because the lyrics of "Waterloo Sunset" are deceptively simple. "Terry and Julie" cross over the river of loneliness, which the old man cannot; but because he joins them in his mind, he feels satisfied with himself, "safe and sound" in his realization that through his imagination he is not completely alone. In a manner of speaking, he dissolves into them. The literary conventional term "Negative Capability" (a creation of John Keats') has to do with this- the ability to dissolve one's self into something else completely. Davies' protagonist does this instinctively, and there's nothing in the song to suggest that he is actually an artist of any kind. If he is, as he says, "in paradise" watching the sun set over a London slum, it's because the sunset (which works metaphorically, too; it's the sunset of his own life) hasn't extinguished either his ability to feel or his ability to imagine. The pathos in "Waterloo Sunset" is balanced with joy.
"Waterloo Sunset" works not only for what is included in it, but for what is left out. Ray Davies, more than the other rock songwriters, had the notion that what the counterculture never took mind of was the process of aging. The Sixties idiomatic expression "never trust anyone over thirty" could only work for so long; eventually, no matter what ideals young people ascribed to, they would have to grow old and die just like everyone else. How many of the Terrys and Julies knew they would eventually wind up like the old man in "Waterloo Sunset"? But the charm of the old man in the song is that he doesn't seem to care; he knows the frailty of human bonds, but is too wise to judge the young for doing what comes naturally for them. And the intimacy that is sexy in Lou Reed could be taken as pathetic here; after all, Terry and Julie don't realize they are being watched and perhaps fantasized about. But, if we wind up respecting Davies' old man, it's because he doesn't impose himself on the two lovers, other than to affirm them. They, too, may be too old to love at some point. "Waterloo Sunset" dares to critique the counterculture by implying that it will end the same for individuals no matter what young collectives believe they can accomplish. "A Day in the Life" offers a probable death or suicide; "Waterloo Sunset" offers acceptance and quiet resignation.
What makes "Waterloo Sunset" so interesting, forty-five years later, is that so few rock songwriters since have addressed the process of aging in a mature way. Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan have all tried; if Ray Davies' first attempt is still the best portrait of aging as a process in the rock canon, it's because these other songwriters' attempts lack imagination. Musically, "Waterloo Sunset" is compact, compressed, and as catchy as any Beatles' song; it actually songs melodically influenced by Paul McCartney. If it sounds modest, next to the other centerpiece songs we have been discussing ("Heroin," "A Day in the Life," "2000 Light Years from Home," "When the Music's Over"), it's because Ray Davies' ambition was of a more subtle nature than the other songs. Ray Davies has always been very stubborn about doing things against fads and trends; the Kinks have few songs from this era longer than three or four minutes, and most of their Sixties records sound cheaply recorded and produced. For Davies, the song was always the thing, and the songs needed to speak for themselves. It's the inverse of the Sgt. Pepper "kitchen sink" approach; as bare-bones and lean as a hit single (in England, at least) could be. "Waterloo Sunset" is also evidence of the astonishing progress in maturity rock music had made in two or three years; whether it's matured past "Waterloo Sunset" in the intervening years is another issue.