“If I could live over again I’d change every single thing I’ve ever done.” – Raymond Douglas Davies, Nov 1967
How do you write a Deist anthem? An affecting song about a non-interventionist, but still very real God? I know of only one example, and it is utterly brilliant: “Big Sky” by The Kinks, from their phenomenal Village Green Preservation Society record. That Ray Davies would choose it to be the centerpiece of his inspired 1968 collection of vignettes of English village life is, for some of us, proof of his genius.
In his excellent book-length treatment of VGPS, Andy Miller writes,
‘Big Sky’ is not a song about God, but about how human beings cope in a world where God is seemingly unconcerned at their plight. The Big Sky is not dead but preoccupied, benign but indifferent. For Ray Davies, this is cause for celebration, or at least consolation. The Big Sky is so big, our troubles are small in comparison – and these too shall pass. Freedom comes to everyone in the end, whether we want it or not.
In other words, the song is a vehicle of compassion for folks stuck in the ebb and flow of their daily lives and problems. A perspective-check, if you will. Davies’ character portraits, even at their most biting, are fundamentally empathetic – he gets inside people’s heads because he understands them, even if he doesn’t exonerate them. And as we all know, feeling understood is very close to feeling loved. In Davies’ world, people are united by their blindness; their weaknesses tell their stories, not their strengths. And the Big Sky is there, but not in the way the people think. Davies rejects the adolescent “sky bully” (J.Whedon) understanding of God – there’s nothing anthropomorphic about the Big Sky, which is ultimately a source of comfort. In fact, in terms of conceptualizing suffering, it’s half the battle, no?
Big Sky looks down on all the people looking up at the Big Sky.
Everybody pushing one another around
Big Sky feels sad when he sees the children scream and cry
But the Big Sky is too big to let it get him down.
When I feel that the world is too much for me
I think of the Big Sky, and nothing matters much to me.
While there may not be much Good News with such an impersonal God, at least we’re not dealing with a sadistic deity. Davies attributes suffering to “people pushing each other around,” not a universe out to get them. He doesn’t make the leap to a God that suffers with and for feckless men and women – a God that loves – which we all know is a no-fly zone for intelligent pop music, anyway. But in light of the Big Sky, the tales of Walter and Johnny Thunder and Annabella, the picture-takers and all those who want to retreat to their farms and riversides and village greens summon more than a little compassion, both for our fellow sufferers and our own self-inflicted traumas. Which, for a three-minute pop song, is no small feat.
As an addendum, Davies has always been very cagey about religion. Jesus is notable in The Kinks’ catalog mainly for his absence. But what little references exist are worth ferreting out, if only because the man has such a lazer-beam-like insight into the human condition (a rock-bottom anthropology in other words). Does he go beyond skepticism at any point? The answer is, not really. “God’s Children” is a nice tune but a little unconvincing in its judge-not sentiment. “Salvation Road” is fun but more of a device than a statement. “Black Messiah” is clever, but again, deals primarily with race rather than religion. The only place where I’ve found much substance along these lines is his first solo record, Other People’s Lives. Check out “Creatures of Little Faith,” for example. Of course even there, the jury is out about the object of faith. But hey, we wouldn’t want Davies to have another thing to regret…
We close with two of Ray’s all-time best from the same period, songs which, for me, expresses an almost Gospel-like sense of gratitude and peace, in about as touching a way as possible: