| Ray Davies: A Chat
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That's about all you need to know, really. Here, clearly, were the prime ingredients in a recipe for self destruction. And sure enough, even as they sent a string of hits into the English top ten, The Kinks were coming apart at the seams, establishing themselves as their own worst enemy and probably the most combustible band of the 1960s, if not all time. Verbal and physical confrontations with each other, with their managers, with concert promoters, with disc jockeys-were as much a staple of the band's repertoire as All Day and All of the Night and Tired of Waiting for You. No wonder Ray Davies and company were written off almost from the start.
And yet, 32 years and a lot personnel changes later, The Kinks still haven't flamed out. Even more remarkably, the Davies brothers seem to be aging with remarkable grace, particularly when compared with many other members of the pop world's ever-growing 40-plus set. A new double CD of 29 mostly live tracks, To The Bone, includes some truly remarkable reworkings of both familiar and unfamiliar selections from the band's vast catalogue.
As for 52-year-old frontman Ray Davies, his latest self-reinvention has come in the form of a small solo show that evolved out of the publication of his book X-Ray: The Unauthorized Autobiography in 1994. Giving readings in small bookshops, Davies found he liked these intimate venues, and crafted a mix of old hits, new songs, and spoken remembrances into a performance he originally titled 20th Century Man, and currently calls simply Storyteller, that's now playing halls and theaters across America.
And for a guy whose creative output has been almost singularly shaped by his own considerable fear and self-loathing, Davies sounds rather well-adjusted about the way things have turned out. Critical response has been warm, and Davies seems almost relieved to be holding center stage in smaller, quieter venues. The whole thing with touring in the conventional sense, he said by phone from Boston on a recent afternoon, is to cram as many people as possible into one place in one day, and then get out of there.
But this show is a building process. The first night you always get, you know, the fans. Then after that, when we're doing a run somewhere, you get people who aren't so familiar with you, and new people who are just curious. And then reviews come out and we get the people who've heard about the show. And for Davies, that search for new listeners, a different audience, is still paramount. The Kinks, for example, couldn't have played Stockbridge in Mass. I did that last week and that was amazing. I loved that. It was more of a theater audience. We had people who had probably hardly ever heard of The Kinks.
I look forward to playing out in the Midwest, he continues, where people wouldn't normally come to this sort of show. Get into the little nooks and crannies, rather than just go for the places that've got the big ice rinks. Despite all this, Storyteller is less a distancing from what The Kinks achieved than a full-on embrace of it. As in X-Ray, the primary subject matter is the band's 1960s incarnation-and near-incineration. And why not? The band was at ground zero of the total remaking of pop music. To quote from critic Jon Savage (whose 1984 The Kinks: The Official Biography reproduces the NME piece cited above), The Kinks and a handful of other British bands in the mid-1960s took the coded sexual and social assertiveness of black R&B and invested it with a white neuroticism and a superhuman drive, replacing the often subtle rhythms of the originals with monolithic blocks of sound.
To The Bone, which also relies much more on highlights from the band's original heyday than its Low Budget-Paranoia- Come Dancing resurrection in the late 1970s and early 1980s, makes for an interesting counterpoint to Storyteller. About half the tunes here are from a 1994 unplugged set for friends and fans at the band's Konk studios in North London. Most of the others are highlights from what were in all likelihood the band's final tours through the arena circuit.
The Konk set, frankly, is much more interesting. (Did we need another version of a big crowd singing along with Lola? I don't think so.) It's impossible to listen to these clean, tight renditions of unheralded tunes like Apeman, The Village Green Preservation Society, Muswell Hillbillies, See My Friends, and Do You Remember Walter? and not be speechless at Davies' songwriting skills and how little recognition he's ever gotten for them. And of the two new studio offerings, the title track and Animal, the latter makes a convincing case that he still hasn't lost his touch.
Davies is too proud to be openly bitter-thus X-Ray's caustic and at times monomaniacal sentiments are somewhat blurred by its narrative structure, a faux interview between a young journalist with a bitter old man called R.D. But he's still ambitious enough to recognize the power of his own past. Between concerts, he's working up a new musical project spun out of Come Dancing, and a more conventionally anecdotal follow-up to X-Ray.
I don't want to think that I'm a writer, he says of the next book. That's the biggest mistake anyone could ever make. 'Cos I'm not trained to do that. Who is? So I'm trying to let that personality come through that people recognize as me, rather than just write a story.
Meanwhile, the discovery of prose has changed the reading habits of the famously literate Davies, whose current plane book is The Butcher Boy by Irish novelist Patrick McCabe. I'm interested to know how different people approach it, he says of the craft of writing. Like this guy, he sets up characters longer than other people. Other writers come straight in at it. You know, like Elmore Leonard or somebody. Come straight in with an action and the characters just kind of gel with it. I think a lot of my things are character driven.
All of this should not be taken to mean, Davies reassures, that To The Bone is a Kinks swan song. He's continued to say that the band will continue to record together as long as it's not torture, and that future one-shot arena shows (like its performance at last year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction) remain a possibility. And as for the band's reaction to Storyteller, Davies says this: I think it's generally, 'Oh well, he's doing it. As long as it's going well, we don't mind'. And then he laughs. In other words, Ray still has his best friend to look out for. This is, after all, the guy who told NME back in '64 that his personal ambition was to be exceedingly successful and highly esteemed among my friends.
Exceedingly successful? Guess it depends how you measure it. Davies and The Kinks never imploded, by they never really exploded the way some of their contemporaries did. No surprise then, that X-Ray, currently out in paper, was published by something called The Overlook Press, and To The Bone was released on Guardian, a very un-major label. All to be expected from a band whose perpetual outsider status despite its having produced consistently strong work for three decades has by now taken on the quality of an epic, or at least a grand farce.
But then again, if it's true, as Ray remarks of The Kinks on To The Bone, that everybody's always expecting us to do wonderful things and we mess it all up, usually, then that's at least in part because the band clings to a certain integrity. And integrity has not been proven, shall we say, to be a key ingredient in the ongoing success of certain middle-aged pop artists. Thus Kiss shows up on the cover of Forbes, Mick Jagger necks with Uma Thurman at The Viper Room, and Pete Townshend (Hope I die before I win a T-T-Tony) leads The Who in a series of rehashings of Quadrophenia in arenas across America. Ah, well. No one needs to tell a Kinks fan that there's no justice in rock and roll.
• • • • •
This story appeared in the October 31, 1996 issue of New Times Los Angeles.
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