Ironing out some Kinks
A near-death experience prompted Ray Davies to write a revealing account of his time in the US with his underappreciated group
The Kinks, from left, Dave Davies, Ray Davies, Peter Quaife and Mick Avory in 1968. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
On January 4th, 2004, Ray Davies was shot in New Orleans. This was his John Lennon moment. Instead of a crazed fan, the assailant was an opportunist purse-snatcher. Or was he? This is just one of the questions that vexes Davies as he lies in a bed at Charity Hospital, pondering his fate, while doctors and nurses discuss his disconcertingly slow heartbeat. His mind commutes back to his childhood and forward through his rock-star years as he contemplates his ambivalent attitude towards the United States.
Like most “war babies”, Davies was entranced by American culture. His sister Rene married a GI and emigrated to Canada, regularly sending over the latest Elvis Presley records before they were released in Britain. Davies immersed himself in rock’n’roll, R&B and American musicals and movies long before he formed The Kinks. That group helped spearhead the “British invasion”, registering US hits including You Really Got Me, All Day and All of the Night and Tired of Waiting for You.
Their career was mysteriously derailed after a disastrous US tour in 1965, when they fell foul of the American Federation of Musicians. Four years would pass before they returned to the States, a lifetime in the 1960s pop world. There was no “official ban” but something closer to a universal blacklisting. It was almost Kafkaesque.
Great ‘forgotten band’
The Kinks became the great “forgotten band” in the US, suddenly reduced to the level of an obscure cult outfit. Amazingly, even their finest and most commercial work was ignored; tellingly, Waterloo Sunset failed to reach the US Top 100.
The United States’ abandonment encouraged Davies to concentrate on more parochial themes, notably an exploration of English sensibility expressed in songs such as Autumn Almanac, Days and Shangri-la and the celebrated albums The Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur.
By the time the mysterious “ban” was lifted, The Kinks discovered a new US, a rock machine that demanded endless touring and promised rich rewards. At first they attempted to promote Davies’s arcane rock operas – from Muswell Hillbillies and Preservation to Schoolboys in Disgrace – but eventually found success by reinventing themselves as a hard-rock stadium band with albums like Sleepwalker, Low Budget and Give the People What they Want.
Although Americana offers Davies the chance to revisit Kinks history, he is sparing in his reminiscences. Having already written X-Ray, an “unauthorised autobiography” from 1994, he rightly prefers to present The Kinks in flashback, offering snapshots of the past rather than lengthy meditations.
It works, too. This is no tired rock story but something far more profound, funny and disturbing. The reader’s attention is focused on Davies during his time in New Orleans, a defining spell when he confronts his mortality and attempts to mine the source of his musical influences and creativity. Many previously unseen song lyrics and notebook entries illuminate the text, like coded commentaries on his psychological state.
As a storyteller Davies is arch, allusive and evasive. Funnily enough, it’s his memories of subsidiary characters that prove most engaging. Bit players such as Ken Jones, a roadie, Barbara Bothwell, an assistant, and Tony Gibbins, a minder,draw more attention than Davies’s fellow Kinks. Even his relationship with his brother Dave (arguably the most notorious tale of sibling rivalry in pop history) is understated here.
The greater focus is on Ray’s inner world, a fertile area for any amateur psychologist. He could write forever about his work and its significance, but his complicated personal life is presented almost allegorically. Composite characters such as Rory (the woman with whom he first visited New Orleans) and the benevolent club owner JJ fit in wonderfully well amid the spooky landscape. There is even a guardian angel in the form of Travis Davis, an alter ego who serves as a spiritual guide of sorts. These semi-imaginary creations weave in and out of the story, alongside such “real” people as Bob Tannen and Jeanne Nathan, who look after the singer during his worst hour.
What’s missing? Given the American angle, there’s frustratingly little about his time living as a New Yorker on the Upper West Side with his second wife, Yvonne. With revisionism worthy of Stalin, her name is excised from the text. There is similar reticence elsewhere. The imprint page includes, in very small print, the defensive caveat that “the names and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect their privacy, dialogue has been reconstructed to the best of the author’s recollection, and some time frames have been compressed”. This is not so much a legal requirement as a testament to Davies’s need to direct his own life story.
By far the best writing in the book occurs when the songwriter opens his heart to reveal his foibles and private feelings. There are several moving references to his continuing relationship with his fourth daughter, Eva, the offspring of his marriage to the Cork dancer Patricia Crosbie, a scion of the owners of the Examiner; they lived in Kinsale for a time. After the breakup, Davies returned to England. Eva continued to visit him in Surrey, where he put on an exaggerated London accent, as if claiming part of his daughter’s psyche on Britain’s behalf. In one of book’s funnier moments, his former wife complains that Eva has returned home with a cockney accent. Somehow, even this tale fits into Davies’s more serious observations on the nature of identity, a motif which is ever present in the text.
This book is a fascinating account of Davies’s American experience and an intriguing insight into the creative inner workings of one of popular music’s most talented songwriters and mercurial characters. Rather cleverly, the ending leaves the door open for another volume in which he might choose to examine his personal relationships with equal vividness.
Johnny Rogan wrote The Kinks: The Sound and The Fury