Messing up in public
In its September 11, 1964, issue, the British pop magazine New Musical Express featured an article on the Kinks underneath the headline "This week's chart-toppers." Each member of the band, which had just stepped into the limelight on the strength of its third single, "You Really Got Me," was asked, among other things, to name his best friend. Three members--singer-guitarist Ray Davies, his younger brother and the band's lead guitarist Dave Davies, and bassist Pete Quaife--chose "me." Drummer Mick Avory responded: "Money (in my pocket)."
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 10, the Kinks were coming apart at the seams, establishing themselves as their own worst enemies 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 of personnel changes later, the Kinks still haven't flamed out. Even more astonishingly, 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 extraordinary 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 throughout 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 small, quiet venues.
"The whole thing with touring in the conventional sense is to cram as many people as possible into one place in one day, and then get out of there," he says now. "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 have heard about the show."
For Davies, that search for new listeners--a different audience--is still paramount. The Kinks, for example, "couldn't have played Stockbridge in Massachusetts. 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, 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 have got the big ice rinks."
Despite all this, "Storyteller" is less a distancing from what the Kinks achieved than a full-on embracing 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 Kinks' original heyday than their 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 acoustic 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 such unheralded tunes as "Apeman," "The Village Green Preservation Society," "Muswell Hillbillies," "See My Friends," and "Do You Remember Walter?" and not be speechless when faced with Davies' biting, trenchant songwriting skills--and how little recognition he has ever gotten for them. And of the two new studio offerings, the title track and "Animal," the latter makes a convincing case that Davies still knows how to look back in angst.
Davies is too proud to be openly bitter; thus X-Ray's caustic and at times monomaniacal sentiments are somewhat blurred by the book's narrative structure, a faux interview between a young journalist, and a bitter old man called R.D. But Davies is 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," as well as a more conventionally anecdotal followup 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, 'cause 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 swansong. Davies has continued to say that the Kinks will continue to record together "as long as it's not torture," and that future one-shot arena shows (such as their 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: "I think it's generally, 'Oh, well, he's doing it. As long as it's going well, we don't mind.'" And then Davies 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, but they never really exploded the way some of their contemporaries did. It's no surprise then that X-Ray, currently out in paperback, was published by something called The Overlook Press, and To The Bone was released on Guardian, a very unmajor label. All of this is 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.
Then again, if it's true, as Ray on To The Bone remarks of the Kinks, 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-age 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 throughout America. Ah, well. No one needs to tell a Kinks fan that there's no justice in rock 'n' roll.
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