pictures in the sand: ray davies gets it right

The hypnotic depth and resonance of a Waterloo Sunset is a confusion to a culture weaned on contemporary pop lard.  Woe is the day for us all that it gains it’s relevance as the backdrop for a fucking Jeep ad...”

 

by john richen

 

So let’s get this out there right off the bat:  Ray Davies is an iconoclast.  One of those rare birds who plays by his own rules, and still manages to maintain a name for himself in a business not known for it’s nurturing of artists bent on constructing personal legacies independent of larger commercial designs. The world of modern entertainment is chock full of sad caricatures – marionettes who will do anything for their 15 minutes of fame.  Davies is not one of them.

As the founding father of the Kinks, Ray and his brother David penned so many of the 60’s and 70’s most memorable tunes one would think that they would be spoken of in the same reverential tones that people reserve for that era’s composition cranking Einstein’s like McCartney and Lennon, Jagger and Richards.  The fact that they are not remains one of music’s crueler ironies and it is an enduring insult that so much of today’s generation registers its Kinks melodies as the background scores for numerous marketing campaigns on television.

Why the snub?  How is it remotely plausible that the Kinks could not generate even one of the 100 best British albums of all time in the UK music magazine Q?  How is it possible that when you listen to contemporary AOR you’re sure to hear a Beatles, Clapton and Stones tune almost hourly, but you almost never hear a Kinks composition?  “All Day All Of The Night,” “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” “Autumn Almanac,” “Waterloo Sunset,” “Lola,” “20th Century Man,” “Celluloid Heroes”– how is it that the masterminds behind these songs have seemingly slipped into the shadows of our contemporary musical consciousness?

There are no clear answers to this litany of omissions, but they trouble me. If you were to ask Ray I suspect he has his theories as to why the Kinks and their blue-collar, gender-bending Cockney vibe never quite hit on the level that the caliber of music seemed to indicate appropriate. But from the first moment I heard “Lola” crackling through the tinny metal speaker of our Volkswagen bus while riding somewhere through the red-hued Spanish countryside, I felt instantly and irrefutably that this was one of the great rock and roll voices singing one of the grittiest tunes ever written.  Even at a precocious 10 years old I had never encountered anything quite like it before, nor would any song hit me on quite such a visceral level again.  It wasn’t the words.  It was the sound of it.  The experience of it in that sublime terroir at that particular moment in time.  Such is the nature of enlightenment.  You don’t have such epiphanies often, but when they occur they tend to hold your attention.

What does seem clear from studying their well documented history is that the Kinks pissed a whole lot of folks off in their day. Important and influential folks. This coupled with an incredible pattern of mismanagement from the get go, the band were never able to leverage their rightful claim to the revered plateau inhabited by their fellow Brits from rocks lionized 60’s lineage.

Maybe it’s better that way.  Reverence is best saved for deities, and Ray would likely be the first to lambaste the notion that any mortal be elevated to a deity.  Maybe it’s proper that the Kinks, like another brilliant lot of snarling British non-conformists The Pretty Things, remain rock and roll elixirs dispensed only to those who search them out. Maybe that’s the ultimate triumph — their enduring cultish cool.  Kinks music is just too vital to have ever been seamlessly assimilated into the mainstream. Nor will it plug easily into any particular genre, and is therefore impossible to compartmentalize.  It’s edginess, intelligence and daring is demanding and sophisticated. The hypnotic depth of a “Waterloo Sunset” is a confusion to a culture weaned on contemporary pop lard.  Woe is the day for us all that it gains it’s primary relevance as the backdrop for a fucking Jeep ad.

There’s something to be said for a man who isn’t afraid to credit his ancestors and chums for helping shape the success that he has found. It is not an authentic trait among today’s pop culture elite, where the size of one’s ego is measured with truck scales rather than the on bathroom variety.

Ray Davies has been doing this “Storyteller” project now for a number of years, and for those who aren’t aware, it is a mix of music and word, where he is essentially on stage going it alone, with guitar player who helps texture the ambiance of the whole affair. It is based on his novel X-Ray, an autobiographical novel he published in 1994.

His recent performance at the Aladdin Theater in Portland was proof positive of a number of things. First, that he recognizes that the legacy of the Kinks is still important to a hell of a lot of people — Kinks fans familiar with the hard luck stories and anti-establishment shenanigans of the legendary act.  He performed an inspired show to a packed house, and as he pointed out in a touching moment towards the end of the affair, the Kinks are “still very important” to him as well.  Refreshing really. None of the pompous bullshit wherein the artist belittles the collaborative work of his past as a byproduct of his own “maturation and intellectual progression.”  Rather, Ray seemed to wear his past like the comfortable white sneakers anchoring him to the wooden stage. Reveling in it, recognizing it’s greatness and his own role in that greatness, and sharing that strength with people who feel what it is you’re proud of.  There’s no small vindication in sticking to your guns and still making a go of it after 40 years in the business.

Second, that the qualities that he deemed important a long time ago, are qualities he still holds dear. Ray’s philosophy and body of work has always reflected a push-back against conventional thinking, against superficiality and sameness, against the restraints of fashion, and scenes and the shallowness of cliques.  His show is partly about the importance of uniqueness and individuality, and partly a fond historical remembrance of the family of characters that helped to shape the individuals that were to become the Kinks. This combination of themes led to the set’s focal point, a song titled X-Ray, which is a journey of self-discovery.  A convoluted path leads a younger, more unfocused Ray to the revelation that our most elemental purpose is to recognize and honor the need to be an individual in a world that works against that ideal on every conceivable level. Understanding that moment in the show is understanding the history of the Kinks.  And in interpreting the torment of Ray Davies as he confronted that unalterable truth in his work, and in his life.

In light of this admission, Davies as modern minstrel manages to convey a sense of completeness, an aura of weary contentment in spite of bitter challenges posed by honoring such an internal code in a world rewarding complacency and sameness. Even in the face of these struggles, it’s worth it he tells us. Taking the easy path, caving in as it were, may seem convenient, but there’s a trade-off in that compromise that takes its toll on our souls.  And it’s not worth it.

As Ray constructs his tale of song, merriment and muse, it’s clear he recognizes the intrinsic value of his personal history — the family members, characters and friends that added color and vibrancy to what was to become the Kinks legacy. The foppish managers, Robert and Grenville. The slimy music biz creep, Larry. The ethereal queen of the one-night stand, Julie Finkel.  Most moving was to hear him speak with such warmth for his mother, and sisters.  With eloquent respect for his father (a Vaudevillian at heart with a taste for the Stout, and who like to sing and entertain his “chums” in the front room of their Muswell Hill Flat — “and what’s wrong with that?” Ray queried as he toasted his departed pop with a stout of his own).

But the surprise for most folks familiar with the infamous violent brotherly rumbles between the Brothers Davies, was the bemused affection saved up for his younger brother David.  Ray play-acted as if he held no respect for the younger sibling, looked at him as a meddlesome nuisance in the overall scheme of things.  But it’s a sham. I’m not buying in anymore. Acting? Perhaps.  But I doubt that one could fake the twinkles that reflected from Ray’s eyes when he spoke of his brother’s misadventures, whether it was poking holes with his mother knitting needles in a crappy green amplifier to get a rough sound, or pimping off his older sister (he was 9) for a gig at a local club.

It is astonishing that a man who suffered enormously from crimes wrought by unsavory managers and other music business filth; and who channeled the experience into some of the most articulate and bitter cultural indictments ever; could appear so comfortable in a time of such obvious international strife. A reflective perusal of Ray’s lyrics to “20th Century Man'” or “Apeman” will reveal one lost and heart-sore individual.

His show on this evening showed no signs of despair, and his leading us through Kinks classics like “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” (which had my young son shouting along at the tops of his lungs) “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” and “Lola,” mutated into a sort of bawdy therapy session — half beer-hall rave up, and half introspective examination.

In an instant I remembered seeing the lean and punkish version of the Kinks during their US heyday (1977).  I was struck, even then, by the way that, in spite of playing in giant concrete bowls, Ray was able to transcend a vast emptiness by leaning on abundant charisma and the enduring power of the Kinks formidable repertoire. His animated singing and rollicking cheer leading brought all 14,000 of us to our feet — Schoolboys In Disgrace’s hidden gem “National Health” had fans dancing in the aisles, on their chairs, and howling along with complete disregard for harmony, rhythm or lyrical accuracy. But it didn’t matter. A connection had been made, and the point was, we, each one of us, were a living, breathing, sweating part of the show’s considerable momentum.

In the smaller confines of the Aladdin on October 24th, Ray gripped the same reigns, only in a looser fashion. The biggest difference from the big productions of the late 70’s being that there were 13,000 less of the faithful to cheer along with the headmaster.  He brought that glowing energy from the front room of his long-ago Muswell Hill home that plays such an integral part of his tale this evening. The space that housed the family parties, the tipsy performances of the elder Davies, the determined practicing of Ray and Dave, and the little green amp. Here it was, all that warmth, and cheer and exuberance, landing squarely in the confines of this small, but suddenly warmer space.

Powerful medicine it was, happily singing along with Ray.  I must confess I can’t remember last time I broke into song at a show, or didn’t view the musical proceedings with some sort of clinical detachment. It seemed just like the old days, even if just for a couple of hours. In these strange and sad times we don’t seem to think much about the healing quality of honoring our innate creative forces. About respect for our own individuality. But it’s a message worth repeating over and over and over. Repetition. Meter. Cadence. Kind of like some of the biggest, baddest guitar licks ever to float from a tiny green speaker. Kind of like the words, “You Really Got Me….” repeated over and over.

It’s a mantra, I tell you. And Ray knew it all along:

Turn it up loud and repeat after Ray. You’ll feel better. Trust me on this one.

 

Originally published:
Issue Fifteen
November 2001

 

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