When I was a teenager I had a dream about Ray Davies. He was walking by himself along Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, where I lived at the time, and I went up and started speaking with him. It was one of those dreams that was both incredible and perfectly ordinary. Nobody sprouted wings and flew above the city. Nobody transformed into a monster or anything else. Instead, Davies was simply friendly and gracious. He invited me to join him at a coffeeshop, and he talked to me about songwriting, and about writing in general.
Walking up to Ray Davies and starting a conversation is nothing I ever would have done as a kid in real life -- even today, after having done hundreds, maybe even thousands, of interviews, I still find it hard to introduce myself to a musician I admire. Living in the Village when I was growing up, I used to see musicians on the street fairly often -- several times a week, for example, I would pass Frank Zappa on his way to rehearse at the Garrick Theater (which was also on Bleecker Street) as I walked home from high school. Apart from maybe nodding hello, I never said anything.
I can see now that the dream meant many different things, particularly about my desire to become a writer and my having no idea about how you were supposed to go about doing that. But it's significant that it's Ray Davies in the dream -- not Mick Jagger, not John Lennon, not even Pete Townshend. That's because even back in the Sixties when the Kinks could compete with the Beatles or the Stones on the charts -- and were far better known than the Who -- they still seemed approachable. They never seemed like gods, though I'm sure that many times they longed for the Olympian stature of their rock rivals.
These thoughts are occasioned by the release of This Is Where I Belong: The Songs of Ray Davies and the Kinks, an extremely appealing album on which artists like Fountains of Wayne, Steve Forbert, Jonathan Richman, Queens of the Stone Age, Fastball and Ron Sexsmith pay tribute to one of their heroes. But Davies is a hero who walks on the ground like the rest of us. He's sold millions of records and written many hit songs, but, like many of the artists on This Is Where I Belong, he's still a cult figure.
The album also brought to mind an interview I did with Davies in 1989 when the Kinks were about to release UK Jive. In typical Kinks fashion, the album died an immediate commercial death, and the interview never ran. In a way that's never happened before or since, I got a call shortly after the interview was done from Davies' publicist, who had been present when we spoke. It seems that Davies had gone back to his apartment and started crying after we'd finished. For the life of me, I had no idea why, but I was so spooked that I never listened to the tape again. Until now.
After thirteen years, the interview, which took place at an Italian restaurant on the upper West Side of Manhattan, seemed much as I had remembered. In another one-time-only event, Davies had handed me a "statement" he had written that he wanted me to read before we started talking. "It's quite personal," he told me. I turned the tape recorder off while I read it, and then we started in. He seemed far more vulnerable than almost any other artist I've ever spoken to, though he seemed perfectly able to joke about that aspect of himself. As he talked about how much the Kinks were fighting during the making of UK Jive -- what else is new? -- he lamented the role he had to play as peacemaker. "Hey, I'm an artist, too," he said, with a wistful smile. "I want to have some tantrums, and I wasn't allowed to have any."
But that was hardly the most charged subject he raised. In the mid-Eighties, he said, "a personal relationship broke up that left me a bit devastated." He was referring to Chrissie Hynde, with whom he had had a child. "I was left holding the baby," he said.
"I had management that thought I was finished," he continued. "I had a record company that thought we'd peaked. I had an ex-girlfriend that thought I would top myself. But they were wrong. They underestimated me. I think I've finally come through all that. Nobody treats me the way those people treated me and gets away with it. I may seem to be a sensitive guy -- and I am a very sensitive guy -- but I believe everybody gets theirs eventually, one way or another."
He also described the Kinks original drummer, Mick Avery, leaving the band. "That's also when Mick left," he said of that period in the mid-Eighties. "My brother made me fire him. Mick and I went out to a pub in the country where they sell really strong cider, and we got drunk. Mick had been banned from driving, so we went on bicycles to this pub in the middle of nowhere. He said that he'd had enough. He couldn't stand the fights."
Avery then helped to run the Kinks' studio, Konk. "I often wonder about him when we're rehearsing in the main studio, and if you're upstairs you can hear the band playing," Davies said. "I wonder what he thinks about. Unfortunately, the last gig Mick played with us was not happy, because of what I was going through with Chris. Mick was always my touchstone. We shared a room together, and we confided in each other a lot." He paused for a moment. "I just hope Mick doesn't drift into ordinariness."
As for the Kinks themselves, Davies described them, in a masterpiece of understatement, as "underrated." He explained further. "Because of the way we are, we do not capitalize when good things are happening," he said. "Our timing is pretty bad. We were unlucky. We were considered the third stringers of the British Invasion -- the Beatles, the Stones and the Kinks . . . I have no explanations and no solutions for how my career has gone."
Still, Davies was about to return to England "to see if I've got a band, because I want to play. I don't know what condition they're going to be in." He hoped that the Kinks would soon be "out there touring." The old competitive instincts inevitably began to emerge, as well. "With the old Stones out there, you don't want to go out and look like a clown, because they're going to be great," he said, referring to the fact that the Rolling Stones were about to do their first tour in eight years. "It's going to be wonderful to see the old boys out there again. They've gotten better as they've gotten older. But whatever they are, they'll be playing Shea Stadium, and we'll be lucky to sell out Radio City Music Hall."
I certainly don't mean to make Davies out to be a pathetic case. He's gone on to do an array of varied projects since them, and the man is one of the giants of rock & roll. "I've got big ambitions for a little guy," he said, and he's realized many of them. Nor was he always the world's gentlest person. I interviewed him one more time in 1995 when he was doing his Storyteller tour, which inspired the series on VH1. During that interview he was remote, detached, aloof and rock star-ish. Of course, in true Kinks fashion, that interview never ran either.
But Davies has always allowed himself to be seen, faults and all, by his fans and everyone else, and that humanity is why he and the Kinks have inspired such devotion. As we were talking in the restaurant that day, I kept flashing back to my dream. Suddenly, a woman walked over to Davies, and said, "Aren't you in the Kinks? Are you Ray Davies? I can't believe it."
Davies laughed, his eyes twinkled, and he said, "Neither can I."
And, all these years later, I can't either.