Dave Davies – Kinks guitarist, solo artist, founding father of punk rock – breezes through the door of a Manhattan diner looking every bit like the British rock royalty he is. Wearing a black floppy hat and bright pink neckerchief, he offers a firm handshake and a bright smile. You’d never guess that just nine years ago, after a massive stroke, it seemed like he would never play guitar again.
Earlier this year, Davies played a series of low-profile club shows in America in support of his new album, I Will Be Me. They marked his first onstage appearances since the stroke, and they went so well he booked another tour in November. He’s also recording music with his sons and plotting a musical as well as a biopic about the Kinks. And he’s talking about the possibility of a Kinks reunion.
This is the happiest he’s been since the stroke, and the main reason for that is trailing right behind him with a camera in hand. She’s a 44-year-old freelance writer named Rebecca Wilson he hired to write liner notes for his new album. They’ve been dating for a year or two (Dave can’t quite remember), and he’s absolutely infatuated with her. She’s equal parts publicist, assistant and girlfriend, occasionally coming over to bring him tea, brush the hair off his forehead, give him permission to answer a delicate question or simply adjust the neckerchief.
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The only dark spot on his life (beyond the fact that his finances are “pretty shit”) is his relationship with his brother and bandmate Ray. Their battles over the past 50 years are the stuff of rock legend. Dave has accused Ray of manipulating behavior and denying Dave songwriting credit on the hit “Lola” and many other Kinks classics. But after Dave’s stroke Ray came around to visit more than he had in years. “I know this sounds a bit mean,” he says. “But I think he secretly enjoyed seeing me completely incapacitated.”
Months after the stroke, Ray told the British press that he was teaching Dave how to play guitar again. Dave roars with laugher when reminded of this. “Oh God!” he says. “My cat was more helpful in teaching me guitar. It loved me. It didn’t try to dominate me. It nurtured me.”
Next year is the Kinks’ 50th anniversary, and there’s talk of celebrating with their first tour since they split in 1996. Ray and Dave met up in England three times this summer to talk it over. “The first two meetings were great,” says Dave. “We talked about the old days and maybe doing something next year. I thought to myself, ‘Oh shit, maybe we could actually do something before we fall down dead.’ It was very positive.”
Dave hesitates before carrying on with the story, and he turns to Rebecca over at the next table. “Should I be honest?” he asks. She nods her head and Dave, reluctantly, continues. “We had tea right before I came over to America, and he was so negative, grumpy and just mean. It was like he fell into a black hole. He didn’t want me to come back to America. I think it’s because I’m happy and I was doing something without his approval. I feel like he was miserable because I was happy. He’s a really troubled man.”
Rebecca has her own theory: “To Ray, I’m Yoko Ono.”
There was a period of time when comparing Ray and Dave to John Lennon and Paul McCartney didn’t seem the least bit absurd. The Kinks’ 1965 singles “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night” were monster global hits, and when they came to America they were greeted by masses of shrieking girls. Kinksmania continued in England through the rest of the decade, but everything in America came to a complete stop when they were banned from playing the country for over three years in the late Sixties.
To this day, Dave still isn’t sure what happened. “We were so green, and our management was green, too,” he says. “We were rough and rebellious and we didn’t realize the power of the unions. Management may have rubbed them the wrong way. Also, the name ‘Kinks’ was connected to perversion and weird people. We didn’t have a lot going for us.”
While they were stranded in England, Kinks-inspired bands such as the Who relentlessly toured America and became megastars. “We missed things like Woodstock,” Dave says. “Jimi Hendrix, the Who . . . we were away from all of that. It took us more inward, thinking about our family and culture. It gave us a different lens to look through.”
The Kinks’ music at this time was highly idiosyncratic, very ahead of its time and, for lack of a better term, extremely British. Their 1967 masterpiece “Waterloo Sunset” hit Number Two in England but didn’t even ding the Hot 100 in America. (The fact that roughly 99.99 percent of Americans couldn’t find the Waterloo district of London on a map couldn’t have helped matters.) “A lot of our music came out of a lot of weird psychology and weird emotions,” says Dave. “When you play the whole body of work, you get tossed all over the place. It’s not easy listening. It’s not even comfortable to listen to. It was meant to evoke uncertainty and insecurity. Upset, sadness, madness, happiness. That’s what life is!”
Things turned around in 1970 with the release of “Lola,” an unlikely hit about a young man who falls in love with a transvestite. The group finally got permission to play America, and the audiences were huge, but Dave was miserable. “That was a horrible period,” he says. “Everybody was so into drugs. I went through some awful pschyodramas, nervous breakdowns. I finally met this guru and told him I wanted to quit music and become a full-time spiritual healer. He just laughed and said, ‘What do you think you’re doing? You’re playing to thousands of people a night. That’s the perfect platform for you.'”
After a slight downturn in the late Seventies, the group become popular yet again in the early Eighties with “Come Dancing” and other unapologetically pop tunes that were embraced by MTV. “We started playing stadiums,” says Dave. “But I just got this sinking feeling in the back of the limos. The whole thing made me feel really sick. It’s a terrible thing to say, because I should feel grateful for making money and doing well, but something about it was very unnatural.”
They broke up in 1996 after a decade of playing to increasingly smaller crowds and releasing widely ignored records. “We’ve always had our hardcore fans,” says Dave. “But the general public has a love-hate thing about the Kinks. It always leaves people with a question mark on their heads. Also, a lot of American rock bands like Boston and Van Halen were very formalized. A pattern emerged. There was a lot of technique and not much heart. All of our records were very different from one another. I love that feeling of uncertainty, but it doesn’t lead to big record sales. All good art to me is uncertainty.”
On his own, Dave was suddenly a club act, and his solo albums never reached any audience but the most devoted Kinks obsessives. Then everything changed on June 30th, 2004. He was walking out of a BBC building on the West Side of London when the stroke hit.
“I’d just finished a bunch of interviews and I started to feel a bit woozy,” he says. “I got outside and just collapsed on the pavement. Somehow, I didn’t lose consciousness. It was actually a fascinating experience.”
In the early days after the stroke, Dave couldn’t even get out of bed, let alone play guitar. “My son brought a guitar and I kept it under my bed,” he says. “I touched the strings and even smelled the guitar. All those things aid in the recovery of muscle memory.” With the help of a physical trainer, he learned how to walk again. The guitar skills took much longer to return. “There were moments of real doubt where I thought I’d never play again,” he says. “Luckily, my left hand was all right. That’s the one I move down the fret board, so it just came down to my right hand doing the rhythmic thing.”
Dave regained his guitar abilities just a few years after the stroke, but it took him a lot longer to find his confidence. Comeback concerts were announced and then abruptly canceled without explanation. “I was too insecure,” he says. “I felt that I might let people down, that it might not be the same. As the shows got closer, my blood pressure went up. I just couldn’t do it. My doctor told me to cancel the shows.”
Eventually, he decided to record an album before hitting the road. He started the project by going way back to the beginning of his career. “It begins with me playing the ‘You Really Got Me’ riff backwards,” Dave says. “I thought that would be funny.” The album features guest appearances from the Jayhawks, Anti-Flag, Ty Segall and Chris Spedding. “I suppose it’s kind of a conceptual album,” he says. “It’s about this guy a little like me who is disillusioned with his life, and every time he gets upset he wanders back to the past.”
Now that his solo shows were successful, promoters are salivating over the idea of a Kinks 50th anniversary tour. “I’d say the odds of that happening are 50/50,” says Dave. “The ball is very much in Ray’s court. We used to play tennis, and when I was beating him he’d always develop a strategy. Basically, when I was winning he’d be like, ‘Oh, I hurt my back!’ I’d sort of back off, and then he’d get aggressive again. Then I’d get real angry. He’d smile, and it was really like the Emperor in Star Wars testing Luke’s character. When he got Luke angry, the Emperor would be like ‘Yes! I’ve got you!'”
So, Dave really thinks his brother is like Emperor Palpatine, a figure so evil that even Darth Vader bowed down to him? “No,” says Dave. “He’s much worse . . . But I have to thank him, because if he wasn’t so fucking horrible to me I wouldn’t have understood more about life. When he was a real cunt to me all those years ago I took up astrology so I could understand why people behave like that . . . It’s like that old cliché – you can choose your friends but you’re stuck with your family. I think we were thrown together to try and teach each other something, and hopefully help some people that listen to us.”
A new Kinks album is almost entirely out of the question. “I can’t face the concept of days and days in the studio with Ray,” says Dave. “I just can’t do it.” Founding Kinks bassist Peter Quaife died in 2010, and Dave visibly recoils when drummer Mick Avory (who left the band in 1984) is brought up. “I hope we don’t bring him back,” says Dave. “I love him, but it’s water under the bridge. We need new people. Sometimes when you’re with the same old people, you get the same old thing.
“That said, I really do want to do something with Ray before we both decay and decompose. I said to Ray last week, ‘We don’t have much time left.’ But he didn’t . . . Ray, what an asshole he is.”