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Ray Davies: The Lonely Kink

One of rock’s most influential songwriters is making his way as a solo artist. But all he really wants is his band back

Ray Davies, the Kinks

Ray Davies in 2008.

David Corio/Redferns

Outside the restaurant, wind and rain pelt a village green in the Highgate neighborhood of London. inside the restaurant, Ray Davies contemplates his career since the Kinks dissolved in 1996.

“I’ve realized how difficult it is to be on your own after being in a group for so long,” says Davies, who led the Kinks for thirty-two years. “I want to feel I’m in a band, but I’m not. That’s the biggest problem I’ve had in recent years.”

This is quite a statement, given what Davies went through in 2004, when he was shot by a mugger in New Orleans. The injuries were much worse than reported at the time, and Davies still hasn’t fully recovered. But in the four years since then, Davies has kept busy. He’s recorded two albums of original music partially culled from his experi­ences in Louisiana, 2006’s pessimistic and prophetic Other People’s Lives and the feisty new Working Man’s Café. He was also named a Commander of the British Empire, even though he doesn’t like empires at all. But through it all he missed his fellow Kinks.

“Getting shot is easy compared to cre­ating an identity for yourself as a solo art­ist,” Davies says, picking at his baked avo­cado, which is oozing grease and smelling bad. He’s speaking like a depressed per­son. Minimal volume. Minimal affect. “I don’t want to treat musicians like hired help. I encourage a collaborative spirit. We had that in the Kinks, although my brother, Dave, will say otherwise.”

And that, of course, is the problem.

If sibling placement theory is to be believed, the happiest and most secure of all humans is a young­est male with all older sisters. And that is the family Raymond Douglas Davies was born into on June 21st, 1944, in the working-class neighborhood of Muswell Hill in North London. He had six older sisters to look after his every need. He had a good deal then, with all those girls to carry him around and play records for him. Then on February 3rd, 1947, Annie (at age 45) and Fred Davies had another son, Dave, and Ray’s Gar­den of Eden became a turf war. The two brothers were fated to compete and col­laborate for the rest of their lives.

“That’s the back story of my life even now,” says Kinks lead guitarist Dave Davies, in a quavering Cockney ac­cent. “My family was great, I felt loved and was encouraged to pursue music. Things only got psychotic when Ray and I started to have hit records. We were adolescents, and we had to finish grow­ing up around some nasty people in one of the nastiest businesses in the world.”

The brothers even debate the Kinks’ greatest contribution to rock & roll: a guitar that sounded mean. According to Ray, Dave had the idea of sticking a knitting needle through the speaker of their tiny green ten-watt Elpico am­plifier to create more guitar distortion. According to Dave, Dave had the idea of slicing the speaker of their ten-watt Elpico with a razor blade.

“The only person who was there when I did it was me, so who would know bet­ter?” says Dave. “I just wanted to torture my amplifier. It kept giving me the same sound. I wouldn’t have minded if it had died on the spot, but instead it had that great raunchy sound that I loved.”

Knitting needle or razor blade, the idea that more distortion could be desir­able on a guitar was quite revolutionary at the time, and when Dave took a sim­ple blues-piano riff written by Ray and turned it into snarling bar chords, they knew they had something new under the sun. The electrified crowds at their shows knew it too. Pye Records didn’t know it, and Ray had to insist that they be allowed to record it and then record it again to capture the snarl properly. The resulting single, “You Really Got Me,” by the Kinks, became a hit in 1964 and still sounds stunningly vital to this day. A sinister, relentless declaration of lust, it was also the birth of the power chord, thus inspiring both metal and punk. It even launched the second phase of metal when Van Halen covered it in 1978. It’s hard to think of a more influential song.

“To me, one of the tests of a great song is if you can play it on an acoustic guitar,” says Chris Collingwood of Fountains of Wayne. “When I was trying to figure out songwriting, that’s what I discovered in the Kinks. Ray wrote tunes that were almost campfire songs, and those are the hardest to write. Ray could write songs and leave them simple. Or he could make songs loud and trashy but remain pop un­derneath. Any time you hear a band like Nirvana playing a loud, trashy pop song, that’s the influence of the Kinks. Even the Beatles didn’t do that.”

In the early Sixties, Ray wrote one more sinister, relentless declaration of lust with a killer riff, “All Day and All of the Night,” and got bored with the whole thing, not quite relinquishing his hor­mones or the Kinks’ snarl, but expand­ing his gaze from hot babes to the world at large. Picking up at some midpoint between Chuck Berry’s short stories and Bob Dylan’s jeremiads and English music-hall comedy, Ray became an an­thropologist with a guitar, writing pre­cisely observed character studies, wildly screwy anecdotes, pensive journeys within and cultural manifestoes on some of rock’s greatest albums, some of which sold and some of which didn’t. After their initial slot in the British Invasion, the Kinks were just too hard for record companies and fans alike to classify. No matter what the era, they were always slightly off kilter, or way off kilter, in their costumes and haircuts and timing of tours. But the song catalog is undeni­able: “Victoria,” “Lola,” “Dedicated Fol­lower of Fashion,” “Tired of Waiting for You,” “Waterloo Sunset” and dozens of others that will be influencing popular music for generations to come.

Ray became one of the funniest and most charming performers in rock history, when he wasn’t asserting absolute control in the studio or insulting his brother onstage. He would give Dave introductions like, “The little twerp will try to sing one for you now.” A raw-nerve introvert, Ray could go off on anybody in the vicinity— — other bands, his wives, girlfriends —— but Dave probably absorbed the most abuse.

So when talk of Kinks reunions arise, Dave leaves the door cracked open for a live gig but is leery of the prospect of re­cording. “To sit in a room or studio with him and have my brain and heart slowly sucked out… no friggin’ thank you,” he wrote recently on his Web site, going on to equate Ray with Hannibal Lecter.

“Yeah, he’s good at that,” says Ray. “But I take it with a pinch of salt. There’s a rumor we might make another record, or play again, which I think is great. I heard some former mem­bers of the Kinks playing — they do a pub gig every year — and they sounded really tight. I would only do it if there’s new music. But we could do it. The original members are all still alive. The fact that I know this bunch of guys are quite tight instills in me something that wants to write a tight song for them to play.”

“I quite like being Dave Davies,” says Dave, who is playing guitar again after nearly dying from a stroke in 2004. “I’m just not sure that Ray likes being Ray Davies. I’m not sure he knows who Ray Davies is. I don’t know about recording again. Because it was torture! But then there are those beautiful moments that are like falling in love, when a recording goes magically perfect. Those moments don’t last long, but they do happen.”

So The Kinks may be joining the Police and Led Zeppelin on the classic rock/dysfunctional family reunion circuit. Then again, they may not. At least the Davies brothers are alive and able to snipe at each other from a distance. The mugger who shot Ray in New Orleans sniped up close, and the wound remains more than a scar. A lifelong athlete, Davies is still undergoing physical thera­py rather than jogging or playing pickup games of soccer.

“It was on a quiet street just outside of the French Quarter,” says Davies, al­most whispering. “And I saw this guy in the distance as my girlfriend and I were walking. He didn’t seem to belong there. But I got distracted and by the time I looked up, he was right on top of me.”

Davies felt a bang on his head and found himself flat on the ground as his girlfriend surrendered her bag, which also had Davies’ wallet in it. Davies chased the guy across the street, and the mugger turned and shot him in the leg, then jumped in a car and sped off.

“Well, I didn’t know he had a gun,”says Davies. “There were three factors: There was the humiliation of being knocked to the ground. There was the annoyance of him stealing everything we had. And the other thing was, I thought, ‘Hey, I can get this guy.’ Normally I would back away from things like that.”

Davies at first thought the wound was minor and instructed his girl­friend, “Don’t cancel my appointments!” By the time he got to the hospital, he was babbling and without identification.

“After a few hours, they got me up to go to the bathroom, and the leg snapped. They didn’t know it was fractured. They were more worried about infection or heart failure. They had to put a rod in my leg, but first they wanted to make sure that my heart was strong enough to withstand the operation, so they injected me with a drug that simulates a heart attack. I often wonder what happened to my clothes. I never did get my clothes back.”

Davies has never dispar­aged New Orleans, which he loved. Burned out on songwriting in England, he had moved there in 2000 to pursue his muse and a rela­tionship. There he started a song cycle that culminated in his two solo albums. “During my recovery, I went back to this body of work that I had begun,” says Davies. “And that became these records. It’s all of a piece, but now I’ve got nothing else to write about.”

Both albums are more pensive and less whimsical than most of the Kinks’ cata­log, and Café is especially infused with a strong sense of mortality and the fleet­ingness of pretty much everything we at­tach to. In “Vietnam Cowboys,” Davies assumes the role of sociologist-satirist of globalization, inveighing against the homogenization of different cultures in the throes of raw capitalism. In the next song, “You’re Asking Me,” he claims only confusion in the face of forces beyond any individual’s control. In “Working Man’s Café,” he is nostalgic for the hangouts of people who work for a living. And on it goes for twelve songs, asking in various ways what is real in a world where the “economic vultures stole our dreams.”

“I’m supposed to be going on tour, but I’m torn,” Davies says. “I want to write my next project, even though I don’t know what it is. I don’t much want to tour, except for the community of Kinks fans. They meet each other at my gigs, which hasn’t happened for a long time. That’s the only reason I would want to tour: the community.”

The weird thing in the distance that looks like a giant flying saucer landed on the vast flatness that is most of London is Emirates Stadium, home of Davies’ beloved Arsenal soccer team. At one time he hoped to play the sport professionally until he suffered a back injury in his teens. “Now I’m just another loser at the petrol station,” Davies sighs as he pumps gas. “They say the wind here has a straight shot at Highgate all the way from Siberia.”

Highgate, where he now lives in a brick row house amidst many brick row houses, and Muswell Hill, where he grew up, are contiguous and indeed high. The narrow winding streets periodically open up into spectacular views of Lon­don, and you half expect Peter Pan to fly out of somebody’s window.

“Don’t write about it if I hit anything,” says Davies as he white-knuckles his way around a double-decker bus and gives a tour of his intimate history with the neighborhood. “That supermarket is the dance hall where we used to play…. Dave and I used to rehearse in the base­ment of that Pizza Hut. … I thought No Country for Old Men was wonderfully shot but badly written. … I lived with my sister in that house when I was eight. … Karl Marx is buried there in Highgate Cemetery. . . . You know William Blake used to live here, too? He used to talk to angels out on Peckham Rye. I’ve talked to a few myself at night on a pub strut. . .. I studied there at Hornsey Arts Col­lege. … That’s the pub where we used to buy drugs. There aren’t any proper pubs in England anymore. They’re all gastropubs. If you want a decent pint, you have to go to Ireland. The pubs, the churches — all dying institutions.”

It turns out the only place to park in all of London is in front of the very same restaurant from yesterday. The feeling of déja vu is overwhelming inside the café; Ray is wearing the same clothes, and the same miasma of baked avocado fills the lungs. Tea —and tea only— is ordered.

“Another reason I wanted to move to New Orleans was to escape Tony Blair,” says Davies. “I’m a socialist, and Labor is not socialist anymore. The working man is still downtrodden and unheard. And now they’re vanishing. Blair came in and it became uncool to be working class. Ev­erybody aspired to be something a little bit better. Nothing wrong with wanting to better yourself, but when you forget your origins —— that’s bad. That’s why I don’t fit into this culture anymore. I take the side of the underdog.”

Davies sips his tea and thinks.

“I don’t justify the guy who shot me,” he resumes. “But I kind of understood. Maybe he didn’t have such a great life. I don’t know.”

Another pause for tea.

“I’m not saying all ruling-class people are evil. They aren’t herding working-class people into a pit and shooting them. But there is a kind of ethnic cleansing going on, and it’s being done culturally and politically and environmentally. This is a middle-class area now, not working-class. The only danger is from the baked avocado. But when I walk the streets, I don’t know anyone, and I grew up here.”

In the States, the Kinks and the Beat­les and the rest of the British Invasion seemed like an escape route from the working class —— they had figured out a way to avoid the 9-to-5. The guitar mak­ers seemed to be selling freedom as much as a musical instrument.

“It was an escape for people like me,” Davies says. “But I shunned the trappings of success. Rod Stewart grew up around here, and he lives in Beverly Hills. I tried to be the invisible rock singer. Louis Armstrong used to sing, ‘Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?’ Maybe he had the same longing to get back to a lost community that I have. It was easy to be a Kink, hard to be me.”

Almost ten years ago, Davies signed the Kinks’ catalog to Sanctuary, a label that was supposed to be for artists who wanted sensitive care of their life’s work. Last summer Sanctuary got taken over by Universal, which has its own agenda.

“Universal, they’ve culled the tunes, they’ve cut out this, and kept that, and I’ve inherited all this bullshit. So it’s the illusion that you can get by without a 9-to-5 job. Most of my time was taken up dealing with corporate people, the bullshit people. And I’ve had to deal with bullshit for most of my career. Does Bob Dylan have to deal with the same thing? I talk to more lawyers than I do musi­cians. The reason I don’t give up is that I want to be an an­noyance to the bean counters for the rest of my life.”

A tall middle-aged man in a fat winter jacket shyly approaches Davies at the table. He appears to be a fan, then Davies has a moment of recognition, and they talk warmly for a few minutes, shaking hands when the man departs.

“He was one of my songwriting students,” says Davies. “I do a songwriting seminar — it’s residential, and it lasts a week. I was trying to arrange the exchange of schools between New Orleans and London before I got shot. I was trying to expand it just to get kids writing and feeling good about themselves. Like this guy I just talked to. He’s not a student, just someone who took a different route than I did. He’s done the day job, he’s getting near the end of his career. He’s always wanted to be a songwriter, and he decides, ‘I’m going to do it.’ So he takes the course; he can express something he wants to say, and he feels great at the end of the week. It keeps something in him alive, because the guitar does mean freedom. Everyone deserves that space to dream of freedom, but it gets harder and harder to earn that dream time.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Ray Davies, The Kinks

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