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- July 06, 1987
- Vol. 28
- No. 1
After 23 Years of Brawling, Exploration and Hits, the Leader of the Kinks Hasn't Lost His Inner Fire
That shouldn't be much of a problem, since Davies is hardly in the same rut as Mick Jagger. Over the past 23 years he has written and recorded some 250 Kinks tunes, including such hits as A Well Respected Man, Tired of Waiting for You, Lola, Sunny Afternoon and Come Dancing, but most people wouldn't know him if he punched them in the face—which he probably wouldn't do, his checkered rep notwithstanding. His long-term affair with Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders made him hot copy for the gossip columnists, yet most Americans still have trouble with his name, which he pronounces, in the British style, as "Davis." When you get right down to it, even Ray Davies, at 43, isn't sure who Ray Davies is.
"I'm as uncertain as a lot of people about what I am," he says. "I'm just a product of the extreme times we live in. I can be quite violent onstage and then be very passive and gentle." He can also be very morose. "I feel that I've f----- up my life so much," he confides with a frown that by now has chiseled deep lines in his otherwise youthful face. "I've failed as a person."
Judging by his band's success and its staying power, Davies' self-assessment seems harsh. To list the Kinks' credits is to take a quick trip through rock history. One of the first songs Davies wrote, You Really Got Me, hit the Top 10 in 1964, when he was only 20, with an aggressive guitar sound that became a mainstay of heavy metal. In 1969, when The Who released the rock opera Tommy, the Kinks countered with Arthur and later with several elaborate rock musicals. In 1970 Lola was the first mainstream hit about a transvestite, while Davies adopted an androgynous stage persona that was a harbinger of the later glam-rock style of David Bowie. All the while Davies was producing some of rock's most pointed social commentary. He sent up Carnaby Street dandies in Dedicated Follower of Fashion (1966) and mocked the yuppie generation in Young Conservatives (1983): "The only action you see/ Is in the Sunday Times/ You tend to sit in bed and read between the lines." "Alan Jay Lerner said that genius was an overworked word when applied to lyricists," says Pete Townshend of The Who, "but in British rock Ray Davies is our only true and natural genius."
Davies must accept part of the responsibility for his relative anonymity. Intensely jealous of his privacy, he has always resented interviews and once wrote a song with the lyric "I'll kill you, Mr. Reporter." Even today, when one might expect middle-age mellowing, he seems to delight in making journalists squirm. During a recent interview, he couldn't contain his enthusiasm as he spoke about his current obsessions, ballet and filmmaking. Then suddenly he became aloof and defensive, snapping at the reporter, "After our talk, I know more about you than you do about me." The next day Davies unexpectedly greeted the same correspondent with a sheepish grin, waving a piece of white paper over his head as a flag of truce. This time he seemed kind, cooperative and extremely reserved. Will the real Ray Davies please stand up?
Perhaps not, but he will at least reveal some of himself. While recording more than two dozen Kinks albums, including the current Think Visual, Davies has always been a perfectionist. At one of the Kinks' first studio sessions, he recalls, their producer created a polished version of You Really Got Me, full of the overdubs and echoes that were popular in 1964. But Davies, who prophetically saw the need for a rougher sound, wouldn't have it. "When I said I didn't like it," he remembers, "they said, 'It's too late. It's coming out.' So I said, 'If you release this, I'm never going to make another record.' I knew it would be a big hit if we did it my way." They did, and within a few weeks the song hit No. 1 in England.
Davies' stubbornness paved the way to success, but with potholes. Once, in the studio, he insisted on more than 60 takes of a song. The band survived, but not everyone was so fortunate. A press agent who was driving Davies around London once mentioned that a Kinks song reminded him of Donovan. Intent on creating a unique sound, Davies couldn't bear to hear his music compared with anyone else's. He got out of the car and never worked with the man again.
No one felt the sting of Davies' temper more than his guitarist brother, Dave, who writes some of the band's songs and periodically rebels against Ray's domination of the Kinks. There have been fistfights, angry stage exits and furious trashings of expensive equipment. Former Kinks drummer Mick Avory recalls a 1971 New York concert in which "Ray meant to do some trick by leaning against Dave, but Dave just stepped out of the way so Ray fell through a wall of amps. It was a spectacular moment." According to Ray such episodes were an inescapable part of the group's hostile dynamic. "It's so emotional onstage," he explains. "You hate yourself for hitting each other, but you do it." Not that time has healed all brotherly wounds. "I don't want Dave to be lonely or unhappy or bitter," says Ray. "But I also don't want him to get up my nose anymore because he pisses me off."
There were fireworks too during Davies' three-year relationship with Chrissie Hynde. A diehard Kinks fan, Hynde in 1979 recorded a Davies song, Stop Your Sobbing, with her own band, the Pretenders. After two unsuccessful attempts to meet Davies, she finally persuaded him to join her at a New York nightclub. "This sounds daffy," he recalls, "but she said 'Hello' and I thought she was really saying 'Help me.' She couldn't take the sudden fame that had come to her, and I think she saw me as someone who had done all that rock 'n' roll stuff and understood it. It was a good friendship for a few weeks, but that should have been it."
In 1981 Hynde announced to the British press that she was "besotted" with Davies; two years later she gave birth to their daughter, Natalie. They never married, and Davies described the relationship years later as "a fairy-tale romance written by Alfred Hitchcock." During one spat among many, Hynde smashed the keyboard on which Davies had composed Come Dancing. ("I saved the pieces because I wrote a good song on it," he says.) In 1984 Davies was working day and night on his musical film Return to Waterloo, and Hynde was touring with the Pretenders. "There were terrible long-distance fights," he says. "The phone was our worst enemy." The separation resulted in their agreement to end the relationship—and the fighting—for good. "I have this warped fondness for her," says Davies. "I'd still like to do something to piss her off. But I never want to see her again. Why bother?"
Davies was a fount of hot-and cold-running emotions long before he met Hynde. As a boy he distanced himself from his mother, a housewife, and his father, a gardener in the London suburbs. So worried were his parents by his deep introversion that they sent him to a special school for a year to help him learn to communicate. Back in high school, Davies excelled at soccer and even considered turning pro. But unlike his schoolmate Rod Stewart, he was essentially a loner, drawing and painting, playing piano and Spanish guitar, or listening to records by Leadbelly and bluesman Bill Broonzy.
At 16 Ray began performing rhythm and blues with Dave, who was only 13, in local pubs. After moving in with Rose, the oldest of his five sisters, Ray enrolled in college to study fine art and theater. In 1963, at 19, Davies dropped out to join his brother's band, intending to earn tuition for film school. Originally called the Bo Weevils, then the Ravens, they sang Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters classics. With their wildly ragged sound and long hair, the Ravens became a hot act at society parties. When Ray showed up at an early recording session in an orange tie and clashing outfit, one beholder called him a "kink." "He meant it as a putdown," Davies recalls, "but I thought, 'Why the hell not use the name?' "
In 1964 the Kinks recorded their first album, in a single week, then staged some of the first truly raucous international concert tours. At one gig fans stormed the stage and hauled Dave into the crowd; another time a concert in West Berlin turned into a bottle-throwing riot. The rowdiness often began onstage. During one mid-concert argument, Mick Avory sliced the side of Dave's head open with a cymbal, then ran from the hall in terror. Fearing violence, restaurants declined to serve the Kinks, and hotels refused to shelter them. The group was banned entirely in peace-loving Scandinavia.
On Ray's part, the violence may have masked insecurity. "I was terribly intimidated by America," he admits. "I barricaded myself in my hotel room in New York. I was afraid that people would come in." Looking for stability, he married a fan back in England, Rasa Dictpatris, who within a year gave birth to Louisa, the first of their two daughters. But domestic tranquillity eluded him. By 1966 the pressure of touring—and his anger over a contract that awarded him only a small percentage of his song royalties—became unbearable. Though he only vaguely remembers doing it, he ran across London with his money tucked in his socks and attempted to punch out his press agent. Afterward he stayed inside for weeks and listened to Frank Sinatra, no rock. "It was an inner revolt," says Davies. "They always wanted another single. I felt I was on a treadmill."
From 1966 to 1968 the American Federation of Musicians barred the Kinks from performing in the U.S. Though Davies still doesn't know the reason, he thinks that the band's unruly behavior and battles with concert promoters probably led to the ban. Thus prevented from following the hippies to Woodstock, Davies holed up in the British countryside to create The Village Green Preservation Society. A nostalgic song cycle about the "immense smallness" of life, it was one of the first rock albums to follow a loose story line. In 1970 Lola brought the Kinks back to the pop charts with rock's most ambiguous punch line: "I know what I am and I'm glad I'm a man and so is Lola." Was Lola glad the narrator was a man, or was Lola also a man? An incident at Castel's, a nightclub in Paris, suggests an answer. "One night I was dancing with this really attractive woman till dawn," recalls Davies. "Then she said, 'Come on back to my place,' and I said, 'Okay.' It wasn't until we got in the daylight that I saw the stubble on her chin. So I blew that one off."
Lola gave the band an outrageous style for the '70s. When Davies wasn't dressing up as the sleazy Mr. Flash in the rock musical Preservation Act I (1973), or wearing an Afro wig to perform Soap Opera (1977), he convincingly took on a limp-wristed, sexually ambiguous persona. "That role was a part of me," says Davies. "I'm not John Wayne. I don't want to be a heman, but I don't want to be a sex change either."
All the role-playing may have contributed to Davies' 1973 marriage split. "His wife just grew away from him," says Avory. "It hurt him quite a lot." In 1976 Davies sought solace in a second marriage, to teacher Yvonne Gunner, but that broke up, too, after four years. Bickering continued within the band—once they all walked offstage, leaving Ray to perform alone—and a series of bass players and keyboardists came and went over the years. Then, in 1984, Avory quit. He had put up with a lot during 20 years with the Kinks, buoyed by the charm and humor that followed Ray's darker moods. "When things go wrong, he can make a joke of it and cool everyone down," says Avory. "And he can be quite kind, as he was when my father died." In the end, though, Mick had so many run-ins with Dave that he couldn't continue as a Kink.
Davies has found his own escape from the Kinks' manic intensity with his third wife, Pat Crosbie, 28, a former dancer with the Irish National Ballet. They met at a British physiotherapy center where she was being treated for a broken ankle and he was nursing a broken kneecap that he'd suffered onstage. Dividing their time between New York and London, they seem to be aiming for the idyllic existence described in Davies' 1986 tune Quiet Life. Davies eats no meat, jogs two miles a day, reads short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bernard Malamud and works at his goal of being known for something other than writing rock songs. His current projects include a proposed documentary about ballet, a half-written script for a movie musical and a collaboration with Des McAnuff, director of Broadway's Big River, on a musical stage version of Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days.
As much a loner as always, Davies says, "I don't keep in touch with anybody, anymore. I guess I feel that I can't live up to expectations." Though he has crossed paths with just about every major rock star, Davies is close to none of them. "We didn't meet the way great scientists did in Europe," he says, "to have discussions around the coffee table. There is a kind of healthy competition between us. John Lennon and I, for example, did not get on. He was very cynical. When the Kinks opened for the Beatles, John made a few cruel remarks to me. He said, 'Can I borrow your song list, lads? We've lost ours.' He meant that as a criticism of our style. I feel I could have been a friend of John's, but we were two people who were destined not to talk."
So, it seems, are Davies and his daughters, whom he misses but almost never sees. "Maybe I should have made an effort to contact them," he says, "but I've kind of hardened myself against it. I made a promise to myself I wouldn't become one of those weekend parents." He sees his brother, Dave, only at Kinks rehearsals and concerts, and if Ray is to be believed, even that fraternal bond may be sundered. As he has for much of two decades, Davies still threatens to break up the Kinks for good any day. "When I joined the band, I had things all worked out," he says wistfully. "But now I think, 'Why did I do this? How did I get mixed up with that?' Sometimes you feel like you want to be like the Harry Dean Stanton character in Paris, Texas, to just walk through the desert and walk it all away." Davies savors the sadness of it all, but the mood is momentary. "I'm generally optimistic about the world," he says the next day, his frown lines fading. "You just have to look for the good things and the humor." Living out such contradictions through his 23 years as a Kink, Ray Davies always made it difficult to know what he really thinks. Chances are, he likes it that way.
November 26, 2015
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