by Don Stradley
The story of the Kinks is one of tenacity. As part of the mid-60s British invasion, they reached the top early but were then knocked clear off the mountain, when their bad behavior, bad luck, and youthful ignorance got them banned in America. There followed a 15 year climb back, and not only did they regain their foothold as popular recording artists, they did so at a time when punk rock, new wave, disco, and a burgeoning heavy metal scene made the path to success much narrower. The band, with songwriter and frontman Ray Davies acting as jester and tribal chief, enjoyed perhaps the greatest comeback in rock and roll history.
The tale gets an interesting workout in Davies' recent book, Americana, though there are times when the band’s torrid history serves as a mere backdrop for Davies to ponder his life, his love of songwriting, his failed relationships, and his lifelong fascination with the United States. He's more than an aging Brit rocker talking about the wild old days. He's a wandering soul, and to borrow a bit from one of his songs, he doesn't want to live his life in a rock and roll fantasy.
In many ways he tells a familiar story of growing up in England but falling under the sway of American movies and music. Davies doesn’t tell us much about his childhood, though some of his best writing comes when he reminisces about his dad “dancing in an uncoordinated way, yet with the natural rhythmic elegance of a Watusi warrior…he was more rock and roll than I was or could ever be.” Davies soaked up various musical styles, from jazz to early rock to old-timey tunes heard in British music halls. He had to look no farther than his brother Dave to find a guitarist whose bone-crushing riffs would become staples of FM radio.
The Kinks dabbled in rock operas, theatrics, and concept albums, but were never given their due for being inventive. Instead, they spent a big chunk of the 1970s playing in small venues, occasionally hired as the opening act for bands like Hall & Oates (ugh!). It wasn’t until they earned the support of Clive Davis at Arista records that the Kinks flourished. Like musclemen kicking sand in the faces of their competition, the Kinks promptly released Sleepwalker, Low Budget, and Misfits, plus a live album, One for the Road, where the riffs sounded harder than ever, as if the band was reclaiming the heavy metal music they’d inspired. MTV came along, and the Kinks rode that wave, too. At a time when their peers were showing their age, the Kinks were at the height of their powers. Again, I repeat, the greatest…comeback…in rock and roll history.
Davies writes this memoir with a light touch and doesn’t dwell on any particular point for too long. You get barely a taste of how it felt to conquer the American charts in 1965, and just a vague flavor of his legendary battles with brother Dave. Davies spends more time describing the time he nearly drove his car off a cliff than he does, say, more personal subjects, such as his marriage to singer Chrissie Hynde. Despite his love of all things American, Davies is very British in his reluctance to spill his guts.
It could be that Davies is more willing to explore his triumphs than events that might embarrass him. For instance, he writes quite a lot about a quarrel with San Francisco promoter Bill Graham, and I imagine he favors this story because he won the argument and got what he wanted. We celebrate along with Davies as he shuts down the bellicose Graham, just as we do when a dance club crowd bursts into spontaneous applause after the debut of ‘(I Wish I could Fly Like) Superman’. Davies works so hard for his victories that we’re happy when something goes right.
The band’s success brought on new problems. By the late 1980s they were swept into the arms of MCA and then Sony, the West Coast corporate juggernaut. I almost felt sorry for Davies as he witnessed firsthand “the bizarre and unnerving efficiency of corporate Americana in operation.” Worst of all, the dimwits in Los Angeles didn’t appreciate Davies. His jokes at meetings were met with “glazed expressions tinged with confusion.” It’s to his credit that he found a way out of Sony’s dull mindset and enjoyed a more comfortable arrangement with a smaller label. He also embarked on a barebones style of touring that helped create the VH1 series, ‘Storytellers.’
Davies structures his story so that it bounces back and forth in time. In fact, most of the book is about his time in New Orleans during the 2000s, when he moved there hoping to find inspiration, only to be shot by a mugger. The shooting and his recovery sound horrific, but Davies lightens the mood by jumping back to the 1970s, as the Kinks battled back to regain their standing. Then we’re at a Sony meeting, then back in the emergency room in New Orleans, then sympathizing with Davies as he struggles to walk after being shot, then back to New York after 9/11, where the "gaping, floodlit hole downtown made it look like a giant tooth had been extracted from the mouth of New York City.” Around and around we go. The effect is interesting, although it quashes some of the drama.
Davies is not as surefooted with his autobiography as he is with song lyrics. A visit to Ireland, for instance, triggers his worst instincts as a writer: “Grim lipped laughter sends a message of cautious optimism tinged with the smile of bitter expectation that folly sometimes brings.” Yikes. But Davies can also be spot on with an observation, such as when he visits Alex Chilton and notices a dent in the reclusive singer’s couch, “an imprint of Alex’s body where he must have sat – and probably slept – day after day.”
Just as his songs are best when he sings about a character, Davies’ book connects when he supplies little portraits of people, especially those roadies and assistants who have died. I loved the bit about a former Kinks manager who was allegedly buried with his cell-phone, and as Davies walks away from the grave, he swears he can hear the phone buzzing.
Even so, it’s Davies himself who subtly works his way into your mind, revealing himself to be a slightly neurotic but decent bloke, a fellow who loved his band more than anything else, and was both amused and proud of the power he could unleash through his songs. I particularly loved when he recalled a moment from an outdoor concert that felt as if “the whole desert had erupted, echoing the fury in our performance and sending more of the dust beneath the audience’s feet rising into the night air.” But there’s a sense of melancholy, too, particularly in a scene where Davies and Chilton watch an old western on television, feeling that they, too, are a couple of timeworn cowboys, waiting for the last roundup. That Chilton died shortly before the book’s publication adds to the sad vibe.
Though he learned to love Thanksgiving and lonesome train whistles, Davies never quite fulfills his wish to become an American by osmosis. His North London upbringing is impossible to shed, as is his traditional spirituality. One of the most touching moments in the book is when Davies realizes one of his wives is leaving him. Without wasting a minute, he brings their infant daughter to a church and prays that she’ll be alright. He reveals more of himself in that little scene than most of the rock star/memoirists have done in recent years, including those lengthy but empty offerings from Keith Richards and Pete Townshend.
I’ve always liked the Kinks. But it’s a relief to know that, after reading Americana, I like Ray Davies, too.
Americana: The Kinks, the Riff, the Road: The Story, is available in paperback.