"Reverence is best saved for deities, and Ray (an irreverent British bastard through and through) would be the first, I think, to lambaste the notion that any man be elevated to a diety. No, maybe it's nothing but proper that the Kinks remain a special secret to those in the know, maybe that's the ultimate triumph --the pinnacle of their enduring cultish hipness. ..."

pictures in the sand
ray davies gets it right


There's something to be said for a man who isn't afraid to credit his ancestors and chums for helping shape the success that he has found. It is not a common trait among today's cultural elite, where the size of one's ego is weighed on truck scales rather than the on bathroom variety. Where sentiments like: " I raised myself up from the ashes with my own hard work and determination, and you should know that everything I've achieved I've earned on my own"; are as common these days as Hollywood rehab addictions. A performer who has achieved stardom and celebrity, stared it deeply into its foundation smothered and mascara laden face, and said "bollocks on that, it's not for me," is a performer I can respect and honor.

Ray Davies is an iconoclast. One of those rare birds who plays by his own rules, and still manages to make a name for himself in a business not known for it's nurturing of artists bent on constructing a personal legacy. The world of modern entertainment is full of caricatures, marionettes who will do anything it takes for their 15 minutes of fame.

As the founding father of the Kinks, Ray and his brother David penned so many of the centuries greatest tunes one would think that they would be spoken of in the same reverential tones that people reserve for compositional Einstein’s like McCartney and Lennon, Jagger and Richards. The fact that they are not remains one of life's cruel ironies. It has become an enduring insult that most of today's generation registers its Kinks melodies from listening to "Tired Of Waiting For You", "Set Me Free" or "You Really Got Me" as the background score for some vapid marketing campaign on the boob-tube.

Why the snub? How is it possible that the Kinks could not generate even one of the 100 best British albums of all time in the UK music magazine Q? How is possible that when you listen to contemporary AOR you're sure to hear a Beatles, Clapton or Stones tune almost hourly, but you never hear a Kinks composition? "All Day All Of The Night," "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," "Autumn Almanac," "Waterloo Sunset," "Lola," "20th Century Man," "Celluloid Heroes"-- how is it even possible that the masters of these songs have seemingly slipped into the shadows of our contemporary musical consciousness?

I have no answers to this litany of transgressions, but they trouble me. If you were to ask Ray I suspect he has his theories as to why the Kinks and their blue-collar, gender-bending Cockney vibe never quite hit on the level that the caliber of music seemed to indicate appropriate. But from the first moment I heard "Lola" crackling through the tinny metal speaker of our Volkswagon bus while riding somewhere through the red-hued Spanish countryside, I knew instantly and irrefutably that I was hearing one of the greatest voices singing one of the greatest tunes ever written. Only 10 years old, I knew with certainty that I had never encountered anything like it before, nor would anything hit me on such a visceral level again. Such is the nature of enlightenment. You don't have such epiphanies often, and when they occur they tend to hold your attention.

What does seem clear from studying their well documented history is that they pissed a lot of folks off in their day. Important and influential folks. This coupled with an incredible pattern of mismanagement from the get go, the Kinks were never able to stake their rightful claim on the revered plateau inhabited by their fellow Brits from rocks lionized 60's lineage; at least not on any enduring commercial level.

Maybe it's better that way. Reverence is best saved for deities, and Ray (an irreverent British bastard through and through) would be the first, I think, to lambaste the notion that any man be elevated to a diety. No, maybe it's nothing but proper that the Kinks remain a special secret to those in the know, maybe that's the ultimate triumph --the pinnacle of their enduring cultish hipness. Kinks music is just too damn vital to have ever been assimilated into the mainstream. It just doesn't fit the nomenclature defining popular music. It doesn't fit neatly into any genre, and is therefore impossible to compartmentalize. It's edginess, intelligence and daring is simply too sophisticated. The hypnotic magnificence of a "Waterloo Sunset" is beyond the scope of a culture weaned on the pop lard dropped out the trouser legs of the likes of Phil Collins, Don Henley, and a cadre of despicable mouseketeer bands. Woe is the day for us all that it becomes the backdrop for a fucking Jeep ad.

Along those same lines, it would be a sad sight to see Ray Davies passing out hugs at the Emmy's, gladhanding salacious politicians, or shilling Diet Pepsi. I can't even fathom him jumping about in front of a television camera like some clueless dipshit, with his arm wrapped around this week’s flavored trollop as they cavort courtside at Knicks or Lakers games. Celebrity has it's greasy benefits, but to his credit Ray doesn't seem enamored of them.

--

Ray Davies has been doing this "Storyteller" thing now for a number of years, and for those who aren't aware, it is a mix of music and word, where he is essentially on stage going it alone, with guitar player who helps with the ambiance of the whole affair. It is based on his novel X-Ray, an autobiographical novel he published in 1994.

His recent performance at the Aladdin Theater in Portland was proof positive of a number of things. First, that he recognizes that the legacy of the Kinks is still important to a hell of a lot of people -- Kinks fans who know the hard luck stories and antiestablishment shennanigans of the legendary act. He performed an inspired show to a packed house of those in the know, and as he pointed out in a touching moment towards the end of the affair, the Kinks are "still very important" to him as well. It was refreshing really. None of the pompous bullshit that finds the "evolutionary artiste" belittling the work of his past as a byproduct of his own "maturation and intellectual progression." Rather, Ray seemed to wear his past like the comfortable white sneakers anchoring him to the wooden stage. Reveling in it, recognizing it's greatness and his own role in that greatness, and sharing that strength with people who understand what it is you're proud of. There's no small vindication in sticking to your guns and still making a go of it after 40 years in the business.

Second, that the qualities that he deemed important a long time ago, are qualities he still holds dear. Ray's posture and body of work has always bridled against conventional thinking, against superficiality and sameness, against the restraints of fashions, and scenes and the shallowness of cliques. His show is partly about the importance of uniqueness and individuality, and partly a fond historical remembrance of the family of characters that helped to shape the individuals that were to become the Kinks. It is this combination of themes that leads to the shows white-hot focal point, a song titled X-Ray, which is a journey, it seems, of self-discovery. A convoluted path leads a younger and more confused Ray to the revelation that mans most elemental purpose is to recognize and honor the need to be an individual in a world that works against that ideal on every conceivable level. Understanding that moment in the show is understanding the history of the Kinks, and the torment of Ray Davies as he confronted that unalterable truth in his work, and in his life. Understanding that moment in the show is in reality understanding the relentless force that drives any artist worth more than the cost of ink on a People magazine cover. It reveals in bright light why our most important artists seem destined to a life of struggle and strife (to borrow a useful phrase of Ray's from Muswell Hillbillies 1971 classic, "Complicated Life").

In light of this profundity, Davies as modern minstrel manages to convey a sense of completeness, an aura of weary contentment in spite of the bitter challenges posed by honoring that internal force in a world of complacency and sameness. Even in the face of these struggles, it's worth it he tells us in a roundabout way. Taking the easy path, caving in as it were, may seem convenient, but there's a trade-off in that sort of compromise that takes its toll on our souls. And it's not worth it.

As Ray constructs his tale of song, merriment and muse, it's clear that he recognizes the intrinsic value of his personal history -- the family members, characters and friends that added color and vibrancy to what was to become the Kinks legacy. The foppish managers, Robert and Grenville. The slimy music biz creep, Larry. The ethereal queen of the one-night stand, Julie Finkel. But what was most moving was to hear him speak with such heart for his mother, and sisters. With such eloquent respect for his father (a Vaudevillian at heart with a taste for the Stout, and who like to sing and entertain his "chums" in the front room of their Muswell Hill Flat -- "and what's wrong with that?" Ray queried as he toasted his departed pop with a stout of his own).

But the surprise for most folks familiar with the violent brotherly rumbles between the mismatched Davies Bothers, was the bemused affection saved up for his younger brother David. Ray play-acted as if he held no respect for the younger Davies, looked at him as a meddlesome nuisance in the overall scheme of things. But it's a sham, and I'm not buying it anymore. Acting? Perhaps. But I doubt that one could fake the genuine twinkles that reflected from Ray's eyes when he spoke of his brother's misadventures, whether it was poking holes with his mother knitting needles in a crappy green amplifier to get a rough sound, or pimping off his older sister (he was 9) for a gig at a local club.

It struck me as astonishing that a man who suffered enormously from crimes wrought by unsavory managers and other music business swine; and who channeled a sort of despondent rage into some of the most articulate and bitter cultural indictments ever; could be so comfortable in such a time of obvious international strife. A reflective perusal of Ray’s lyrics to "20th Century Man'" or "Apeman" will reveal one of the most pissed-off individuals ever to walk the face of the earth. But it occurs to me that Ray must have come to terms with his demons long ago. And he must have done it by doing nothing more than looking within himself, and focusing on a simple internal truth. Could it really be that simple?

His show on this evening was a testament to that, and his leading us through Kinks classics like "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," (which had my young son shouting along at the tops of his lungs) "I'm Not Like Everybody Else," and "Lola," mutated into a sort of bawdy therapy session -- half beer-hall rave up, and half introspective examination.

In an instant I remembered seeing the lean and punkish version of the Kinks during their US heyday (1977). I was struck, even then, by the way that, in spite of playing in giant concrete bowls, Ray was able to transcend that vast emptiness by leaning on his abundant charisma and the enduring power of the Kinks formidable repertoire. His animated singing and rollicking cheerleading brought all 14,000 of us to our feet -- Schoolboys In Disgrace's hidden gem "National Health" had fans dancing in the aisles, on their chairs, and howling along with complete disregard for harmony, rhythm or lyrical accuracy. But it didn't matter. The connection was made, and the point was, we were a living, breathing, sweating part of the show's considerable momentum.

In the smaller confines of the Aladdin on October 24th, Ray gripped the same reigns, only in a looser fashion. The biggest difference from the big productions of the late 70's being that there were 13,000 less of the faithful to cheer along with the headmaster. He brought that glowing energy from the front room of his long-ago Muswell Hill home that plays such an integral part of his tale this evening. The space that housed the family parties, the tipsy performances of the elder Davies, the determined practicing of Ray and Dave, and the little green amp. Here it was, all that warmth, and cheer and exuberance, landing squarely in the confines of this small, but suddenly friendlier space.

Powerful medicine it was, happily singing along with Ray. I must confess I can't remember last time I broke into song at a show, or didn't view the musical proceedings with some sort of cynical detachment. It seemed just like the old days, even if just for a couple of hours. In these strange and sad times we don't hear much about the healing qualities of honoring our innate creative forces. About respecting our own individuality. But it's a message worth repeating over and over and over. Repetition. Meter. Cadence. Kind of like some of the biggest, baddest guitar licks ever to float from a tiny green speaker. Kind of like the words, "You Really Got Me...." repeated over and over.

It's a mantra, I tell you. And Ray knew it all along:

Turn it up loud and repeat after me. You'll feel better. Trust me on this one.

-- john richen


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