The front­man be­hind one of pop’s great bands takes a gen­tler view of life th­ese days, writes Dan Cairns

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

EV­ERY other sum­mer for the past six years, Ray Davies has held a res­i­den­tial course in song­writ­ing for the Ar­von Foun­da­tion. ‘‘ I thought he’d fly in for a cou­ple of hours and let an as­sis­tant do the rest,’’ blogged one re­cent par­tic­i­pant. ‘‘ But he was so self­less. That’s not the im­age we have of celebri­ties, be­ing so giv­ing.’’

There are plenty of peo­ple who have played along­side, man­aged, pro­duced or mar­ried Davies in the course of the past 40- odd years who may raise an eye­brow at such a de­scrip­tion. The cen­tral irony of the for­mer Kink’s life — that as a mu­si­cian he is one of pop’s most ef­fec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tors, while on a per­sonal level he has al­ways seemed to strug­gle with in­ti­macy — is not lost on him. Talk­ing about a lyric in his new song One More Time — ‘‘ Why is true love so dif­fi­cult to find?’’ — he says: ‘‘ Ev­ery time I sing that line, I get a funny, eerie chill.’’

A no­to­ri­ous skin­flint who ap­par­ently used to walk around Lon­don in the early days of the Kinks with all his cash stuffed in one of his socks, the 63- year- old risks de­bunk­ing his cagey, tight­wad rep­u­ta­tion by giv­ing away copies of his new album, Work­ing Man’s Cafe , with Bri­tain’s The Sun­day Times . But Davies has al­ways been fleet of foot when it comes to evad­ing cat­e­gories and ex­pec­ta­tions. He may have shown an un­canny knack for pris­ing de­feat from the jaws of vic­tory, as when, on the cusp of a break­through in 1965, a vi­o­lent ar­gu­ment with a union fixer on a US television set led to the Kinks be­ing banned from per­form­ing in the US for four years.

But he has also demon­strated a pre­science at odds, again, with re­ceived wis­dom, which has Davies down as a cur­mud­geonly Lit­tle Eng­lan­der, for­ever shack­led to his past and rail­ing against mod­ern life.

His live show Sto­ry­teller , which mixed sung per­for­mance with in­ter- song rem­i­nis­cences, in­spired the US mu­sic show of the same name. And here he is, 50 years af­ter he first picked up a gui­tar, surf­ing the cover- mount Zeit­geist and seem­ingly quite com­fort­able in the un­charted com­mer­cial wa­ters in which he has set sail.

Well, fairly com­fort­able, at any rate. ‘‘ I think I’d rather have stayed in the West Coun­try and gone fish­ing,’’ he cack­les, when our dis­cus­sion turns to the value that is placed on mu­sic in to­day’s file- shar­ing en­vi­ron­ment. ‘‘ It’s dif­fi­cult for peo­ple like me not to sound hyp­o­crit­i­cal, be­cause mu­sic is for the peo­ple. But there must be some means of com­pen­sa­tion to the artist. I’m sup­posed to be a wise old head, but I’m baf­fled by it all.’’

We are in Davies’s pub­li­cist’s of­fice in north Lon­don, and the singer, de­spite sit­ting semi­con­cealed be­side a book­case, is in af­fa­ble form. He be­gins by re­mov­ing his shoes. He tends to do this, he says, be­cause it eases the pain in the leg in which he was shot dur­ing a rob­bery in New Or­leans in 2004. He is wary, he ad­mits, of suc­cumb­ing to nos­tal­gia for the old record in­dus­try days, even though, like many, he is pes­simistic about the present sit­u­a­tion.

‘‘ We got to­tally ripped off,’’ he says about the early con­tracts the Kinks signed. ‘‘ Now, though? I’m not say­ing Ox­fam should start a record com­pany, but it’s get­ting that way. At what point does it be­come char­i­ta­ble? The good thing about the mu­sic in­dus­try, back in the Wild West days, was that there was al­ways an­other crook to go to. Now it’s down to two or three ma­jor la­bels that own the world.’’

Davies traces the present cri­sis back to the 1970s, when ‘‘ it be­came grotesquely in­flated. I re­mem­ber sit­ting in Warner Bros and this man said, ‘ I’ve got some bad news to­day. We’ve be­come an in­dus­try.’ ’’ Not that Davies is en­tirely against the co­ex­is­tence of cre­ativ­ity and the bot­tom line. ‘‘ I don’t know if com­merce should dic­tate art, but in a sense it al­ways has. The wis­est, most durable painters al­ways had a bit of a busi­ness head, from Michelan­gelo. Rem­brandt had to go to his bene­fac­tors. And I can go on about the bad old days of cor­po­rate in­ter­fer­ence, but it’s good to have some­thing to fight against: it gets the anger up. Or peo­ple go off and make con­cept al­bums.’’

In­clud­ing, of course, Davies, who em­barked on a suc­ces­sion of such records with 1968’ s su­perb The Vil­lage Green Preser­va­tion So­ci­ety , be­fore de­scend­ing into mega­lo­ma­nia with stinkers such as the two mid-’ 70s al­bums Preser­va­tion Act 1 and 2 . This least lovely pe­riod in the Kinks’ canon cul­mi­nated in 1975’ s wretched Soap Opera album. The con­cep­tual con­ceit here was that a delu­sional ac­coun­tant named Norman be­lieved he was Davies; thus, live shows de­picted ‘‘ Norman’’ ( oh go on, then: Ray) act­ing out this fan­tasy by singing Davies’s com­po­si­tions. Not sur­pris­ingly, the Kinks left their record la­bel shortly af­ter­wards.

A key track on Work­ing Man’s Cafe seems to touch on this state of con­fu­sion, of a sense of iden­tity be­ing bent out of all recog­ni­tion by other peo­ple’s per­cep­tions.

‘‘ It’s been great to watch the sights,’’ Davies sings on Imag­i­nary Man, ‘‘ play­ing the edited high­lights. And all the out­takes you did not see were only my un­re­al­ity.’’ The song opens with the ar­rest­ing and im­plic­itly stock- tak­ing ques­tion, ‘‘ Is this re­ally it?’’

‘‘ If you say that,’’ ar­gues Davies, ‘‘ peo­ple get it at once. If you open a door for the lis­tener, you’ve got their at­ten­tion, sim­ply be­cause you’ve just said, ‘ Please come in and find your world within mine.’ I did some writ­ing once with ( play­wright and scriptwriter) Jack Rosen­thal, and he said the best way to start a film or a play is to see a brick go­ing through a win­dow. You want to know.’’

What was largely miss­ing from those mid-’ 70s con­cep­tual nadirs — the tune­smith­ery that pro­duced im­per­ish­able clas­sics such as Water­loo Sun­set , Sunny Af­ter­noon and You Re­ally Got Me; the in­clu­sive­ness and need- to- know struc­tures of his hu­man mini- dra­mas — is what Davies’s new album shows him re­dis­cov­er­ing. His first of­fi­cial solo album, last year’s Other Peo­ple’s Lives , may have been lyri­cally acute but, with one or two ex­cep­tions, it failed to re­con­nect with that once gush­ing mu­si­cal and nar­ra­tive well­spring.

In con­trast, Work­ing Man’s Cafe pos­i­tively bris­tles with melodies and in­quiry. The ‘‘ oohooh’’ har­monies on Imag­i­nary Man; the de­scend­ing chord pro­gres­sions on Peace in Our Time and You’re Ask­ing Me: th­ese work to tem­plates in­vented by Davies that are his and his alone. As, too, is his abil­ity deftly to turn the gen­eral into the per­sonal, which is at its most dev­as­tat­ing on the ti­tle track. Be­gin­ning as a lament for land­marks and re­as­sur­ances lost in the hurly- burly of change and progress, the song switches sud­denly and un­mis­tak­ably to the sub­ject of Davies’s younger brother and longterm love- hate fig­ure, Dave: ‘‘ I thought I knew you then, but will I know you now?’’ the elder sib­ling sings. ‘‘ There’s got to be a place for us to meet/ I’ll call you when I’ve found it.’’

‘‘ I would like to work with him on a creative level again,’’ Davies says of his brother, who suf­fered a stroke only months af­ter Davies was shot. ‘‘ It’s some­thing I re­ally look for­ward to, as irk­some and painful as it can be at times. But it’s the spark that made that unit func­tion in the way it did. I miss that op­po­si­tion. I’m not say­ing what I do now is un­op­posed, or that I don’t do a cer­tain amount of self- crit­i­cism, but I do miss that con­tin­u­ally hav­ing to prove my point.’’

The self- crit­i­cism he brings to bear on his work is an in­evitable part, Davies says, of the soli­tary na­ture of song­writ­ing. When I ask him if his per­son­al­ity made this process more in­su­lar than it might have been, or vice versa, his an­swer goes round and round the houses. ‘‘ I was soli­tary as a child,’’ he be­gins, ‘‘ in a big fam­ily, but very self­con­tained.’’ ( He was the sec­ond- youngest of eight chil­dren, and Dave, his only brother, was born three years af­ter him.)

‘‘ Song­writ­ing suited my lifestyle,’’ he con­tin­ues. ‘‘ It was some­thing I could do re­ally late at night when I couldn’t sleep.’’ Later, he dou­bles back. ‘‘ It re­ally suited my de­vel­op­ment as a per­son: we came to­gether at the right time, the art form and the per­son. Af­ter the first few hits, I thought, ‘ Here’s this won­der­ful op­por­tu­nity to de­velop this mad, chaotic bunch of peo­ple and just give them things to play.’

‘‘ The only down­side was that I didn’t re­ally go out and en­joy the ’ 60s: I stayed home and wrote songs, in a semi. But, you know, what’s wrong with that?’’

Plenty, ap­par­ently. ‘‘ Peo­ple would say, ‘ If only Ray Davies would do a solo album, get away from the Kinks.’ But I’ve done that, and I miss them, I miss the play­ing, cast­ing mu­sic for them. We’d make records like Vil­lage Green , some­how know­ing that it might be a flop, but it was a cause, we all be­lieved in it. You can do that with bands. It’s like Ra­dio­head say­ing, ‘ Let’s put this record out and let peo­ple pay what they want for it.’ A band can make that state­ment. It’s much more dif­fi­cult as a solo per­former.’’

Private space, he says, is over­rated. ‘‘ You go, ‘ I’m alone at last’, and what hap­pens? You can’t write. A lot of the good stuff is writ­ten on the back of news­pa­pers you’re car­ry­ing around, any­way. But I’m re­ally bad at tak­ing that hand­writ­ten scrap and typ­ing it into a com­puter. In a strange way, it loses its in­no­cence if you do. It’s not as tac­tile, you can’t feel it, that mo­ment in a restau­rant when you wrote it on a nap­kin.’’

He pauses, and lets out a long sigh. ‘‘ I’m so dumb, it’s not true. Why can’t I just be nor­mal?’’ Like the quin­tes­sen­tial song­writer that he is, hov­er­ing above him­self, self- med­i­cat­ing through song, Davies re­flects: ‘‘ I write a lot to dis­cover why I’ve re­acted in a cer­tain way, or how I be­haved, why that mo­ment af­fected me.’’

He ends with the star­tlingly bleak con­clu­sion: ‘‘ I’m so un­com­fort­able be­ing a solo artist, it re­ally is aw­ful.’’

Mor­phine Song , an­other key new track, unites all of Davies’s gifts in one four- minute pack­age: nar­ra­tive, set­ting, con­trast ( the jaunty knees- up of a tune, jol­lied along by ac­cor­dion and brass; the nar­ra­tor’s hu­mour- coated but es­sen­tially bleak, hospi­tal- bed view of life, and death, go­ing past). On No One Lis­ten , he at­tempts to cau­terise the psy­cho­log­i­cal wounds re­sult­ing from his shoot­ing with a wry but men­ac­ing side­swipe at the Louisiana jus­tice sys­tem, which re­cently an­nounced it was not pro­ceed­ing with charges against the singer’s as­sailants.

‘‘ It has given me con­sid­er­able grief,’’ he says. ‘‘ Do you let some­body go who you know per­pe­trated the crime?’’

Later, on the phone, Davies is in even more avun­cu­lar form, laugh­ing when I sug­gest he has been bur­dened with a sour­puss, doom- mon­ger­ing rep­u­ta­tion ev­ery bit as oner­ous as the stu­pen­dous back cat­a­logue he car­ries around with him. ‘‘ I don’t think my work is as glum as peo­ple make out,’’ he chuck­les. ‘‘ Sour­puss and doom- monger? I def­i­nitely op­pose that.’’

I ask him if he ever plays his mu­sic to his chil­dren ( he has four daugh­ters from sep­a­rate re­la­tion­ships). ‘‘ I’ve got an adorable 10- year- old who just likes the hip- hop,’’ he an­swers, sound­ing slightly down­cast. ‘‘ The older ones get to lis­ten to my mu­sic even­tu­ally. It’s al­ways nice when some­one close to you says, ‘ Yeah, that’s pretty good.’ I re­mem­ber with my last album, I played it in my car to my youngest daugh­ter and af­ter­wards she said, ‘ Dad, do you have any other songs?’ ’’ Oh, just a few.

The Sun­day Times

Ef­fec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tor: Ray Davies, singer and song­writer with the Kinks, and lat­terly a solo artist

A ded­i­cated fol­low­ing: The Kinks in the 1960s

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