‘I’m easy to love, impossible to live with’
Former Kinks frontman Ray Davies talks to about his recent knighthood – and the catharsis of making his new album.
The newly knighted leader of The Kinks wanders anonymously into a bistro in north London on a grey afternoon and takes a seat by the window.
At 72, Sir Ray Davies doesn’t look much like anyone’s idea of a rock legend. He is slightly tatty in a tweed jacket (‘‘I got it second hand,’’ he notes, proudly) with the thinning, flyaway hair of an absent-minded professor.
‘‘It was nice going to the Palace,’’ he says, with an insouciant shrug. ‘‘I’ve been there before. It’s all part of the pageant and theatre of life. What I found moving was being with other recipients, people being honoured for doing a job, seemingly unnoticed. It made me feel part of society. I don’t often feel like that.’’
If that sounds like less than a full-blooded endorsement of an honour most people would trumpet from the rooftops, that’s because Davies has always regarded himself as something of an anti-establishment figure. In fact, the singer thought long and hard about accepting the knighthood.
‘‘[In the end] I decided it’s for the body of work, and I feel good about that,’’ he says. Nevertheless, the thing he enjoyed most about the whole experience was the ceremony itself.
‘‘The choreography was quite explicit,’’ he says. ‘‘It was one of the longest shows I’ve ever been involved in. It kind of has a charm all of its own. It made me realise how well we do that kind of thing. If we lose that, what will we have left?’’
This is a subject he returns to throughout the drizzly afternoon; the ‘‘implosion of culture’’, where everything is the same wherever you go. ‘‘Who needs to go to Huddersfield for Costa Coffee when they’ve got one in Muswell Hill? Where’s the poetry in that?’’
Of course, pointing out that ‘‘things aren’t what they used to be’’ is one of Davies’ specialities. The Kinks, after all, released the song Where Have All The Good Times Gone as far back as 1965. And his new album – Americana – meditates on the end of the rock’n’roll era and the waning influence of American culture in the world.
‘‘This debate about culture, religion, lifestyle is a worldwide phenomenon,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s a time of change. We don’t know what will happen at the end of this, when we come back from Americana and find out what we’ve turned into.’’
Only his fourth solo album since The Kinks split up in 1996, Americana also deals with Davies’ own fractious relationship with the US –The Kinks were banned from the country for four years in the Sixties, after falling out with the American Federation of Musicians, and, in 2004, Davies was shot in the leg in New Orleans after giving chase to muggers. (The police chief at the time issued an unsympathetic statement saying: ‘‘I’m sorry for what happened, but Mr Davies showed poor judgment in running after the individuals.’’)
There is, as always, subtext to Davies’ songs on Americana. ‘‘I’m a narrative freak, which is not good in the job I’ve got. Traditional songs have a verse, chorus and a bridge. Mine have a three-act structure.’’
This fondness for narrative gave the world such classics as Waterloo Sunset, Sunny Afternoon, Autumn Almanac, Lola and Dead End Street, as well as ultimate power chord anthems You Really Got Me and All Day And All of the Night.
It’s an astonishing body of work. Even so, a hangdog aura surrounds Davies, a slightly grumbly sense that life is not easy for him.
‘‘I’m not Mick Jagger, I’m not Jumping Jack Flash,’’ he says. ‘‘I’m just a writer who happens to be a performer.’’ When I ask if he enjoys it, he answers firmly: ‘‘No. You can’t imagine what it’s like being a solo artist. Terrible.’’
He has taught himself stage techniques over a lifetime. ‘‘I can clap my hands, click my fingers and turn it on. But there are no disciplines with popular rock culture. It’s not like a play, where you’ve got to get an emotion as soon as you walk on stage. There are no rules. So in my own way I internalise what the audience is feeling.’’
He thinks his younger, guitarwielding brother Dave would have been a better frontman for the Kinks. ‘‘He’s more extrovert, more easy to understand.’’
Davies genuinely seems to miss The Kinks, though he and Dave spent years fighting and the band broke up in disarray. ‘‘It was always shambolic with The Kinks. But if you really listen, there was a lot going on. There were tempo changes, key changes, odd chords and they could do it in one take. It had to be tight. I miss having a band around all the time. Suddenly I’m just another guy around here.’’
Rumours of reunions have percolated for years. There was even talk they might play Glastonbury this year, which Davies dismisses. ‘‘If we did get back, we’d probably do it in a tacky little bar somewhere.’’
He and his brother didn’t speak for years. Dave had a stroke in 2004, from which he has slowly recovered, relearning to play guitar. They went for a drink recently, but all Davies will say is that it was a very quick drink. ‘‘You’ve got to be comfortable with people when you go on stage.’’
Americana contains hints of contemplations of death. When the talk turns to last year’s fantastic final albums from David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, he notes: ‘‘When you die, make sure you have a good distributor.’’
One track, Mystery Room, confronts his feelings after being shot.
‘‘The main thing I remember is really wanting to stay alive. The mystery room is the one you go into when you don’t know where you are going. It kind of spooked me out when I wrote it. When you get to a certain age, every line seems to be about mortality. I try not to think about it.’’
He does, however, liken releasing Americana (with a second volume due for the end of the year) to ‘‘clearing out the attic, putting my affairs in order. The period I was writing this, I went through tremendous upheavals in my personal life. I need to conclude this work, before I can move on to the next thing’’.
Davies is a triple-divorcee with four daughters by three expartners. His youngest daughter, Eva, lives in Ireland with her mother, ballet dancer Patricia Crosbie, and he admits he misses close contact with her. Subsequent relationships have also failed.
‘‘I’m easy to love but impossible to live with,’’ he smiles ruefully.
He speaks soulfully about Chuck Berry’s recent death. He avoided meeting his hero (‘‘he had a reputation for being a bit of a bastard’’) but at The Kinks’ final concert in America in 1995, he realised he had left his plectrums behind.
‘‘I desperately called out, ‘Has anybody got a f...ing plectrum?’’’ Someone handed him one. ‘‘I looked down and saw his name on it. So I played my last Kinks concert in America with Chuck Berry’s plectrum. I prefer to remember him that way.’’ – Telegraph Group Americana is scheduled for release next month.
Kinks frontman Sir Ray Davies was knighted by the Prince of Wales in recognition for his service to the arts during an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace on March 16.
Ray Davies’ Americana is out next month.