‘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 Dominion Post - - Culture -

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.

WPA POOL

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.

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