Ray Davies, Americana – The Kinks, The Riff, The Road: The Story (Sterling)
Over time, Ray Davies has proven himself as one of the truly remarkable musicians to emerge from the bubbling cauldron of mid 1960s British music. As leader of the Kinks, he was a contemporary of The Beatles, The Stones and The Who in terms of bands that successfully crossed the Atlantic. Unlike the other bands, however, at the crest of their first wave of American popularity the Kinks faced a dodgy performance ban. In this his second autobiography, Davies describes the before and after of that ban. The result is a compelling perspective. Diehard fans will find much to relish, and even those with only a passing acquaintance with Davies’ wry observations will find much to enjoy.
In his first autobiography (the cleverly titled “X-Ray: The Unauthorized Autobiography”) Davies laid out the how and why he and his brother formed the Kinks. That thick tome seemingly left little else to describe, but “Americana” goes broader and deeper.
The centerpiece of the new book is his peripatetic search for a place to call home. He finds New Orleans comfortable, and settles in. A chance encounter with a street robber lands Davies in the hospital with gunshot wounds after he foolishly chases the robber in an attempt to retrieve his girlfriend’s purse. His description of interns seeking an autograph on his x-rays eerily echo the tale of George Harrison’s physician seeking an autograph on a guitar, a point Davies does not mention.
Davies bounces back and forth in the book’s chronology, with much emphasis on his drive to re-invade America in the late 1970s, after the touring ban was lifted. I was lucky enough to see them several times in that era, and recall fondly a college gig the Kinks played in 1979.
Clive Davis was pivotal in the band’s renaissance, he signed the Kinks to his fledgling Arista label in the mid 1970’s after the seeming indifference of Warner Brothers. The apogee of the Kinks’ resurgence was at the US Festival in San Bernardino in 1982. Davies was between albums and was uninterested in performing at the gig. He and Bill Graham settled the matter with a verbal promise that the band would go on at dusk and be the first band of the day to use lights. When Graham tried to shift their start time earlier, Davies clung to the promise. The consequent delay whipped the crowd into a frenzy, and the band performed with aplomb. Graham was fuming, but later offered to promote the band any time they came back to the west coast.
The book may have the most lyrics of any rock music book I have read, which is a delight.
His spirituality bubbles to the surface briefly, comparing his Church of England upbringing with what he discovered at Baptist churches in New Orleans.
When the Arista deal was ready for renewal, Davies was ready to re-up with Clive Davis. MCA nonetheless swept in. Davies describes the business affairs negotiation as being beyond the capabilities of the UK counterparts; he also differentiates the east coast Arista stylings with the west coast MCA modus operandi.
Davies describes how he left his tender feelings for Chrissie Hynde after their acrimonious break were disguised in one of the songs from “80 Days,” a musical that premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse under the able direction of Des McAnuff. (McAnuff also brought to stage Townshend’s more successful “Tommy,” among other notable productions).
Davies almost pursued his muse about a production entitled “Breakfast in Berlin” but shelved it, only to see the Berlin Wall come down shortly thereafter.
The last Kinks gig in America was in 1995. It was in front of 70,000 people as part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opening ceremonies. The Kinks were the only all British band on the bill, and it was a fitting capstone for a band that had been once banished from stages on this side of the Atlantic.
Davies is a profoundly accomplished storyteller. Indeed the best show ever broadcast on MTV was inaugurated by him, and all subsequent episodes of “Storyteller” are dedicated to him. “Americana” proudly takes its place among the best rock autobiographies to date.