Ray Davies, the Salon interview: "I can still perform most of my songs with dignity"

Salon exclusive: The Kinks frontman talks about getting shot, writing "Waterloo Sunset" and a Kinks reunion

By Stephen Deusner

Published November 9, 2013 9:00PM (EST)

Ray Davies       (AP/Joel Ryan)
Ray Davies (AP/Joel Ryan)

In January 2004, Ray Davis lay in a hospital bed in New Orleans, in shock and out of his head on morphine for the gunshot wound he had just received. He was still officially anonymous, having given none of his information to the nurses when he was admitted into the E.R. Instead, he was known only as “Unknown Purple,” which had been written on his wristband. “In the files of Charity Hospital, that’s who I would be.” After doctors had taken X-rays and nurses had pumped the fragments of cloth and bullet from the wound, Davies was rolled out of the trauma room. “Then as I was being wheeled away on the gurney,” he writes in his new memoir, “someone asked me, ‘Would you sign this for me? I’m a fan.’ Damn. It was actually a copy of my X-ray.”

That incident makes for a bleakly comic scene in “Americana: The Kinks, the Riff, the Road: The Story” (Sterling), which recounts Davies’ long and rocky relationship with the country that produced all the music he loves so dearly. The irony, of course, is that what inspired him nearly killed him.

Davies recounts that harrowing incident while also stepping even further back in time to recount the Kinks’ numerous tours of America. In the mid-1960s, the band was just one of many that traversed the Atlantic to make their fortune in the biggest pop market in the world. Their shows — marked by Davies’ incisive songwriting and riff making as well as by the onstage rows between band members — were legendary, yet the Kinks found themselves more or less kicked out of the country. Depending on which story you believe, the ban started when Davies clocked a union official who accused England of adopting communism or when the Kinks played a Dick Clark special without paying their union dues.

With a storyteller’s verve and a prose style as confident as his lyrical tack (which is rare among musicians), Davies toggles between the 1960s and the 2000s, when the Kinks were long defunct and he was only just getting around to releasing solo albums. He came to America to rev his creative engines: As he writes in “Americana,” “New Orleans was the starting point of all my musical aspirations: country music, Cajun music, Dixieland, boogie-woogie and soul, trad jazz, skiffle, bebop, rock and roll. It all came from somewhere, and it had to be in New Orleans. That’s why I went there.”

Much like his previous book, “X-Ray: The Unauthorized Autobiography,” “Americana” reads less like a rock memoir than an epic roman à clef, and Davies comes across as a protagonist who’s not intended to be fully sympathetic. He portrays his own inner life richly, with little preening or self-justification. “My work was not only defining me as a person,” he writes, “it was becoming my whole life and dictating my future as a human being — which was not entirely helpful to my own well-being.”

Davies recently spoke to Salon from his home in London, holding forth on the documentary aspect of his songwriting, the allure of American music, and all those rumors of a Kinks reunion.

At what point did the theme of Americana suggest itself as an organizing theme for this book?

I did a tour with a book called “X-Ray,” and there was this show called “Storyteller” that I did. There was a song that set the scene for that American tour, and it was called “Americana.” It was about the Kinks’ trials and tribulations from our first tour of America. So the title was there right from the get-go. I thought about calling it something else from time to time, but “Americana” summed it all up to me. It’s not just a style. I think it’s a whole package that we have to embrace in America. It’s such a massive country, and there are so many cultures within it. It just seemed to me to be the word that summed up everything that’s good and bad about the place — all the inspiring and depressing times I’ve had here. It sums up everything — even the Kinks.

On your solo albums as well as Kinks album like “Muswell Hillbillies,” it’s not just in the lyrics that the idea of Americana comes through. It’s in the music, which plays around with country & western, R&B, blues, even rockabilly.

I think you’re correct, because like I say in the book, it’s a musical culture. America inspired me to start writing songs. I have English influences, of course, but as far as America goes, it was blues, country and all that. But I’ll never be a country singer. I don’t have the chops for that. This book is in a strange way a celebration of a band that nearly stuck together through thick and thin. We wouldn’t have done it without American music.

I’m always surprised when a songwriter is a good prose writer. Can you talk about these two pursuits and how they differ?

Well, I never thought I was writing prose. I think I write in hooks, but in prose the hook is a longer passage than it is in a song. Songs are more abbreviated and concise than prose. You’re throwing more suggestions up in the air. Prose can take you deeper into another world. But songs, because of the way they’re structured, leave more to the imagination. I don’t know the secret, but my feeling is that prose writing can still leave the imagination to work. I have lots of new lyrics and new songs bookending the various chapter headings. I say in the book at one point, songs are like my diaries. They’re friends to comfort me when I get lonely. Songs are like companions to me. The thing I wanted to do with “Americana,” I wanted to share with the reader my personal diary-style songs that I wouldn’t normally put on a record. I write the way I think and sometimes a song sums up my mood.

Those songs play a pretty crucial role in the book, almost like direct dispatches from your past self.

I get songs that I abandoned 25 years ago, and they’ll pop into my head suddenly. When that occurs, it reminds you of that time so many years ago. So they’re very important parts of my personal makeup, which is why I felt it was appropriate to use them in the book. Songs are better company than people. You go into a bar and you’re sitting there drinking and feeling lonesome, then you put on a great record and it changes everything. They can bypass every emotion because they’re from another world. Sometimes, they’re counterpoints to the real world. Sometimes it’s a song unrelated to a person’s situation and it can get out of a mood or into another way of thinking that didn’t exist before. That’s why people say music is a soundtrack to people’s lives. A song will never let you down … unless it’s a bad song.

What’s it like, then, to live with a song like “Waterloo Sunset” or even “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” for so many years? What does it mean to sing your own songs when you’re in your 60s as opposed to when you were in your 20s?

When I started out, I tended to write for people who were older than I was. “Sunny Afternoon” is for a generation older than me. But one difference with me is, I’ve never been a teen idol. Things like “Waterloo Sunset” were never going to turn me into a sex symbol. I don’t sing, “Come on, baby, come into my Chevy and rock out tonight.” Although it would be great to do that for a laugh. I generally write songs that are about emotions in people that are kind of timeless. So I can still perform most of my songs with dignity.

Do those older songs reveal new facets or new meanings to you over time?

They don’t normally change, but I change, of course. My interpretation of them changes. When I work on tour, I work with the audience and sing to the audience, and every audience has a different overall personality. I don’t tailor the show to that audience, but it keeps the music fresh to me. It’s like singing a song fresh for the first time. I just put myself in the position where this is the first time I’ve ever sung on “Waterloo Sunset” or “You Really Got Me,” for example.

In the 1960s it seemed like so many kids in the U.K. were inspired by America and especially by American music — blues, jazz, zydeco, r&b. Do you see this as a generational story as well as a personal story?

My daughter’s 15, and she wants to go to America. I think America symbolizes freedom, opportunity and the chance to discover the unknown. It’s always been that way. Hollywood portrayed it to my generation, and now television portrays it to my daughter’s generation. Like it or not, America is just an inspiring place. It’s a great culture because of its music. Because it’s such a wild place, people in Europe still want to go there. It fulfills that role for many, many different types of people.

The book’s account of your shooting in New Orleans is incredibly harrowing — not just the attack itself, but the immediate recovery in the hospital. Can you talk about revisiting that event?

It was actually quite tough for me to write. At the time I kept a diary, so I had initial notes. I tried to be more cold and journalistic about it — detached from it as much as possible — because I didn’t want too many emotions to pour in. In the grand scheme of things, what happened to me is what happens to people in the world all the time. It’s like having a toothache compared to what happens every day in the world. What it was for me, I think, was not just a physical thing. It was the world telling me: Something can happen to you, and it will change your life. Maybe the world was sending me a signal, apart from these people trying to rob me. It was sending me another signal from somewhere. All the frustrations I had from being banned in America, all the work it took to get back into songwriting again — all that came to a head in that moment. The symbolism of it was quite devastating, as was the actual physical reality of it.

So you were actually taking notes while you were in the hospital?

I took only bare-bones notes, but still it helped me get centered. There’s a song called “Morphine Song” and a few others that I wrote in the hospital — "Charity," I think it was called. Making notes was the only way I could stop myself from getting all freaked out. That’s what I do — make notes. Actually, some of them rhyme quite well.

“Americana” really emphasizes the degree to which you document your own life — in songs that everybody knows, in songs that nobody will ever hear. You mention it’s a means to prove to yourself that you exist, almost like an existential creative crisis.

Oh boy. I know what you’re saying. It was an identity crisis. That was intended while I was writing it. The "Unknown Purple" reference — for about an hour after I was admitted to the hospital, I was unknown, even to myself. Maybe I did want to get lost. Maybe I did want to rediscover who I was after a life of touring and wanting to be noticed. Part of the job is to stand out, but I’ve always been very relaxed doing press and having my picture taken. In that case, there’s no choice. But I’m a very private person, and I do a job where you have to be visible. I feel like I have a problem with that.

There are new rumors circulating about a possible Kinks reunion. Can you comment on that?

I can’t really because I haven’t talked about it really to anybody else. I’ve heard the rumors and when somebody spouts rumors, I like to step back. I just have to finish promoting the book, and I think I’m starting a record soon. But if you think what happened to me in New Orleans was traumatic, a reunion would be worse. But it really depends on whether there’s good music in it. Good new music. It might just be in a bar somewhere.

Will the new solo album draw from any of the songs quoted in “Americana”?

I think there are 22 new song references altogether. I was thinking of doing a soundtrack to the book. Some of those songs are really still with me, and I wrote some special ones while I was writing the book, too. So writing this book and writing songs have been running parallel.

Stephen Deusner

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