Americana – The Kinks, The Road and The Perfect Riff by Ray Davies: book review

During his book talk at Norwich Playhouse on Saturday 10 May 2014, Ray Davies says, ‘I didn’t use a ghostwriter, I could have done.’ This isn’t news to me because I’ve read it, and there’s no doubt in my mind he weighed and wrote every word.

There is nothing inherently wrong with rock stars using ghosts for their memoirs. These books, composed from hours of recorded interviews, are filled with pleasing anecdotes captured in the speaking voice of the ‘author’ and are often eminently readable. Keith Richards virtually shared credit with his ghost, James Fox. The problem with the ghost-written conceit is that when an artist comes along who actually does write their own book – and in doing so creates a work of dignity worthy of being read – there’s no way of telling the difference by looking at the cover.

In ‘Americana’, Davies tells two stories about his life and work in the United States. The first narrative spans three decades, beginning with the Kinks’ arrival as part of the British beat invasion in June 1965 and subsequently getting banned due to ‘bad management, bad luck and bad behaviour’. What follows is the slow rehabilitation of the Kinks’ credibility through years of touring and some 20+ studio albums until, in 1990, they are officially accepted back into the hearts and minds of America when they’re inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The second story is more recent, recalling the dramatic events surrounding a day in January 2004 when Davies was shot by a mugger in New Orleans. When news filtered back across the Atlantic that the lead singer and songwriter of one of the most influential bands of the twentieth century was hospitalised with a gunshot wound, the obituary writers must’ve been ebullient . . . but they were left unsatisfied because Ray Davies survived.

Enough is written in print and on the internet about Ray Davies’s accomplishments so I won’t repeat them here, except to say ‘Waterloo Sunset’ is a flawless masterpiece. In ‘Americana’, he calls his song-writing muscle the ‘doo-di-dum-dums’ and describes it as too personal to share, an explanation that will frustrate music theory scholars for years to come. Characters and their stories are the lifeblood of his songs, and his book introduces the reader to several characters of note over the Kinks’ career including loyal roadies, trusted security minders and foppish managers. By no means is this a tell-all autobiography. There are no insights into the cause of apparent bad feelings between himself and his guitarist brother, Dave Davies, merely an acknowledgment of them and a tenor of regret. Gossip here is limited, so readers looking for vicarious sex-and-drug fuelled experiences will have to go elsewhere (although the part when Dave Davies and Keith Moon are unable to throw a television out a hotel widow because the window was too small did make me laugh).

Instead Davies builds a picture of years of touring and recording, of a relentless pressure to deliver the next show and the next album, and how these obligations have taken their toll. The road is not conducive to a stable family existence, and he missed the court appearances of his shooter and, by an unkind twist of fate, the death of his mother due recording commitments he felt he had no choice but to fulfil.

The creative life once chosen does not always go according to plan. Anxiety comes with the effort of producing and perfecting work. There’s a lovely chapter set in March 1978 in New York when Davies admits to having writer’s block and struggles even to leave the apartment:

‘Who were music people, anyway? It’s just another business, after all, and I don’t have to put myself through all this. I wanted to cry out, “I am a successful songwriter with many songs to my credit. I am an artist. I deserve to be heard.” The reality was that I didn’t feel like a songwriter because I couldn’t produce at that time. Questions kept running through my head. What are you trying to prove, anyhow? You just got lucky a few years ago, so why should the world open up to you just because you wrote a few hits in the distant past? I thought about going home to get a trade and a day job. I was ready to quit the music industry altogether . . .’

In his talk as part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival (a literary event, not a music one) Davies says that when he gives a bad performance, he walks the streets. It’s easy to imagine the stream of self-reproaches, the over analysis of each mistake, the resolutions to get it right next time. In the Q & A part of the evening, I ask how the creative process has changed over the years? He replies he is more refined and more critical now, that it’s important to get the bad ideas out as well as the good ones, that no matter what else has gone before, the writing still begins with a blank piece of paper. It is refreshingly honest. And this is the real thrill in ‘Americana’, the honesty with which he deals with the recent past.

Davies goes to New Orleans in search of inspiration, to soak up blues, jazz, the spirits of musicians living and dead. He stays at a house where he can hear a high school marching band practicing nearby and decides to facilitate a project with them.

Then he tells the story of being gunned down and it is astonishing.

After being circumspect about the history of the Kinks, the reader is taken fully into Ray Davies’s point of view: the weather on the day, the face of the attacker, the instinct to fight back that was later the source of victim-blaming in the press by New Orleans authorities. The wound, the shock, the miasma of pain relief. The fact that for a time in hospital, because all his cards had been stolen, the medical staff called one of England’s famous sons, ‘Unknown Purple’. These chapters are full of intimate detail and stark vulnerability. The author wears his heart on his sleeve and whatever can’t be said directly is illustrated through selected lyrics.

‘See the sun, the day has come, and the night is just a memory / Do you live in a dream or do you live in a reality?’

It is a sincerely attempted self-portrait and a revelation.

‘Americana’ is not Davies’s first memoir. ‘X-ray: The Unauthorized Autobiography’ was a playful experiment in semi-fiction published in 1994. Twenty years later he is using prose to tease out personal truths and as healing; the result is a piece of writing of rare and thoughtful quality. With perhaps one or two exceptions (‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith springs to mind) the vast majority of Davies’s musical peers are simply incapable of this much depth and self-awareness in book form.

In the audience in Norwich, I suspect I am the only person who has read ‘Americana’ in advance and is more excited about meeting Ray Davies, the author, rather than Ray Davies, bona fide rock god. I want the interviewer to ask about his literary influences, not his musical ones, but the questions put are predictable and crowd-pleasing. The crush in the book-signing queue after is not conducive to writerly confidences and I sense an opportunity slipping away. There are several things I wish to know from this author and only the length of a signature left to ask; so I take a leap of faith based on the person I’ve met on the page.

‘It’s a great book,’ I say. ‘Are you going to write another?’ Yes, he replies. ‘What are you going to write about?’ And he tells me.

Americana – The Kinks, The Road and The Perfect Riff by Ray Davies

Published in the UK by Virgin Books, October 2013

Ray Davies on Facebook, @TheKinks on Twitter

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