The Lonely Kink
Ray Davies, one of rock’s most influential songwriters, is making his way as a solo artist. But all he really wants is his band back
The weird thing in the distance that looks like a giant flying saucer landed on the vast flatness that is most of London is Emirates Stadium, home of Davies’ beloved Arsenal soccer team. At one time he hoped to play the sport professionally until he suffered a back injury in his teens. “Now I’m just another loser at the petrol station,” Davies sighs as he pumps gas. “They say the wind here has a straight shot at Highgate all the way from Siberia.”
Highgate, where he now lives in a brick row house amidst many brick row houses, and Muswell Hill, where he grew up, are contiguous and indeed high. The narrow winding streets periodically open up into spectacular views of London, and you half expect Peter Pan to fly out of somebody’s window.
“Don’t write about it if I hit anything,” says Davies as he white-knuckles his way around a double-decker bus and gives a tour of his intimate history with the neighbourhood. “That supermarket is the dance hall where we used to play”¦ Dave and I used to rehearse in the basement of that Pizza Hut”¦ I thought No Country for Old Men was wonderfully shot but badly written”¦ I lived with my sister in that house when I was eight”¦ Karl Marx is buried there in Highgate Cemetery”¦ You know William Blake used to live here, too? He used to talk to angels out on Peckham Rye. I’ve talked to a few myself at night on a pub strut”¦ I studied there at Hornsey Arts College”¦ That’s the pub where we used to buy drugs. There aren’t any proper pubs in England anymore. They’re all gastro-pubs. If you want a decent pint, you have to go to Ireland. The pubs, the churches ”“ all dying institutions.”
It turns out the only place to park in all of London is in front of the very same restaurant from yesterday. The feeling of dÃ©jÃ vu is overwhelming inside the cafe; Ray is wearing the same clothes, and the same miasma of baked avocado fills the lungs. Tea ”“ and tea only ”“ is ordered.
“Another reason I wanted to move to New Orleans was to escape Tony Blair,” says Davies. “I’m a socialist, and Labour is not socialist anymore. The working man is still downtrodden and unheard. And now they’re vanishing. Blair came in and it became uncool to be working class. Everybody aspired to be something a little bit better. Nothing wrong with wanting to better yourself, but when you forget your origins ”“ that’s bad. That’s why I don’t fit into this culture anymore. I take the side of the underdog.”
Davies sips his tea and thinks.
“I don’t justify the guy who shot me,” he resumes. “But I kind of understood. Maybe he didn’t have such a great life. I don’t know.”
Another pause for tea.
“I’m not saying all ruling-class people are evil. They aren’t herding working-class people into a pit and shooting them. But there is a kind of ethnic cleansing going on, and it’s being done culturally and politically and environmentally. This is a middle-class area now, not working-class. The only danger is from the baked avocado. But when I walk the streets, I don’t know anyone, and I grew up here.”
In the States, the Kinks and the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion seemed like an escape route from the working class ”“ they had figured out a way to avoid the 9-to-5. The guitar makers seemed to be selling freedom as much as a musical instrument.
“It was an escape for people like me,” Davies says. “But I shunned the trappings of success. Rod Stewart grew up around here, and he lives in Beverly Hills. I tried to be the invisible rock singer. Louis Armstrong used to sing, ”˜Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?’ Maybe he had the same longing to get back to a lost community that I have. It was easy to be a Kink, hard to be me.”
Almost ten years ago, Davies signed the Kinks’ catalogue to Sanctuary, a label that was supposed to be for artists who wanted sensitive care of their life’s work. Last summer, Sanctuary got taken over by Universal, which has its own agenda.
“Universal, they’ve culled the tunes, they’ve cut out this, and kept that, and I’ve inherited all this bullshit. So it’s the illusion that you can get by without a 9-to-5 job. Most of my time was taken up dealing with corporate people, the bullshit people. And I’ve had to deal with bullshit for most of my career. Does Bob Dylan have to deal with the same thing? I talk to more lawyers than I do [to] musicians. The reason I don’t give up is that I want to be an annoyance to the bean counters for the rest of my life.”
A tall middle-aged man in a fat winter jacket shyly approaches Davies at the table. He appears to be a fan, then Davies has a moment of recognition, and they talk warmly for a few minutes, shaking hands when the man departs.
“He was one of my songwriting students,” says Davies. “I do a songwriting seminar ”“ it’s residential, and it lasts a week. I was trying to arrange the exchange of schools between New Orleans and London before I got shot. I was trying to expand it just to get kids writing and feeling good about themselves. Like this guy I just talked to. He’s not a student, just someone who took a different route than I did. He’s done the day job, he’s getting near the end of his career. He’s always wanted to be a songwriter, and he decides, ”˜I’m going to do it.’ So he takes the course; he can express something he wants to say, and he feels great at the end of the week. It keeps something in him alive, because the guitar does mean freedom. Everyone deserves that space to dream of freedom, but it gets harder and harder to earn that dream time.”