It’s taken me a while to get round to writing about Ray Davies‘s Americana: The Kinks, the road and the perfect riff (UK: Virgin 2013). I read it straight off when it first came out, and again, taking notes, before Christmas, but what with one thing and another, well, you know … Christmas, man flu (twice), a 90th birthday celebration (not mine, though talented youngest nephew did ask, How many years before yours?), a literary quiz to set (‘prize’ for being on the winning team last year), not to mention other gigs, other books – life’s rich tapestry in fact. In the meantime there have been a lot of reviews and blogs and a couple of writers have mentioned things that specifically made me curse my slowness in doing my bit, so Kinks followers will just have to take my word for it when I say, I was gonna say that if it sounds familiar.
Etymologically, the first appearance of the word ‘Americana’ goes back to 1841; its adoption as a label for a vague (but we know what you mean) musical genre comes a couple of decades after the making of Muswell Hillbillies, the Kinks album that crystalised in song the crucial relationship that UK baby boomers – an Americanism I’ve never been that happy with – and their elder brothers and sisters had with American culture. There had been hints before: Last of the steam powered trains (Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack lightning brilliantly wedded to one of the branch lines Beeching shut down), Australia on Arthur (the perfect period nuance of “We’ll surf / like they do in the USA“); but the recognition in song – not covers, not copies, more than inspiration – it’s all there in Muswell Hillbillies. I’ve even seen it suggested somewhere that The Kinks were among the founders of the alt.country movement – “Take me back to those Black Hills / That I aint never seen“. But I get ahead of myself.
I’ll go with the Wikipedia definition:
Americana refers to artifacts, or a collection of artifacts, related to the history, geography, folklore and cultural heritage of the United States. Many kinds of material fall within the definition of Americana […] The things involved need not be old, but need to have the appropriate associations. The term may be used to describe the theme of a museum or collection …
In the museum of Ray Davies’s mind (a museum, like all the good ones, that is not just backward looking) films and music have ever loomed large. There that classic Big Bill Broonzy club appearance (ironically filmed in Belgium) rubs shoulders with Oklahoma! and his sisters’ Elvis Presley records, Western movies and superheroes, and his dad’s drunken rendition of Minnie the Moocher. This is why he fatefully ended up in New Orleans, “a haphazard quest for a sense of being and belonging“, looking to refuel from the source, why – after missing out on the British Invasion due to circumstances still not fully documented – why making it as a stadium band there in the ’80s was so important to him. Americana chronicles this relationship from the very first and disastrous tour in “the country that symbolised freedom and opportunity“, describes how the technicolour reality measured up over the years to expectations first fostered in black and white.
Americana is not exactly your standard chunk of rock testimony; compared to Pete Townsend’s angst ridden tome, it’s like, well … Arthur as opposed to Tommy. It is structured around events in New Orleans – and the reasons Ray was spending time there – culminating in his being shot and badly injured in a mugging in early 2004, and that incident’s aftermath. These sections – why he was there, what happened – are intercut (rather artificially at times) with ‘flashbacks’ from his hospital or convalescent bed of The Kinks re-establishing themselves in the US in the ’70s and ’80s. It is the former that will engage the fellow traveler, while a lot of the finer detail of the latter – dealing as it does with the workings of the music industry, the making and touring of albums that barely got noticed in the UK once The Kinks were on their way again in the US – touches on the tedious the further into the book you get, even for the likes of me.
What I found particularly interesting is just how autobiographical a lot of his post-Kinks songs have been. The book fleshes out what is behind, say, Things are gonna change (The morning after) and After the fall on the Other people’s lives album. No rhetorical exercises in songwriting these: “I felt as though I’d imploded, personally and professionally.” He was indeed torn, shattered and battered by a life on the road – he is particularly good on how that feels to a sensitive soul, the loneliness, the damage done to relationships; but it also becomes clear that working – performing, writing, creating – is what keeps him going, is his raison d’être.
A lot of reviews have made the point that Americana is not like X-Ray: the unauthorized autobiography (1994), which told the story up to the on stage Kinks White City low point of 1973 through the fictional device of an aged and decrepit Ray (younger in X-Ray than he is now, let it be said) being interviewed by a young reporter, in the wider repressive context of some sort of son of 1984 regime. Americana is more of an orthodox memoir, the argument goes. I’m not so sure it’s as straightforward as that. The frontispiece, opposite the title page, reproduces a handwritten paragraph, white on grey:
… by simply telling my story I found myself dealing with the issue that my life had been lived mainly as fact and fiction combined. There was actually a blur where one started and the other ended.
And I was struck by how the authorial voice of Americana reminded me of the sometimes angular prose of Waterloo sunset, the collection of short stories Ray published in the UK in 1997 (and three years later in a revised edition in the US), many of which featured a rock and roller adrift, or at least had a music industry background. (I have to admit I haven’t actually returned to the pages of Waterloo sunset to confirm this, but it was a gut feeling, from the off.) Americana features ‘Rory’, a composite (and so fictional) American ‘rock chick’ who is announced as such by an asterisk and a footnote the first time ‘she’ appears, and then there is the matter of one Travis Davis, about whom I will have more to say later.
One blogger raised the spectre of the journalist in X-Ray as an ‘unreliable narrator’. It’s something that had occurred to me with Americana as well, and more generally. This is not, in literary terms, I hasten to add, necessarily a bad thing. (Check out the kind of company we’re talking about here in the Wikipedia entry). But Ray’s story, or rather the various stories that go to make it up, has not exactly been the most consistent over the years. This is, after all, the man who said, in response to the question, ‘How’s your health these days?’ in a phone interview promoting Americana,: “Pretty good. I work out two or three times a week. I’ve always been fairly active. I used to play football — English football. I was on trial with a team called Arsenal, but had a bad back injury, so I couldn’t pursue it.” He had a trial for Arsenal? Given that school contemporary and rival Rod Stewart definitely had a trial with lowly Brentford, how come it’s the first Ray has chosen to mention a trial for Arsenal? Now, for what it’s worth, this strikes me as a classic case of a feint – I’ll just throw that one out – in the midst of the unprecedented tsunami of interviews he gave for the book, of what Phil Ochs succinctly nailed in his Chords of fame: “Reporters ask you questions / They write down what you say“. And then there’s the Barnes & Noble interview of October 25, where he said, speaking of the writing of Wonderboy, “Maybe I shouldn’t tell the truth. Why start now?”
Just to be clear: what I am not saying here is that Ray is being deliberately misleading or worse (though some commentators have wondered why there are gaps in his American saga, of, for example, any great detail about the times he was living in New York, and other things they wanted to know about). What I am trying to say is that fine distinctions of form made considering his literary output are not as clear-cut as they might at first appear. Maybe the soundtrack here should be the extended version of the song Storyteller on Ray’s solo Collected album. Nor am I in any way doubting the often searing honesty on display in Americana, the painful introspection and self-doubt. Not that there’s a total lack of exhilaration to help us along too, naturally.
So what have we got? Here are a few things that struck me:
Travis Davis aka Gabriel
Travis Davis just happens to pop up at various crucial points in Ray’s life. I’ll freely admit to putting the name into Google and examining more than the first couple of pages of links looking for a musician on the London club scene in the early ’60s; he doesn’t, to the best of my recall, appear anywhere in X-Ray. In hindsight – “It didn’t matter to me whether Travis was really there or not. He’d pop back into my life when he was good and ready in between the cracks of my reality” – it’s pretty obvious that Travis Davis is not real. He too is an imaginary man. He seems real enough when we first meet him, an American jazz trumpeter, as “spiritual mentor and muse,” when a young pre-Kinks Ray is finding his way in the jazz and blues clubs of early ’60s London. That was when, “My idea of musical surrealist nirvana existed in a twilight world where music can be played deep into the night in a mysterious subterranean setting” (Amen!) and there we are back in the basement club of that short Broonzy film mentioned earlier. A mixture of alter ego and guardian angel, then; his mojo, even (and he gets him back). Tellingly American, of course; with a country music name as a bonus. As a sustained motif it’s nicely done, with no mystical or psychological theorising. I hate to think what brother Dave would make of it.
Americana clears the question of where Ray stands politically as unambiguously as we’re ever likely to get at quite some length. He’s a sentimental socialist. He got that from his dad and he’s nostalgic about it: “To me, Tony Blair looked, preached and behaved like a Tory. The New Labour Party didn’t speak for working people any more, but I felt a little like a phony for not doing anything more political […]”. Elsewhere there’s a glib statement about the European Union “starting to erode what was left of the UK” but he doesn’t expand on that; I’m pretty sure this does not mean he’s started reading the Daily Express, though, or that he’ll be voting UKIP. I think it’s a shame that he doesn’t rub the Americans’ noses in it – here’s that socialism you’re so scared of – about the way he would have been treated in a UK National Health hospital without question if he’d been shot in over here, as opposed to what actually happened in New Orleans, with all the wranglings about what kind of insurance he had. (Might not have got such a good song – Morphine song – out of it though)
Clumsy prose, typos and bad editing
Nobody’s expecting F.Scott Fitzgerald and there are some fine enough passages. But very early on there is evidence of clumsy prose and/or shoddy editorial input (or lack thereof). How I cringed at, “When I grew up in North London, Britain had a good old-fashioned three-tier political party system of upper, middle and working class.” Oh no it didn’t, that’s the John Cleese/Ronnie Barker sketch about class from The Frost Report; if it weren’t for enough of the working class voting Tory they would never get in. And I’m still confused as to whether Ray regrets not being a tax exile – like the Stones – as his advisers did advise, or not, opting as he did “stubbornly and perhaps stupidly” to get “taxed to the hilt. In a strange way I thought I was doing it for ‘the revolution’ and that it would end up a better more equal society […]”. Commendable, I’d say, but of course it didn’t. He then goes on to say: “Even so I regret not trying to become a tax exile […] That was not my style, in any event these were the days before global television sport, so I wouldn’t have been able to go to Arsenal home football games …” Now, would that paragraph not read better, is it not better prose, if it had said “Even so, I don’t regret not trying to become a tax exile …”? Or is that just wishful thinking on my part? Alternatively, “Even though I regret …” flows better, is better prose. Anyone gets the chance, can they ask him, please? Others have commented on the number of simple typos they spotted in passing in the book as a whole.
Too much information / not enough
A lot of the management / record industry mechanics / promo men stuff could have been dealt with in an ‘Acknowledgments’ section at the back; they’d have got their nod well enough. The specifics just slow the narrative and, sorry, but a lot of them we are unlikely ever to hear of again. Tales of tour manager Ken Jones, UK manager Nigel Thomas, and his minders (‘the Big Guys) add something. And Clive Davis, of course, of whom more later. On the other hand, just mentioning that he saw the Ramones and the White Stripes in clubs in the US when they were the buzz about town is frustrating; I wanna know what you thought about them, Ray – whether you were engaged, energised, unimpressed?
Not exactly a secret, but it is absolutely clear now that we have to blame Clive Davis , the Arista label boss, for Sleepwalker. I know, I know: it’s one of the albums that divides Kinks fans, and there’s no denying it did pave the way for the Kinks’ greater success in the States, so it had its uses. I just think its their blandest, least distinctive album; it’s a complicated life. One wonders, with Ray, if it would have made any difference if The Kinks had renewed with Arista when the time came, something that didn’t happen due to a Kinks management’s cock-up.
“It’s all about Eva,” Ray says at one stage, stressing his discovery of the importance to him of maintaining the bond with his youngest daughter; a neat little black and white Hollywood movie reference, casually, tangentially, lobbed in. Some reviewers and commentators have expressed surprise that brother Dave doesn’t figure as much as they’d expected, though it would appear that when not touring Dave was off doing other things. I have to say if anything I’m surprised at the restraint Ray shows in not commenting on Dave’s UFO hunts and other magickal and spiritual pursuits.; they have been in very different places for a long time.
Americana is a bit like the albums – from Misfits through to State of confusion – recorded for Arista in the ’80s and taking up a fair number of pages in it. To go back to the village green of old, a bit of a curate’s egg. Some great stuff that deserves more attention, some ordinary stuff that only a dedicated Kinks fan can spend significant time with. Those songs on those albums employ various styles and approaches with variable success, playing to the gallery, rousing or blustering one minute, private moments delicately captured the next, all usually giving space to a sly humour. The book uses diary extracts and song lyrics, even three pages of dialogue from his 80 Days musical, to help it along, to capture moods and moments. As a modest portrait of a talented man trying to find a way, without too much of the clichéd excess, struggling not to lose his way in an industry that can take a heavy toll on your soul, I think it’s one of the best offerings of its kind out there. Long may he run.