Give Me Life On the Road
Travels with the Kinks [a long way from home]
"Von of my favorite bands," promoter Mike Scheller is saying backstage at Offenbach, Germany's Stadhalle theater, a few minutes before the fourth show of a brief, typically last-minute Kinks tour. "But you always have to approach with a sense of humor. Ray gives short notice. After 25 years, you don't try to change his attitude. The Kinks are the Kinks."
Tonight in West Germany, both the band and the crowd are good but not great. The set is a characteristic mix of old ("Apeman", "Deadend Street") and the new ("How Do I Get Close", "Loony Balloon"), expected ("Come Dancing") and the unexpected ("I'm Not Like Everybody Else"). Ray Davies, wearing a fringed jacket and clutching a bottle of beer, gets a decent sing-along going on "Low Budget," but when he goes into a funny Vegas-style rap, the audience merely looks expectant. "You don't understand a word I'm saying, do you?," he concluded, and cuts the routine short.
After they finish "Lola," just 70 minutes into the show, the Kinks leave the stage abruptly and the house lights go up. Something is amiss. Confusion backstage, while out front the crowd chants loudly for more: "zugabe, zugabe." After five minutes the Kinks return - crisis averted! - and launch into a generous encore, beginning beautifully with "Days" and ending with a crunching "You Really Got Me."
A relieved Scheller drags on a cigarette in the wings.
"I don't know what happened," he shouts above the din. "I asked Ray, 'Would it kill you if you do some more?" And he said, 'No, it would not kill me."
An hour of so later, Ray Davies, as reserved offstage as he is animated onstage, sits in a wood-paneled hotel bar, holding on his lap a small plate containing a halved lemon. While a one-man Frank Sinatra/Nelson Riddle Orchestra recreates "Witchcraft" and "New York, New York," the members of the band and their small entourage drift in quietly. From such innocent beginnings can spring astronomical bar bills: before the night is through, the Kink's party, totaling about 15, will stand accused of the consumption of exactly 200 beers, a figure that's not only laughably high but suspiciously round. For now, though, all is calm and credible.
Ray explains that there was a problem with the stage, that he tripped up several times in the first five minutes and it unnerved him. "If I can't move around, I can't perform," he says. "I never knew that about myself. Now I've discovered it." He laughs. His real concern, he adds, was for the dancers, who risked breaking ankles. It's the week before Christmas. Elsewhere the Rolling Stones are concluding their $100 million reunion tour in the House of Trump, and the Who are undoubtedly appreciating the beneficial effects twenty-fifth anniversaries can have on a band's holiday shopping. The Kinks, no strangers to hit records and sold-out arenas during a quarter-century commendably free of hyped-up reunions and anniversary gimmickry, are tooling through Germany primarily by car - six unglamorous dates in mid-sized halls to support a new album, U.K. Jive. And they are evidently enjoying themselves, none more so than their droll, affable leader, who has already celebrated one of the concerts by staying up until six in the morning drinking beer.
The lemon is for his throat, but it remains untouched in the plate on his lap for over an hour. He accepts a draft, declines a cigarette ("Are you kidding?"), and the discussion bounces from Panama to Romania to where Ray will go when the tour ends to his recipe for writing while jet-lagged. He claims to have come up with some very interesting lyrics that way. "Drink a lot," he advises, "and try not to get too much sleep."
A gentleman, he interrupts himself to offer his lemon to a German-speaking woman at his table. "Would you...um..like to have some?", Ray says, grinning and sounding like a man in a dirty raincoat. She demurs, but the plate will be politely offered to her again at regular intervals.
Scheller, the promoter, walks into the bar, says a few hellos and calls out in (perhaps) mock exasperation: "Ray, what are you going to do with this tour, eh?"
"Stick it up may ass," cackles Ray. "What do you expect me to do?" Scheller leans down and hugs him.
Beers continue to arrive, and Ray's travel plans again come under discussion. He's not sure whether to spend Christmas - just a few days away - in London, or New York, or Ireland. Or - here's an idea - he could go to Berlin by car, if getting a hotel room doesn't prove problematic. Ah, but what about all those interviews scheduled in Hamburg, after the last show? Maybe he should stay in Hamburg longer than planned to accommodate even more interviews.
"Fine," says one of the tour staff. "In that case you can leave from - "
"But I can't leave,", Ray says, sensibly, "if I don't know where I'm going."
As the beer total leaps and bounds silently to the magic number 200, Ray bows out of the heroic communal effort. There is one final attempt to share his lemon: "Are you sure you wouldn't like some?" "Nein." Ray stands to leave. Passing behind Scheller, he claps him on one shoulder. "Friends?" he asks. The promoter beams. Still balancing the lemon on the plate, Ray drifts out of the bar.
With the Kinks, always you have to approach with the sense of humor.
Whatever the opposite of "synergy" is, that's what the Kinks have always thrived on. Last autumn, with U.K. Jive completed but still unreleased, the band, with nothing to promote, hit the road for a six-week American tour, amid the usual rumors that Ray and Dave Davies weren't getting along. After a wonderfully raucous - and yes, last minute - final show at the Beacon Theater in New York City, the Kinks scattered. With the curious logic that seems to surround the band's affairs, the tour's end meant that the new album could safely be released; UK Jive, a musically diverse collection of songs, was in the stores within two weeks of the Beacon show's final chorus of "Twist and Shout." At the same time, it was announced that the Kinks had been voted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. Talk about momentum; album finally available, single on the radio, band headed for the Hall of Fame!
The Kinks made to most of this by remaining out of sight for the rest of October, November and half of December.
It's true that at one time keeping the Kinks off the road might have been considered a shrewd tactical move. Their concerts from the late 1960's to the mid-70's were loose, casual affairs, riveting in their own special way but not necessarily guaranteed to make non-believers want to buy the records. "Good ideas there, yeah, good ideas," Ray says now of his bow-tied vaudevillian phase. "But I was bit mad when I was doing it."
Some insist the band's reputation during those years was unfairly exaggerated. "Everyone used to say they were sloppy and drunk,", says one insider. "They were sloppy, but they weren't drunk." Well...all right. In any event, today's live Kinks are no liability whatsoever to today's studio Kink. For a long time now the band has been a different kind of tight. The rhythm section of Jim Rodford, in his twelfth year as bass player, and drummer Bob Henrit, who replaced founding member Mick Avory in 1985, is solid as can be. Avory, incidentally, now looks after the band's Konk Studios outside London and "twiddles around on the drums on weekends, playing in jazz bands and things," according to Ray. (Avory also recently took a golfing holiday in Bangkok where, claims an amused Ray, he contracted something contagious and unpleasant: "I told him not to sit on the lavatory seats.") New keyboard player Mark Haley completes the quintet, and two professional dancers - Patricia Crosbie and Robin James - perform in the show's few choreographed numbers. Crosbie is also Mrs. Ray Davies.
One of the only drawbacks in recruiting talented new musicians is that the Kink's carefully thought-out set can't accommodate as much spontaneity as it once did. "It's very frustrating," says Ray. "Whenever we get a new member in the band we can't play some of the older stuff that we could just do off the top of our heads." But Ray is still capable of launching into practically anything, which has led Dave Davies to instruct the other Kinks. If you're not sure you know the song, don't play anything.
Of course, in addition to some obvious early hits, certain more obscure gems are rehearsed and presented properly. "Apeman" is a "settling-in number," according to Ray. "Village Green Preservation Society" is the title cut of an album Ray would like to dip into a bit more. ("There's a very good spirit to it. It wasn't until we started doing it live I realized how good it was.") "Days" was a recent hit in England for Kirsty McColl - Ray calls her rendition "very nice, very human" - and is the latest example of the Kink's reappropriating a song that's been successful for someone else. (When the Pretenders put out "Stop Your Sobbing," it began turning up in the Kink's set; when the Jam recorded "David Watts," Kinks audiences were singing "fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa" in short order. There's a whole generation of casual concert-goers that thinks "You Really Got Me" is a Van Halen tribute.)
The exquisite "Waterloo Sunset" turns up every tour or so, if fans are lucky. It got an especially moving reading at the Beacon in October, and a week later Ray remembered the song over salad, ravioli and Pellegrino water at an Italian restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
"I must admit, I don't get attached," he said. "I try to detach myself a bit. But when we sang that the other night I got quite emotional about it. It was almost like it was all in slow motion and I couldn't finish it. I guess emotions are built up by what you think, and what you think other people think. Everybody's got their own image of what happens in that song. So maybe I was just picking up on all that from the audience. It's one of those things where at certain moments in plays - or any live theater - moments you can't walk out on. You have to stay to the end of that moment."
It was a spectacular, cloudless autumn afternoon in New York, the kind where even the litter looks great. Ray was dressed in a gray polo shirt, faded jeans, white socks, black shoes.....and a well-worn raincoat ."My clothes may be old, but their very expensive." Dressing the part of a rock star is a problem for him. "I turn up and I look like an art student," he lamented. "I sometimes get embarrassed because this is the way I look. And not just my face, but the way I dress. It's just that it's so difficult to move around like I do and look cool at the same time." And he does move around. He tried living in Ireland for a few months but the solitude got to him. "I'm not very sociable," he said, "but I like to be around crowds." He therefore lives in New York.
It happened that the Stones were filling Shea Stadium that chilly week. "Poor dears, they'll get rheumatism," was Ray's unconvincing expression of concern. Of course, they go back a long way. "When we were the new band,"remembered Ray, "and we had three number ones within six months in England, the Stones had been out for like 18 months and they'd won an NME best new band award the previous year. And we were gonna win it, 'cause there was nobody else in sight. And we got runners-up! The Rolling Stones won it two years running - best new band." He laughed. "That's politics."
Did he ever feel the Kinks get less attention than they deserve?
"You know, I think about Thelonious Monk when I get down." Ray had recently been to see the Monk documentary film Straight, No Chaser". "I think, yeah, I could easily feel like that. But then, Thelonious is in his own space - he's got his own world around him. I think the Kinks have got that. I just it all with a pinch of salt. It's when people get upset for me that I worry about it. Like really ardent fans, saying, 'You should be doing this.' I think we're in our own space, and we'll be judged accordingly. I don't think people have really appraised our work. 'Cause maybe the work cycle hasn't completed itself. It's only when you get to the point where you can't do any more that people can reappraise it."
Not that the Kinks have reached that point. As he'd recently told the rabid Beacon crowd, "If you're wondering why we're still here, it's because you are."
"Vat time do you play tonight, please?"
"Nine, maybe 9:05."
"Ve vill see you zen."
Cornered i a hotel bar near Frankfurt, Bob Henrit, although a relatively new Kink, has been signing rare album covers for a string of polite, well-dressed, middle-aged fans. "I've never even seen this before," he says every few seconds. Because Henrit replaced the popular Avory, some Kinks fans are slow warming to him. It was easy to pick him out during the bands introductions on Henrit's first tour as a Kink; His name would be announced as, as most of the audience applauded, these purists would assume dour, vaguely disapproving expressions, arms folded on chests in a marked manner. But that was years ago.
"No. Sign on ze front, please."
Henrit recognizes many of the hardcore fans. Of a fellow who has compiled an exhaustive, book-length chronology, he says, in awe, "As far as I can see, he's devoted his whole life to this."
In the hotel lobby, the faithful have just detected Jim Rodford and are now plying him with album covers.
"Jim, excuse me. Is possible?"
Is. Rodford signs, and signs and signs.
The Kinks have always been available to their fans. Dave Davies says he's particularly amazed by the ones in America, some of whom he describes, fondly, as "crazy" and "misfits." And he feels that's appropriate: "If we weren't called the Kinks, we'd be called the Misfits."
As for Ray, he believes he knows who he's playing to, even though the Kink's audience cuts across a few generations. "I think I know who they are, they think they know who I am," he observes. "It's really diverse. Sometimes it's a bit of a time warp. What takes me completely off guard is when - where was it? Pittsburgh? - we had a 17-year-old fan come up after the show and ask why we didn't play 'Johnny Thunder' or something. I don't know when that was released, but it was probably when she was a baby. That throws me, because it's not necessarily the case that the younger fans like the more recent stuff. They've really gone back and listened."
Ray's accessibility sometimes leads him to suffer fools gladly - or at least remarkably patiently. One you German fan, his
enthusiasm outstripping his common sense, table-hops over to Ray after a gig, interrupting a conversation to say in broken
English that he'd written Ray two years earlier and had never gotten a reply. The only possible explanation, he assumes,
is that Ray hadn't received his letter. So perhaps he would be so kind as to give him his home address? "Sure," says
Ray, "I'll write it down for you." Fortunately, reason overtakes him by the time pen and paper are produced, and he prudently
puts down "1775 Broadway" - the address of MCA Records, the Kinks' U.S. label - instead. "It'll get to me," Ray promises. But wait.
The kid has trouble making out the number: Ray has failed to cross his sevens! Ray takes the paper, makes the correction, then hands
"Now, don't give this to anyone."
The fan looked elated. "Maybe, it's possible, someday, I don't know, maybe I am in New York, it's possible, maybe I see you?"
"Bring your friends," says Ray genially. The kid withdraws.
And returns a minute later. Around the table, looks of disbelief. The fan is studying the paper intently.
"Broadway," says Ray.
"Broadway," repeats Ray. "Think of Sting."
Or think of Ray Davies. His abiding interest in the theater led him to write more than 20 songs for 80 Days (as in Around the World in....), a 1988 musical based on the Jules Verne book. '80 Days' was produced at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, opening to mixed reviews overall, but with near-unanimous praise for the songs. It was supposed to go to Broadway; it may never happen. "I don't know whether I the time or the energy to finish it," Ray sighs. "I'm going to rewrite it. Rewrites are the curse of mankind."
Of course, Ray's been involved in theater - and film - for a long time. Possible projects in various stages of development include a documentary about Charles Mingus, and maybe even a little film based on "Million-Pound Semi-Detached," a reggae-inflected song - "a hit," - says Ray - that didn't quite make it onto U.K. Jive.
In the current Kinks live show, Ray's theatrical bent is most evident on "It," a "rock ballet" about consumerism that showcases dancers Crosbie and James. Ray and Dave didn't at first see eye to eye on "It." "That's the last thing we had a fight over," Ray allows. "Dave was opposed to it initially. We pulled it together on tour. And it found it's spot in the show."
Dave elaborates: "Ray wasn't too explicit when he first described 'It' to me. It had more of a jazzy feel originally, now it's more rock and roll. I like playing it now.
The Davies brothers have had a fascinating history. Even if punches weren't being thrown, drinks or dark looks often were, and to witness some of it you only had to attend enough Kinks shows. How things are today depends on who's being asked. About the best you are likely to hear from any third party is, "it's not as bad as some people make it out to be."
At the end of the autumn U.S. tour, Ray described his current relationship with his younger brother this way: "Good. Very good, yeah. He's been very good on this tour." On the other hand, he related with undisguised, big-brotherly glee the 100-degree day in Miami when he required Dave to dress up like a harlequin for a drawn-out video shoot.
Both are asked - separately - whether their relationship as adults echoes the ones they had as kids.
"Well, yeah," says Ray. "He plays the same tricks. People don't lose those fundamental things they've always had. It saddens me a bit when the same tricks start going down, and it's 10 or 20 years later sometimes."
Dave points out that there never really was much of a relationship as kids. "Ray was raised by one of our sisters, and I was raised by another - because our mother's house was rather chaotic," he says. "It was music that got us together." In other words, it was and is primarily a business relationship - the business just happens to be rock and roll.
On the German tour the brothers are cordial but have little to do with each other. More than anyone else in the band, Dave goes his own way - at mealtimes, in the hotel, while traveling. Some of this, to be fair, has nothing to do with Ray. The morning of the Hamburg show, for example, while the rest of the band packed in Frankfurt for a quick flight north, Dave and his driver rose at an ungodly hour to put in five hours of driving to reach the soundcheck on time. Dave, it is said, is not fond of flying, particularly on Fridays.
That the two can butt heads over creative matters - such as 'It' - suggests different approaches to music.
"Ray is a brilliant lyricist - a craftsman, really - whereas I tend to just start right in," says Dave.
"Dave is a one-off," says Ray. "He's very much like a jazz musician in many ways. He'll get it the first time."
"The times we've really had trouble," says Dave, "it often was more because of outside people than us. There are many area in which Ray and I get on well." He pauses. "We've got something that's good. You realize that being onstage with the Kinks every night is not the worst thing you could be doing."
Are you ready?
Are you ready to rock?
Are you ready?
Ready for the rising sun?
Not one of Ray's, of course. Not even one of Dave's, thank goodness. This particular question is being asked, in game if imperfect English, by the be-spandexed local quintet that opens for the Kinks in Nuremberg. Watching them from the wings, a deadpan Jim Rodford wonders whether a subsequent number, structured lyrically around what sounds like the repeated word "heartbeat," might in fact be called "Harvey." "No, no," Rodford scolds himself immediately. "We shouldn't talk like that."
Ray and Dave miss out on such openers, because the Kink's daily routine goes like this: Rodford, Henrit, Haley and the rest of the entourage arrive at the hall about an hour before the Kinks go on. The Davies brothers turn up a half-hour later, in separate cars. Always there are fans waiting outside, waiting quietly for autographs, snapshots, a little contact; on this tour the obliging Kinks have met some East Germans, men and women who have been listening since the '60s, but, having taken overnight trains to the West, are just now seeing their first Kinks show.
The atmosphere, on this tour anyway, is relaxed and easygoing. On one of the open nights, everyone goes carousing in downtown Frankfurt, resulting in a batch of hangovers and a few unlocatable hotel rooms. "That could happen to me in any case," a still "knackered" Dave confesses. "You're in a different hotel every night, and sometimes you've got these computer-card door keys. Often I'll have to go down to the lobby to ask them what my room number is. But I'm never registered under my own name, and when they want ID, I never have it in the name they want.
Overseeing the operation is the valuable Ken Jones, the Kinks' de facto road manager and a fixture for 21 years. Jones handles most of the band's business and logistical affairs on tour. He's in contact with sympathetic promoters practically everywhere, people who know and like him - Thomas Barten, one of this tour's promoters, is even doubling as his driver. Says Jones, "I can call someone up and say, 'I know business isn't great, but can we do a gig?'" (Special message for archivists: That's Ken Jones on harmonica on "Here Come the People in Grey" off Muswell Hillbillies. But you probably already know that.)
Jones is steady, unflappable and extremely protective of the Kinks. When word reaches him that Musician is operating an unauthorized camera backstage at the Nuremberg show, Jones dispatches someone to bring the offender into his makeshift office for a chat. Ray Davies, about to dig into his hot, catered, post-soundcheck meal, looks up in alarm. "You're being summomed? Remember, you're in Nuremburg," he calls out in warning. A compromise is reached whereby Ray takes over as official photographer. He immediately picks up the camera and starts wheeling around, his eye pressed to the viewfinder. After rejecting a few possible subjects - a wall, a steam pipe, a ceiling bulb, his wife - he settles on an aerial view of his meal and snaps the shutter.
The day of the Nuremberg show had not begun well for Ray. He'd been awakened by loudly screaming Japanese - not fellow hotel guests, but participants in a lozenge-company- sponsored shouting contest in Japan, which CNN covered. Ray watches CNN a lot anyway, and during this dramatic pre-Christmas week everyone in and around the Kinks is eager for the latest word on Panama or Eastern Europe. When news comes that the Branderburg Gate will be opened the next day, Ray is happy but, typically, puts it in perspective. "It's sad, all these people finding out what they've been missing."
The day hadn't gotten much better by the time the Kinks caravan arrived at the concert hall in a suburb of Nuremberg. The weather continued wet and dreary. Several people were feeling increasingly fluish. And the sight of the Jurahalle did not lift any spirits. It was small - capacity 2,200, no seating - and narrow. Worse, the backstage facilities were a tad spartan, what with the star's lavatory portable and situated just outside the building in the parking lot. (That would change: The loo was hastily pushed against an open door, which at least meant you no longer had to leave the building.) Surveying the hall, Ray didn't seem upset in the least. "It's a crappy gig," he said philosophically.
Of course, it turned out to be a first-rate one.
The soundcheck went well. The Kinks, apparently feeling nostalgic, ran through Buddy Holly's "That'll Be the Day," Duane Eddy's "Ramrod," Don Gibson's "Sea of Heartbreak" and their own "Too Much on My Mind." None of the songs would end up being performed that night, but no matter. The Kinks were loose, having fun.
A few hours later, the Jurahalle is packed. Young men and women line up for beer and "steak-simmel" - meat and onions on a bun - before the music starts. When the Kinks come on, the crowd roars - and the set list goes out the window from the very first number, "The Hard Way." "'Till the End of the Day" is suddenly next, followed by the prescient "War is Over" ("it's time for all the soldiers to go home"), "Apeman" and - with Ray hanging on to his acoustic guitar and dedicating the next number to "all the people who've never seen the Kinks before" - the timeless "Sunny Afternoon." Dave's "Living on a Thin Line" gets a great response. During "Come Dancing" the audience is swaying, clapping, singing along, and Ray looks happy. It's not that the band's playing is astonishingly better than usual, but this audience is especially spirited - and so, as a result, is the Kink's front man. "Days" is an encore again, sung sweetly by Ray, hands in his trouser pockets, with Dave's perfect harmony helping it along. After "All Day and All of the Night," Ray remembers that he's moonlighting as a paparazzo and runs off to fetch the camera and take pictures of the crush at the lip of the stage. The Kinks even come back for a second encore, and while Dave tears into his solo on "You Really Got Me," Ray performs a time-honored Kinks sacrament: dousing the stage and rows with beer.
It's a really good gig. But backstage, a half-hour later, Ray's features have again assumed their natural look of general worry. Flight schedules are discussed. Ray's Christmas travel plans, it seems, are still up in the air. But the smart money is on New York. After all, Ray would need to be there by mid-January anyway. For his induction.
It happened that Ray learned the good news about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the end of that lunchtime interview in October. This is how it went:
His mood had been a little melancholy. Maybe it was because the U.S. tour had come and gone and still no album had appeared. Or maybe it was because the album was finally about to appear. "People so attach everything you do to an album, and whether you've got a bullet on it," he said. "It is important, but it's kind of sad that if you don't have a bullet certain people won't acknowledge you as being any good. And then you get all your bullets, and you become a genius."
"The only thing you can't be cynical about is the beginning of anything. When you begin an album, even though you've had a big album before, you're just a zero. And after a concert - you're great the night of the gig, but the next day, you're just another loser." He laughed. "Well, I am. And you struggle....you write songs, good ones and bad ones, and then you have to write another one. When I go back to writing songs, I can't put me five fat singers on the right keys."
But then al publicist arrived at the table with news: The four original Kinks are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - on the first, the way they should be. How.....uncharacteristic.
"Are we?" said Ray. Pause. "Is this true? I haven't got the news."
He was reassured that the official call has come.
"Oh, that's great. I'm really thrilled by it. That's for real, right? Great. I'm very pleased. We've never won anything in our lives."
After briefly, comically, trying to figure out whether co-inductees the Who are actually "in by default" because of the release date of "I Can't Explain," he grew quiet. Plates were removed. "Isn't that great?" he finally said. "We had to win something. This is a genuine....nice thing to happen. It's nice. And it's nice for people like Mick Avory. It'll be a chance for him to come to New York."
And what about ancient Kink Peter Quaife - would he come down from Canada? Would the original quartet play together again?
"Oh, I don't know. I won't think about that," said Ray. "We tried it. We were touring in '82, and we played up in Canada, when Mick was still in the band. Quaife came to the gig, and we asked him to come on to do "You Really Got Me.' And he couldn't handle it. He came on. But when he'd last played with us we had AC-30's, we carried our own P.A., little stacks this size on the stage. You couldn't hear yourself, because 'AAAAAAHHHHHH' [he mimics a screaming audience]. We'd never even worked with monitors when Pete was in the band."
He leaned back. "Oh, that's nice news. Something to get positive about. Reasons to be cheerful....one, two, three."
Moments later, having murmured something about recognition in his "twilight years," Ray Davies pulled on his raincoat and stepped out into the brilliant sunshine.
Musician Magazine, March 1990