Ray Davies Unravels the Muswell Puzzle
It's a cold night at the Haymarket - the Manhattan bar where displaced English groups spend a good part of their time pretending they are in London. It's a dark, quiet place and the bartender comes from Liverpool. Ray Davies of the Kinks is sitting in a booth with his head bowed down, reading the Village Voice. The dusky amber light falling on his face and hair is reminiscent of the English pub lighting on the cover of the Kink's new album, Muswell Hillbillies.
Spending time with Ray Davies is one way of suspending yourself in time and space. The air around him seems filled with the faces of uncles who died when he was still tiny, working girls who were pretty and young long before he was born, and pop stars who were on the rise when he was first making the chars. This was the fourth time Davies has made himself available in two days. The first three times had been over the telephone; now the previously disembodied voice took on a third dimension.
As we talked, 'The House of the Rising Sun' by the Animals came on the juke box. Raymond Douglas Davies - writer, producer and lead singer since the mid-60's - asked how Eric Burdon - another mid-60's veteran - was doing these days. When he had been assured that Eric was doing quite well with War, he seemed satisfied.
Taking paper and a pen Ray started to sketch ("anything that comes to my mind") fat old men, using delicate cartoon-type line drawings. As he hunched over his pen, Ray began to explain how the ghosts that haunt his thoughts had shaped the latest Kinks album.
"I wanted it to be a double album. To start, it's about making people something they are not. I wanted it to be like Arthur, but I didn't have time to finish it because I had a lot of things to do this year. I wanted to make little statements about England and what's happened to some of the people."
Ray has taken on a cause lately, and it's crept into most of his music. He explained: "What amazes me is there are new towns like Harlow in England, and in these towns and in Colchester and East Anglia there are all these people who've been taken out of the East End of London and put into these places where they don't really exist as they did before. They're trying to keep things the same as when they lived together in London, but they have to break down eventually. You can't just live on memories and things like that."
"People take pictures of each other
Just to prove that they really existed
.....don't show me no more please
But back to Muswell Hillbillies: "it sounds very heavy and serious and it is." Ray warns, "it's just very disturbing to see this happen. They're knocking down all the places in Holloway and Islington and moving all the people off to housing projects in new towns. They say the houses they're tearing down are old and decayed, but they're not really. My gran used to live in Islington in this really nice old house, and they moved her to a block of flats, and she hasn't got a bath now. She's got a shower because there isn't room for a bath. And like she's ninety years old, she can't even get out of the chair let alone stand in the shower. They haven't taken that into consideration. And they knew she was going to move in because it's a new block and they took her around and showed her where she was gonna live and she didn't have any choice. They didn't think to help her in any way. It's just a lack of consideration for people. The government people think they are taking them into a wonderful new world but it's just destroying people."
I got a letter this morning with serious news that's gone and ruined my day
The borough surveyors used compulsory purchase to acquire my domain
They're gonna pull up the floors, they're gonna knock down the walls,
they're gonna dig up the drains.
Here come the people in grey, they're gonna take me away to Lord knows only where"
("Here Come the People in Gray")
"People can't meet each other anymore in those apartment blocks they have", Ray continues, "people looking through all those little spy holes at each other." They're putting us in identical little boxes
No character, just uniformity
They're trying to build a computerized community
But they'll never make a zombie out of me
"The album is a condensed version of all these ideas. The first side is trying to live in this world, the other side is concerned with the old world. I'd like to make a little film out of it."
Well, I said goodbye to Rosie Rooke this morning
I'm gonna miss her bloodshot alcoholic eyes
She wore her Sunday hat so she'd impress me
I'm gonna carry her memory 'till the day I die
"Rosie Rooke, who's in the last song, she really existed," Ray said, still intent on his drawing. "She used to me my mom's friend when they were about sixteen. They used to walk up Holloway Road, and all of the boys whistled at her because she was very big and well endowed and nice and shapely. She had a very sad life, drink and all of that, and she never felt fulfilled as a person. On the original demo for the album there was a whole song called 'Rosie Rooke.' Leaving Rosie Rooke behind is like leaving everything behind. She symbolized all that for me. She was what it was like and I didn't actually know here."
Another member of Ray's family is present and accounted for on 'Muswell Hillbillies," Ray said: "Uncle Son was an uncle of mine who worked for the railway. Most of the people I know in life are just ordinary people like Uncle Son. They're not extremely talented. I can't remember talking to him but he came to see me when I was young, just before he died. He had TB from working on the railway, and he died because of his job. He drew me a picture of a train. He couldn't draw, but he thought he was giving me something by drawing a train for me. I never really spoke to him, but like Rosie Rooke, he symbolized something to me."
Does all this sound terribly serious coming from the court jester of the Kinks..... the man who bounds onstage wearing a top hat and a tuxedo jacket with a tea rose pinned to the pocket...screaming 'right on?' Ray Davies is an anachronism. He doesn't belong to today....he doesn't belong to the future, he's in love with the past but he knows he can't go back there. Davies is a misplaced person, a hero to teenage boys, and a character who makes fun of the lifestyle he is very much part of.
RCA gave the Kinks a huge press party recently at a posh French restaurant. Present were members of the Who, Andy Warhol and Co. and Cockettes (heavily eye-shadowed creatures in enormous curling hairdos and velvet dresses who, despite their feminine slinkiness, are men). And if you looked very closely, you could spot Ray Davies standing in darkened corners talking to his friends. Ray divulged: "I sent my robot, an imitation robot dressed up as me. I stayed at the hotel. He taped the thing on video for me and played it for me the next morning. It was quite interesting. If I had known it was going to be like that I would have brought some tramps from London. All sorts of people. I would have brought some old lay-abouts."
The original Kinks arrived on the scene in 1964 with their first hit "You Really Got Me," the song which to this day is their show-stopper. When the Kinks sing it now Ray announces" "This is a parody of rock and roll, of four young men in red suits and frilly shirts singing this song." The chords start and the audience - previously quite contained - jumps to it's feet and rushes the stage screaming and yelling and dancing in the aisles. From then on it's anyone's guess what year it is, or how old we all are. It's 1964 and it's 1972 and the audience is having a good time. "The Kinks are really fun," someone in audience commented.
But how many people realize that when Ray Davies does an old number like "You Really Got Me," it's as if John Lennon were still doing "I Want to Hold Your Hand?" Lennon wouldn't do it; but Ray Davies is comfortable with his past.
"I don't find it particularly hard to live with some of the stuff I've written. I'm proud to have written some, not so proud to have written some. But, I find it easy to live with, and that's why I do it. I don't want to belittle things I've worked hard at. And I think they've come off, so why not do them. No one else is going to do them."
Is it the Kinks aim to keep old English rock alive? "No," Ray says, "there's a leaning towards rock and roll in the group because my brother Dave likes hard music. But my taste is different. I like Fred Astaire."
The Kinks have the distinction of being one of the only groups other than the Rolling Stones and the Who to have remained basically unchanged since the first wave of British rock music. Their only alterations have been minor. Original bass guitarist Pete Quaife has been replaced by another Englishman named John Dalton. John seems very happy onstage with the Kinks and Ray seems delighted with him: "He's really stable, he's the bass. He's good to have on tour. He holds things down because he doesn't change. He refuses to live in America; he's not here. His day is built around the things he does in London. He gets up at a certain time. He goes out and buys the English papers and he drinks tea all the time." The only major change in format has been the addition of John Gosling on organ. Mick Avory, and of course Ray's younger brother, Dave have been there since the very beginning back at Hornsey Art College. Art college was the place where all righteous revolutionaries hung out at that time.
Ray seems to have a great deal of bad luck when it comes to performing onstage. What it's done is given the Kinks a reputation of being rotten live, which they are not - if you are lucky enough to catch Ray on a good night. "I'm kind of accident prone that way," Ray admits "there's always something wrong with me." The first time I'd ever seen the Kinks live, Ray had a temperature of 105. He went on anyway. That was in 1967. Ray let it be known that the song "All of My Friends Were There," on Village Green Preservation Society, was written about that specific occasions:
My big day, it was the biggest day of my life
It was the summit of my whole long career
But I felt so down and I'd drunk too much beer
The management said that I shouldn't appear
I walked out on to the stage and started to speak
I explained to the crowd and they started to cheer
And just when I wanted no one to be there..
All of my friends were there...
"I wrote "All of My Friends Were There" because I was feeling bad. I really felt terrible and the curtains opened and I knew everyone in the front row." A similar thing happened more recently at Philharmonic Hall in New York. Ray said: "I'd just been very ill, and I went over the edge as they say. It does happen. I was working very hard, I'd just finished a lot of work, I was very disturbed, and very unhappy because I had a lot of friends in the audience. I wanted to make them happy and it was very difficult."
All of my friends were there to stand and stare
Say what they think......
Those who laughed were not friends anyway...."
Ray is nothing like his "image". He's gentle and sensitive. He'd rather talk to people than telephones and tape recorders: and he'd rather draw pictures than talk to people. At the end of one phone interview Ray joked: "They are going to send 'round a car to take me away and when they knock at the door I'll be ready." He was referring to his music publisher's sending a car around, but the sentence seemed to have quite a different meaning the way he said it.
Janis Schact, Circus Magazine, February 1972