A Rock Icon Still Hits The Sweet High Notes
A waiter placed a plate of thinly sliced raw scallops in front of the tall, angular man who had asked for a vegetarian tasting dinner. Surprised, but not flustered by it, he poked his chopsticks at the gossamer little disks and dipped one in a lemony marinade.
"So this is raw, is it?" the man inquired politely, with the forced composure of someone who had just been handed a snake for the first time.
He ate the scallops, gingerly, declared them "interesting," then sipped a ginger ale.
The young waiter at Vong, the Asian restaurant in midtown Manhattan, did not recognize Ray Davies, a founding member of the Kinks rock band and one of the most accomplished songwriters to emerge from the British pop scene of the 1960's.
Mr. Davies, who formed the band in 1962 with his younger brother, Dave, has recorded more then 30 albums and is planning the band's next world tour in 1997.
Much more than just a durable rocker, Mr. Davies, 52, has also built a career as a film maker, an actor, a theatrical writer and producer, a composer for musical theater and an author.
Mr. Davies has just completed five, sold-out New York performances of "20th Century Man," a touring one-man show.
In the nearly three-hour presentation which opens in Chicago on Sunday, before moving to Atlanta and West Palm Beach, Mr. Davies reminisces about his youth, plays old and new songs and even dabbles in comedy.
Reviewing the show in The New York Times last February 16, when it first came through here, Neil Strauss described it as "surprisingly intimate, honest and well-staged." He characterized Mr. Davie's voice as "capable of hitting the sweet high notes that can turn detailed observation into perfect pop."
Known for songs that explore class barriers in Britain, the angst of the working man, the fatuousness of high society and nostalgia for family life, Mr. Davies was a rock and roll Thorstein Veblen when most rockers were singing of boy loves girl.
He does not see himself as a pop visionary, however. "I just wrote about the things I saw and felt, things about my family and growing up in that era," said Mr. Davies, who looks a decade younger than his road-weary years.
Tall, lean, his thinning hair devoid of gray, he wore a charcoal sports jacket and white collarless shirt and blue jeans.
His pensive demeanor is broken occasionally by a quick, impish smile, as when he related this story about dining in New York.
"Whenever you eat all alone, especially in New York, they give you the widower's banquette - right in the corner all by yourself," he recalled as he tentatively picked at some sea urchin. "One day I was at an Indian restaurant, and I was seated in the corner and getting no service. So I started taking notes and later told the waiter I was the restaurant critic for Time Out Magazine in London. They were very nice to me after that. If fact, I don't think I even paid for the bill."
Like some other rock icons from the '60's, for example, Paul McCartney of the Beatles and Pete Townsend of the Who, Mr. Davies has spread his artistic wings to other media, including film.
He is making a CD of the music in his show, going on tour with the Kinks to promote their new CD, "To The Bone", making films and documentaries, acting and teaching songwriting.
"I don't think of myself as a musician," said Mr. Davies, whose hits include "All Day and All of the Night," "Lola," "Sunny Afternoon" and "A Well-Respected Man."
"I laughingly call myself a creative person," he said. In his show, Mr. Davies gets a big laugh when he declares that his recent claim to fame is a Nissan commercial that uses a soundtrack of his song "You Really Got Me."
Painting was one of Mr. Davie's creative outlets as a teenager. "Art school was a place where people got together if they considered themselves creative," he recalled. "I was 16 and just a little bit enough of an oddball so that I fit in with the other misfits who went there."
He dropped out of Hornsey Art College in London in 1963, partly because he thought art education had become too commercially oriented. And also because he had been electrified by the music coming out of America from the likes of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. The teenage band Mr. Davies formed now held his attention.
Mr. Davies unconventional, almost existential, autobiography "X-Ray" (Overlook Press, 1994) recounts tales about the early days of the Kinks.
The rough-edged band was assigned an image coach, Hal Carter, to clean up its appearance and act. At the time, the slickly packaged Beatles and the raucous Kinks were a study in contrast. Mr. Carter was hired to make the Kinks more "professional" looking.
He had a degree of success. For one thing, he put the Kinks in Dickensian-type stage outfits, including red hunting jackets, with frilly white shirts and black riding trousers. He also taught them to communicate more with the audience and to stop making basic gaffes like putting their hands over their eyes when the stage lights went up.
Another story in the book involves Mr. Davies's front teeth, which were separated by a wide gap that "appeared in photographs as a black space whenever I smiled."
The band's managers insisted that Mr. Davies, as the lead singer, could not appear on television with a gap between his teeth as wide as the Lincoln Tunnel. He was sent to a dentist.
"I felt immediately reassured, not being a freak after all," Mr. Davies wrote. "The I heard the sound of a drill being started."
"When I asked what was going to be done, the dentist casually explained that he was going to cut away my existing two front teeth and replace them with caps.... I immediately jumped out of the chair." (One of Mr. Davies's songs, not yet released is titled "The Dentist Chair.")
A compromise was decided: Mr. Davies would have temporary caps put over his teeth for the band's first performance on a popular British music show called "Ready Steady Go!" "And so I made my first appearance with the largest front teeth since Bugs Bunny."
With worldwide fame came more freedom for the Kinks, made up originally of Mr. Davies singing and playing guitar; Dave Davies on lead guitar and vocals; Mick Avory on drums, and Peter Quaife on bass guitar.
They toured the United States in 1965, wearing their hunting outfits, and solidified their fame by appearing on television on "Hullabaloo" and "Toast of the Town," the Ed Sullivan variety show.
Mr. Davies says that along the way he fell into many of the sinkholes of life on the road, including excessive drinking, bouts of melancholy and feuds with his brother.
To make matters worse, the Kinks suffered from bad financial management for their first decade or more. "It took a while to get that straightened out," Mr. Davies said, not elaborating.
Mr. Davies has two daughters, both in their 20's, by his first wife, Rasa. "They still call me Ray, which is nice," Mr. Davies recalled. "When they call me dad, then I'll worry."
A second marriage was followed in the late 1980's my a much publicized relationship with Chrissie Hynde, lead singer of the Pretenders. They never married.
"We refused to jump the final fence, but it wasn't for lack of trying," he said.
Mr. Davies is a man who wears his success as comfortably as those old hunting jackets of the Kinks.
He is co-author of a musical called "Come Dancing," based on dance palaces of the 1950's; in 1981 he collaborated on the musical "Chorus Girls," and in 1988, he wrote with a partner "80 Days," a play that was performed at the La Jolla Playhouse in California.
As for the future of the Kinks, he is uncharacteristically obscure. "I really don't know - you can't predict that one," he said, staring into a plate of marinated salmon, the third seafood dish smuggled into his vegetarian dinner as a salute from a Kinks fan in the kitchen.
"Do you really think they cooked this salmon at all?"
Bryan Miller, The New York Times, November 13, 1996.