Messing Up in Public

In its September 11, 1964 issue, the British pop magazine New Musical Express featured an article on the Kinks underneath the headline "This week's chart-toppers." Each member of the band, which had just stepped into the limelight on the strength of its third single, "You Really Got Me," was asked, among other things, to name his best friend. Three members -- singer/songwriter/guitarist Ray Davies, his younger brother and lead guitarist Dave Davies and bassist Pete Quaife -- chose "me." Drummer Mick Avory responded, "Money (in my pocket)."

That's about all you need to know, really. Here, clearly, were the prime ingredients in a recipe for self-destruction. And sure enough, even as they sent a string of hits into the English Top Ten, the Kinks were coming apart at the seams, establishing themselves as probably the most combustible band of the 1960s -- if not all time. Verbal and physical confrontations -- with one another, with their managers, with concert promoters, with disc jockeys -- were as much a staple of the band's repertoire as "All Day and All of the Night" and "Tired of Waiting for You." No wonder Ray Davies and company were written off almost from the start.

And yet, 32 years and a lot of personnel changes later, the Kinks still haven't flamed out. Even more astonishingly, the Davies brothers seem to be aging with remarkable grace, particularly when compared with many other members of the pop world's ever growing 40-plus set. A new Kinks double CD of 29 mostly live tracks, To the Bone, includes some truly extraordinary reworkings of both familiar and unfamiliar selections from the band's vast catalog.

As for 52-year-old frontman Ray Davies, his latest self-reinvention has come in the form of a small solo show that evolved from the publication of his 1994 book X-Ray: The Unauthorized Autobiography. While giving readings in small bookshops, Davies found he liked the intimate venues. So he crafted a mix of old hits, new songs and spoken remembrances into a performance he originally titled 20th Century Man and currently calls simply Storyteller that's now playing halls and theaters across America.

And for a guy whose creative output has been almost solely shaped by his own considerable fear and self-loathing, Davies sounds rather well-adjusted about the way things have turned out. Critical response to Storyteller has been warm, and Davies seems relieved to be holding center stage in smaller, quieter venues.

"The whole thing with touring in the conventional sense is to cram as many people as possible into one place in one day and then get out of there," he says. "But this show is a building process. The first night you always get, you know, the fans. Then after that, when we're doing a run somewhere, you get people who aren't so familiar with you and new people who are just curious. And then reviews come out, and we get the people who've heard about the show."

For Davies, that search for new listeners, a different audience, is still paramount. The Kinks, for example, "couldn't have played [a small town such as] Stockbridge in Massachusetts. I did that [recently], and that was amazing. I loved that. It was more of a theater audience. We had people who had probably hardly ever heard of the Kinks. I look forward to playing out in the Midwest, where people wouldn't normally come to this sort of show. Get into the little nooks and crannies, rather than just go for the places that've got the big ice rinks."

Despite all this, Storyteller is less a distancing from what the Kinks achieved than an embrace of it. As in X-Ray, the primary subject matter is the band's 1960s incarnation -- and near-incineration. And why not? The band was at ground zero of the total remaking of pop music. To quote from critic Jon Savage (whose 1984 The Kinks: The Official Biography reproduces the NME article), the Kinks and a handful of other British bands in the mid-'60s took "the coded sexual and social assertiveness of black R&B and invested it with a white neuroticism and a superhuman drive, replacing the often subtle rhythms of the originals with monolithic blocks of sound."

To the Bone, which also relies on highlights from the band's original heyday, makes for an interesting counterpoint to Storyteller. About half its tunes are from a 1994 acoustic set for friends and fans at the band's Konk studios in north London. Most of the others are highlights from what were in all likelihood the band's final tours through the arena circuit.

The Konk set is, frankly, much more interesting. (Do we really need another version of a big crowd singing along with "Lola"?) It's impossible to listen to these clean, tight renditions of such tunes as "Apeman," "The Village Green Preservation Society," "Muswell Hillbillies," "See My Friends" and "Do You Remember Walter?" and not be speechless at Ray Davies's biting, trenchant songwriting skills. And of the two new studio offerings, the title track and "Animal," the latter makes a convincing case that he still knows how to look back in angst.

Davies is too proud to be openly bitter. But he's still ambitious enough to recognize the power of his own past. Between performances, he's working up a new musical project spun out of his '80s hit "Come Dancing" and a literary follow-up to X-Ray.

"I don't want to think that I'm a writer," he says of the next book. "That's the biggest mistake anyone could ever make. 'Cause I'm not trained to do that. So I'm trying to let that personality come through that people recognize as me, rather than just write a story."

All of this should not be taken to mean, Davies reassures, that To the Bone is the Kinks's swan song. He continues to say that the band will go on recording together "as long as it's not torture" and that future one-shot arena shows (such as the performance at last year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction) remain a possibility. As for the group's reaction to Storyteller, Davies says, "I think it's generally, 'Oh, well, he's doing it. As long as it's going well, we don't mind.' " And then he laughs. In other words, Davies still has his best friend to look out for. This is, after all, the guy who told NME back in '64 that his "personal ambition" was "to be exceedingly successful and highly esteemed among my friends."

Exceedingly successful? Guess it depends how you measure it. Davies and the Kinks never imploded, but they never really exploded the way some of their contemporaries did either. Then again, if it's true -- as Davies remarks of the Kinks in To the Bone's liner notes -- that "everybody's always expecting us to do wonderful things, and we mess it all up usually," then that's at least in part because the band clings to a certain integrity. And integrity has not been proven, shall we say, to be a key ingredient in the ongoing success of certain middle-aged pop artists. Thus Kiss shows up on the cover of Forbes, Mick Jagger necks with Uma Thurman at the Viper Room and Pete Townshend ("Hope I die before I win a T-T-Tony") leads the Who in a series of rehashings of Quadrophenia in arenas across America.

Ah, well. No one needs to tell a Kinks fan there's no justice in rock and roll.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Rob Walker