Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Some Scars Don't Heal

Where birthdays of septuagenarian rock stars are concerned, last week was seminal. Paul McCartney turned 72 on Wednesday and it seemed like every radio station on Earth mentioned it. Three days later another English titan, Ray Davies, turned 70 -- and while his day did not go unnoticed, the attention it received was much less than it deserved.

The Kinks were founded by him and his younger brother Dave in the early 1960's, when they were teenagers living in Muswell Hill, North London.

If you are an everyday music fan, you definitely know the Kinks...if you are a casual fan, you probably know them...and if you are less than casual, you might not know their name but you have undoubtedly heard their songs.

There was no genre called hard rock when they released their third and fourth singles in the latter half of 1964, yet those songs -- "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night" -- are now considered hard rock standards, with gritty and instantly recognizable guitar work that does not sound dated five decades later. When that pair of tunes charted at #1 and #2 in the U.K. and reached the U.S. Top 10, the Kinks all of a sudden became a full-fledged member of the British Invasion well before Ray Davies's 21st birthday. (On a historical note, "You Really Got Me" was the first hit song built around power chords.)

However, Davies was not one to rest on his laurels or confine himself to one style, as evidenced by the fact that "See My Friends" -- one of the first songs in the Western world to feature a distinctly Indian sound -- was written, recorded, and released before 1965 was over. He was moved to compose it during a tour stopover in Bombay, when he heard local fishermen singing as they walked to the shore one morning. It hit the airwaves almost five months before the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" (which has the distinction of being the first Western song with a sitar).

With varying levels of popularity, the Kinks continued to record and play throughout the 1970's and 1980's and all the way to 1996 before disbanding. Their record sales slid after 1972 and for several years their new material received little airplay, though things started to turn back around with their 1977 album Sleepwalker.

Then, in 1978, an unknown rookie band called Van Halen recorded a cover of "You Really Got Me" that took the radio world by storm. Much like the original had done for the Kinks 14 years earlier, Van Halen's version, marked by juicing up the chords on PED's and introducing the song with a long, lyrical guitar solo, took a very young group and rocketed it into the stratosphere at the beginning of its run.

The Van Halen cover also helped make people aware that the Kinks were, unlike many other Sixties groups, still around. As the Reagan/Thatcher decade got going, they enjoyed such a renaissance in popularity that sales of their early 1980's records exceeded the sales they had enjoyed during their mid-1960's heyday. The 1981 album Give the People What They Want spawned a hit single of the same name, plus the even bigger hit "Destroyer."

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Things peaked in 1983 when the catchy tune "Come Dancing" became their all-time highest charting single in the United States, as well as their first single to crack the U.K.'s Top 20 in more than a decade. And that is where my headline comes in.

"Come Dancing" is the one in which Davies sings about his sister going dancing at the palais "where the big bands used to come and play." You know she is older than him when he sings about her breaking curfew ("my mum would always sit up and wait / it always ended up in a big row / when my sister used to get home late") and when he mentions what he observed ("out of my window I can see them in the moonlight / two silhouettes saying goodnight by the garden gate").

Meanwhile, Davies can't help but keep his sister's image wholesome by adding this about her boyfriend: "he didn't know the night would end up in frustration / he'd end up blowing all his wages for the week / all for a cuddle and a peck on the cheek."

The bounciness and unvarnished nostalgia of "Come Dancing" make it unlike most Kinks songs, and some critics have probably accused it of being "commercial" (gasp!). But from the first time I paid attention to the lyrics I could tell there was something very personal about this song. It was Ray Davies, not Dave Davies, who wrote it; and when you listen, it is obvious that there is something extremely important to him about his sister. She is everywhere throughout, and when was the last time you heard a rocker compose a testament to a sibling instead of a lover?

In my mind's ear, I heard him recalling a point in life when he was in the English equivalent of an American middle school, when he was about 13 years old and insecure about puberty's onset; when his sister was 17 or 18 and exploring her sexuality as she started to leave childhood behind to enter adulthood; when he found himself envying her experiences, while at the same time feeling terrified that he might lose her to the temptations of a world that felt beyond his reach.

Little did I know that in reality, it runs much deeper than that.

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Back in the Summer of Love that was 1967 -- 15 years before "Come Dancing" was written and 16 years before it charted -- the Kinks released a song called "Waterloo Sunset" that was a major hit in Europe but a bit of a flop in the U.S. Written by Davies in the first person, the lyrics depict a lonely man watching two lovers cross a bridge over the River Thames. Many people assumed the couple was supposed to be actor Terrence Stamp and actress Julie Christie, who were a celebrity couple at the time, but in a 2008 interview Davies described the song as "a fantasy about my sister going off with her boyfriend to a new world and they were going to emigrate and go to a new country."

When I read that quote recently, I immediately thought about "Come Dancing" and started Googling. What I learned was the kind of thing that makes your mouth go dry.

Ray and Dave Davies were the youngest of eight children and the only boys. The sister of whom Ray sings was named Rene, and she was 18 years older than him. As a child she had rheumatic fever that weakened her heart.

Rene married a Canadian and did in fact "emigrate and go to a new country." However, her husband was reported to be abusive and she occasionally returned to England for long stretches, so she and Ray had plenty of time together even though they were usually apart.

She was home for his 13th birthday, which she considered to be a major one because it marked the entrance to the teens. Although Ray was not involved in music at the time, he was "on the verge" and had been coveting a specific Spanish guitar. Knowing this, she surprised him by buying it for him as a birthday present, and after he opened it they played a song together at their parents' home. Rene played the piano and Ray got by on the guitar.

That night she went dancing at the Lyceum Ballroom in London's West End, eager to indulge in one of her pleasures without having to deal with her husband. Tragically, while the big band was belting out a tune from Oklahoma! and she was dancing to its swing, she went into cardiac arrest and died on the spot.

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Once you hear that, everything changes in your mind, especially when you think about how the song depicts Rene as still living and assigns her a better fate than reality did: "my sister's married and she lives on an estate / her daughters go out, now it's her turn to wait."

Once you know the whole story, the song's final stanza becomes particularly poignant: "come dancing / come on sister, have yourself a ball / don't be afraid to come dancing / it's only natural."

I am not here to play amateur shrink, and God knows I despise it when people play amateur shrink about anything that goes on in my brain, but other aspects of Ray Davies make more sense after you learn about the tragic loss from his formative years. There was a suicide attempt in 1973. There is a decades-long feud between him and Dave that led to the Kinks' demise after 33 years as an active band. Rene's death was not the cause of those things, but I have a hard time believing that it wasn't one of the ingredients, so to speak.

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The Kinks' place in rock's pantheon has been secure for a long time, and therefore the place of Ray Davies in the pantheon is also secure.

The Kinks' sardonic tone was unrivaled and led my father-in-law (a major music aficionado) to say they were "truly the original rock satirists"...their stylistic variety was ahead of its time, even if it has since been overshadowed...everyone from hard rockers to punk rockers and sentimentalists to garage bands cites them as a major influence...and even if you don't count "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night," their songs continue to be among the world's most covered ("I'm Not Like Everybody Else" comes immediately to mind).

As their songwriter, lead singer, rhythm guitarist, and undisputed front man, Ray Davies essentially was the Kinks. One can understand Dave Davies having a problem with that, since Dave's lead guitar work was integral to their sound (especially his decision to slice his amp's speaker cone and insert a pin into it prior to recording the riff to "You Really Got Me," thus creating its distinctive distortion) but at the end of the day, the Kinks existed because of Ray. Take away his driving force and the group may not have formed or lasted as long as it did.

Attending college during the summer quarter of 1990 (we didn't have no stinkin' semesters at Auburn University) I bought a new Kinks album called UK Jive and listened to it over and over. The songs were smart, swiftly paced, and played with the kind of edge that made the group sound like a hungry new outfit trying to make their mark. Yet it was recorded more than a quarter-century after they first hit it big, which says something about the dedication Davies and his bandmates have to their craft.

And the title of that album says something else about him: He embraces English culture in a way few other popular stars have done over the past half-century. He has always embraced it, not in an ethnocentric kind of way but simply in the manner of someone who likes his homeland and is proud to like it.

When encouraged to sing in a way that made it not so obvious he is an Englishman, Davies said no...when encouraged not to release "Come Dancing" in the U.S. because Arista Records President Clive Davis thought the amount of "English English" terminology (as opposed to "American English") would keep it from having mass appeal, he said no...clearly, his insistence on following his own arrow has served him better on our shores than if he had followed the advice of others.

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Music buffs and radio heads know the name Ray Davies, but it would be nice if the "non-buff" crowd also knew, especially since there is no doubt that the "non-buff" crowd knows his work.

It would have been nice if every FM station in America, rather than a select percentage, made a big deal about his 70th birthday.

But perhaps as much as anything, it would be nice if we recognized that, like everyone, there is more to him than meets the eye. We think of accomplished people in the abstract, not in the reality, and fail to realize that they are real people who deal with real struggles. We fail to realize that it is often the struggles that make them who they are.

We know Roy Orbison as the shades-wearing singer who gave us "Pretty Woman," but how many of us know that he became a widower at the age of 30 when his wife was killed in a motorcycle accident? How many of us know that his two oldest sons died in a house fire when he was 32 and touring overseas?

We know Roy Rogers as the engaging, ever-steady singing cowboy who was married to Dale Evans. But how many of us know that his first wife, Arline, died in childbirth while delivering Roy Jr.? How many of us know that his daughter Robin died of a heart defect days before her second birthday? Or that his adopted daughter Debbie was killed in a church bus crash? Or that one year later, another of his adopted daughters, Sandy, choked to death?

The interests and accomplishments of Ray Davies are diverse and can not be boiled down to one chord, song, or political preference. Nor should they.

Nor should we think that because he was obviously affected by losing his sister, he must have become insecure to the point of weakness. After all, he is the same man who, while visiting New Orleans at age 60, attempted to run down a purse snatcher and took a bullet to his leg in the process.

Still, for as much as he has been in the public eye and as much impact as he has had in his chosen field, I can't help but wonder if Rene Davies is the one straw that always helps in the stirring of his mental drinks, sometimes to a larger degree and sometimes to a lesser one, but always to a degree. I can't help but wonder if she is to him what Rosebud was to Charles Foster Kane.

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