My Back Pages #2: Ray Davies Gets His Kinks Out

Another draft chapter from my memoir-in-progress on the Swingin' Seventies. Plus: three classic Kinks songs.

From Monday to Friday, I like to mix newsy hot takes, political humor, film/TV previews, media criticism—and a lot of music. But when the weekend rolls along, I catch my breath and stretch. Many Saturdays will now feature selections from my memoir-in-progress on my Crawdaddy years. Last week I posted a draft of Chapter One, which found me hired to re-launch and edit Crawdaddy in March 1971. Today I offer another excerpt following directly on that. (You can also jump ahead to the day I motored with Bruce Springsteen to a gig in my hometown in 1973.)  Please use the Comment options to let me know what you think. And tomorrow: a tribute to Sam Cooke! Consider subscribing—it’s still free!

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Chapter Two

March-April 1971

Much of my first week as editor of a revived Crawdaddy was spent at our midtown office observing the comings and goings of various shady-looking characters. Some stopped by after making deliveries downstairs at the new Crawdaddy Club--formerly the jazz temple known as Birdland. That bullet hole over my desk, a daily reminder of a gangland murder, had not yet been plugged.  Still, I was enjoying the noisy street scene on Broadway, gawking at drug dealers and teen hookers in hot pants openly selling their wares at midday just steps from the 50th Street subway stop.          

Thrilled that I might actually earn a living wage, I plunged ahead, assigning my former Zygote editor, Peter Knobler, the challenging task of interviewing the elusive, perhaps drug-addled, Sylvester “Sly” Stone. A few days later, I scored a big-time rock ‘n roll interview for myself with Ray Davies of the Kinks.  Since I’d collected nearly all of the Kinks’ albums since 1964, and witnessed their sloppy set at the Fillmore East the previous November, I didn’t have to cram for this assignment.  During the British invasion I was one of those kids who liked the Beatles okay but, partly to break from the pack, favored a lesser group—in my case, the Kinks (others, such as Tom Hanks, chose the Dave Clark 5).

Still, I was nervous as I made my way that afternoon, cheap cassette recorder under my arm, to a nearby hotel to meet one of my rock idols.  Before that the biggest celebrities I’d met were Seals & Crofts—and that was before anyone knew who they were.

I found Raymond Douglas Davies in the corner of a grey and generic hotel room, sitting calmly in an armchair, fingering an oversized pair of glasses—actually, just the frames, with no lens.  His rather drab outfit of tan slacks, knit shirt and blazer hardly qualified him as a dedicated follower of fashion. Ray appeared older than his twenty-six years. He was soft-spoken, almost fearful in manner, and claimed he was “flattered” to be interviewed by a novice like me. This was a man not only with a string of hits a few years back but a recent smash, “Lola,” and his group was about to play, of all places, Philharmonic Hall.  Like much of New York City at the time, that institution was cash-strapped.  This required booking obnoxious rock acts, even though audience members would likely blow pot smoke into the red-cushioned seats (or burn holes in them).  

The Kinks’ latest Lola album mocked the “powermen” and the “money-go-round” of the music industry. “The aristocrats and bureaucrats / are dirty rats,” he complained. This inspired Ray, as lead singer, to fantasize about fleeing to the jungle and living as an “ape-ape-man.” Now Ray told me, “I don’t suppose agents will like me saying that they think people are more or less like cattle.”  Starting in 1965, the American Federation of Musicians had prevented the group from touring in the U.S. for four years, at the peak of their success, due to what Ray would call the band’s “bad behavior.” When the ban ended he failed to find a home for a long list of personal projects—TV specials, theater pieces and movies.   Even his current Lola vs. Powerman album was supposed to be a double-lp but the record company killed that idea, which Ray found “crushing.”

Hence his dwindling confidence. “I suppose it really means I’m scared,” he admitted. “It sounds phony, when it’s a nice day like today and we’re sitting here having a nice chat”—lazing on a sunny afternoon, one might say—”but that’s really what I mean. I’ve just had a very bad few months, since Christmas, finding out things about myself….A friend of mine, I went to visit her in England, and she's totally cracked up. And she's the last person I thought would ever.…I mean, if somebody’s got a mental problem, they can’t give you injections to get rid of it.”

One had to wonder if Ray’s sense of tragedy might have started on his 13th birthday. His sister Irene gave him his first electric guitar. That night she suffered a heart attack at a dance hall and died.

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Reflecting his working-class background in Fortis Green—his father worked in a slaughterhouse—Ray had always been obsessed with dead-end streets, inspiring his almost Dickensian view of London. The Kinks’ concept album, Arthur, would offer a brilliant view of 20th century blue-collar Britain. Now he revealed that his own brother-in-law was so worried about losing his job he went to bed every night “twisted.” As for himself, “I go to bed all right.  I wake up twisted.” He was like Dickens’ Mr. Jarndyce tormented by the wind from the east.

When I asked what he thought of John Lennon’s recent “Working Class Hero,” he replied, evenly, “I don’t know John Lennon. The last thing he ever said to me was fuck off.” Commenting on the recent Grammy Awards, he declared, “The Kinks will never win any award, ever.  They’ll never even be nominated for anything, I’m convinced.” 

As for the future, he just wanted to enjoy “the little things,” such as Muhammad Ali “beating the shit” out of Joe Frazier in a rematch with “Amazing Grace” playing in the background—a fantasy, as an Ali fan, that I instantly embraced.  He also looked forward to the release of a film called Percy, the English word for penis. In fact, it was a movie about a penis transplant. The producers wanted him to write a funny song for it but instead he had written "God's Children," a protest tune.   “I couldn’t bring myself to actually write a funny song about a penis transplant,” he explained, displaying his trademark lopsided grin. The refrain:  Don't want this world to change me / I want to go back / to the way the good Lord made me.

In parting, I found myself in the unforeseen position of trying to comfort one of my heroes. I hailed the current Kinks surge that was strong enough, after all, to land them in Philharmonic Hall.  Ray would have none of it.  “I tried to stab my [guitarist] brother Dave last month,” he whispered. “We were having something to eat after a gig and he took one of my chips.  Got him right under the ribs.  It was horrible.”  The pair had famously fought, sometimes physically, for years. But he added:  “When I’m onstage it’s the only relaxing time for me. Although sometimes I get too emotional.” 

About seven hours later, Ray Davies bounded onto the boards at Philharmonic Hall wearing a colorful flowered shirt, over-sized black bow-tie, velvet suit and those lens-less glasses.  He sauntered to the center of the stage, his face full of hair, then swished about in the manner of Mick Jagger, all the while contorting his face in wildly expressive scowls and grins as he conversed merrily with the audience, with the sweet scent of marijuana already in the air. 

He opened with a Johnny Cash song about a dying man’s last wish, “Give My Love to Rose.” Quite a surprise if you didn’t know this was the name of his beloved sister who had moved to Australia, inspiring Ray’s very sad song, “Rosie, Won’t You Please Come Home.” Then, apparently two (or three) sheets to the wind, Ray started staggering around the stage until, in the fifth number, “Apeman,” he knocked over a microphone and stumbled backwards toward a stack of amps.  His brother Dave, perhaps remembering the recent stabbing, stepped out of the way and let him pass, like a matador with a bull, allowing him to crash into the amps. 

As Ray hit the deck, a gasp arose as many in the crowd wondered if a ton of tottering equipment was about to tumble over and crush him.  Instead, we heard, faintly at first, then louder, coming from Ray, prone on the stage but still gripping a microphone for dear life: “I’m an Apeman…I’m an ape-ape-man.”  The crowd, naturally, went wild.  Ray struggled to his feet, finished that song, then a few more, including a cover of “A Pub With No Beer.”  Along the way he urged the audience “to forget what this fucking world’s done to us” and paused to sing a couple verses of “You Are My Sunshine,” which he called “the fucking greatest song ever written.” No one in the hall needed that sunshine more than the singer.

Then “You Really Got Me” provoked scores of Kinks freaks to climb onto the hallowed Philharmonic Hall hardwoods. Returning for an encore of “Top of the Pops” the band was quickly engulfed in a sea of fans, yet somehow pounded out the tune with nary a skipped beat. Like a proud heavyweight who climbed off the mat, Ray was jubilant, jumping up and down and waving his arms, the only Kink visible for those of us still in our seats in the orchestra. When it was over, Ray was ushered safely to his dressing room, not by burly cops, who had finally arrived on stage, but by dozens of admirers.

One could hardly conjure an image of Leonard Bernstein being carried off by ticket holders after tipsily falling off his podium during Beethoven’s Ninth. 

Heading home to West 106th Street in the late-night chill, I wondered how many more seasons Ray Davies would survive if this was really what his manic-depressive life was like, all day and all of the night.  Indeed, a few months later, on the Kinks’ next album, he would declare “life is complicated…life is overrated.” Two years after that he would experience a mental collapse, a possible suicide attempt, and hospitalization. By the end of the decade, however, the Kinks would bounce back (again) with several hit singles. One of them, “Come Dancing,” was a tribute to that sister who had died in a dance hall. Then Ray had a love affair, and a daughter, with the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde.

Little could I imagine, back in 1971, that the profoundly troubled Kinks mastermind would one day become knighted as Sir Raymond Douglas Davies. As for me:  What a way to launch my new career orbiting rock stars and, later, famous authors and notorious political activists.


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Greg Mitchell is the author of a dozen books, including the bestseller The Tunnels (on escapes under the Berlin Wall), the current The Beginning or the End (on MGM’s wild atomic bomb movie), and The Campaign of the Century (on Upton Sinclair’s left-wing race for governor of California), which was recently picked by the Wall St. Journal as one of five greatest books ever about an election. For nearly all of the 1970s he was the #2 editor at the legendary Crawdaddy. Later he served as longtime editor of Editor & Publisher magazine. He recently co-produced a film about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and now has written and directed his first feature, Atomic Cover-up, which will have its American premiere at a festival this spring.