RAY DAVIES: ROCKíS GREAT STORYTELLER

By Paul Freeman

Ray Davies has long ranked among rock musicís most well respected men about town. He has displayed an uncanny ability to fashion memorable melodies and witty, literate lyrics.

With the Kinks, he earned induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the U.K. Music Hall of Fame.

This interview was conducted in 1998, upon the release of Daviesí ďStorytellerĒ album, which launched an impressive career as a solo artist.

POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
Have you always thought of yourself in terms of being a storyteller?

DAVIES:
No, I started off as a painter. I wanted to paint pictures. And I learned very late that stories could be told through a song. Pop songs are three-minute stories. I learned about the tradition of storytelling when I lived in Ireland, in the late Ď80s. I lived in the Republic of Ireland for two years. There was a storytelling convention in Skibbereen, which is west Cork, near where Michael Collins was born, actually. The people get together every year and just tell stories. Itís a great tradition, a real folk tradition. Itís something I think I would have rejected when I was younger, certainly as a teenager.

PCC:
Why?

DAVIES:
Certainly as a teenager, trying to make blues music, playing with a band, I rejected the whole notion of folklore and tradition, in that respect. Certainly folk music. But storytelling, I think, is the purest form of music. Iím not saying that my album is, because Iíve drawn on many different types of music, including big band music, because thatís one of my influences. But Iíve never thought of myself as a storyteller, yet here I am with an album called it. So Iíve got to live with that.

PCC:
Rejecting tradition, was that just part of your teenage rebellion?

DAVIES:
In a strange way, for about six months, I did rebel, yeah. But I wrote all my early hits to please my family and go down well at family parties. [Chuckles]

PCC:
The ability to tell stories, is that a natural gift, environment, acquired skill, a combination of those things?

DAVIES:
Growing up in a large family, you tend to pick up on what the elders tell you. I like listening to people. I have reel-to-reel tapes of my grandmother talking about her times. And itís as simple as that, really. Itís ordinary people conveying ideas to one another and passing it on. Before television took over the room and Playstation occupied peopleís time, we were fascinated by storytelling.

PCC:
The atmosphere of intimacy you create with your audience, does that came naturally to you or is it a result of decades on stage?

DAVIES:
It never comes easily, letís put it that way. But maybe Iím a natural at it, because I grew up working an audience... The audience just happened to be my family. It was a great training ground, though I didnít know it at the time. Holding your own was a challenge. In fact, I find it the most difficult forum ever, still. I find it difficult playing at home. There used to be a gig in North London called The Rainbow, thatís sadly closed down. It held about 4,000 people. Whenever we played The Rainbow, I always knew thereíd be lots of relatives and friends there. I found that the hardest audience to play to. Your own people are often your biggest critics, really. They want you to do well, but at the same time, theyíre the ones who are critical and will soon tell you, if youíre not doing it right.

PCC:
But when youíre playing for strangers, is it ever difficult to reveal yourself, without holding back?

DAVIES:
No, whatís great about that, we played this place in Silicon Valley [California] last night and the people there, it was just like playing at home. People responded in much the same way as my family would have done. I think most people are the same. Have the same fears. The same things they get a kick out of. The same take on the world.

PCC:
Once the show is preserved in album form, does that lock you into the specifics?

DAVIES:
No. I wanted some sort of document on record. But the show will always be a work in progress. Iím always adding and subtracting.

PCC:
Having spawned the VH1 ĎStorytellersí series, are you fascinated by stories about how songs came about?

DAVIES:
You know, the great thing, even the films I like, the greats like Truffaut, Goddard, Kurosawa, they knew how to tell a story. Woody Allen. If somebody comes to me with an elaborate idea, I say, ĎExplain it to me in a sentence.í My music publisher is a great storyteller... But he just tells you stories to deflect you and to keep you from asking for money. Everyoneís got their own reasons for telling stories. Itís just this art of conversation. And Iím so thrilled that people are taking to my show and other people who followed me and did ĎStorytellers.í People are taking to it, because it is part of, an extension of, what pop culture does, what it emanates from - people communicating, basically. Thatís what rock Ďní roll did. I was amazed when people came to me and mentioned ĎYou Really Got Meí or songs later on and said that they related to it. It gets through.

PCC:
Do you see a reason why the storytelling form is enjoying a resurgence? Conversation was supposedly a lost art.

DAVIES:
It was for a while, I think. I think people are just going through a great period now of rediscovery. I really feel that. And I think itís to do with this generation, the twenty and thirty-year-olds now have come through all that post-Viet Nam stuff and post-Wall Street stuff of the Ď80s. Theyíre coming through and discovering what a great country they come from. Theyíre reaping the rewards of the past, rather than just dwelling on the post-World War, post-whatever junk and bitterness. Itís kind of healthy now, in that sense. Thereís still a lot wrong with the world. But, thankfully, weíve got a lot of young people now that are really hip to what went before and thatís why people like me are being warmly received. Itís interesting, I find it easier to communicate with a lot of younger people than, say, people of my generation, who say, ĎOh, that guy, wasnít he in The Kinks? Iíve got a lot their albums.í ĎOh, yeah, whatís he doing?í But I find that young people tend to take me for what I am. Which is nice.

PCC:
And when you say, take you for who you are...

DAVIES:
They accept me as a guy whoís written a lot of songs, canít buy all my records in the stores, but they do their own research. And thatís good. The mom and pop record stores have pretty much died out. But even the bigger ones, the Towers and those people, have a fairly extensive back catalogue of The Kinks. So they wonít have to look too hard for it. But if all that never existed, I think this show and this record, I donít throw the songs in for gratuitous hits. ĎTired of Waitingí is in the show for a reason. So is ĎSee My Friends.í And certainly, ĎYou Really Got Me.í The songs are in the storytelling show, because they work within the context of the show, rather than just being thrown in.

PCC:
Even though you always seem to have something fresh going creatively, isnít it difficult to avoid the trap of giving the fans just the familiar material they want?

DAVIES:
Oh, yeah. It is. The secret is to take the familiarity in the songs and to give them a bit of new life. I think thatís the secret of why the show works.

PCC:
Do you see in the new generation a tendency to be victims of fashion?

DAVIES:
Theyíre victims of the fashion they grew up in. I think everybody goes through that. Thatís one of the imponderable things. It will just always be that way. Itís the way people are. One of the things I say when i do this show, well, it depends on the audience, but I usually say, ĎStorytelling is not necessarily to have hit records. Thereís people who donít get a record deal and play their songs in bars and someone will pick up on it. Youíre extending to the world your particular life. And that all contributes to the world.í If we donít do that, I think we are all in danger of being victims of what The Gap want to sell us or what society makes available in the stores. But I think people are hip to that and are more discriminating, hopefully, in what they choose to listen to and what they choose to be.

PCC:
Thereís certainly still an ongoing fascination with The Kinks. Do you sense thereís a chapter in that history yet to be written?

DAVIES:
Mick Avory is a friend of mine. Heís the drummer. He actually plays on ĎStorytellerí record. We discussed the possibility of getting Pete Quaife, the bass player, whoíd not been with the band for years. And I discussed it with Pete, just having the four of us getting together, trying to write some songs, as if ĎYou Really Got Meí hadnít been a hit. What would we have done next? Then weíd just sit down, do some stuff for ourselves. If it meant anything, we might record it. And thatís as far as weíre going. Weíre not making any sort of promises to ourselves or to our fans.

PCC:
And your brother, Dave, has written his autobiography and has his own one-man show, as well?

DAVIES:
Is he doing a one-man show?

PCC:
Iíve heard heís going to.

DAVIES:
Oh, Iím sure he will. If mine works, heís bound to.

PCC:
Do you welcome his presenting his perspective in that context?

DAVIES:
I think he should do something more original. He should do something heís good at. Heís a great guitar player. He can play the guitar as well as anybody out there doing gigs, I think. Iím a songwriter. Iím not a musician. Good luck to him.

PCC:
What else is ahead for you?

DAVIES:
Iím thinking of going to college and getting a degree. Finishing what I didnít do in college.

PCC:
Degree in what?

DAVIES:
Storytelling. [Chuckles] I donít know. Itís just something that crossed my mind. An acquaintance of mine, a woman called Glenda Jackson, an actress. I knew her in the later years of her acting career, in the late Ď80s. And she was doing a course. And now sheís a politician. Iím not saying thatís what I want to do. But maybe I would just... Iím very into computer art, in a sense, in music. I have to use computers, because I find that itís helping me. As a painter, Iíve worked alone. When youíre a musician, you have to work with other people, unless you want to go out as a soloist somewhere. And not too many people would have me as a soloist. So, to continue my art, whatever it is, whether itís storytelling or film or theatre, I need to master the tools that will help me work as a soloist and they are, sadly, computer tools. But I also, when I write, I will write in manuscript form, as well. I try to combine both of the aspects, the disciplines, if you like.

PCC:
You say Ďsadly.í Do you view computers in music as a necessary evil?

DAVIES:
I was in Silicon Valley last night. I had a gig there. And as beautiful and as wealthy as it is, itís got to be stopped from taking over.

PCC:
Is it important for you to always have some new challenge in front of you?

DAVIES:
Iíve got to have something to fire me up. I donít think of myself as anything in particular. Iím not a musician. Iím not a composer. Iím just a creative person who likes to make things. Iím still basically the same person I was when I was 19, using anything at my disposal to make it work.