Tuesday, September 20, 2016

X-Ray by Ray Davies

Writing an autobiography the normal way is just so boring -- a tedious forced march through the details of a bland childhood, early struggles, and then the inevitable grand success. (Because why else would anyone care about your autobiography?) How much more interesting to start with a near-future dystopian world run by an all-powerful Corporation, and then send a vaguely hostile young writer to interview "yourself" about the secrets of that life?

Well, that's what Raymond Douglas Davies did, anyway. The Kinks lead singer and main songwriter wrote X-Ray -- subtitled "The Unauthorized Autobiography," with more truth that the other folks who have used that puckish line -- from the point of view of that young writer in what was then the medium-flung future of circa 2010, interviewing an aged Ray Davies to make another salable widget for that Corporation to exploit. (Davies wrote the book in the early 1990s, and it was published in 1994 -- as it happened, just as the Kinks were about to finally call it quits.)

The young interviewer starts out hostile, but is soon won over by old man Davies's obvious intelligence and knowledge -- well, of course he does, since "old man Davies" is the one actually writing the book. But Davies-the-author does keep Davies-the-character remote and not entirely knowable, which is an interesting choice for an autobiography. (Davies -- both of them -- also are clearly still smarting over his class and educational status; he was born working class in an England where that deeply mattered and his formal schooling was mediocre and over pretty early. Harkening back to songs like "Arthur," Davies argues those things have twisted his life from what it could have been.)

X-Ray covers the Davies childhood -- Ray's own, and some glancing looks at his wild-child brother, Kinks guitarist Dave -- and their musical education, as they play in groups that eventually turn into the Kinks. The frame story mostly drops away during long chapters of old man Ray telling his story -- ostensibly in dialogue to the young narrator, who is dutifully recording it for the ages -- but the idea of a Corporation, or business types in general, that exploit and control and destroy artists, is always central in X-Ray (as it often was in Davies's songs, cf. Lola Vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround).

This memoir only covers roughly the first decade of the Kinks: the struggle, the first big successes, the transition to a more lyrically interesting and critically lauded style, the long exile from America, and a succession of great records. It cuts off in 1973, just before Preservation showed the limits of the contemporary version of Davies, but the narrative had already gotten unfocused from the succession of albums once the string of big hits stopped.

One thing Davies seems to be trying to do in X-Ray is to emphasize how very popular the early Kinks were: that they weren't just critic's darlings, but major hitmakers for an extended period of time. So once that starts being less true, he seems to be less interested in talking about the songs and albums. He does write a bit about the songs as songs, but the validation of Number Ones and money comes across as more important -- or maybe that's because he's telling the story to a Company stooge?

There's also a fair bit of inter-band dirty laundry aired about the stormy relationships within the band -- and with Davies's first wife, whom he basically admits he would have drifted away from pretty quickly if she hadn't gotten pregnant. (And he did drift away from her, in a more painful way, somewhat later.) But this, like the story of the music, is told in a second-hand way, though Davies's distancing device of the ostensibly neutral future narrator.

It's been another twenty years since X-Ray, and Davies hasn't gone back to tell us the rest of the Kinks story -- maybe because comebacks and big tours aren't as interesting, maybe because "Ray Davies" is dead as of the end of this book. These are the years that most of us really care about anyway. And if Davies doesn't tell us their story in the straightforward way we could have hoped for -- the inspirations for this song, how that album came together, musical secrets and tidbits -- he does tell us his story in a way no one else could, and in a style entirely appropriate for this thorny, private man.

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