Friday, June 30, 2023

Americana by Ray Davies

This is the book I neglected to mention when I read X-Ray, not quite a decade ago. It existed then - it's copyright 2013, and the US paperback I have in my hand was published in 2015 - so I can only blame 2016-era Andy's poor research skills and/or laziness. There already was a sequel when I sonorously declaimed "Davies hasn't gone back to tell us the rest of the Kinks story."

Americana - subtitled The Kinks, The Riff, The Road: The Story - is more straightforward than the weirdly dystopian X-Ray, maybe because in between he'd written an actual volume of short stories, Waterloo Sunset, and thus disentangled the memoir and fiction-making parts of his prose-writing brain. Or maybe not: Davies has been telling odd, particular stories in just the right words - even leaving aside the music - for around sixty years at this point, so he gets the benefit of all of the doubts.

So this is the second memoir by a famous musician. And neither of those two memoirs are anything like what you would expect from that sentence. Americana may be less weird than X-Ray, but it's still quirky.

Davies starts in New Orleans at the turn of the century; he was spending a lot of time there for a few years mostly for loving-the-local-music reasons. (There are also a couple of composite characters, reflecting women he was involved with at the time, and I suspect that's a hint at another very strong reason he was in NOLA so much.)

From that point, Davies sets out in two directions, in roughly alternating sections: his life and work from 2001-forward, largely looking forward to a major event that happened to him in New Orleans in early 2004 and its aftermath; and how the Kinks engaged in America in general, starting with a brief look at a 1965 tour and then mostly picking up in the 1970s, when they made US domination a priority.

Like X-Ray, Americana shows that Davies was more competitive and success-driven than he might have seemed from the outside. But it's a cliché that no one ever becomes world-famous without wanting that more than anything else, so it's not surprising. It is eye-opening to see Davies writing about that ambition, about the relentless touring, about his relationships with various moguls and their record companies, and to see his viewpoint on the Kinks' late-70s resurgence in the US and their chart-topping status for close to a decade.

Like any memoir, there's both some dirty laundry brought out to public view and obvious cases where some pile of unwashed garments have been firmly locked behind a door and not commented on. Davies mostly comes across as thoughtful and honest, but no one is as clear-eyed about their own motivations and ideas as they could be, especially looking back over the decades. He is generally positive about all of the band members - even Dave, his brother, Kinks guitarist, and occasional wild child of the band - and a large number of their roadies, tour crew, record-company contacts, and others.

All in all, Davies is here telling the story of a few decades of hard work and occasional business fuckups (on his own part, mostly out of ignorance, bad luck or distraction, and on the part of record companies who didn't know what they'd gotten or didn't appreciate what they had), for an audience that loves Kinks songs and knows that history in at least enough detail to fill in some background along the way.

Fans of Give the People What They Want-era Kinks could start here; X-Ray is weirder and slipperier and doesn't get anywhere near their arena-rock period. But even those who loved the Kinks as an arena-rock band should know Davies was always quirkier and odder than that, more driven and inquisitive, so this will not be a straightforward account of those days.

Which is why I liked it so much, of course. Ray Davies knows how to tell a story, in a song or in longer forms. This is a good one.

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