Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review: Ray Davies's 'Americana'


Ray Davies is the most British of British pop stars—even more so than his brother Dave, whose whiskey yowl owed too much to David Ruffin to wave the Union Jack as high. Ray’s slight Cockney inflection, his quiet-desperation perspective, and his obsession with village greens, cricket, and afternoon tea are as far removed from Jagger’s R&B poses as is imaginable. Yet Ray did make room on his records to give his jaundiced view of America as early as 1966’s “Holiday in Waikiki,” and he’d do it with greater focus on latter records such as Everybody’s in Show-Biz and Low Budget. Ray has even more right than other Englishmen to be skeptical of the states. America is where The Kinks were unofficially banned during four crucial years in the sixties. It is where he was asked that ever-original question “Are you a Beatle or a girl?” and where he saw a man shot and convulsing outside his New Orleans home. It is also where he himself was shot by a purse-snatcher in 2004. So the idea of Ray Davies writing a book called Americana must seem like some sort of great, big wind-up against we Yanks.

Not quite. There is too much the outsider loves about America: its jazz and blues, its robust women, cowboy movies, and wacky characters. As a boy, he watched his father dance a jerky jig to Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” and praise the acting of Hollywood stars Dad mispronounced as “Humpty Gocart” and “Marion Brand,” forever giving the son an affection for that far away land of Hollywood, hot dogs, and hoodlums. And if America is a place of danger…well, so is the rest of the world, as proven by a comic yet terrifying tale in which Ray almost drives his car off a cliff in Ireland.

So why is there a story about Ireland in a book called Americana? The theme is really just a device to finish a story Ray began almost twenty years ago in his first book X-Ray, which ended along with The Kinks’ most creative period around the time Muswell Hillbillies was released. Just as that book’s Orwellian sci-fi conceit was a clever way to tell the early Kinks’ story, the Americana theme of this new book is a way to explain what happened next. The theme is not arbitrary because so much of The Kinks’ post-sixties career pivoted on American tours and record labels. And eventually, Ray decided to settle here with his typical self-contradictory irony. When the lifelong Labour supporter saw the long, long conservative regimes of Margaret Thatcher and John Major come to an end with the election of Tony Blair, Ray became wary of England because he was wary of the underlying conservatism of Blair’s “New Labour” movement. When 9/11 happened, Ray resolved to stay in America. Such moves may seem illogical, but Ray Davies does seem a guy who thrives on adversity.

That impulse made The Kinks’ career rocky, which naturally makes Americana interesting reading, as does Ray’s natural gift for prose. His tendency to be self-congratulatory can be off-putting at times, especially from one who has written a body of such beautifully humble songs. Yet he does dole out intimacy judiciously throughout Americana when discussing the harrowing circumstances of that 2004 shooting, his relationships, and perhaps most interestingly of all, his songwriting process and the pains of writer’s block doldrums. Because of the period on which this new book focuses, and because its conceit is not as outrageously imaginative as the one that drove X-Ray, Americana is the lesser book. But considering that the author is one of pop’s finest writers of song and story, that’s all relative.

Get Americana at Amazon.com here:

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