Thursday, June 12, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: X-Ray: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Ray Davies


As with their records, there are so many Kinks books that are so varied and different that you never get tired of them. A couple of new and excellent biographies weren't enough to satiate me, nor was the day-by-day diary of their entire career. Which brings us now to autobiographies, and in the case of the Kinks, that means those of Ray and Dave Davies. Ray's newest book, Americana, was an excellent look at his life and career through the lens of his time spent living and working in America in the 2000s and the harrowing experience of being the victim of a mugging that resulted in his being shot in the leg in 2004. However, years before that book, Ray unleashed a much different sort of memoir onto an unsuspecting public. It's a book I hadn't read since it first came out, but I'm glad I revisited it as not only is it informative but it's wildly entertaining and quirky in a way that could only come from the mind of Ray Davies.


Billed on the cover as an Unauthorized Autobiography (ha!), X-Ray is the story of Ray's life, told by Ray but also not told by Ray. That's because it's written in the form of a novel told from the perspective of a disaffected but ambitious nineteen year old orphan who lives in a dystopian future and works for a monolithic, all-controlling entity called The Corporation. His assignment is to study and then write about the life and times of one Raymond Douglas Davies, or RD. The purpose of this is to destroy Ray's dreams as he's the last of the independents in this particular future.  Deciding to go right to the source after studying old Kinks records, the nameless protagonist manages to track RD, now seventy years old and frail, to the crumbling, decaying remnants of Konk Studios. It's especially ironic how Ray set himself as a seventy year old when he wrote this book, not only because he was fifty-three at the time of its writing, but because at the time of my re-reading this, he is indeed seventy now.

The tale of Ray's life is told through a combination of recollections from RD to the teen, as well as diary entries, tape recordings, and press clippings that RD gives him, the contents of which are told in RD's voice to the reader. There are also several strange experiences narrated by the young man that recall pivotal events in RD's life, with many of them coming during his dreams and a few coming when RD seems to inhabit the younger man's body. These odd interludes, as well as the young man's backstory and the bleak future world he inhabits give the book a strange quality: it's a Ray Davies memoir, but set within the framework of a fictional, allegorical story. It's easy in places to forget that what you're reading are true events from Ray's life, and for his ability to weave his story into a broader framework of fiction I must commend him.

Once RD begins telling his tale to the interested young Corporation man, he gives the story of his life and the Kinks' career from the day of his birth through to the eve of the release of the Preservation albums in 1973; thus, the book is not the complete story of Ray's life, and in this way Americana can be considered the sequel to X-Ray as it tells the rest of Ray's story beyond where this book cuts off.  Ray gives intimate and loving details of his childhood and of his place in the family as the first son in a family of all daughters (he has six older sisters). He was the little prince of the house until his younger brother and future bandmate Dave came along a few years later. It's well known the issues the Davies have had over the years so I'm not going to get into any of those details, but it's interesting in this book how Ray frames their relationship. While on one hand he was intensely resentful and jealous of how Dave, as the baby of the family, now took all of the attention away from Ray, on the other hand Ray was protective of Dave, almost to the point of anger when Dave would say or do anything to his own detriment. Ray was also very conscious of his own frailties and imperfections, a situation exacerbated by a local hunchback he would see walking through his neighborhood. With a scar on his chin, a gap in his front teeth (caused by a childhood fall) and a lower back injury that has dogged him from his youth to the present, he describes feeling as though he was crippled on the inside, while simultaneously being upset that because there were no outward signs of it, no one else thought of him in this way. Reading this certainly clarifies his mindset in later years and informs a great deal about his eventual songwriting.

The career of the Kinks is detailed from their beginnings in London, when Ray moonlighted in R&B groups while at the same time playing with Dave and their schoolfriend Pete Quaife. Eventually bringing drummer Mick Avory on board in early 1964, the band broke into the big time with a series of hit singles and albums although by 1968 they were in commercial decline in England. Additionally, the infamous ban from touring the US from 1965-69 crippled their clout during the height of their 1960s fame, although they continued to be a critical and cult commercial success there. Quaife's departure from the band, first in 1966 and then for good in early 1969, is discussed and Ray makes his hurt and sadness well known while also lamenting that he's always considered Pete's leaving as the end of an era. Surprisingly, he claims that even though they got replacements in the band over the years, and while praising John Dalton as their new bass player, he states that the end of the original band was a defining moment in the career of the Kinks. The overall story Ray tells bounces between tales of life on the road, sessions in the studio, and the crazy antics of his bandmates (in particular, Dave and Mick) as well as the details of the legal action taken by the band to extricate themselves from their onerous management and publishing contracts. Throughout it all, RD is surprisingly candid about his emotional issues and his conflicted feelings toward his wife and family life. On the one hand, he loved being a young husband and father with a quiet suburban existence, while on the other hand he resented the freedom and fun that the other three Kinks were able to enjoy during the 1960s (case in point: the song "Two Sisters" from Something Else by the Kinks). Additionally, he questioned whether he had married the right person, as he continued to have several clandestine affairs with old girlfriends as well as friends from art school. These "affairs" were not always physical in nature but rather emotional and an attempt for Ray to keep in touch with his past; however, they made him increasingly ambivalent about his situation all the same.

One thing that was interesting and confusing at the same time throughout the course of the book was the young man interviewing RD...just who was he supposed to be? In some cases it seemed as though he was just a device Ray used for telling the story, and in other cases it almost felt as though he was supposed to be a younger version of RD himself. This is especially the case when RD reminisces about a girl from his youth, Julie Finkle, at the same time that the young protagonist is mulling over his feelings for a fellow Corporation employee of his who is also named Julie. I have to say, however, that the way Ray has written this book was, just like his songs, quirky and completely unique to him, but it absolutely worked. He has even fleshed out RD with a wicked and wry sense of humor in order to bring him to life as a believable character and a fictional portrayal of a real person (ie himself) and not just as a prop for telling his story. While most of the details contained within will be known to most serious Kinks fans (especially if you've read some of the other books I mentioned above), there are some quite interesting anecdotes related here that you won't find anywhere else, including details about the real David Watts, several interesting tidbits that help fill in more gaps in understanding why the Kinks were banned from touring the US, and setting the record straight on several incidents, both onstage and off, that the four of them partook in. Perhaps the most poignant part is that which deals with his deteriorating marriage to first wife Rasa, culminating with her leaving him and taking his daughters in 1973...this led to a huge amount of emotional, mental, and physical distress for Ray, culminating with the disastrous White City concert and his suicide attempt. Strangely enough, Ray is able to infuse even a dark moment like this with his sly humor.  In fact, most of the entire book is told with his trademark sense of humor, leading to several actual laugh-out-loud moments over the course of reading it.

All in all, there isn't much I can fault this book for...it's completely one-of-a-kind as far as rock musician memoirs go, and perhaps that would be the one knock on it. For many people, the way in which Ray tells his story in X-Ray may seem like an annoying gimmick, but speaking for myself, it's as unique a book as the man who wrote it (and his music) and for that reason, I enjoyed it immensely. It's a shame he only covers his life up to 1973, but luckily we have Americana to tell the rest of his story. X-Ray shows that not only was Ray a songwriter with few peers, but that he is equally as talented in the literary sense.

MY RATING: 9/10

2 comments:

  1. I loved this book, so creative! BTW, in Pete Townshend's autobiography he highly praises Ray and the Kinks are inspirational for him.

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  2. Pete has long cited Ray and the Kinks as huge influences, as you said. I've read Pete's book and I loved it. I will be re-reading it and reviewing it soon!

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