Thursday, April 9, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Ray Davies: A Complicated Life



Ray Davies is one of the most talented, beloved, and enigmatic musicians of his (or any) generation. As the lead singer, rhythm guitarist, and chief songwriter for the Kinks, Ray emerged from the early 1960s London blues/R&B scene to become one of the greatest songwriters of all time as his band simultaneously ascended into the pantheon of great rock bands in history.  Although he continued to write countless classics over the course of the Kinks' 32 year career and is now rightly regarded as a musical treasure, as a person he has always been a bit more complicated; the use of this adjective in the title (which itself is the title of a Kinks song), is entirely apropos.  Never as openly accessible as his 60s contemporary songwriting geniuses like Lennon, McCartney, Townshend, Jagger, or Richards, Davies has always stood apart from that group even while his music stands alongside theirs.  Johnny Rogan, renowned author of defining biographies on the Smiths and Byrds, among others, has now produced a detailed look at the life and career of Ray Davies.

***special thanks to Joe at Bodley Head for sending me a copy of the book to review!***


Like any book written by Johnny Rogan, Ray Davies: A Complicated Life is an enjoyably readable, exhaustively researched, and information-packed tome that not only delves into the life of its subject but also digs deeper into their surroundings at each point of their career, helping to place every event in proper, understandable context.  Just days before I received this book, I was involved in a conversation in an online Kinks fan community where this book was being strongly derided as being of the ilk of Albert Goldman's atrocious "biography" of John Lennon.  While I know that Rogan's books have often elicited strong feelings from their subjects (Morrissey's famous wish that Rogan would die in an auto pile-up after his Smiths book was released, for example), I also know from experience that his books are exhaustively researched, annotated, and their contents generally held to be accurate; he typically presents the unvarnished truth, warts and all.  Given the fact that his subjects almost always contribute to his books during his research, I found it hard to believe that his Ray Davies book would be any different; indeed, beyond his historical research, Rogan's sources included almost all of the Kinks: Ray and Dave Davies, Pete Quaife, Mick Avory, David Quaife, John Dalton, Jim Rodford, as well as Ray's ex-wife Rasa, former managers Grenville Collins, Robert Wace, and Larry Page, former producer Shel Talmy and many, many more.  His study of Ray's life not only includes memories and direct quotes from the man himself and those who have been and still are a part of his life, but also draws upon quotes and interviews from newspapers, magazines, radio, and television from the 1960s to the present. Thus, I found it very hard to believe going in to this book that it would be any different from any of Rogan's other books, and my assumption turned out to be correct.



Beginning with a brief introduction describing his thirty-something years working on this project, including an anecdote of a recent lunch with Ray Davies where the musician's famous parsimony was still on full-display, Rogan begins the tale of Ray's life with his familial roots in Wales.  The two sides of what would become the extended Davies clan emigrated to London in the very early years of the 20th century.  Fred and Annie Davies married young and survived two world wars and a great depression while their family grew to include six daughters and an ever bustling household in the north London neighborhood of Muswell Hill.  Amidst all of this activity, the family was surprised by the arrival of Ray, the first son, in 1944. He was followed by his younger brother and lifelong musical and personal foil, Dave in 1947.  Like their eventual peers in the 1960s British rock scene, the brothers first fell under the spell of skiffle in the 1950s before rock and roll changed their lives. After a stint at art college, which he had in common with many of his peers including John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, and Eric Clapton, Ray Davies formed a band with Dave, schoolfriend Pete Quaife, and drummer John Start. After going through numerous drummers before settling on Mick Avory in early 1964 and changing their name to the Kinks, they began their long and celebrated career.  Initially emerging as one of the top singles bands of the early-to-mid 1960s, by the end of the decade they were fading commercially even though Ray was hitting his stride as a songwriter. Through multiple line-up changes and alterations in their musical direction, the Davies brothers' volatile alliance guided the Kinks through their 32 year career before they split for good in 1996.  I don't intend to get into the history of the band in this review as I've written about it extensively as well as reviewed several excellent books that focus on the entire band.  However, as the chief songwriter and absolute creative force dominating the band throughout its history, Ray Davies still remains an enigmatic and fascinating figure. While he has published two of his own memoirs, just as in his songwriting, Ray shrouds his true emotional self behind layers of obfuscation. Rogan's book also serves as a running history of the Kinks and Dave, even though as always the story returns to center on Ray.



Johnny Rogan takes the reader through the Ray's entire life, from his childhood and school days through the Kinks' entire career and Ray's subsequent life and solo career which runs to the present.  Along the way, the portrait that is painted is of a supremely talented musician, writer, and creative mind contained within an often emotionally distant, mercurial, and chameleon-like personality.  While Ray's songs and lyrics had the ability to communicate deeply held feelings and beliefs to his millions of fans worldwide, in his personal life he was almost wholly unable to let anyone see who he truly was inside.  Let me forewarn any Kinks/Ray fan that even though this book is not made up of unfounded gossip, innuendo, or rumor it contains as complete a portrait of Ray Davies as you're likely to find, flaws and all.  Nothing in here was a surprise to me having read numerous books about the band and it shouldn't be a surprise to any other fan who has a deep knowledge of the Kinks.  While Rogan certainly balances it out by also pointing out Ray's numerous virtues, the overall portrait is indeed of a conflicted, complicated, and talented man who was shaped by numerous experiences in his formative years (the two most important of which centered on two of his sisters) that shaped who he would become for the rest of his life.  While this is certainly true for all of us, in Ray's case these emotions and memories not only served as an endless well for his wonderful songs but also as a crutch that he has never seemed to be able to fully move beyond.  While always aware that he was "not like everybody else," it also manifested itself in an ugly megalomaniacal streak (especially from the middle of the Kinks' career until the end) that not only ground down and alienated his bandmates but seemingly irreparably damaged his perpetually combustible relationship with Dave.  However, it emerges that both brothers had a deep co-dependency on each other that they could never quite shake or openly acknowledge even though they were (and still are) both cognisant of it.  This is not to say that the fraternal love between them was extinguished...it's still there to this day. But theirs is a complex and confusing sibling feud that, to this outside observer at least, seems to be a negative feedback loop of resentment and jealousy.  Rogan does a good job digging into this over the course of the years, not only by using the brothers' own words as source material, but the words of all of those around them over the course of their lives: bandmates, family, managers, friends, and spouses both current and former.  As this love/hate relationship and its constant friction is the pivot point of the Kinks' entire history, it naturally is at the root of so much of what Rogan writes about throughout the book with regards to Ray. 



As with all of Johnny Rogan's books, this is exhaustively researched and annotated; thus, it's difficult for me to understand the criticisms that the book is filled with gossip and hearsay when it's all documented using the subjects' own words, along with references and endnotes giving source material for literally just about every sentence in the book.  Rather, I think what makes this segment of so many hardcore fans upset is the fact that the book shows the unvarnished Ray Davies.  I am a massive fan of Ray; I always have been and always will be, but I'm not above reading about his faults as well as his virtues. It doesn't detract from my enjoyment of his music or my admiration of him. In A Complicated Life, you get both sides of just about every story from pretty much everyone involved, including Ray himself. I see no reason why any Ray hero-worshippers should be angry about this book...Rogan is about as dispassionate an author as you'll come across.  He seems to provoke this response in both his subjects and a portion of their fans with just about all of his books...what this tells me is that he's doing something right. In addition to his usual obsessive attention to detail and great scene setting placing everything in proper context, like all of his books A Complicated Life is a pleasure to read. The narrative prose is exquisite and while the daunting length of 750+ pages is intimidating at first, the book is no chore at all to read and flows nicely and pleasantly. The book does seem to zip through the last decade rather quickly, but in a way this is understandable as much of it was covered already by Ray himself in Americana, which Rogan duly cites. The final 100 pages of the book consists of his exhaustive (and fascinating in their own right) endnotes and citations, as well as detailed discographies for the Kinks and both Ray and Dave solo.  The only things I can knock the book for are the relatively brisk treatment of the years after the Kinks' split in 1996 and a handful of typos.  I also would have liked some more detail into Ray's childhood but what there was was sufficient...at this point, I'm simply splitting hairs.



One enormous benefit Johnny Rogan had when writing this book was direct access to everyone in the Kinks, including Ray and Dave. Anything he needed clarification on was instantly answered directly from whoever he asked usually with a simple phone call (and he makes this explicitly clear).  Given the numerous people Rogan interviewed for the book, the only two who come off looking bad are former manager Larry Page and former road manager Sam Curtis.  Page comes off, at least when discussing his dealings with the band in the 1960s, as someone who thought he was more respected and better at his job than he really was...when he came back to manage them in the 1980s, it was apparent he had mellowed.  Curtis comes off as a real jerk throughout and especially does himself no favors by insulting the Davies' family home and Ray and Dave's mother.  In my estimation, this says much more about Curtis than it does the Davies.  The most welcome addition was Ray's first wife Rasa, who was such an integral part of the early Kinks sound with her high vocal harmonies.  Her perspective on Ray's life during his most creatively fertile and happiest (relatively speaking) period were a revelation.  However, even while presenting both sides of every story, this is one of those books where the caveat of "never meeting your heroes" holds true: if you're a seasoned and educated Kinks fan, nothing in here should be too shocking or surprising and it shouldn't dampen your appreciation for Ray. Indeed, he is still one of my most favorite musicians and personalities. However, if you're a Kinks/Ray fan who doesn't know much about them, this is a book that will open your eyes perhaps a bit too soon. I'd say this is not a book to start one's Kinks educational journey with, but rather one for those studying for their advanced thesis in Kinkdom.  Any complaints about this being an agenda-driven or factually inaccurate book are unfounded, at least in my opinion; I've read so many books about the Kinks over the years that I've lost count and there was nothing in this book any more insulting or critical of them that hasn't been written before. Much of it comes from the mouths of the Kinks themselves, so I'm not really sure how anyone who dislikes this book can get so up in arms about it.  It's clear that Rogan is a Kinks fan (I believe this is the third book he's written about them) but he is also not afraid to be critical of them or their music when it's warranted, which I appreciate.  Even if one disagrees with some of his opinions, they're just that: opinions.  If you're looking for a hero-worshipping look at Ray Davies, this book isn't for you; what this book is is an eminently readable and obsessively researched tome on Ray that is essential (along with his own two books) for understanding the brilliant person who has led this complicated life.

MY RATING: 9/10

7 comments:

  1. This is undoubtedly the best book revue I have read for many a year. Truthful and honest, as is the book itself. Well done Drew

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    1. Dave, thank you very much for the compliment...it means a lot coming from you! I try to understand both sides of any debate when it comes to things like this, but I'm still really struggling trying to understand why this book has polarized so many Kinks fans.

      When you were speaking to Johnny during the course of this book, did you ever feel like he had an anti-Ray agenda? He's always seemed an ultimate fan of the band given what he's written about them over the years and I didn't think this book came across any differently. Did you?

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  2. The Kinks were always a great band. The first lp by them I bought was Something Else, which is still one of my favorites. I picked up You Really Got Me on 45, and also picked up Arthur, and Village Green, which also are great albums. Sometime back VH1 had a songwriters special with Ray Davies promoting his new (at that time) solo album. I still have it around here somewhere.

    Here's a podcast interview with Ray on a 50 year retrospective with the Kinks: http://www.npr.org/2014/11/26/366813240/naive-yet-revolutionary-ray-davies-on-50-years-of-the-kinks

    There's a different one here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=87772916

    Off topic: I thought I might have a Beatles collector's item today, but turns out it's fake as far as I can tell due to the label. Oh well: http://www.thebeatlesrarity.com/2011/03/12/collectors-corner-introducing-the-beatles-the-worlds-most-counterfeited-album/

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    1. Yeah, the Kinks are fantastic! All of those albums you mentioned are amongst their best...Village Green is my favorite but any album they made between '66 and '74 are just perfect in my book. Do you still have all of those on vinyl, I hope?

      (and yes, there is an entire industry devoted to figuring out which copies of Introducing the Beatles are real and which are fake :) )

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    2. (and by the way, thanks for the links to those Ray interviews...will definitely check those out, he's a fascinating guy!)

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  3. Still got Something Else & Follower of Fashion on vinyl, the others are on CD and have some greatest hits on CD as well.

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    1. Glad you've still got those two on vinyl! Collector's items these days :)

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