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Ray Davies: Bemused in the U.S.A.

In his new memoir, the former Kinks singer-songwriter reflects on his topsy-turvy tenure in America.

At the culmination of 2012’s music-heavy London Olympic Games, amid a procession of British musical giants taking turns on the Olympic Stadium stage, Kinks singer-songwriter Ray Davies emerged to deliver an emotional rendition of his 1967 tune “Waterloo Sunset,” easily the greatest song ever written about the host city, and a serious contender for greatest pop song of all time. For most of the world, it registered as a clear highlight of the closing ceremony. For American TV audiences, however, it was cut from NBC’s broadcast to make room for a sneak preview of the doomed sitcom “Animal Practice.”

In many ways, that indignity was sadly representative of Davies’ experiences with the United States in general. Back in the 1960s, the Kinks spent the peak period of the British Invasion enduring a four-year performance ban from U.S. stages and screens. In the current century, Davies spent several years living off and on in New Orleans, only to leave temporarily in a wheelchair after a tussle with a mugger left him with a bullet in his leg.

Yet as the Kinks’ 50th anniversary approaches next year, Davies’ sometimes-unrequited love affair with the U.S. continues unabated, and his Stateside experiences inform the brunt of his new memoir, “Americana.” Speaking from his home two miles from the North London Muswell Hill neighborhood where he grew up, Davies notes that the years spent away from the whirlwind of U.S. tours and TV appearances in the 1960s helped to steer him toward the more knotted musical tributaries that the Kinks would navigate throughout the late-‘60s and beyond.

“Because we couldn’t tour America, there was nothing to do but come back home and write songs about Englishness,” Davies says. “We had ‘The Village Green Preservation Society,’ ‘Waterloo Sunset,’ ‘Sunny Afternoon,’ ‘Dead End Street’… They were heard in America, but they weren’t really such big hits. It allowed me to get to grips with my craft. Maybe I would have made different records if I hadn’t (been sidelined) – actually that probably would have been the case.”

And beyond the British focus, the American ban gave Davies the space to grow into one of the most singular songwriters of the century. To trace the development in Davies’ output from his early 20s, where “You Really Got Me” birthed brutalist stylistic siblings “All Day and All of the Night” and “Till the End of the Day,” to the songs of his mid-20s – which spanned the rapier wit of “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” and “Most Exclusive Residence for Sale,” the kitchen-sink character sketches “Two Sisters” and “David Watts,” and thinking man’s rock anthems “Johnny Thunder” and “Victoria” – is to witness one of the most startlingly rapid artistic maturations for any songwriter this side of Lennon or McCartney.

“I had guitar lessons when I was a kid, but I really had no ambition to write songs,” Davies recalls. “Then essentially the first song I ever wrote (‘You Really Got Me’) was a No. 1 hit. So people naturally assumed I knew how to do it, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. Every time I wrote a new song it was an experiment into the unknown, so there was always a steep learning curve. The secret, I think, is not to learn everything, so that I’m treading into new water every time a new album comes out.”

Of course, with all those leaps into the unknown come a number of miffed landings.

“I always wish I could’ve done things differently,” he says. “There’s a wrong note in ‘Sunny Afternoon,’ and I’m still waiting to get the phone calls to come back and re-record it. But sometimes mistakes make things work.”

A number of Davies’ most productive missteps have been purely commercial ones. Though the Kinks finally broke through to stadium-filler status in the U.S. in the early 1980s, their redemption came after a number of their most outré and ambitious projects had failed to connect.

“When we went to RCA (in 1971),” Davies says, “I started writing all these musicals, and the label would say, ‘can’t you just make a normal record with two singles on it?’ Maybe I should have, but that just didn’t seem to be enough for me at the time. Maybe I should have done ‘Preservation’ and ‘Soap Opera’ as proper theater pieces, instead of burdening the record company with trying to promote them as rock records. But I stand by all my work: good, bad and indifferent.”

Despite his lyrical hostility toward the machinations of the record business – anti-industry screeds don’t come much more caustic than the Kinks’ 1970 LP “Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One” – Davies is nothing if not gracious toward the trio of towering U.S. music moguls who served as his patrons throughout the decades, from Mo Ostin (Reprise) to Clive Davis (Arista) and Irving Azoff (MCA). In his book, he does relate a catastrophic early pitch meeting with Davis where the Arista boss attempted to sell the band on a ghost-written Kinks knockoff song, but on the whole he recognizes how fortunate the Kinks were to have been allowed the kinds of artistic indulgences so rarely granted to the band’s descendants.

“All three guys you mention, they were all corporate guys, but somehow they managed to straddle the line and keep one foot in the creative realm, where they both knew the business and could relate to the artists,” Davies says. “Whereas it’s now the pure business people that control the industry. And yeah, they’ll probably get a 22-year-old A&R man or something and listen to him once in a while, but generally speaking, the corporate mind has taken over, so you don’t have that magic anymore.”

Though he professes to generally hold the same musical tastes that he had when the Kinks started – asked what record currently sits atop his turntable, he seems almost sheepish to report “it’s still Willie Dixon” – Davies is hardly a grumpy traditionalist. He appreciates the way punk rock’s “no Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones” ethos still found room to draw inspiration from his music (“maybe it was because we were so well known for failing, and weren’t really rock stars, but the punks seemed to leave us alone”). He also admits to an appreciation of hip-hop, saying, “it can be a relief sometimes, because once you get a groove down, it can be very simple, and that’s what I like about it, the simplicity.” And while he casts a skeptical eye on his reputation as a sort of godfather to Britpop, Davies says he’s inspired by the way his songs have been reinterpreted by filmmakers. “I think Wes Anderson has used my songs very intelligently,” he says, “and in ‘Darjeeling Limited’ he used a couple of songs brilliantly. It always pleasantly surprises me how Wim Wenders uses some of my songs.”

The Kinks haven’t played together since the mid-1990s, but Davies has continued writing and recording new material, most recently with 2007’s “Working Man’s Café.” Of course, the Kinks legacy isn’t one that’s easily shrugged off, and Davies has more recently revisited his classic cuts on 2009’s “The Kinks Choral Collection” and 2011 duets album “See My Friends.” Yet he denies feeling boxed in by his back catalogue.

“Whenever I do a song live, I can still put myself into a place where it’s like it’s the first time I’ve played it. I’ve always had that trick, like an actor would do,” he says. ”And where I’m lucky is that I always write for somebody other than myself, for characters, which makes it easier. I was never a sex symbol, so I was never writing any of that ‘come on baby, let’s rock out tonight’ sort of (material).”

But when asked exactly where he’ll celebrate the Kinks’ 2014 quinquagenary, Davies gives a most Kinksian response.

“I could say the Hollywood Bowl, and I could say Madison Square Garden. But the truth is it’ll probably be in a bar somewhere.”

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