To Ray Davies, America Is Still A Land Of Opportunity

Apr 11, 2017
Originally published on April 11, 2017 5:15 am

The newest album by Ray Davies finds him in a reflective mood. As a young man, he wrote some of the defining songs of the 1960s and '70s with The Kinks. Now in his 70s, the British musician is looking back with Americana, a new album based on his 2013 memoir of the same name. Taken together, the book and record amount to a self-portrait of a man whose music once flooded American radio.

Davies spoke with NPR's Steve Inskeep about his experiences in the U.S. and the evolution of his songwriting. Read an edited transcript below, and listen to their full conversation at the audio link.

Steve Inskeep: Often in your book, you'll be giving some narrative and then suddenly, there will be several verses of a song. I'm curious if that's a representation of what actually goes on in your life as you move about. Do lyrics pop into your head?

Ray Davies: Well, they do. I think in song. That's something that's evolved over the years: I've got this soundtrack going around in my head and I'll write a song for any kind of situation I'm in. Not a great song, but kind of background music to the world.

When I listen to your early stuff, it's really simple: It's one thought, maybe repeated 20 times. But if we advance a few years, you have stories with more specific characters and tales being told. And later on, you're writing books. How did that happen?

Well, "You Really Got Me" — not much research to do on that.

That's my point!

But then I was asked to follow it up with other songs, and I had no real life experience. So I wrote about people who I knew in my neighborhood: the well respected man; dedicated followers of fashion. I was learning about the craft of writing and it became fun. So the songs I write now, the new songs on this record, are taking writing a step further for me.

Did you consciously take on the United States as your main subject here?

Well, it's called Americana, which isn't the United States, really — it's an emotion. It deals with our history in America, which, as you know or may not know, was kind of fluctuating between good and bad.

In the '60s, the Kinks were effectively banned from performing in the United States because of alleged misbehavior on stage. Once you made it back to America, you reveled in it — even living in New Orleans for a while. But that ended unhappily for you in 2004, when you were shot by a street mugger. How did you get shot?

With a gun.

As people tend to be. What kind of a day was it? What was happening at the time?

I'd just arrived in town, and it happened just out of the blue; you can't explain how these things happen. It's well-recounted in the book and I suggest you read it.

What time of the day was it?

It was a really beautiful day. It was the day they had a football game in town, and the police were occupied looking after the crowds. Just an empty street, and suddenly somebody came along, shoved a gun in my face and I chased him down the street. He got in a car, turned around and shot me. Need I say more?

You didn't want the guy to get away with it. You went after him.

It's a flight-or-fight situation. You never know how you're going to react until you get there. My instinct said, "Get the guy and bring him down."

I think you've been kind enough to tell me a little bit of a story that it sounds like you really don't like telling, even more than a decade later.

Yeah, it's one of those moments that sticks with you, because the summation of lots of things happening in my life — leaving England and changing my life in many respects — that brought it to a halt and made me reevaluate everything.

Is the song "The Mystery Room," on this album, connected to that experience?

"The Mystery Room" is that point after a near-life-threatening situation. You drift into a world that's like a void. When I was taken to the emergency room after they picked me up from the stretcher, I didn't have any ID, so they called me "Unknown Person." The mystery room is that place where you go and you're not sure where it's going after that. It's a void between good and bad, eternity, whatever. And you never know where it's gonna end up.

What is it about the United States that inspires you?

When I was a kid, I used to see all these great films about American heroes — and obviously it's not all like that. It's just an incredible land mass. It's an incredible source of inspiration to me musically and creatively, but I still don't know it; it's such a giant space, it's impossible to. You're going around, you go to the Midwest and you go to LA and the Northwest — they're like countries in their own right. That's what I find fascinating. Not like Britain, which is tiny and compact. I think in America ... you can get lost there. You can change your identity and move to the South from the Northeast or vice versa. So it's still the land of opportunity, in many respects.

When you talk about different nations and different regions, there actually have been cultural anthropologists who've written books and tried to divide the United States into ethnic nations — saying the deep South is a different place than Appalachia, which is a different place than the Pacific Coast. It sounds like that's the experience you've had traveling across this country.

I've had that experience; it's exactly true. But somehow, something pulls America together as one country. That's the joy of it and the scary thing about it, because it's so powerful when it knows it's together as one country. It's an inspirational place but a very complex place, and I'm still trying to work out how I feel about it.

Radio producer Taylor Haney and web intern Jake Witz contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The newest album by Ray Davies features him in a reflective mood.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

RAY DAVIES: (Singing) Girl, I want to be with you all of the time.

INSKEEP: Ray Davies. His name looks like Davies to Americans. He's riffing on one of the hits he wrote and sang for The Kinks from the '60s to the '90s. His latest solo album captures him musing about a lifetime in music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: Touring relationships are fine when the hotels take care of the housekeeping and you've got room service. But once you check back into the reality motel, the dust appears on the furniture. The laundry piles up. And there's no room service to clear away the trash.

INSKEEP: The album is called "Americana." It explores this British songwriter's experiences in the U.S. It draws on his memoir by the same name. Taken together, the book and the album amount to a self portrait of a man whose music flooded American radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOLA")

THE KINKS: (Singing) Girls will be boys, and boys will be girls. It's a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world except for Lola. La-la-la-la (ph) Lola.

INSKEEP: I want people to know who haven't seen the book that you'll be writing, you'll be giving some narrative, and then suddenly there'll be several verses of a song.

DAVIES: Yeah.

INSKEEP: I'm curious if that's a representation of what actually goes on in your life as you move about. Do lyrics pop into your head?

DAVIES: Well, they do. I think in song. And I think that's something that's rolled over the years. I got this soundtrack going around in my head. I'll write a song for any kind of situation I'm in. Not a great song but kind of background music to the world.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) People talk about having a soundtrack to their life, and I guess your soundtrack is Ray Davies music.

DAVIES: Yeah. And to your life, Steve, I'm writing one about you right now.

INSKEEP: That's good to know.

DAVIES: It's very atonal at the moment.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Sorry to hear that.

DAVIES: No, it's good. It's exciting.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE KINKS SONG, "YOU REALLY GOT ME")

INSKEEP: When I listen to your really early stuff, it's really simple.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU REALLY GOT ME")

THE KINKS: (Singing) Girl, you really got me going. You got me so I don't know what I'm doing.

INSKEEP: It's one thought, maybe repeated 20 times. But if we advance a few years, you have stories with more specific characters and tales being told. And later on, you're writing books. How did that happen?

DAVIES: Well, "You Really Got Me," there's not much research to do that.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) That's my point.

DAVIES: You know, but look. Then I was asked to follow it up with other songs. And I had no real life experience, so I wrote about people I knew in my neighborhood, the well-respected men and dedicated followers of fashion.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEDICATED FOLLOWER OF FASHION")

THE KINKS: (Singing) Eagerly pursuing all the latest fashion trends 'cause he's a dedicated follower of fashion.

DAVIES: I was learning about the craft of writing and it became fun. So the songs I write now, the new songs on this record, are taking writing a step further for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICANA")

DAVIES: (Singing) I want to make my home where the buffalo roam in that great panorama.

INSKEEP: Did you consciously take on the United States as your main subject here?

DAVIES: Well, United States, it's called "Americana" which isn't the United States really. It's an emotion. It deals with history in America which as you know, may not know, is kind of fluctuating between good and bad.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICANA")

DAVIES: (Singing) Running high on inspiration taken from those Wild West heroes full of expectations of the road.

INSKEEP: In the 1960s, The Kinks were effectively banned from performing in the United States because of alleged misbehavior onstage. Once Ray Davies made it back in, he reveled in America, even living in New Orleans for a while. But it ended unhappily in 2004, when he became the victim of a crime.

How did you get shot?

DAVIES: With a gun.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) As people tend to be.

DAVIES: Yeah. Yeah. It's well recounted in the book, and I suggest you read it.

INSKEEP: I want people to hear a little bit of this though. Where were you in New Orleans?

DAVIES: I'm not going to answer that question. I was just west of the French Quarter.

INSKEEP: And what time of day was it?

DAVIES: It was a really beautiful day. They had a football game in town. And the police were occupied looking after the crowds. Just an empty street. And suddenly somebody came along, shoved a gun in me face. And I chased him down the street. He got in the car, turned around and shot me. Need I say more?

INSKEEP: You didn't want the guy to get away with it. You went after him.

DAVIES: Well, it's a flight or fight situation. You never know how you're going to react when you get there. My instinct said get the guy and bring him down.

INSKEEP: I think you've been kind enough to tell me a little bit of a story that it sounds like you really don't like telling even more than a decade later.

DAVIES: Yeah. It's one of those moments that sticks with you because the summation of lots of things happening in my life - leaving England and changing my life in many respects - that brought it to a halt and made me reevaluate everything.

INSKEEP: He later wrote about that moment in the emergency room when you're not sure if you'll live or die.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MYSTERY ROOM")

DAVIES: (Singing) Now I'm faced with mortality. Yeah.

INSKEEP: It was just one experience for Ray Davies in a country he says he loves.

DAVIES: But I still don't know it. It's such a giant space. You're going around, you go to the Midwest, and you go to LA, Northwest, they're like countries in their own right. That's what I find fascinating about it, not like Britain which is tiny. It's the ability, I think, in America it's the ability you can get lost there.

INSKEEP: When you talk about different nations in different regions, there actually have been cultural anthropologists who've written books and tried to divide the United States into ethnic nations, that the Deep South is a different place than Appalachia, which is a different place than the Pacific coast. It sounds like that's the experience you've had traveling across this country.

DAVIES: I've had that experience. It's exactly true. But somehow, something pulls America together as one country. That's the joy of it and the scary thing about it because it's so powerful when it merges together as one country. And I'm still trying to work out how I feel about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GREAT HIGHWAY")

DAVIES: (Singing) I had this dream. America was always a very special space.

INSKEEP: That's Ray Davies, whose new album is called "Americana."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GREAT HIGHWAY")

DAVIES: (Singing) Heroes of the great Wild West, Wild Bill Hickok and the rest. The romantic on a reckless chase till reality hit me in the face. Hey. Hey. Hey. I'm riding on the great highway. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.