The last time Ray Davies sat down to write a memoir, he invented a fictitious narrator, had the poor kid chase down a cranky ex-rocker, and wrapped up the narrative around 1973. So much for tell-alls. “X-Ray: The Unauthorized Autobiography” — now about 20 years old — may have frustrated those looking for the Kinks leader to step up to the confessional. But the book dripped with creative energy, Davies and his poison pen deliciously poking holes in the genre of celebrity memoir.
Now comes “Americana: The Kinks, the Riff, the Road: The Story,” a kind of scrapbook, blending diary entries, slabs of lyrics and quick observations from the now 69-year-old singer. The book promises to serve as Davies’s attempt to make sense of his complex relationship with “the country that both inspired and frustrated him.”
The book is part-memoir, part-journal. It jumps across decades, though keeps much of the action centered around two periods: The post-’60s rise of the Kinks in the States and the bizarre circumstances that led to Davies being shot by a mugger in New Orleans in 2004.
AMERICANA: The Kinks, the Riff, the Road: The Story
In truth, “Americana” offers an ultimately elusive hodgepodge that rarely goes beyond skin-deep. Our hero — one of great songwriters of his era — wants to share his history, but only on his terms.
If you’re a Ray Davies follower, this should be no shock. This is a man of many conflicts. In person, he fluctuates between charmingly self-deprecating and completely closed off. As an artist, he’s written the most original and literate music of his generation and has also recorded duets with Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora.
With “Americana,” we’re promised an idea book that never really digs at an idea. There is, however, an attempt by Davies to set the record straight — about his band, his romantic relationships, even the circumstances that left him in the States when his mother was dying.
There isn’t, oddly enough, much about his brother Dave, with whom he has been engaged in a seemingly endless feud. The younger sibling is cast as a reluctant bandmate more interested in a solo career than soldiering on as a Kink.
Dave, of course, would see it differently. I’ve interviewed him several times, during which he’s countered that Ray never allowed him to be a partner, to share in the creative side. You can read all about it in Dave’s autobiography, “Kink.”
We do get a few tantalizing glimpses of access. Feeling betrayed by super promoter Bill Graham’s decision to shift the band’s set time at the enormous US Festival, Ray keeps the Kinks back at their hotel. At another gig, Dave storms off after Ray calls his then-girlfriend Chrissie Hynde on stage to sing during the band’s encore.
There are other girlfriends and wives mentioned. And Davies carves up one paramour as if he’s preparing Sunday’s roast dinner. “Rory,” who we’re told is a composite character, is “bright with looks to match, but like so many others she had become attracted to the fake world of nightclubs away from reality.” There’s plenty more where that came from, as their relationship collapses in New Orleans.
The Big Easy is also the setting for the most compelling — and unexplored — incident in “Americana.” On a Sunday night in January 2004, Davies gets shot in the leg. Davies and a lady friend are mugged, but rather than let the thief go, the singer chases him down and ends up wounded.
Why on earth is Davies chasing a mugger? He barely examines the question, other than to blame “repressed anger” from his trials with “Rory.”
The strongest moments of “Americana” come during Davies’s surreal stay at Charity Hospital. He’s first unrecognized, later being hit up by technicians and doctors for autographs. The experience led to “Morphine Song,” one of his best in years.
But even here, Davies misses a rich opportunity for self-examination. He is visited by his new friend Alex Chilton, the former Big Star and Box Tops singer. What a perfect pairing — two quirky mystery men with uncomfortable relationships with fame. What a fine time for Davies to consider their legacies and how they’re connected. Instead, we’re told Chilton is a recovering alcoholic — no big secret — and that he resented recording “The Letter.”
The lingering mood of “Americana” is loneliness, that Davies is relegated to spending his life as an outsider. The aging rocker notes that when he visits his young daughter in Ireland, he likes to play her old records so that “she would recognise what had inspired me.” It’s sad.
As I read, I began to feel as if I were sitting in the audience for one of Davies’s “Storyteller” performances. We get what the singer wants us to hear, only the clever and skin-deep. As a longtime Davies admirer, I’m left wondering why he bothered. There’s no shame in returning your advance. Ask Billy Joel. Personally, I’d rather he devoted his time to recording a sequel to his excellent, under-heard 2007 solo album, “Working Man’s Café,” rather than a book that sheds as much light on the songwriter’s work as a glossy tour program.