Ray Davies

The Vic, 4/2

Robert Christgau famously called “Waterloo Sunset” the most beautiful song in the English language, and on most days I’m inclined to agree with him. Except of course when I’ve decided that the song I’d choose is “Fancy.” Or “Days.” Or “Shangri-La.” Or “Oklahoma USA.” Ray Davies, who wrote them all, played two sold-out nights at the Vic last weekend–but as my boyfriend pointed out, he could’ve played for two whole days without running out of good songs. The Kinks may never be enshrined on the same lofty peak as the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who, but it’s easy to argue that Davies should beat them all for the lifetime-achievement award.

The show we saw was more than three hours long, but there was so much material for Davies to choose from that nobody with a wish list for the set could possibly hear everything he wanted. Mr. Lungs in the back bellowed for “Big Sky” and Mr. Fixated to one side kept shouting for “Sleepwalker” and everybody knew damn well that no matter how many times Davies disappeared into the wings waving, the night was simply not going to end without “Lola.” Down in front, for reasons I never found out, someone had a huge stack of paper plates, and fans Frisbeed dozens of them at the poor man–with a song request written on each one.

I’m sure Davies skipped a few tunes that somebody was dying for, but he made up for it with pleasant surprises–material we’d forgotten to anticipate, including a smattering of cuts from Muswell Hillbillies and Village Green Preservation Society. (“One of the least successful rock records ever made,” Davies called it. “But stick around long enough and eventually you’ll become a cult.”) Back in 1968, many music writers figured that Village Green failed because it was so amazingly incompatible with the zeitgeist–wistful nostalgia for the pastoral garden parties of the Edwardian gentry was hardly the coin of the realm in those days. But plenty of Davies’s current fans have no memory of the late 60s–these days those tumultuous times can seem as distant as “little shops, china cups, and virginity” were to the proverbial street fighting man. It’s starting to look like Davies’s stubbornly out-of-step aesthetic, despite its superficial brittleness and vulnerability, was well equipped to weather the ravages of time. Maybe a longing for things worth handing down from generation to generation was the point all along.

Onstage Davies is fey and gawky, with something of the tweedy short-story writer letting his hair down at the pub about him, but that posture serves him better in his autumn years than, say, Mick Jagger’s lewd aerobics (and won’t cost you nearly $500 to watch). He’s a bit ridiculous, he always has been, and he seems to have accepted it without much angst–he knows he looks silly pulling rock-star moves, like shaking up a bottle of beer and spraying it all over the place during “Low Budget.” (I was half afraid he’d try to balance it on his head, like he used to back in the bad old days, when the Kinks occupied entire sets throwing things and spitting at each other.) He knows what side his bread is buttered on. People come for the songs, not to see him act like an antisocial teenager.

It’s pretty endearing that Davies doesn’t seem sick of “You Really Got Me” yet, instead frankly and cheerfully declaring, “I wrote these songs. I love them. I’m very proud of them.” And he takes requests, rather than treating them as an imposition on his prerogative as an artiste. He doesn’t act offended when a tune from 30 years ago gets a louder response than a cut from his new album, Other People’s Lives (V2), which it’s obvious half the crowd hasn’t heard. That isn’t to say he always treats his material like it belongs in a museum. He did half-finished a cappella versions of a few songs his backup band didn’t know, made cracks about the ubiquity of his hoariest hits, and treated some of his most recognizable tunes to demented, drawn-out electric-blues workouts–really just another form of showing off, like handing your luggage to the Samsonite gorilla to prove it’s put together right.

Davies was a bit more conservative with his new material. It’s not that the songs can’t hold up to rough treatment, as the extended call-and-response version of “The Tourist” proved. Nor are the songs on Other People’s Lives subpar: “After the Fall” wouldn’t sound out of place on Something Else, and a bartender asked me if I knew which album “Over My Head” was from–she’d heard it twice in two nights and fallen in love with it. If Davies is holding back I figure it’s because he knows the crowd won’t necessarily be able to share in the fun if he plays around with songs they don’t yet have memorized. He’s so sensitive to the audience it’s almost too good to be true. The way he works a crowd–with self-effacing humor, sly indirection, and no shame at all about the dorky persona behind the curtain–you actually want him to manipulate you.

The road show for Other People’s Lives is more vaudevillian, and thus less serious and straightforward, than the disc itself, but both emphasize nerdiness, nervous verbosity, and a longing to be understood. Like Storyteller, his one-man show from a few years back, and the liner notes to the new album, last weekend’s concerts provided a running commentary on Davies’s songs, their history, and his own creative process. Some of the tales–especially the ones about Ray and young Dave–seem well chewed, but revisiting familiar spots is just part of, er, giving the people what they want.

There was intimacy at these shows too–and it was more than just a performance of intimacy, where you can pretend to know somebody because you’ve shared his collection of footnoted anecdotes with him. Despite the way Davies changed personas like shirts–sleazy promoter, rock star, tourist, idle nobleman–he never lost touch with what his fans cherish most. His true wizardry is in his tenderest songs, like “Oklahoma USA,” fragile and lovely like the escapist dreams at its heart, and “Days,” which is both a benediction and a preemptive farewell to someone who could be a lover, a relative, or a friend. The best stories he tells are the ones you can inhabit as thoroughly as if they were your own memories–and when you think of it that way, it makes perfect sense that people would never get tired of hearing them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.