Ray Davies

at the Vic, October 2

Modern life has always been too much for Ray Davies. In the 60s, when his peers were writing songs of social and sexual rebellion, his band the Kinks wallowed in nostalgia for Victorian England. In the 70s, living in New York City, he fretted over the gas crisis, unemployment, black militants, and IRA terrorists. In the 80s, as the Kinks were winding down, he bemoaned TV violence, noise pollution, serial killers, and urban alienation. So last week at the Vic, waiting for him to take the stage, I wondered how he would respond to the nightmare of giant skyscrapers being reduced to rubble and taking thousands of people to their deaths. As it turned out, he didn’t say a word about the carnage in New York or Washington, not because he was afraid to or because words have ever failed him, but for the simple reason that it wasn’t in the script.

Davies was in town doing an abridged version of his musical one-man show, 20th Century Man: An Evening With Ray Davies, which played here at the Apollo Theater in 1996 and has since toured the world, been released on CD as The Storyteller, and inspired countless other aging rockers to repackage their tired old hits with fuzzy anecdotes in the VH1 “Storytellers” series. I never made it to the Apollo, but I have read Davies’s 1994 memoir, X-Ray, the source material for the show, as well as Jon Savage’s and Johnny Rogan’s books about the Kinks, so I had a pretty good idea what to expect. Judging from the audience’s reaction, so did everyone else. Like a child being read a story he knows by heart, the crowd drew pleasure not from surprise but from the security of hearing every word just as they’d heard it before.

The Kinks certainly didn’t start out this way. In the mid-60s, when they were flooding the British and American charts with hits like “You Really Got Me,” “A Well Respected Man,” and “Tired of Waiting for You,” their shows were as chaotic as the Sex Pistols’ would be a decade later. Perpetually drunk, they might cut their set in half, play the same song for 45 minutes, or assault each other onstage. They were so unpredictable that in 1966 the American Federation of Musicians banned them from venues in the United States, where they wouldn’t appear for four and a half years. When they finally returned, emboldened by the success of their single “Lola,” Davies set out to marry the rock concert with musical theater, and the band mounted a series of elaborate stage shows with costumes and dialogue. By the time I first saw them, at the Uptown Theater in 1980, they’d made a huge comeback with the live album and pioneering concert video One for the Road, but to my disappointment they played the entire record without variation: same songs, same order, same patter, same “spontaneous” stunts. It was stultifying.

Davies’s show at the Vic wasn’t quite that canned: he diverged from the period covered by 20th Century Man by opening with the Kinks’ last hit single, “Come Dancing,” and later in the set treated the faithful to a surprise rendition of “Australia,” from the band’s 1969 rock opera Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire. For the most part, though, he stuck with the format he’s been using for the past four years, a musical autobiography that begins with his birth in the north London suburb of Muswell Hill and ends 20 years later when the Kinks explode onto the international pop scene with the epochal two-chord riff of “You Really Got Me.” He is in fact one hell of a storyteller, and his polished anecdotes were filled with loving recollections of postwar Britain, of his six older sisters and their heavy-breathing boyfriends, of his Guinness-swilling father, and of his bratty younger brother and bandmate Dave, who more or less invented heavy-metal guitar by punching holes in the speaker cone of a cheap amplifier with one of their mother’s knitting needles.

The narrative culminates in a lengthy account of Ray and Dave forming the Kinks and developing their breakthrough song, a chain of events Davies imbues with almost biblical significance. Having read all those tales many times over, I was more gratified by the show’s vivid but understated chronology of British pop as it progressed from traditional dance-hall jazz through the blues, country-western, and skiffle crazes of the late 50s to the birth of a genuinely British rock ‘n’ roll in the early 60s. But the crowd at the Vic seemed eager to play along with Davies’s genesis myth, warmly applauding not only the familiar oldies but also the entrance of drummer Mick Avory and bassist Peter Quaife and even the purchase of the little green amplifier that Dave would molest later in the story. With self-deprecating humor Davies managed to deflect the crowd’s veneration most of the time, but his legendary arrogance did slip through near the end, when his statement that the band’s lineup was complete and “the Kinks were formed” failed to command the expected ovation. “I know it’s not one of the great events of the 20th century,” he shouted indignantly, “but let’s hear it! The Kinks were formed!” Startled, perhaps, that they had missed their cue, the people dutifully went wild.

There’s nothing wrong with a little veneration–Davies is a truly original talent, and the string of Kinks albums he wrote between 1966 and 1971 (Face to Face, Something Else, The Village Green Preservation Society, Arthur, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, and Muswell Hillbillies) is one of the most impressive achievements in all of popular music. But after 37 years in the business he seems more obeisant toward his own legend than many of his fans. I’m willing to bet that Davies could have walked onstage at the Vic and played 90 minutes of his most overlooked tunes (“Schooldays,” from 1975’s Schoolboys in Disgrace, perhaps, or “How Do I Get Close,” from 1989’s UK Jive, or “Still Searching,” from 1993’s Phobia), and the crowd would have been more moved and elated than it was hearing songs they could listen to on the Drive. But after the Kinks managed to crawl back from obscurity in the 70s, they invariably gave the people what they wanted, or at least what they seemed to want.

Maybe from where Davies stood we seemed to want some sort of escape, but though he tried to tiptoe around the subject of September 11, even those same old stories took on new resonances. Conspicuously absent from the song “20th Century Man” was its opening verse: “This is the age of machinery / A mechanical nightmare / The wonderful world of technology / Napalm, hydrogen bombs, biological warfare.” But the song’s bone-chilling paranoia, its portrait of an age whose ingenuity has outstripped its humanity, struck a chord anyway. So did “Victoria,” the buoyant anthem to 19th-century England that opens Arthur.

That record is surely Davies’s masterpiece. The story of his favorite sister, Rose, and her gray, ordinary husband, Arthur, is told with a novelist’s sense of detail yet manages to embrace an entire nation. With its painful memories of World War II, its unblinking look at a people whose time has passed, and its wistful nostalgia for the sense of unity that accompanied the Blitz, it speaks as clearly and passionately here and now as it did in Britain 30 years ago. But like its downtrodden suburban hero, Ray Davies has never been much interested in the here and now. Wise, shrewd, compassionate, and deathly afraid, he’s become a willing prisoner of his own past. There’s something weird about a guy complaining that he’s trapped in the 20th century when the 21st century has arrived with such a bang; you might close your eyes to it, but you can still feel the ground quaking beneath your feet.