20th Century Man: An Evening With Ray Davies

Apollo Theater Center

By Adam Langer

I think if I thought I could not improve musically, I’d give it all up and become a tramp. The idea of tramping around the country with a healthy bank balance in time of difficulty appeals to me. –Ray Davies, from the liner notes to one of the gazillions of albums titled Kinks Greatest Hits

Ray Davies has always seemed to have an inferiority complex. Pursuing an almost indescribably up and down career with the Kinks and a series of ambitious but usually ill-fated solo projects, Davies boasts a jaw-dropping resumé of hit songs. And with the possible exception of Bob Dylan and Neil Young, he’s the one survivor of 60s rock who hasn’t sold out, betrayed, or otherwise fucked over his legacy.

Pete Townshend essentially undermined the entire spirit of the Who’s music with his horrid Broadway musical Tommy and collected a mess of Tony Awards for his troubles; Paul McCartney helped his old bandmates fend off the bankruptcy attorneys with some singularly boring excavation work and some grave-robbing, ELO-wannabe collaborations with John Lennon; and what’s to be said about Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and their Steel Wheelchairs tours? But somehow–whether as a result of bad career advice, questionable choices, or his own quirky personality–long-term mainstream acceptance has eluded Davies. His widely anticipated 1988 musical 80 Days (directed by Des McAnuff of Tommy infamy) about Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days was coolly received on the west coast and disappeared. And though every video store I know stocks some of the most obscure, unbelievable shit you can imagine, just try finding Davies’s impressionistic film Return to Waterloo at your neighborhood Blockbuster. All this would be a lot easier to stomach had Davies ever been content with his seemingly permanent outsider status.

But the latter part of Davies’s career has been marked by an uncomfortable desire to fit in rather than embrace his idiosyncrasies. The Kinks albums of the late 70s and 80s were an uneasy blend of stunning introspection (“Killer’s Eyes,” “Lost and Found,” “Art Lover,” “Long Distance”) and facile, up-tempo, hungry-for-radio-airplay arena-rock anthems (“Around the Dial,” “Rock and Roll Cities”). The less said about Phobia, the most recent Kinks studio album, the better.

By littering some of the Kinks’ recent albums with songs like “Do It Again,” “Aggravation,” “Repetition,” “Working at the Factory,” and “Predictable,” Davies made it clear to even the most thickheaded observer that he was tiring of the stadium rock-star persona and that his long-time collaboration/war with his gifted-guitar-playing but mediocre-songwriting brother Dave was yielding diminishing returns. The highlight of the most recent Kinks shows was never Dave jamming while Ray pranced about onstage in shiny white tennis shoes leading nine-minute sing-alongs to “Lola,” anyway. It was the connection Ray Davies could make with the audience while sitting alone with his acoustic guitar singing some chestnut like “Days” or “Sweet Lady Genevieve.”

Still, to see Davies six months ago as a solo performer on the stage of Park West, strumming through the old hits as well as the requisite new material and reading aloud from his X-Ray: The Unauthorized Autobiography, was a somewhat discomfiting and vaguely depressing experience. Perhaps Ralph Covert of the Bad Examples opening for him made it look like this was the end of the line for Davies. Perhaps it was Davies’s smug “If you’re here to see me, you’re a loser” attitude that seemed to seep through all of his stage patter. Perhaps it was just that some shithead in the audience kept on moaning “Chrissie! Chrissie!”–in reference to Davies’s old flame Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders–whenever Davies spoke of old romances. Whatever the reason, Davies seemed to be quickly becoming rock and roll’s answer to Peter O’Toole, and this was the first concert I’ve attended by a seminal figure in rock history that seemed way, way, way too long.

Surprisingly, the streamlined, edited, and more good-natured version of that concert, which Davies has brought to the Apollo Theater as a one-man-show-in-progress called 20th Century Man: An Evening With Ray Davies, is a terrifically entertaining and moving evening of music and theater. Though spotty in parts and rough around the edges, it could represent an exciting new direction that doesn’t involve either retirement or playing to a half-empty UIC Pavilion. Obviously more comfortable with the material, Davies proves a spellbinding storyteller as well as a first-rate song stylist. This evening of classic songs, overlooked oddities, and new loping narratives sprinkled among self-analyses, fond reminiscences of growing up in England, and witty tales of pop-star life suggests that Davies could conceivably be reincarnated as a brilliant troubadour on the theatrical circuit, a sort of macho Quentin Crisp with a guitar–if and only if he can come to terms with this role himself.

Davies has long been lauded for the honest, introspective quality of his lyrics, which has endeared him to, among other people, King of the Outsider Filmmakers Wim Wenders, who usually tries to sneak Davies’s music into his films. But it’s his ability to insinuate social commentary about society poseurs and the downtrodden working class in songs like “20th Century Man” or “Celluloid Heroes” that makes his self-reflection truly resonate. Interwoven in Davies’s two-act performance are two narrative strands, which enable him to deal with both these aspects of his songs. Songs like the hauntingly performed “20th Century Man” and his masterpiece “Waterloo Sunset” underscore Davies’s fascination with and nostalgia for his idyllic childhood in an eroding country. Davies also chronicles his progress from innocent living-room crooner to disillusioned full-fledged rock star–fighting everything from crooked managers to corrupt unions to rock and roll gossip–and includes a tour of Kinks hits (“A Well Respected Man,” “Dedicated Follower of Fashion”) and some biting satire (“The Moneygoround”).

Hidden within the many terrific songs and the well-told monologues is a fascinating and dramatically coherent musical autobiography that juxtaposes England’s fall with Davies’s rise. But too often Davies gets sidetracked by either specious or disingenuous anecdotes–such as a backstage encounter with a cocky John Lennon and American misperceptions of the Kinks’ gender orientation–and pleasant but trivial pop songs (“Stop Your Sobbing”), which don’t advance the narrative. Davies’s acerbic new songs are somewhat overwrought, consisting mainly of Lou Reed-esque half-sung, half-spoken autobiographical recollections and ungraceful imagery (“Beside every crooked man stands an angel with wings”). And though it’s hardly worth the trouble to check, several of Davies’s anecdotes seem either inaccurate or invented. For example, why does he talk about his days at art college in 1968 when by that time the Kinks were already a major band and Ray’s school days must have been behind him?

Davies still doesn’t seem completely at ease with the transition from the Rosemont Horizons of the world to the intimate Apollo Theaters, and he has yet to shed some of his inappropriate rock-star antics. Dumb remarks about gays (“One up the bum, no harm done”) and leering references to chicks, babes, and “going down” (nod nod, wink wink, grin grin) seem constructed to pander to the guffawing adolescents who’ve long since deserted him.

The best moments of 20th Century Man come when Davies places his songs in an autobiographical and historical context, such as when he interprets the wonderfully moving “Two Sisters” as a commentary on his own jealousy of his brother Dave, or when he credits the desperate, wooing love talk of his sisters’ boyfriends as the seed for songs like “Set Me Free” and “Tired of Waiting for You.” But in another moment of the show, when he sings “Now I’m just a prisoner in that stereo hi-fi jail,” Davies’s keen skills of self-analysis elude him. Though he claims he’s discussing the aftermath of broken marriages, it seems clear that he’s really singing about the addictive allure of fame and mainstream acceptance, which he still can’t turn his back on. A career that perhaps never quite amounted to the success he desired may indeed cut Davies up and rock him “to the bone.” But compared with the world of rock and roll geniuses who sold out, burnt up, or just faded away, this life of a well-funded musical tramp that Davies said he desired so many years ago might not seem so bad by comparison.

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