Johnny Rogan – Ray Davies: A Complicated Life
(The Bodley Head, £25)
When I interviewed Ray Davies I found him to be awkward, irritable and not in the habit of giving straight answers. Veteran music biographer Johnny Rogan’s exhaustive exploration of the Kinks man’s life has reassured me that it wasn’t my fault.
It suggests that Davies has spent most of his 70 years making life as difficult as possible for everyone around him – wives, managers and bandmates, and especially his volatile younger brother Dave – never mind journalists.
“My music is better than I am. I just don’t live up to it,” he says. But in the tradition of the most interesting biographies, a troubled subject makes for a gripping read.
Rogan, author of the bestseller Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance, began this project as far back as 1981. Although it is not an official biography, Davies has been interviewed alongside a huge roll call of characters from his personal and professional life. It’s an epic at more than 600 pages, plus over 100 more of notes and discography. Readers may flag during the neverending wrangles between The Kinks’ multiple managers, and during long studies of later albums that never merited much attention at the time.
There are also fewer examples of sex and drugs than we might expect from one of the biggest rock ‘n’ roll bands of the Sixties, although guitarist Dave does his best. Just 17 when The Kinks first tasted success, he is discovered in bed with five girls by his mother, plays one gig having “pulled his bollocks out to hang over his trousers” and even has gay experiences with the singer Long John Baldry and a presenter on Ready, Steady, Go!
Ray, meanwhile, became a married father of one very young. He experienced most of the Swinging Sixties as a detached observer, enabling the wry, detailed character portraits of many of his greatest songs. “Yes, I was there, but I was watching it happen. I won’t knowingly make it happen,” he says.
Rogan blames this closed-offness more forcefully on a childhood loss: the death of his influential older sister Rene from heart failure at 30, just after she had given him his first guitar for his 13th birthday. It prompted a “great silence” and saw him being sent to child psychologists and a special school.
That sadness lingered. It is surprising, throughout the band’s successes, how miserable he appears and how miserable he makes everyone around him. “With The Kinks, the gig was the low point of the day,” says Seventies-period bassist Andy Pyle. The level of physical violence going on between the bandmates is shocking. An entire chapter is devoted to “The Cardiff Incident” of 1965, which saw drummer Mick Avory almost decapitating Dave Davies with a cymbal live on stage.
The author doesn’t dwell on Davies’s darkest times at the expense of fun. He enjoys detailing the musician’s thriftiness at every opportunity, even depicting the street robbery in New Orleans in 2004, during which Davies was shot in the leg, with some glee. As Rogan tells it, Davies unwisely chased his mugger because he couldn’t bear to be parted from his cash, and was then furious that the medics had to cut up his new trousers.
Having survived a near-death experience, as did Dave when he suffered a stroke the same year, Ray looks to have settled into a quieter life as a wise influence on bands including Blur and Kaiser Chiefs. A reconciliation with Dave, and perhaps one more Kinks tour, would give the book the happy ending it lacks. Then again, if the brothers had not battled, perhaps none of that extraordinary music would exist.