Dave Davies: 'I was just a crazy kid with a guitar, a cheap amp and a razor blade'
His guitar sound made the Kinks one of the greatest bands of the 1960s – not that his brother Ray gives him the credit. Dave Davies opens up to Robert Chalmers about fraternal feuds, ceremonial axes, mystical encounters – and why he hasn't ruled out a reunion
Sunday 27 March 2011
Like many other epiphanies, Dave Davies' occurred on the road. He was relaxing in his suite at the Sheraton Hotel, Richmond, Virginia, in 1982, when five mystical "intelligences" began to communicate with him through smell.
"Each separate intelligence had its own aroma," he recalls. "One was similar to jasmine, but very deep."
The intelligences explained new laws of physics, indicating that humans exist in a sea of energy, like "mental fish, swimming around unaware of the fluid that surrounds us. I call this substance neutotonic." The presences also advised the former Kinks guitarist (some would say not before time) to moderate his sexual activity. Later that day, when he was attempting to focus on a television ad for cake mix, the screen was filled with strange yet alluring creatures. He was informed that spacecraft orbit the earth, carrying computers with information about everybody that ever lived.
"The smells would make me feel OK," he recalls. "As if they were saying, 'Everything is all right. You are not going crazy.'"
The whole experience, Davies says, "staggered me". He had mixed reactions when he sought to share his experiences with the American media at the time. One radio producer walked out, claiming he had to take his dog to the vet.
A cynical observer might conclude that he had taken too much LSD.
"Well, back in the late 1960s, I had conducted experiments with LSD and mescaline..."
"These experiments; were they... what's the word... extensive?"
"No. Three or four times. I was interested in psychic things and in spiritualism even as a boy. I'd started doing yoga by the early 1970s. I was in a bad way, inside, at that time. That's when I was most out of control, in New York in 1971. I was drinking. I could hear weird creatures talking to me. I was looking out of the hotel window thinking I wanted to jump. Eventually I found that the only way I could enjoy being me was without any of the drugs and drink and stuff. I started to practise yoga and controlled breathing. When the body is quiet, the mind is quiet." There are times, Davies adds, "when I feel like Captain Kirk".
"In what way?"
"We may need to encounter madness, but if we allow the madness to take over, that is when we get into problems."
The tone of this conversation is rendered no less surreal by our surroundings: we're having tea at a table on the landing leading up to the gents' in the Castle Hotel, Taunton. (Davies, 64, now lives with his partner and manager Kate, in the Devon countryside.) We last met more than 10 years ago, but the guitarist, a hugely likeable man, with his dry sense of humour and his modest, generous and engaging manner, is remarkably unchanged. A stroke he suffered in 2004 has slowed his speech slightly, but left his guitar-playing unimpaired.
Dave Davies, while he has maintained a keen interest in mysticism and the occult, is no David Icke. He belongs to that elite group of artists – they include Shirley MacLaine and Paco Rabanne – who describe psychic experiences many would consider symptomatic of insanity, yet continue to function, professionally and socially, without hindrance.
His stroke required him to abandon the heavy transatlantic touring schedules which, doctors said, may have precipitated his collapse. Otherwise Dave (whose latest release, Two Worlds, recorded with his son Russ under the name of The Aschere Project, is as bold and ambitious as anything he has ever recorded) has never been busier, promoting both that CD and his autobiographical film Mystical Journey, which was released on DVD at the end of last year. The film begins with Davies revisiting his childhood home in Muswell Hill, north London; these days his favourite recreation is walking across Bodmin Moor, and the documentary includes quite a bit of footage of him there, arms outstretched to the setting sun, pondering the meaning of life.
The Kinks may have disbanded 15 years ago, but his former group's spirit is currently highly active in the ether. Kinks, a reissue of their first album, together with rare outtakes and new interviews, is available in the UK from tomorrow; subsequent albums will be re-released later in the year. Ray, Dave's brother, is curator of the prestigious Meltdown Festival on London's South Bank, in June.
I had my first face-to-face encounter with the Davies brothers, I tell Dave, when I was still at school and they were playing Salford University, in the mid-1970s. On that occasion Ray threw a bottle that missed my head by a matter of inches – aimed at my companion Gary. ("Hey – you with the glasses," the singer shouted, as he threw the unopened glass bottle of lager, "you're putting me off.")
"That's when I realised quite how famous you were; when I saw people around us picking up shards of glass to take home as souvenirs."
"You were unlucky there," Dave says. "You could have boasted in the next life that you were killed by Ray Davies."
A significant difference between Davies and other high-achieving mystics such as MacLaine and Rabanne is that they, unlike the guitarist, have received the professional respect they deserve. Dave Davies, one of the most inventive, influential and accomplished guitarists of his time, has repeatedly seen his achievements annexed in the public imagination by his soul mate and nemesis, Ray.
"Did you watch Imaginary Man, that Julian Temple film about Ray Davies they showed on BBC Four the other week?" I ask Dave.
"I started to," he says. "Then I began to get sick, so I couldn't watch it any more."
You can only guess at which point Temple's documentary became unbearable: possibly the scene in which Ray is sitting with Bruce Springsteen, discussing the Kinks' life-altering 1964 hit "You Really Got Me", where the American asks: "Just tell me one thing: where did that riff come from?"
The chord sequence had its origins, according to Ray Davies, in his own tinkering on the piano, producing music which sounded, he suggested, "like Stockhausen". But it was Dave, with the help of an old amplifier cone that he'd deliberately slashed with a razor blade, and a battered Harmony Meteor guitar, in the living-room of the family house, who invented the sound whose influence would be publicly acknowledged by The Who, the Clash, Paul Weller, Pulp, Blur and Oasis among many others. When Rolling Stone magazine recently compiled a list of "the Hundred Greatest Rock Guitarists", Dave Davies limped in at 88: somewhat uncharitably considering that, judged purely in terms of originality, he remains some way ahead of Eric Clapton (4). He is, I suggest, the most undervalued guitar player of his generation.
"Thank you," says Davies. I look for the characteristic glimmer of irony in his eye. It isn't there.
At one point in Imaginary Man, presenter Alan Yentob remarks that the Kinks' songs are "like the NHS. We rely on them. They remind us who we are" – a piece of hyperbole which, as another well-known British recording artist told me, "nearly made me fall off my chair".
Yentob's peculiar rhetoric is a little easier to understand when you remember that the former controller of BBC One was born in London. The Kinks were the most defiantly parochial of bands. While there is no disputing the universal majesty of Ray Davies' greatest work – "Waterloo Sunset", "Days" or "Dead End Street" – there are many more, largely forgotten songs that, to an audience from outside the capital, are reminiscent of a wearying genre that dates back to the days of music hall and might be referred to as Cockney Whimsy.
In its less brilliant moments, Ray Davies' songwriting is capable of dividing a national audience almost as much as, say, the work of Max Miller. ("If I had a son," Ray said recently, speaking of his admiration for the vaudeville comedian, "I would call him Max.") To many who grew up north of Birmingham, Max Miller's coarse bravado wasn't appreciated much more than Frank Randle's was south of it. The Beatles may still have their spiritual home in the north-west of England, but could you actually imagine Lennon or McCartney ever having written a regional equivalent of Ray Davies' line: "They're never gonna kill my Cockney pride"? Yet the Kinks became internationally successful in a way that groups which courted such fame never did. While his brother's obdurate Englishness appealed to some Americans as exotic, the Kinks' global success was driven by Dave Davies' guitar sound, which could mesmerise an audience in Berlin, Osaka or Spokane.
How did he develop that beautifully understated electric guitar accompaniment on "Waterloo Sunset"?
"I played a melody similar to the verse," Davies says. "I'd always loved that old delayed echo sound they used on a lot of 1950s records; we had a great engineer who helped me reproduce that."
"Waterloo Sunset" was the first of the group's singles to be produced by Ray and the sound, Dave tells me, was the result of significant discussion with his brother. This was the case with many of their recordings, even if most Kinks songs, with the odd exception such as Dave Davies' 1984 anthem "Living on a Thin Line" (one of his finest songs, never released as a single but featured to great effect in The Sopranos in 2001) are credited solely to the elder brother.
Dave is an unusual figure in a business where an artist's talent is so often outstripped by their self-belief. In 1967, k after his solo hit "Death of a Clown", he told an NME reporter that he was "not good enough" to succeed on his own.
Diffident as he may be, the fact that the lucrative songwriting credits are solely in the name of his notoriously thrifty sibling must be a little enervating.
"Well, it is. Think of 'You Really Got Me', say, without that crunch and tone, which I did invent, even if I was just a crazy kid with a guitar, a cheap amp and a razor blade. I think Ray would admit that that sound really did kick-start his writing career."
"So how do you get on with Ray these days?"
"With great difficulty. Let's just say that Ray can be..." Davies pauses. "Greedy emotionally."
"I don't know when it happened but at some point Ray kind of lost the ability to share. Emotionally – not just with money. Even though that [money] would help. A lot."
"I would imagine that he lost that ability fairly early on."
"I think so. But having said that Ray is a vain, egocentric, narcissistic arsehole, I won't have anybody call him that except me. Because I love him to death. He is my brother."
"Do you see him socially?"
"No. And yet, for all his weirdness and abuse and the weird shit that he has got, I wouldn't swap Ray for anything more balanced and polite. Maybe I needed to learn something, spiritually, from our relationship. From being with someone who has that baggage."
"This sort of tension isn't unique: more recently the Gallaghers have had their moments; and the Everly Brothers didn't speak for 10 years, did they?"
"That's right, and you can hear it in their music. Listen to 'Wake Up Little Susie'. It just takes your breath away. Because there is a fundamental energy in that music that is generated by love. And that's how it is with Ray and me."
The Davies brothers have remained shackled by bloodline and artistic commitment long past the point where reason might have dictated total estrangement. Their savage allegiance has been of the kind that, when it occurs between literary figures, gets bad poets remembered. When Dave talks about their early life in Muswell Hill, possible sources of enduring tension are not difficult to find. Ray grew up with six older sisters and was the main focus of a matriarchal home.
"Our problems stem from our childhood," Dave says. "Ray was, for so long, the only boy. Then I arrive and take all his limelight away from him. That must have quite a profound effect. I sometimes think that Ray was only happy for three-and-a-half years in his life. And those were the three-and-a-half years before I was born."
Ray Davies has tended, perhaps sensibly, to avoid public self-scrutiny. As an exercise in the art of controlled disclosure, the Julian Temple documentary is practically Dylanesque. The elder Kink's 1996 book, X-Ray (revised and republished three years ago) offers a similarly oblique take on his own history. Dave's 1997 autobiography, Kink, is somewhat less cryptic, especially when describing the recreations of the group on tour, whether he is urinating in a tallboy (Wigan) or winding down after a concert, with a ceremonial axe.
"That incident with the axe was here in Taunton, wasn't it?"
"Yes," Davies replies. "With Gerry and the Pacemakers."
His voice has lowered.
The hotel had made the mistake of leaving a group of animated musicians alone, late at night, in a locked bar decorated with medieval weapons.
"Was it here?"
"No. It was at the Grand Hotel. I think," Dave whispers, "it's become a bingo hall now."
In Kink, there is a paragraph describing the unpleasantness following a gig in Copenhagen. It's too lengthy to include in full, but the main thrust of his experiences in that friendly old port of the sea can be conveyed even when the passage is substantially edited: "Drinks... Lisbet... instant attraction... hotel... riot... grim devastation... bottle of Rémy Martin... swigged like beer... empty bottle... large ornate mirror... police van."
Even on stage, the Kinks' temperament did not always reflect the cool detachment that coloured the group's recorded work. During one 1965 concert in Cardiff, Dave Davies, who had had a disagreement with drummer Mick Avory, demolished his colleague's drum kit. A minute or so later, Dave's rendition of "Beautiful Delilah" was curtailed when he was knocked unconscious by Avory, who had emerged from the wreckage wielding a cymbal stand. ("Why?" I asked Avory. "Because," the drummer replied, "that was all I had left to hit him with. He went down, and I left the building at speed. He's mellowed a bit since then.")
Life on the road famously allowed musicians to explore their sexuality, and there can be few touring stars who have embraced these opportunities with such vigour and frequency. "There were pigs," Dave writes, in Kink, describing one nightclub in Paris. "There were chickens. There were sheep. People danced with animals." It was, he adds, "the best club of its kind". It's hard to imagine, in these more judgemental times, a decade in which a man could not only spend an evening in the intoxicating company of the lower mammals, but had a choice of venue. (There are moments when you feel that Dave's tendency to candour may go a bit far. As Woody Allen says in Love and Death: "He who hath clean hands and a good heart is OK in my book. But he who hangeth around with farmyard animals has got to be watched.")
Dave Davies had been expelled from school after being found "having sex with Sue my girlfriend, on Hampstead Heath. A truant officer caught us." When Sue became pregnant at 15, the young couple's families kept the lovers apart, though Davies says he now has a good relationship with their daughter, Tracy. He has four boys from his first marriage to Lisbet, three children with his second wife Nancy, who was from Los Angeles, and, since the mid-1990s, has lived with Kate, who comes from Prestwich, north Manchester.
"Am I right in thinking that you once said Manchester girls are the most beautiful in the world?"
"Absolutely. Why is that?"
"You've always been open about your relationships with men, in the 1960s – the singer Long John Baldry, and especially the television producer Michael Aldred."
"Well, a major thing I discovered, especially from the relationship I had with Michael, was that I liked women more. And that guys are sensitive too. I realised it was not wussy to feel sensitive or upset. I really learnt a lot from that."
It seems somehow curious that a man of Dave Davies' abilities should have to carry the same burden shouldered by Fred Dickens, Fanny Mendelssohn and Branwell Brontë. It's undeniable that, since the break up of the Kinks, his career hasn't exactly kept pace with that of his brother, who has sustained his reputation as one of the most distinguished British songwriters ever, and in 2004 was awarded the CBE for "services to music". k
"You once told me that if it hadn't been for Ray's talent, you might have ended up working in a factory. I sometimes think you're a bit hard on yourself; I think of you as one of the greatest pop guitarists that has ever lived."
"If you want to write those last 10 words down," says Davies, "you have my full permission. But let's get things in perspective. Ray will go down in history as a lyrical genius. He's always had this melancholic talent for observing." Through his music, Dave suggests, Ray Davies has long since been immortalised.
But Dave Davies is justifiably proud of his two most recent albums: Fractured Mindz, a 2007 collection which dispels any doubt that his virtuosity might have deserted him (paradoxically he's a far better guitarist now then when he was at the height of his fame), and the Aschere Project's Two Worlds, released at the end of last year.
"I had the same kind of relationship recording that last album with my son Russ as I used to have with Ray."
Historically, Dave Davies' biggest problem, according to the writer Keith Altham, former press agent for the Kinks, "is probably Ray. He was always in Ray's shadow and, while I think Ray could have been a whole lot kinder, I don't think Dave ever quite had the courage to break away. I see Dave as the missing piece in Ray's make up. If Ray had had Dave's modesty and easy-going nature, that would have made him the complete person. But it might also have prevented him from doing the stuff that he does."
The Kinks gave their last public performance in 1996, around the time each brother was working on his autobiography. X-Ray is not over-respectful towards Dave; in Kink, meanwhile, Dave describes his brother as "prancing around Manchester like a megalomaniacal ponce". Last year the Daily Mail printed a story which alleged that, at the original group's last meeting, to celebrate Dave's 50th birthday, Ray, who had thrown the party, stamped on his birthday cake.
Former Kinks producer Larry Page also handled the Troggs, the band which, in the infamous tape that survives from one recording session, managed to converse using 114 expletives in 11 minutes. But it was the Davies brothers, Page said, who were "the most difficult people I have ever worked with. Period. If you said to Ray: 'Right. We've got a tour of Germany,' he'd say: 'What does Dave think?' If you said, 'Dave's up for it,' Ray would say, 'Germany? No. I don't want to do it.' And vice versa. It was a strange kind of nightmare, and you were stuck in the middle."
The long-standing disharmony between the two is detectable in the two recent documentaries on the brothers. In Imaginary Man, Ray's struggles with depression are discreetly addressed as a possible "nervous breakdown". An acute phase of Ray's difficulties, following a concert at London's White City in 1973, is confronted more directly in Mystical Journey, where Dave explains how his brother tried to "top himself" then recounts in some detail how Ray occupied "the big bedroom" at Dave's house while he was nursed back to health. Ray Davies, for his part, cared for his brother following his stroke.
Encouraged, perhaps, by a heightened awareness of his own mortality, Dave Davies' music has become increasingly coloured by his preoccupation with mysticism. In certain moods he can sound like a man who has seized on aspects of new-age belief with the haste and eagerness you see displayed by contestants on Dale's Supermarket Sweep. In the few hours he spent talking to me, Dave expressed an informed interest in Hinduism, Buddhism, Aleister Crowley, the Tarot, tea leaves, WB Yeats, Madame Blavatsky, crop circles, yoga, alien abductions and Jesus. For a while, Davies, who considers himself "quite a sceptical person", studied under "a trance medium in Wood Green, north London, who channelled information from an ancient Egyptian child king".
His philosophy, whose more serious strains are explored at some length through interviews with expert witnesses in Mystical Journey, is a unique and challenging belief system which is not, I suggest, an easy one to categorise.
"I have always worked with energy," Davies says. "Everything is energy. Buddhism. Christ teachings. These are foundation stones for a spiritual life. Orthodox religion has caused a lot of misery. As an individual I think you have to find your own path. I like the simplicity and purity of Hinduism, and many elements of Buddhism. These are all means of accessing spiritual energy. I would say my main focus is kundalini [defined in its simplest terms as an unconscious, libidinal force in yoga, usually represented by a serpent coiled at the base of the spine]. Understanding what it is and how it develops within us. And I'm a big fan of Jung. He wrote about kundalini from a Western perspective. He felt it might explain the higher states of mind."
Many viewers of Mystical Journey (a DVD which, given its range of musical reminiscences and theological insights, I can recommend unhesitatingly as having something for everyone) will be asking themselves a less complex but more immediate question: will the Davies brothers ever appear on stage again?
For all the discord between them, Dave refuses absolutely to cast himself, as some others have, in the role of "the good brother". The relationship has, he explains, never been quite that simple.
Years ago, I remind him, "I asked you, 'What's the best thing Ray has ever done for you?' You said: 'I think that is yet to come.' And when I asked what was the worst thing he'd ever done, you said: 'I think that's yet to come as well.'"
"I don't think," Dave says, "much has changed there."
The pair met about a month ago, he adds, to discuss "business – but nothing was resolved".
"I heard rumours that you might appear together in London when Ray hosts the Meltdown festival."
At the time of writing, Dave says, there is no arrangement of that kind. "That," he says, "would be down to Ray."
He will reveal that he's looking into playing some European dates, later this year. Until then, if you want to see Dave Davies, your best hope would be to travel to the West Country where, in the late afternoon, if the weather's fine, you might encounter a gentle man walking across Bodmin Moor, his face raised to the setting sun, still searching for a more profound kind of immortality.
Dave Davies' DVD 'Kronikles/Mystical Journey' is available from amazon.co.uk priced £8.99 and via davedavies.com. 'Kinks: Deluxe Edition' is released tomorrow on Sanctuary/Universal, priced £12.99
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