Wednesday, 18 January 2012

X-Raying 'X-Ray' by Ray Davies: Part One

Had to divide this up as it became longer, evolving from an essay into a dissertation. Please excuse the length.

Ray Davies’s decision to write an autobiography seems a peculiar one when it is almost immediately apparent that he just wants to confuse the issue. Which issue? Every issue. The title itself is an enigma.

It’s typical of his sense of humour that he’s called this an ‘Unauthorized Autobiography’, suggesting the following:

1. An acknowledgement that there can be no completely accurate version of events, as everything is subjective; if even his version is not authorized or authoritative, what hope is there for anyone else’s attempt?
2. That the book has not been authorized by the powers that be (the people in grey), the mysterious ‘them’, referred to so often in the text and is therefore more likely to be true.
3. That he is poking fun at the biography industry itself and perhaps other unauthorized biographies of the Kinks.
4. That he recognizes that he isn’t always entirely honest. Or, at least, that there might be some truth in the book but probably not the whole truth. It’s certainly not a straightforward read but we would expect nothing less or more of Ray. Or
5. He’s simply playing with the words because he can.

The main title, 'X-Ray', is also open to interpretation:

1. It implies something that he mentions more than once in the book – that he is no longer the Ray from these stories, that that is an ex-Ray, inevitably changed and alien to the Ray now speaking. After all, ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’.
2. It gives the impression that he is going beneath the surface of the story, under the skin, like an X-ray, to reveal what is usually hidden. He brings this to the fore again in the final few pages when he has an X-ray of his back fall out of a folder. The problem with this approach is that it sometimes wilfully ignores what is on the surface. I don't think this is a deliberate obfuscation. I think it’s how Ray’s mind works.

Identity crisis or 'Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues'
In his songs, Ray Davies often adopts a persona to present a situation from a particular character’s perspective or writes about a specific character he’s created from his (Ray’s) own perspective and in this book he attempts something similar except that this time he takes on two aspects of his own personality or himself at different stages in life, at least that is what is implied in the Foreword, also called an Introduction. So, he’s the unnamed reporter interviewing the elderly RD as well as RD himself. (For the purpose of this review and to avoid confusion, when I talk about Ray Davies, the author of the book and the frontman of the Kinks, I’ll call him Ray, to distinguish him from the ‘characters’ in the book.) Of course, he’s hiding behind these creations – we can't trust them as each has their own agenda (although naturally we mustn’t forget that, in fact, they’re all Ray’s, that he has a conflicting set of agendas) and admits that what he says/remembers may or may not be true. It’s not so much that the line between fact and fiction is blurred, it’s more that the distinction doesn’t exist. Just as Ray’s songs take up residence in our heads, when the young man listens to his music, this allows RD to enter his subconscious via his dreams and even, in their first meeting, to possess him, as if the only way he can convey to the writer the visceral nature of his experience is to have him go through it (like the fellatio from the groupie or a particularly vicious physical fight with Dave).

And so he’s a detached presence, an observer (as he is in his songs) even in his own life, as if just being himself, telling us about himself, would not be enough. Perhaps this signifies a germ of insecurity. You get the idea that everything he says is considered and his reactions measured.

This use of characters invests the text with a degree of mystery and uncertainty. The reader has to weave a way through the dream sequences and fantasy sections in a quest for the truth of what really happened.

It also allows the reporter to comment on RD’s character (an obsession with breasts, for instance), his opinions wavering between admiring (‘he was still a handsome old boy’) and damning (‘degenerate, sexist weirdo’). We must remember that this is actually Ray passing judgement on himself, which he also does a few pages later, when he declares ‘even as a child, I was a dirty old man’, demonstrating a degree of self-awareness; Ray realises that people might well disapprove of these traits but he doesn’t try to hide or excuse them. Other comments include the way that RD switches accents, one minute ‘pantomime Cockney’, the next well-spoken, Ray perhaps acknowledging that he was the original Mockney. This is particularly apparent in performances from around the punk explosion of 1977, when Ray says ‘I suppose’ after everything and his accent becomes more common, for instance, the way he introduces the next song after this version of ‘Get Back in the Line’ (rather endearing, sort of, I suppose). He has shown a fondness for Cockney rhyming slang in his lyrics – ‘chauffeur-driven jamjar’; ‘two-tone daisy roots’ (‘Sitting in My Hotel’); ‘soaking up that currant bun’ (‘Sitting in the Midday Sun’).

Because of all this, the book poses more questions than it answers. When the reporter ignores some issues and concentrates on others, you get frustrated before realising that these are the matters that Ray wants us to focus on. He’s the puppet master here. But do we really want to know about ‘the girl’ (and whether she is Julie Finkle, although he claims she’s an assimilation of many: ‘Truly, Julie, you're only a name/You could be a Molly or a Sarah-Jane/But if I should never see you again/I'll never forget you, truly’) or would we rather learn about his relationships with the rest of the band, his wife, his family or satisfy more prurient curiosity?

It’s like an Impressionist painting. You’re not given an exact representation of his life, which would probably be impossible but a general impression. That’s all Ray wants you to have. For instance, he leaves you with the idea that he was usually faithful to Rasa, resisting temptation until … he didn’t. But was this the only time? That’s the implication.

Importance of events
So it’s a complex, deliberate form of subterfuge, with the timeline all mixed up so events are hard to follow; more a series of stories related as they occur to him bearing little relation to the actual order in which they happened. I would like to think that the reason for this circumspection is the need for discretion; names might be changed to protect the innocent, as they say, or at least to ensure that the guilty are not easily identifiable.

Some aspects and incidents are covered exhaustively (meetings with lawyers, his confused mental state) or seem to be, like certain characters, representative of what we presume were many similar; others are merely glanced upon. I suppose we have to accept that these are what Ray considers to be the crucial factors in his life, character-building or psyche-forming (the accident that affects his sister Peg, the tragic tale of Rene). What’s worrying about this is where the book ends – 1973 – is this where the original Ray ends?

This arbitrariness is most apparent in regard to his brother, Dave. We learn a lot about Ray’s state of mind but not much about what Dave is up to, being left with the idea that what Dave did had little effect on Ray (apart from the initial insult of having been born of course) and that occasions when Dave was emotionally desperate did not impinge on Ray’s consciousness although Dave probably did not confide in Ray anyway. This tactic relegates him to a bit-part player in ‘The Ray Davies Show’, a walk-on role with a few lines of dialogue. He’s incredibly vague on Dave’s shenanigans (there is no speculation about why Dave is always in trouble, it just seems to ‘happen’, neither is there any sense that Ray feels at all responsible for his younger sibling bar the line at the beginning ‘I knew that I would always have to protect this interloper’ although I do get the idea that Dave was probably more experienced in the ways of the world than his brother and sexually precocious). Events that have affected and inspired Dave for years are glossed over, with a deal of possibly intentional inaccuracy. So, although Ray seems self-aware (as RD in retrospect), he shows little awareness of others and their problems. We hear more about how Pete Quaife holds a cigarette than we do about Dave’s lost love, Sue, who isn’t even named although RD does recall Nicola, sole arbiter of what was and wasn’t cool in the early days of the Kinks. But it might be that Ray feels he’s mythologised Dave (and their relationship) in song already so why repeat it here? He might expect us to listen to ‘Two Sisters’, ‘Dandy’, ‘Long Way from Home’, ‘All Night Stand’, etc. instead.

I wonder how deliberate this is though, this minimising of other people’s roles in the story. I’ve noticed it with other musicians with inflated egos, how they have a tendency to ignore the contribution of another band member, and once the band has broken up, pretend that they no longer have any interest in what their ex-band mates are doing (Bob Mould of Grant Hart). In refusing to discuss Dave in any concentrated way, Ray denies his importance and downplays his role to ‘other band member’, not acknowledging how integral and to forgive the pun, instrumental, Dave was to the sound of the Kinks. But then again, an autobiography is by its very nature an egocentric proposition so he can't be blamed for that. It’s about him, not Dave. Dave does evince compassion for Ray in 'Kink' though, when Rasa leaves Ray on his birthday, for instance, and when Ray attempts suicide although at other times, Ray can fall off the stage, knock himself out and everyone just laughs.

But perhaps I’m being too hard on Ray. It’s possible that he feels that he could not write about Dave without being overly critical, something that Dave has not been shy of in 'Kink', in which he is sometimes vituperative on the subject of his brother. Discretion might be the better part of valour.

Dave jokes that this book should have been called 'Y-Ray?' Meanwhile Ray claims not to have read 'Kink'. Hmm. He would have to be inhuman not to be curious although it might simply be self-preservation; he might read something that will lead to an even more irretrievable breakdown in their relationship.


Perhaps Ray reveals more in the things he doesn’t say, or the incidents he describes at length while getting key details wrong. Is this because he doesn’t care enough about them to get them right? Or did he feel himself too far removed from them? Or does he just think that his rewritten version is better or more exciting and dramatic than the truth?

I get the idea that Ray wants us to believe that he was in control at all times (while Dave was frequently out of control) but this doesn’t sit well with some of the conclusions we may draw and that he seems to want us to draw – for instance, that he may have been deliberately trapped into marriage, the result of a conspiracy. We are given clues but still left with a mystery. I could choose to believe that everything that RD hints may have happened, actually did happen but still be unsure whether his wife was unfaithful, how she received a black eye, etc. (the fact: Rasa had a black eye; the clue: Ray admits he could be violent). Or in whom the possible interloper (the mysterious Barry Fantoni) in the marriage was actually interested: Ray or Rasa. Very intriguing. Like a song lyric or a poem, which we are left to interpret as we please. Much of what we learn has to be teased out of the subtext.

Part Two will follow shortly.

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