Wednesday, 22 February 2012

X-Raying ‘X-Ray’: Part 3: ‘Lost between tomorrow and yesterday/Between now and then’

I’ve written I don't know how many words and still barely scratched the surface, let alone exposed the exoskeleton of the story. But, if I go on much longer, my appraisal will be longer than the book itself so this is it.

I’ll summarise the points I’ve made already and add a few more that pique my interest.

First, the subterfuge
Ray toys with his readers. Crafty and a natural wordsmith – he is able to seem to be saying something and its complete opposite at the same time. In a sense, with the characters and personas he’s created, either in his songs, this book, on stage, he’s always hiding in plain sight. He’s a chameleon, changing with the times but sometimes deliberately against the spirit of the times so that, instead of blending into the background, he’s thrown into relief (for instance, with the Meisterwerk, ‘Village Green Preservation Society’). But, although not entirely candid, he does acknowledge his own errors or faults, is not uncritical of himself.

He loves to dramatise (or melodramatise, if I can invent such a word) hence all the devices – the possessions, the dreams, the fantasies, the dark clouds, the strange context he creates in which to set his tale, of the mysterious Corporation – which form a series of veils between the reader, the reality and himself, a smokescreen. It’s a little frustrating, like those TV docudramas that are neither one thing nor the other where dramatic licence is used to spice things up. But, although it might seem like an essay in distraction, we’re always being told something. On to …

‘The people in grey …’
The faceless Corporation a symbol of the establishment he fears and society’s power to eradicate individuality (the ubiquitous us and them), the theme of ‘I’m Not Like Everybody Else’ and ‘Here Come the People in Grey’. There’s the fear that Ray will be the butterfly broken upon the wheel, the beautiful, fragile wings of his idiosyncratic talent and his delicate mental state torn to shreds in the blind, relentless cogs of the machine.

Of course, even at the time that Ray wrote X-Ray (1995), the notion of ‘Big Brother’ retained all the negative connotations it had in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, of a society constrained and restricted by the attentions of a totalitarian state, a nightmare world where your every move was under surveillance. Since the advent of reality TV and Big Brother, in particular, in which members of the public gleefully and voluntarily subject their most private moments to the scrutiny of millions of viewers 24/7, it has become something that certain individuals actually aspire to as a quick route to fame, a privilege rather than an ordeal – hard to warrant I know. These days, celebrity is an end in itself, and it doesn’t seem to matter how you get there, for instance, by being clueless, shallow and loud (The Only Way Is Essex – apologies if I’m wrong about this because I’ve never watched the show). But, although RD’s paranoia about the tyrannical Corporation seems outdated now, the advent of the nanny state in the UK means that the notion of state-administered medication is actually quite plausible although any free medication’s ok by me.

Sex, love and so on
While Dave is happy to acknowledge a bisexual past (although often termed ‘bisexual’, this only means that he experimented with sex with men in the 60s not that he actually has any sexual contact with men now that he’s in his 60s), Ray is much more cagey and generally more of a private person so we have to make do with hints and suggestions. He might be leading us up the garden path but the flora and fauna we encounter en route are never less than fascinating, although they may very well be figments of his imagination. Was the mysterious man in Marianne Faithfull’s room really Ray? He’s a provocative little minx, forever leading us astray.

In the My Generation documentary, Ray admits that Kinks songs aren’t used to chat up girls because the ‘sexual overtones are not wholly masculine’. I’ll say. There aren’t many ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’-type exhortations in Ray’s lyrics.

An aside: Ever audacious, Ray is not afraid of tackling the taboo of paedophilia in the strangely touching ‘Art Lover’, with his usual humour and understanding, typically destabilising the preconceptions he set up with the title, the ‘Come to Daddy’ refrain and ‘Jogging in the park is my excuse/To look at all the little girls’ with ‘She's just a substitute/For what's been taken from me’, leading to YouTube comments that this is the point of view of a father who’s lost custody of his own little girl(s), etc. rather than a pervert in the park. So Ray takes us from perversion to subversion in two lines, which could also refer to his own loss of innocence. So clever. But what about the rather arch introduction and the shades and flat cap he dons to role-play the live version? Not to mention the saucy tongue action (2:28, after the shades line) that my sister pointed out to me – too lascivious for a father/daughter relationship. But his delivery is so tender. How does he make that 'creepy uncle'-look sexy?

Power and control
RD probably rails against the intrusion and the hegemony of the Corporation because he is something of a control freak himself. From early athletic meets to relationships (familial and otherwise) and band politics, he needs to prevail. This is evident in his reaction to school.

‘I was not particularly bright in the sense that I could only absorb information that interested me.’
Most of us are like this. Of course it’s easier to retain knowledge on a subject that appeals to you (for me at the moment that would be the Kinks). It doesn’t make Ray special, it makes him normal, the very thing he claims he is not. But we are all judged by the standards of the time. These don’t fit everyone as we all have different abilities and skills. He’s not the only child to have felt like a misfit. If children were allowed to do only the things that interested them, we’d have an education system where kids learn animation before they learn to read and write because kids like cartoons. Oh hang on, that's what we do have since the new powers that be have deemed that school must be enjoyable at all times. No one would study Shakespeare or Dickens because the language is too difficult or the texts too long. And they’d all end up with qualifications in nail technology or something equally fatuous.
He also makes a comment about his eccentric spelling (and later pronunciation – ‘Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues’, in which Ray sings ‘schizophrena’ each time). Hmm. I’m an editor by trade – there are two ways to spell words – the wrong way and the right way. There has to be consistency in education. ‘Schooldays’ is slightly more even-handed.

‘I could read, but I wasn’t allowed to read what I wanted.’
There’s always the library, honey. I read library books all the time as a child, some wildly inappropriate. I left primary school, having read most of Alexandre Dumas and the James Bond novels, pretty racy stuff for an eleven-year-old.
‘I had to decide whether to play the game their way, and succeed or fail according to their rules, or go my own way. I decided to settle my own fate.’
Ray opts not to participate in the Eleven Plus exam that could determine the course of his life. A bold move of rebellion or the avoidance of failure? It allows him the illusion of power at least.

Attention-seeking missile
‘This was my first victory over my newly arrived adversary sleeping in the cot by the kitchen table. All the pain I was suffering was inconsequential. I was once again the centre of attention.’
Three-year-old Ray throws himself out the door in order to wrest the family’s focus away from his baby brother.

‘I tried to toughen up my resistance to any further injuries by tapping away at my legs with a hammer. … it was … a horrible attempt to manipulate my parents’ emotions.’

Ray admits that this was really a cry for attention. We’re lucky that he found other, less painful ways to grab the limelight from the interloper as he’s evidently prepared to suffer to gain a little leverage. I don’t even want to think about the suicide attempts. Just grateful that Ray was as inept as the man he writes about in ‘Life Goes On’.

There’s a sense of fatalism in the book, with Ray sometimes wanting things to end before they begin so that all he experiences is the anticipation of possible bliss before it has a chance to turn into betrayal or despair. Of course this is written in retrospect – and we all see so much more clearly then. He reacts like this to certain defining moments or points of perfect happiness in his life, after which things usually alter for the worse. [I’m a great proponent of delayed gratification and I rather suspect that Ray is too. Dave would favour instant gratification. No surprise that this led to conflict between the two. I’m the sort of person who finishes their ice cream cone after everyone else or saves the thing they like best till last. But, of course, sometimes you can wait too long and lose your chance. Your ice cream has melted. Is the anticipation of desire better than the gratification of desire?]

‘I seemed to know everything I needed to know about her at that moment and actually considered walking away. It was almost as if this could have been the beginning and end right there, which would result in a perfect relationship full of thoughts of what might have been.’
Ray writes this of his first date with Rasa, when she has her back to him before they meet, the implication being that their union was less than the perfect one he envisaged.

‘Love like that is something beautiful but like cancer, it’s almost better to have it cut out before it can do any damage.’
Ray obviously does not agree with Tennyson that ‘Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all.’

‘England had won the World Cup and the Kinks were Number 1 in the charts [with ‘Sunny Afternoon’, this promo shot on anything but a sunny afternoon]. I wished that I had a machine-gun so that I could kill us all and everything would stop there.’
See what I mean about dramatic? We’ve all felt something like this though. I’m naturally nostalgic. I was filled with regret when I had to leave primary school. Nostalgia, a term coined for a type of homesickness, was originally considered an illness, and if the past really is a different country, it could still be accurate. Ray doesn’t let an appreciation of the past stop him from moving forward and urging others to do likewise.

‘Here's hoping all the days ahead/Won't be as bitter as the ones behind you/Be an optimist instead/And somehow happiness will find you/Forget what happened yesterday/I know that better things are on the way.’

Anyway I digress, what I mean to say is that I’m very glad that Ray didn’t have a machine-gun in 66.

‘Whatever else, that was the year RD’s life came to an end. He dreamed that he had been killed on that warm autumn afternoon as he cycled down the country lane. Perhaps he had actually died after the White City concert?’
‘He stood at the White City and swore that he was “F...... sick of the whole thing”... . He was “Sick up to here with it”.’
Management and financial wrangles and marital strife brought Ray to the brink in 73; he announced he was quitting, leading to …

‘Christmas day spent on the Circle line with a six-pack of Kronenbourg.’
Oh, Ray. The book imagines that the Kinks ended in 73 and although Dave might say ‘Imagination’s Real’, luckily for us, it wasn’t in this instance.

So what does Ray think about the rest of their career? Admittedly, there were highs and lows in the years that followed but the work speaks for itself (as Ray often says, his life is in the songs, subject of a future blog) and is testament to his genius and the hugely creative tension of the Kinks. As a recent convert (konvert?) to Kinkdom, each day I find a new favourite track (today it’s ‘Million Pound Semi-Detached’, a whole life in one song, as usual, with what should be hopeful horns sounding strangely mournful even as they valiantly try to counterpoint the poignant melody of Ray’s verse, but somehow end up generating additional pathos; the seemingly mundane subject matter at odds with the romanticism of the refrain but you know, not really as Ray’s always so blessedly profound) or see a long-lost promo (like the recently unearthed 'Sitting in the Midday Sun', God, they were beautiful boys! Or girls?) or watch a live performance on YouTube that I’ve never seen before.

I’ve read X-Ray twice now (once the lines and once between the lines as there’s often more subtext than text) and remain as enthralled as I was to start with, some of my questions unanswered but my senses sharpened and honed, my curiosity engaged and intact.

Inconclusion (as it’s inconclusive)
We’re left with a series of intriguing contradictions ….
Sometimes Ray claims he has no regrets, other times, he declares:
‘If I had my life to do over, I would change every single thing I have done.’

The book reflects its author, not just his image but the sinews beneath, what he’s made of (neuroses, psychoses, paranoia, narcissism but always talent and wit), what he’s made up ("I am the ‘Imaginary Man’"): simply fascinating and, like Gilbert Osmond in James's The Portrait of a Lady, ‘unfathomable’.

But, as for:
‘The past is gone; it's all been said.’
I hope Ray can bring himself to revisit the rest of his past soon and deliver the next instalment.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks. Hope your painting is going well.


  2. So I hear ... can't wait.

  3. Wonderful essays, on an intriguing book. I've come to similar conclusion to yours - it's all smoke and mirrors with Ray. But then, he's known to have given ambiguous answers - or even outright lied - in almost every interview he's given, so I wouldn't give too much significance to specific words or phrases he uses in the book. X-Ray is all about the two forces that seem to be pulling him at different directions: revealing and hiding himself. At some points he is very critical of himself; at others, self-pitying. It's as if he thinks that he is a monster people would run away from, if they saw its face. So he's hiding in his virtual cave, putting on masks for the public.

    I think at least some of the women mentioned in the book are fictitious, not just Julie (and not those we can easily identify, obviously). And the "mystery man" in Marianne Faithfull's room was Gene Pitney, not Ray. She had had an affair with Pitney at the time, about which she wrote in her autobiography, published more or less at the same time as X-Ray. I think Ray was trying to protect her privacy, not knowing she was going to write about it herself, while at the same time planting the idea, in the readers' minds, that it was him, or could have been him. And if we're talking mysteries, I wonder who he wrote Days about. Both he and Dave say it was about a brief extramarital affair Ray head. Both of them avoid saying if it was with a man or a woman.

    As for "ignoring" Dave in X-ray, I wouldn't read too much into that, either. The book was written at the same time as Kink, at a point when they were not on speaking terms with one another. It's safe to assume Ray didn't want his book to be perceived as a rebuttal to Kink – or as a competition – if he writes extensively about Dave's life. It's probably as simple as that. He has been very generous towards Dave in recent interviews. But yes, he is an introvert and self-centered, while Dave is an extrovert. So they have wildly different styles of engaging with the world around them.

    1. Hi there,

      Thanks for this. Yes. I have to wonder whether it’s even worth trying to analyse or critique a book when everything seems so up in the air, when you’re coming up with more questions than answers. I’m sure that’s how Ray wants it. Preserving the enigma.

      Interesting about MF and GP. No doubt Ray also felt it wouldn’t harm him to be thought as a possible paramour.

      I hadn’t heard that about Days.

      The general opinion seems to be that Dave was very critical of Ray in Kink and he did write negative stuff but he also quite categorically stated that Ray was a creative genius. Dave hardly features in X-Ray and this might be because of the way Ray tells the story (partly via the narrator character) and partly because he only takes it as far as 73. Or it might be as you say, he was trying to avoid any hint of tit for tat and he only had bad things to say …

      Thanks for commenting. I really appreciate your input.

    2. @thingsbehindthesun: *Great* feed-back; interesting trivia in re Gene P. and Marianne F. (am a fan of both). I heard that "Days" was R.D.'s beautiful tribute to his late sister, Rene (the one who, tragically, had passed away on a public dance-floor after having given him a guitar for his 13th birthday, earlier, at home). I am looking forward to X-RAY: Post-1973...the further adventures....

  4. There was a lot of talk about the next instalment last year but haven't heard anything so far this year. It's like Dave's new album.

    Rene and Days makes sense.