BY MARK GUARINO Music Writer | Chicago Sun-Times
July 24, 2013 3:56PM
Dave Davies is one of the most influential guitarists in rock history and a co-founder of the Kinks, one of the most cherished bands of all time. The British band pitted Davies against his brother Ray, and out of their tense relationship flourished a body of work between 1964-1996 that spanned musical styles, produced endurable hits, and was one of the first to infuse pop music with psychologically rich characters, concepts, and commentary on contemporary British life.
He’s in town Saturday, making a rare live appearance that is also a triumph: He just released “I Will Be Me” (Cleopatra), a new album, his second following a 2004 stroke, which took him three years to re-learn how to walk, talk, and play his guitar.
We talked about looking back, but particularly looking forward. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q. The song “Living in the Past” sums up a major theme in this album: That getting older stunts people from living their life more fully.
A. I started it off based on people I know in the business and all the people my age that I’ve met and re-met and they haven’t really moved forward. They’re lost in the past. I was going to call it “Lost in the Past” but changed it to “Living in the Past.” When people get disillusioned and get insecure and content about the future, they tend to brood about what might have been. So the message of the song is we have to embrace the future. Even though we have good memories … it’s partially based on me and partially based on people that have given up on the future. But the fact is, the future is always going to be here, so we might as well embrace it.
Q. You’re 66. Do you find looking ahead, rather than behind, more difficult as you get older?
A. I’m very interested in science fiction and I like new things. I’ve never been a really sentimental person. Even back in the days of [“The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society,” the band’s 1968 classic], there wasn’t so much fighting to hold on to the past, that was a time when there was large amount of thinking about getting rid of the past and moving on. “Let’s keep the stuff that works and get rid of stuff that doesn’t work and then let’s move on!” It’s things we carry internally that are really important in the end. I’ve always been ready to embrace what’s around the corner because it might be just the thing that I need to help me grow. I get a kick out of playing “You Really Got Me” and some of the old stuff because you’re sharing it with an audience, but it is always good to inject new songs. It keeps your spirit alive.
Q. The new song “Little Green Amp” covers familiar ground: The day in 1963 you essentially invented guitar distortion because you were bored.
A. I wanted to document that experience. I’ve spoken about it so many times so I thought it would be good to encapsulate in a song. I like quirky things; I like things a little bit odd, so I thought it was a funny idea. So the [guitar] riff on “Green Amp” is the riff on “You Really Got Me” but backwards. So if you played it backwards, you play “You Really Got Me.” It’s just my humor … in the end, we can’t take ourselves too seriously. If we hold on to concrete ideas, we can really be disappointed.
Q. You and Ray are evidently two very different people. Do you think that was the key to making the Kinks work?
A. That’s also been a bit of a problem as well. It called a lot of attention between Ray and myself. Ray’s more focused on observations of other people and things. Which is great, but I’m always there to turn it around and make it a different perspective. What makes me laugh about politics, sometimes, is it seems like once we get to a point where our problems are seemingly unsolvable, it’s because we’re looking through a wrong point point of view. If we turn the thing on its head, then maybe we might see it differently. The universe is changing, nature is changing, everybody is changing, So we can’t hold onto points of reference. So sometimes good to put a little bit of anxiety in there or paranoia something to make people think. It always worked well with Ray with his more observational skills.
Q. So a mixture of psychological insight in the music and physical tension in the music?
A. The Kinks at their best had those two things working together. But it also had a more universal concept behind it: two crazy kids with alternative points of view born into the same family. You have to work it out or go insane. It’s a microcosm of the world. The more we fight and argue because we don’t like someone with blue hair, or all the energy we waste trying to judge other people because they’re different, we end up going insane and killing each other. Now we have nations trying to kill other nations. Really, when you sit back and see so many horrific things going on in the world, it’s like a bad play. It’s kind of like a bit of a comedy if it was not so tragic.
Q. How did your stroke make you look at the world differently?
A. That experience taught me that, in the end, you can’t do anything about anything anyway. We don’t have a lot of say in the matter. What we have a say in our lives is how we can adapt ourselves to what going on in the external world. We can’t expect the external world to change because we don’t like it. So how do we devise a mechanism, emotional or mental, to deal with problems in our lives?
When you are lying flat on your back in the hospital and can’t move, you go through a process of relief. It’s like a black comedy unfolding. Because we are really like fragile children that get a little bit of confidence and then we start behaving badly. I realized that people are the most important thing to me. I realized ever since I was young that I wanted to share things and I enjoyed singing to people and making them feel better. We all have a task in life and when we claim it, we should be happy and not judge the world too harshly. That was a big change for me. Because what’s the point of crying? It doesn’t do any good.
We’re so lucky. We have music and art and humor and goodwill and love. Because that keeps the whole thing together until the next major problem ahead. Humor is invaluable to everything. There are clues to life in everything around us. You learn that more in a state of incapacity.
Q. In a way, it would be a good thing if we learned this when we are young rather than having to grow old and suffer maladies like you did to earn this kind of wisdom.
A. You have kids growing up thinking the only goal worth achieving is this [expletive] about celebrity. I remember when I was a kid, I was happy because my family had enough food to eat, because we were quite a poor family. That was an achievement in itself.
Q. When I was in London, I visited Muswell Hill, the working-class neighborhood where you grew up, and discovered that unlike how it is presented in your music, it’s pretty posh. That location is so infused in the music of the Kinks, I felt I knew it before I even visited. Why did it resonate so much for the band?
A. I was very fortunate. I recall my childhood as a very happy place to be … I was lucky to have a big family. It was like a matriarchal thing. My mom was the boss of the family as well as my sisters. It was a very loving environment to be in, even though we didn’t have no money. It didn’t seem to be so important, anyway.
When I sit down and try to work on a project or a song, I go back to that innocent place where I was happiest: falling in love for the first time and being in love anytime is a blessing. That place where innocence is everything. I think that is an important process in my writing and in many people’s writing. It’s to try to get back into that spot of innocence and looking at what you’re doing as if it’s never been done before. When you were a child and discovered the stars or trees or a piece of music. Only when we notice those beautiful moments is when we know what beauty is … I like to think I’m not one age, I always try to protect some core of my innocence at all cost because that gets me closer to the things that make me feel blessed or happy or joyful.
Q. Why have you and Ray resisted jumping on the reunion bandwagon that is driving so many legacy bands? Certainly there have to be offers to perform some of your classic albums live in their entirety.
A. I don’t know what Ray really wants. It gets to a point where one person can’t have everything. It comes to a point in all our lives when we realize we can’t really do anything about other people. Whether they be family or friends or lovers or whatever. I think Ray’s always going to follow this notion that he has to have everything. I don’t want to be mean to him because I love him, because he’s my brother. But his viewpoint about life is very different than mine. I always thought that being involved creatively is a collaboration and not the ownership of one person. If Ray can take two steps backward and start sharing things a bit more, I think it would help our relationship. A lot of it is very personal. What do we want from people to come see us — to gain something real from the experience or to get $300 a pop for a ticket? The Kinks, to me, has always been about issues like survival and humor and trying to get by and sometime you only survive from what little resources you have. We could go out there and reform just to demonstrate that greed and money buys everything, which is the way it would be. I’m not saying that the [Rolling] Stones are doing that, but c’mon. The Stones were an inspiring force for me as a kid when I first saw them play, but why are people desperate to throw away their money? I have really mixed feelings about that. Maybe I’ll be glad about the money, but surely there’s more … it would be nice if Ray and I do something. But if he expects to do it and just have it end up being his, I can’t see how that helps me. Or how it helps anybody.
Q. Are you talking strictly the money, or something more, like recognition of the role you played in the band?
A. Maybe some attention. The bottom line is, people need to feel a part of something. People have to know their value. This whole concept of achievement and being better than someone else, I do have problems with that. It’s a very American thing, overachieving. It’s basically the same in Europe now. The first thing I noticed coming back [to the United States] after eight years is that … people are talking at me and not talking with me. I’m sure it has to do with fear as well. It’s a very different U.S.A. than what it was 10 years ago. Very, very different. I think people are afraid more. We all are in Europe. But we express it differently.
Q. The Kinks have such a long and profound catalog. Which albums do you look back at most fondly?
A. Quite a few. I always loved the “Phobia” album [from 1993] that got very little recognition but touches upon issues I’m interested in like what happens when your mind get messed up and what do we do about it. I also love the earlier stuff like “Low Budget” [from 1979]. My son [Russell Davies] is an ambient techno musician and I worked with him [in 2010] on an album called “The Aschere Project.” It’s like a science fiction, cosmic love story. Like “Romeo and Juliet” in outer space. Hopefully, it’ll gain more recognition. Not that that matters. Sometimes it’s just nice to finish something. Like, “Hey, Mom, I’ve done this thing.” Finishing something can sometimes be all that it takes. Starting something and finishing it.