By Noah Hubbell
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Like the vast majority of those in the Western world, Ray Davies, the once and future leader of the Kinks, reacted to last month's terrorist strikes with a deepening sense of despair -- and only after hours of sitting at his home in England watching the carnage on CNN did he begin to wonder what effect these incidents might have on him and Kinks loyalists across the globe.
Some repercussions rapidly became clear. Davies had planned to fly to the U.S. for a series of dates based on The Storyteller, a solo show in which he interweaves reminiscences and observations from his early days with such Kinks favorites as "You Really Got Me," the tune that first thrust him into the spotlight 37 years ago. But with all American air travel shut down, he had to cancel several appearances and briefly considered calling off the entire tour before having a conversation that convinced him to forge ahead.
"I spoke to my sister, who's a lot older than I," notes Davies, 57. "She said that during the World War, my dad used to love the music halls. Even when London was being bombed by the Germans, he used to go to them, and they always had things happening in them, because everyone considered it to be important to keep up their spirits. So I took a cue from that, and I think it was proven to be the right thing when I got to Boston, the first date I was able to play. When I went on, the audience gave me quite an ovation, as if to say, 'We're glad you made the effort to come.' That showed me it's important to keep on -- that people do need to get out, because otherwise you're succumbing to all the terror and all the threats."
Still, this warm reception didn't make Davies immune to doubts about propriety. He's among the untold thousands of artists who've re-examined their work in recent weeks with an eye toward determining if the messages they're sending have somehow been altered by the destruction of both the World Trade Center and the illusion of security previously enjoyed by millions here and abroad.
"It made me really think about all the lyrics I've written," he says. "And a couple songs I felt -- well, not that they were inappropriate, but I found it hard to sing them right now. Because I think about my lyrics anyway, and people do listen to my words, I needed to make sure that they didn't have an edge to them I hadn't intended."
When he's asked to name the compositions he's resting, Davies avoids doing so, perhaps because he fears putting a pox on them in the minds of others -- like, for instance, programmers at Clear Channel, the largest owner of radio stations in America, who recently circulated a list of 150 ditties, including John Lennon's "Imagine," that allegedly might offend fragile listeners ("Stop Imagining," September 27). He isn't surprised by the actions of Clear Channel, whose concert wing is promoting his tour: "I suppose they had their reasons for doing it. I guess it's like any other business at a time like that. Wal-Mart finds they have a few poisoned goods on the shelf, so they pull everything." Nonetheless, he sees the targeting of "Imagine" as "a bit extreme, since the song is about peace and harmony, basically."
That Davies sees the absurdity of this situation is to be expected. As Kinks fans realize, he's one of rock's most trenchant social critics, regularly exposing pretense and stupidity via songs that can be humorous, poignant or a combination thereof. But with rare exceptions, such as "A Gallon of Gas," penned during the '70s oil shortage, Davies seldom uses topical occurrences for creative fodder -- not overtly, anyway. As he puts it, "I don't sit down with a newspaper, read the stories and then write songs." Instead he tends to conceive characters -- some who live for the length of a tune, others for entire albums -- through which he filters his observations and experiences.
Some of these figures are real: Witness David Watts, immortalized in a good-natured song of the same name ("I dream I could fight like David Watts/Lead the school team to victory/And take my exams and pass the lot") that was memorably remade by the Jam. "He's dead, actually, poor David," Davies says. "He lived in the midlands in England and was a great chap, a real Englishman. Somebody who came to one of my writing courses knew him and told me he died about three or four years ago. He lived in the West country, and he died quite well off." Other personages are "partly based on real people, but for the most part fictitious," he goes on. "Like Johnny Thunder and Monica, from The Village Green Preservation Society. And to me, they do have lives, they do exist. It's odd, yeah -- an impressionistic way of writing. People like Lautrec and Degas with his ballet dancers -- they painted people that had that frosty edge; they didn't really have an identity, but they had substance. It's a bit like that."