Among the members of rock groups that crossed the pond in the mid ’60s, there were numerous working-class stiffs but few working-class bards. While conventional wisdom insists that Lennon and McCartney led the pack in music and lyrics, their reimaginings of Tin Pan Alley moon/June couplets were genial but basic stuff. When we talk of true romantic verse, the overlooked genius is Ray Davies.
While his London-based quartet the Kinks initially lurched to the top of the pops on power chords—the still-exhilarating “You Really Got Me” offers proto-heavy metal riffs—Raymond Douglas Davies soon emerged as the unlikely poet laureate of British rock. Wholly deserved of a plot among men of letters in Westminster Abbey, Davies, 64, nonetheless shows no signs of petrification after 45 years in the business. He plays the Bardavon Opera House on December 6.
As woefully lyrical as W. H. Auden, Davies canonized the rueful working class, raised in fear and want during the Blitz. His literate ballads both mocked and celebrated the scrappy stoicism of his parents’ generation. But Davies was no snarky nihilist; his sympathies squarely lay with those who valued the old-fashioned ways, as evidenced in musical snapshots of countryside life like “Waterloo Sunset” and “Sunny Afternoon.” Especially, the still bracing 1968 masterpiece The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. An album teetering precariously between mournful and mawkish, Village Green serves as an elegy for fading customs in an era rife with youthful upheaval.
While on tour in support of last fall’s Working Man’s Cafe (New West Records), Davies remains slavishly committed to nostalgia; expect renditions of his past glories, with Davies accompanied by his own band. (He has been split from the Kinks for several years now, a schism that began decades ago with a famed rivalry with the group’s lead guitarist and other songwriter, his brother Dave Davies.)
The man who wrote requiems for British life was an expatriate for several years, residing in New Orleans. The city’s storied destruction, subsequent neglect, and unlikely rebirth provided the singer-songwriter with choice material—as well as a bullet wound. (In 2004, Davies was shot in the leg in by a mugger; the 2006 CD Other People’s Lives (V2 Records), labored over for years, was released after his long convalescence. He has since returned to live in the UK.)
Working Man’s Cafe, ambitious but uneven, explores the feelings churned up by the shooting. Davies uses the crime as a point of departure for diagnosing the social ills of our country. Davies also returns to a familiar trope: melancholy meditations of passing customs. But the gripes seem weary rather than lyrically plaintive. One number scorns a designer jeans store that replaced a greengrocer. But the casualty doesn’t have the resonance of a metaphor for greater losses. Throughout the CD, Davies catalogs the tedium of modern life—global marketing, Internet cafes, robo-calls, and incessant war. But he often sounds more cranky than profound. Happily, Working Man’s Cafe also features several numbers with a mid-’60s bounce, delivered in Davies’s sly, wheedling voice, which has lost little of its expressiveness over four decades.
Like a lorryman at the pub sucking down a pint of bitters, Ray Davies drinks deeply from the past and remains unabashedly sentimental about it. Even if our best days lay behind us, Ray Davies reminds us of the joys of a lingering backward glance.
Ray Davies will perform at the Bardavon in Poughkeepsie on December 6 at 8pm. (845) 473-2072; www.bardavon.org.