Where Have All the Good Times Gone?

Ray Davies' SXSW Keynote Address

Ray Davies Keynote Address

Austin Convention Center, Thursday 15

After the Grammy moment where the Price Waterhouse straight man made us drum our fingers while we waited for the real show, South by Southwest panels coordinator Jeff McCord quickly introduced the figure we'd all set the alarm for. The palpable excitement up front when Ray Davies humbly shuffled in got giddy when he directly picked up a guitar. "I was told to do this," he said as someone checked the levels. "I left my guitar roadie in England … best place for him, really." Those of us with our antennae up leaned forward eagerly, ready and waiting to hear some wonderful Kinks nugget. He knew he had us. "I'll do this for the photographers, because as much as I want to talk and all the good things I have to say, this is the shot they want." Having been given two minutes to shoot him, it was indeed. And when Davies gamely opened with "Nothin' in This World to Stop Me Worrying About That Girl," the song most recently heard on the Rushmore soundtrack, a song he subsequently claimed not to remember entirely, because it was the third song he ever wrote, they snapped as the audience swooned. (Those who slept in can kick themselves now.) The 45-minute prepared speech that came afterward, and it was precisely that -- a measured oration, was contemplative and sedate, but underlyingly droll. Smartly attired in a blazer, jeans, and glasses (which he removed from time to time), Davies addressed the ballroom from behind a podium with the seductiveness and mystique of a visiting college professor. Only in the following press conference did he don dark rock shades, pulling them off to briefly meet the eyes of a female journalist. Up close, his eyes are winged by wicked smile lines and his reddish hair flares like the Heatmiser, supporting his contention, "Actually I look really cool, but I'm a zero as a person." Though skittish about abandoning his tour for a few days -- the reason he wasn't doing a showcase (the band was back at home with his guitar tech) -- he claimed to want to see as much as possible while he's here. His address was not unlike his autobiography; in both cases, he darts in and out of subjects and eras, always returning to some central motifs: the characterization of his life, career, and/or music as a journey; albums as, perhaps, only a series of ideas connecting artist to listener; the metaphoric construction of songwriting; the expectations the industry has for him; and the expectations he, in turn, has for them. "I feel as though I'm here under false pretenses," he explained at the outset, saying his original intention was to perform some of the songs off his first solo studio album he'd hoped would be completed by now. His explanation for its delay fell somewhere between external blame -- his label being taken over -- and internal blame: his inability to turn two albums' worth of demos into a reality. Later he characterized his songs as children: "None of us want our kids to be album tracks. I want my kids to be singles, with their own beginning, middle, and end," and, ultimately, "part of a family." In the following press conference, he said that, despite all the songs he's written for it, his next album is still like a "blank page." And even Davies, it seems, falls prey to that nagging writerly feeling that "if nothing is released, it feels like nothing has been written." He wondered aloud what the expectations are for an artist of his longevity and hit-making track record: "No one seems to know what I should do. The only cast-iron certainty is that the record label would like me to sell hundreds of thousands of records." Keenly aware of the weight of the past, he explained, "In many respects, I should be considered a new artist, but the problem is … the History… the back catalog … the hits and the misses. It's almost like having a police record. The past will not go away. My successes and failures are all literally a matter of record." He's also well aware of the standards to which fans and critics hold him: "Will the ballads be as strong as 'Waterloo Sunset'? Will the rockers resonate the same way as 'All Day and All of the Night'? I dunno." By no means, though, did his address belly-gaze at his current artistic status. The most entertaining element of his "performance" was the spot-on impressions he did as he told his anecdotes. When pointing out our susceptibility to the grand corporate beast, for example, he pondered whether the news would have the same credibility were it delivered by Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, doing an impression of Jagger singing, "the Nasdaq fell today. …" Jagger felt his sting later at the press conference when a reporter asked Davies how he handled being an aging rocker. He cocked his naughty half-smile and replied, "I never had the problem of looking pretty. I'm glad I didn't decide to be Jumping Jack Flash." He told reporters to think of him as a character actor, an accurate description, really, as he slipped in and out of characters like Vincent Price and Johnny Rotten. (A conversation in the mid-Eighties with the latter went: "Johnny, what are you doing?" "Everything I used to despise, Ray. I'm supporting INXS.") The Price anecdote allowed Davies to express empathy -- however brief -- with the label folks. When he was label boss at Konk, he couldn't work with his first potential signing, Vincent Price, because Price wanted to record the works of Edgar Allen Poe with the London Symphony (too expensive). By the end of the speech -- and after singing bits of "Come Dancing" and "Low Budget" -- he had released a few sage bits of advice based on life experience: The best way to treat A&R people is as three- and four-year-olds with A.D.D.; beware the record exec who doesn't know how to tap his feet; a concept should not be confused with an idea. Ultimately, though, he advised the packed room to go out and see as much music as possible, 'cause, lest we forget in our rush to analyze and proselytize, that's what it's all about.

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