Photo: Steve Hockstein
Living Legends: The Kinks' Dave Davies On 21st-Century Breakdown, Mellowing Out In His Seventies & Stirring The Pot On Twitter
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. In the inaugural edition, GRAMMY.com caught up with Dave Davies, the pioneering lead guitarist of British rockers the Kinks.
Dave Davies may have planted his flag as the lead guitarist and co-songwriter of the Kinks, but he has a less-known honorific to his name. The rebel of all rebels, John Lennon — who once poured a pint over a wedding pianist's head and would go on to be kicked out of the Troubadour for drunkenly heckling the Smothers Brothers, among other infractions — once called Davies, to his face, "one of the most obnoxious people I've ever met."
It was sometime in the front half of the 1960s, and the two British Invasion stars were at the Scotch of St. James, an extant watering hole (and musician's hangout) near Piccadilly Circus. (It wasn't rare for Lennon and Davies to insult each other in jest; Davies shot right back.)
Granted, Davies was, in his word, an "impetuous" young man. After all, in the Kinks, he was the hotshot guitarist beside his brother Ray, slugging out masterpieces like The Village Green Preservation Society, Arthur and Lola Versus Powerman amid fraternal spats and a career-changing ban from the U.S. So it's arresting to commune with the 74-year-old in his current form: dreamy, philosophical, borderline beatific.
This mellowing-out wasn't just the natural result of age. Like waves against a stone, turbulent life events smoothed him out with time. It wasn't just his up-and-down relationship with Ray, who once stamped on his 50th birthday cake. In 2004, Davies suffered a stroke that left him temporarily, partly paralyzed — a pivotal event that compelled him to stop smoking and drinking hard alcohol, which softened his demeanor in the ways you might expect. (A yoga and meditation enthusiast, he only indulges in gluten-free beer these days.)
After recovering with help from his other favorite pastime, painting, Davies is happy, healthy and productive in the 2020s. Three years ago, he released Decade, a luminous collection of solo recordings from the '70s. He's hard at work on a tell-all memoir, Living on a Thin Line, developed alongside biographer Philip Clark and due out in July. And — in case you're wondering — he and his brother are getting along great, with no dessert-related altercations to speak of.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Davies about his hard-won lessons about music and life, the awe-inspiring secrets of cats and how his freewheeling approach to Twitter recently landed him in semi-hot water.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
We should probably start by addressing the recent "mingegate" controversy on Twitter.
It was so weird because I was really just musing with it, and it wasn't anything to speak of. I just like to muse and ideate and ponder, thinking back on my life and the '60s. People always have questions about the '60s, and I talk about everything. When you get older, there's more questions about everything from every decade. This idea came into my head about meeting models. You know what that is. I don't know if you want me to elaborate on it.
I thought it was fairly innocuous, but it was entertaining to see the prudes lose their minds.
I just did it as a bit of fun, and everyone went crazy about it. I felt, "Is it rude, or is it just odd?" Maybe it was a little bit of both.
I've noticed a phenomenon on social media where people inform you of incorrect facts about your own life.
What's weird about it is you become very — not paralyzed, but it's weird. People seem to know more about you than you do. You have to be really careful what you say. There are a lot of fanatics out there about all kinds of things — about gender and gender-bending, everything. Everything and anything you could think of. That one can be hard.
But it was only meant as a bit of fun. That's what it was for. There's not a lot of humor. We need to get humor back or else we'll go crazy!
Back in the '60s, when there was a lot of rancor about Vietnam and sexual politics, were people this entrenched in their views?
It's interesting thinking about it. Yes and no.
No, in the way that all of a sudden, there's so many people entrenched in whatever view they've got. It seems like everything has something to say about something. Which is good, on one hand, but on the other hand, is it really informed information? You know what I mean? Or is it just written without attention to anything? That's what bothers me.
Do you actually know what you're talking about, or do you think you do? That's the question! "Oh, I read it in the New York Times or something and it's true!"
The Kinks in 1965 (Dave Davies, top). Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images
Do you think people are smarter today for having pocket-sized supercomputers?
I think it's made people easier to fool. People hear a half-truth and they're like, "I know everything!" We might need to study the information we get. The brain can only handle so much information, and they might pass judgements about things without it being the right judgment.
Somehow, people have gotten taken by what their ears like — judgements based on some kind of reality, whether it's just an emotion in the moment. People are crazy because the world is getting crazier by the minute. It's hard for everybody, so you have to try to be informed about subjects and topics and try to have a balanced view of everything. It's not easy.
"People are crazy because the world is getting crazier by the minute. It's hard for everybody, so you have to try to be informed about subjects and topics and try to have a balanced view of everything."
I think we need to act with more compassion now than we did before the 2020s and Instagram and whatever. Everybody's very quick to judge. We're very quick to judge. When you think of it, we all perceive things slightly differently anyway. So, we need to brace ourselves with a lot of compassion before we make any choices.
A world where everybody thinks exactly the same sounds like my idea of hell.
Hell's a good place for that. You can't be right about everything.
Somehow, we have to be very compassionate about other people's views. Because they change. I might like blue today, but if I only saw my favorite color — tomorrow, I might like green with a tinge of brown. That's where humor and compassion comes in. Nobody knows everything.
I need humor. It can help us understand information better. Otherwise, everybody's right and everybody's wrong, all at the same time. Common sense! Has anybody bloody heard of common sense? There used to be a lot of it about years ago, when I was a kid. But not so much of it now, these days, unfortunately.
I think humor would hopefully help human beings in this weird age of COVID and Twitter and people being weirded out by all kinds of things. We don't even know if we're thinking the way we should, because there's so much information. When do we take time to consider what we're thinking, or what we're gaining? It's coming a bit too quick, everything. We like to think we know stuff, but do we really?
The Kinks performing on "Thank Your Lucky Stars" in 1965. Photo: David Redfern/Redferns via Getty Images
To me, one of the greatest thinkers through the lens of humor was John Lennon. I know you met him back in the Beatlemania days.
A couple of times. He was difficult, but he was funny in a kind of caustic, off-the-wall kind of way. But I liked that about him. I liked that he was different. He was looking at things differently.
He paid me a weird compliment. He said, "I think you're one of the most obnoxious people I've ever met." And I laughed and said I thought he was.
I've thought about that ever since. I don't even know what he meant! But I looked it up in the dictionary and I thought, "Hey, that's great! Unusual, different, irritating. Good!"
A big, big loss to humanity there. Lennon would be really useful now. His smart conceptions of people.
What are you interested in lately, whether it be music or non-music? What are you reading or studying?
I'm interested in so many different things. As I was saying, we should consider things before we make a judgment, which is true. But it's hard, because when we've got a queue, a list of questions that we want to ask ourselves before we make up our mind, the list gets longer and longer.
That's where meditation comes around. We can't think of everything at the same time. So, meditation helps you to clear the detritus for a while and not really think of anything. And that's hard. Believe me, I know that. It's really hard.
I don't know what I thought I knew until I take time to consider what's happening before we charge. That's where music comes in handy, because music's so aligned to the heart. You can know something's good or right by the way it makes you feel.
Dave Davies in 1970. Photo: GAB Archive/Redferns via Getty Images
Music is a lot more tuned in with nature than people's bad ideas — good ideas, not all bad. Music has always helped me — even when I was a kid — and it helps me now, to make choices. That's why music's so important. Because if it makes you feel good, there's no harm in it, really.
Who knows? Our heart will tell us if something is wrong, but everyone's different. Feelings always connect me to what may be the truth or may be lies.
"That's where music comes in handy, because music's so aligned to the heart. You can know something's good or right by the way it makes you feel."
While working on Living on a Thin Line, have you found that your memories of the distant past remain sharp? What's it like to survey decades and decades of information?
Actually, it's interesting. A lot of it depends on the quality and type of memory. We've been able to remember things as a musical link or connotation. It's just the way I'm wired — to remember things that are connected to musical or song events.
I've always had quite a visual imagination. Imagination isn't always positive information. It can be quite a scary place. I tend to ponder a memory and think, "What was I listening to? Oh, yeah! I really enjoyed that!" It makes you feel a certain way. That's why imagination and memory work closely together.
Even just meeting people and having a conversation with someone, I'm sure that I'm perceiving and thinking and talking differently with you than I would be to anybody else. That's why we need each other, because we help and hinder and aid and encourage each other just by communicating. There's a lot in there — in meeting people.
When looking back at the span of your career and all the music you've made, what are you most proud of at this point?
Oh, man. Too much stuff! I'm really proud of the renewed interest in my composition "Strangers" — which was covered by the Black Pumas — and all my other solo work.
I'm proud of being an important part of the Kinks' music and Ray's impressive writing. I feel really happy that I'm connected to all that. But me, as a person, there's something different. I'm always trying to think of something new — and what is new? A different way of saying things is new to me.
Apart from the fact there's so much information out there and [Points to brain] in here, it's a difficult time for people — for young people as much as old people my age. It's difficult to assess what the hell's really going on. So, memory's a good way of connecting to the truth — or the truth how you saw it at the time.
You've never struck me as someone content to rest on something you did 50 years ago. Rather, you remain a restless spirit.
Yeah. Good or bad, that's the way I am. It's also trying to realize that other people might actually be right, even though they piss us off. What's making you angry? Try and talk about what's making you angry!
How do we get to a point where we have hostile-ish conversation without blowing out completely? We're capable of it! Anger may be just as simple as something that's boiling inside we haven't dealt with, but it happens all the time.
A helpful tool when dealing with someone's misdirected rage is remembering "Oh, it's not about me. Something else is going on in their life."
I believe that. We're just the vehicle for the information they have, or the emotion. We do it to each other.
I remember in the very early days — when we first started out — I wasn't very good with conversation, because I was always an impulsive kid. If it felt right, I'd do it. It took me a while to realize that when you're having a conversation, the other person or persons in the room have just as much right to say what they want to say as you do. I was very impetuous and would say, "Oh, no — I'm right; you're wrong!" "Oh, stop it!" "Oh, shut up!"
It took me a long time to realize that conversation isn't just about me [Laughs.] It's about us! And we're not the only species on the planet — and tell me if you think I'm wrong — that can have conversations that have outcomes, where you're heading somewhere with it.
Maybe animals do it. I'm sure that cats communicate at a higher level. They know everything, and they don't even speak. They know everything: "You fools!" They're such special creatures.
Do you subscribe to the notion that everyone's a teacher of sorts, even if they're flat-out wrong? Or do you disagree with them?
Yeah, I do. When I was young, by having children, having kids around — often, they teach you more than you thought you taught them. With animals and children, you have to be very receptive about what the process is: what you want to gain from this meeting, from minds and concepts and thoughts and feelings.
I very much appreciate the value of considering other people's views, even when you feel uncomfortable. Growing up in Western society, people are so adamant about getting it right and making choices so quickly. Whereas I think animals — especially cats — have a higher way, I think, of considering things.
I think maybe now, we can learn more from our children than we ever did, because a lot of kids have to become very smart very quickly.
It seems like music is one of the ultimate ways to bridge misunderstandings and divides.
Music can teach us ways to get on better. When you paint, you're not killing someone — although you may wish you were! But you're just expressing feelings and stuff, and that's what makes it healthy. It's a means of exploring feelings you've got inside.
I can't remember which philosopher said this — Yogananda or someone — or was it Joseph Campbell? You know Joseph Campbell?
Sure. The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
A great teacher. It was something like "Before you make up your mind about something, run it by your heart. What would your heart say?" A lot of ideas we might have could benefit by being connected to the heart. The heart considers things in a different way.
That's important, especially if you're a writer or an artist. All of sudden, you'll get a feeling — "That would work OK!" or "I like that!" — and you don't always know why. Maybe it's not necessary to always know why you do things.
Dave Davies performing in Westbury, New York, in 2019. Photo: Al Pereira/Getty Images
My job is partly about trying to get people to care enough about something to read about it. So, I agree that we must lead with the heart at times.
A musician that really influenced me was a guy named Chet Baker. I'd never played trumpet, and when I learned it, I thought I sounded terrible! [Laughs.] That's because it's you playing it.
But I always liked Chet Baker for some reason. I was fortunate to come across an interview he did on the radio a long time ago. He was being interviewed by a musicologist — some prissy guy with all the right words. At the beginning of the interview, Chet said, "Before you start, I know absolutely nothing about music. I've learned everything from what I'm feeling."
That really helped me, because that's how I learned to play. Not that I learned to play like Chet Baker, but the principle of the way he applied himself. Music was more important to him than music itself, if you know what I mean.
Also, coming up with a Biblical reference that I use sometimes: there's a story about Jesus. He went into the desert for 40 days and nights. I've come to believe it's a kind of training for a yogi or a priest or whatever. He looked at the horizon before him and he saw all these conversations and people.
All of a sudden, an intelligent being or person appeared and said to Jesus — as the story goes — "All this land can be yours to command." But Jesus was quite a smart guy. He realized that the person who presented themselves to him was really the conscious ego. The ego is saying to his soul, "I've developed my inner powers so I can control them, him, her — control everything." He said to this person, "Get thee behind me, Satan."
The point is, a lot of the things we find within ourselves are not very nice things, like controlling people. We're caught up in all this information, and it takes a long time to figure out!
I've never interpreted that account through that psychological lens before.
I hadn't thought of it that way until two or three years ago!
How do you want to continue developing as a human being in your next phase of life?
I take it as it comes. But the trouble with growing older is that I'm worrying a lot more than I did 20 or 30 years ago. That's an achievement for me: to accept the body and the mind as human beings change.
That's a big lesson for me, especially growing up from being a fairly impetuous, wanting-it-now, everything-now kind of person. I worry about everything! I'm worrying about having chocolate milk with what I'm eating. [Laughs.] "Oh, I only have coconut milk!" There are things you have to consider before you even get out the front door.
It's a weird world, Morgan. But thank God I'm in it, as opposed to not being in it!