Working Out the Kinks

A Kinks fan reclaims her youthful obsession with a rock band and wonders what happened to her comrade in arms.

by Nanette Varian • Editor { View Profile }
Ray Davies photo
Ray Davies, Beacon Theater, New York, May 1975
Photograph: Nanette Varian

I was alternately horrified and skeptical. Some of the details didn’t seem to add up. (And if the stories were true, why the hell didn’t she just come back, or let me wire her some cash?) She’d drop these bombs one minute and laugh them off the next. And then this doozy: She was ambling along Hollywood Boulevard one day singing "Celluloid Heroes," a popular 1972 Kinks song; Ray’s tribute to the stars in the sidewalk:

Rudolph Valentino looks very much alive,

And he looks up ladies’ dresses as they sadly pass him by.

Avoid stepping on Bela Lugosi, ‘cause he’s liable to turn and bite

But stand close by Bette Davis, Because hers was such a lonely life…

I wish my life was a nonstop Hollywood movie show,

A fantasy world of celluloid villains and heroes,

Because celluloid heroes never feel any pain

And celluloid heroes never really die.

And — just as she was singing! — who should appear but Ray Davies himself.

"Yeah, right!" scoffed a friend to whom I’d been relaying these dispatches. "Can’t you see she’s playing you?"

I wasn’t sure who was playing me at that point — old crazy friend with her wild stories or new sensible friend loosing troublesome little bugs into my ear. Whatever the case, Ruby’s eccentric behavior, which admittedly had inspired me to lose some of my own inhibitions when we were younger, was starting to grate. Just because I was always the "stable" one didn’t mean I had an infinite capacity to absorb other people’s insanity. Hadn’t I endured enough explosive irrationality at home? Soon after Ruby returned, I ungallantly cut her out of my life. "I can’t do this anymore," I told her. "I just can’t."

My concertgoing continued in truncated form. "Where’s Ruby?" the guys in the band would wail. "How is she?" And always I gave the same answer: "I don’t know. We don’t hang out anymore." Even Ray Davies asked me this one time.

"I don’t know, Ray," I said. "You’ve probably seen her more recently than I have." He thought for a moment.

"The last time I saw her, it was on Hollywood Boulevard."

I stopped following the Kinks before they had the chance to break my heart by breaking up; they recorded their last album in 1994 and played their last show in 1996. I’m now 47, and the realization that I’m some 15 years older than the Kinks were when I was chasing them feels so weird, as though I’m in one of those Escher drawings that twists back around itself into infinity. I suppose you could find an obvious parallel between this pursuit of older men and the fact that I had a father who scared me. Come to think of it, Ruby had some daddy issues as well. I look back on that period of my life with embarrassment but also with a kind of stubborn pride because, you know, the music really was good.

I never forgot the Kinks, but I was eventually swept up by jazz, show tunes, big bands, the American pop classics canon…so many ways to be transported. Much of what I love now turns out to be the songs of my father’s time. He was an amateur guitarist and trumpet player; my mother still laughs when she remembers him trying to keep up with his teenage bandmates while playing "Cherokee," always coming in just a beat or two off with the wahwah. What I wouldn’t give to have him here now so we could discuss the music of his youth. Why Bix — his hands-down favorite — above all others? Which "Rockin’ Chair" did he prefer — the Roy Eldridge-Gene Krupa take, or the Louis Armstrong-Jack Teagarden version?

Seven years ago a colleague and I made the startling discovery that we shared a history of Kinks worship. Unlike me, he had kept up with the Davies brothers’ solo endeavors and clued me in to a friendly, literate fan Web site which in turn linked to an e-newsletter, Kinks Digest, where aficionados young, old, and older still gather to discuss their obsession with equal parts humor and devotion. I put myself on the mailing list.

Originally published in the November 2007 issue.

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