Thank God for the music. And, truth be told, for my friend Ruby. Otherwise, well, I just don’t know.
Ruby wasn’t her real name, by the way. But it’s the one the guys in the band knew her by, so it’s the one I’ll use here.
This is what was happening: My father had a stroke when I was in junior high school. It left him paralyzed on his right side, and aphasic. He knew what he wanted to say, but all he could do was make sounds. Three, to be precise: ay, oh, and shit. That was it. He "spoke" in three-syllable spurts: "Ay, ay…aay!" He said shit the same way. Sometimes it was endearing. While watching something funny on TV, my father would chortle, then murmur to himself, "Shitshitshit." As if to say, "How about that!"
Mostly, though, it was a horror show. Because of the stroke, he couldn’t read (which he’d loved), nor could he write. And of course he could no longer work, drive, hunt, fish, fix cars, or build a house from scratch. My father had always had a low threshold for frustration, so you can imagine. The harder we struggled to divine his meaning, the angrier he got. And the louder.
My mother, a former operating room nurse with a history of depression, coped as best she could. My father was in such bad shape immediately after the stroke, some people suggested she send him to a facility. "I’m sorry," she’d say. "As long as my husband has his faculties, I cannot put him in a home."
I was 12. I stayed in my room and listened to a lot of records.
I also read and watched a lot of old movies on TV, holing up with Lou Reed, Bette Davis, David Bowie, Evelyn Waugh, the Beatles, MAD magazine, the Marx Brothers…a mental hygiene routine I still recommend. I also listened to the radio, in particular to an irreverent late-night FM talk show host named Alex Bennett. Alex’s favorite band was the Kinks. The first album of theirs I bought was because of him. The compulsion that followed was purely my own doing.
For those of you not familiar with the Kinks (and trust me, even if you think you’re not, you are), they were a British Invasion band whose lopsided but profoundly influential career spanned more than three decades. Tip of the iceberg: "Lola," "You Really Got Me," "A Well Respected Man," "Waterloo Sunset." In spite of their many hits, there was an air of the underdog about them — which made the Kinks that much more appealing to misfits like me.
Madness is always more fun when it’s a folie a deux, and Ruby was the perfect partner in crime. It was 1976; we were 15. She too loved the music of the 1960s that made us both wish we’d been born a bit earlier. One day after school, I played her one of my favorite LPs, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, and that was it. She began mainlining Kinks music as greedily as I did, and wanted just as badly to get close to them.
We figured out a neat trick: Bands do a sound check the afternoon of a show, so not only did you get to watch them walk into the building (in broad daylight, with almost nobody else around), but listening from just outside the stage door was like getting a whole extra performance. It was choppy and private and thrillingly unslick, with lots of starts and stops and guitar tuning and drum trills and talking and arguing: lead singer Ray Davies counting off into a number from their latest LP, which they still needed to rehearse; bits of other groups’ songs — a window into what the Kinks themselves were listening to; Ray’s brother, lead guitarist Dave Davies, tearing up the opening bars of the Doobie Brothers’ "Listen to the Music."
Ruby was a few months younger than I was but looked 10 years older. Lean and tall, she had light coffee-colored skin and green eyes. She was a knockout. Although she’d found attention from men startling and hurtful when she was younger, she now played to her audience, enhancing her already striking looks with swaths of perfectly placed blush and impeccably layered strata of multicolored Madeleine Mono glitter eye shadow. A network TV makeup artist once offered Ruby a job. Seeing as she was in the eleventh grade, she had to decline.
Ruby was gay. Or maybe bi. She was married (or maybe she wasn’t). I learned this one day in gym class when we were hiding in the back, trying hard not to exercise. "My ring!" she cried, and clattered down off the bleachers — no mean feat in the Candie’s mules she wore with her gym shorts — to retrieve it. She and a gay kid from her old high school had supposedly wed on a lark in New Jersey (or was it Delaware?), where they were helped, if I’m remembering correctly, by a kindly nun.
She was extremely smart, wildly funny, and deeply political (a passion I didn’t share but admired). She could be as solicitous as a geisha or as gruff as a stevedore, whichever the situation called for. Men (and often women) all but swooned in her presence. I was astonished and more than a little grateful that this bold, exotic creature saw through my shyness — which in turn encouraged me to creep farther and farther out of my shell. Some mornings she fortified herself with a pre-homeroom swig of amaretto from a full-size bottle that reposed, in its decorative lidded coffer, in her locker. Ruby once mortified me by meeting me on the subway with snow-white tampons dangling, chandelier-style, from her earlobes. "I am making a statement," she declared. "Why should we be embarrassed by these things?" Why, indeed.
My father passed away when I was 17, and I got Social Security survivors benefits. Instead of giving me an allowance, my mother let me keep this monthly check (about $80 and change), out of which I was to pay for all my personal expenses. Which I did: Eighty dollars, in those days, bought a lot of concert tickets.
From our home base in New York, Ruby and I took buses and trains throughout the tristate area and beyond: out to the Jersey shore, down to Philly, up to Oneonta, Rochester, Boston. Over and over and over again, never getting bored. In the back of my mind was always this nagging fear: God, I love this so much and I never want it to stop; what will I do if it does? When it does?
Sometimes we came back the same night; sometimes we stayed over in the band’s hotel. Either way Ruby and I (along with a handful of fellow fan-pests, groupies, and other hangers-on) would hustle over to the hotel after the show, plant ourselves in the bar, and wait. Kind of like hanging out before the sound check, except with cocktails and air-conditioning. Our mulish tenacity and impressive knowledge of the group’s oeuvre, at a younger age than most of the other fans, earned us some band cred. Still, at heart, we were nervous, silly girls. Sometimes we shared quick hellos with them, sometimes a few drinks. One night Ruby, an ardent lefty, let the bass player have it after he suggested that she should applaud Margaret Thatcher’s recent ascension to prime minister: "But she’s a woman — I thought you’d be pleased!" Sometimes we even got invited to the Noisy Room, where the festivities would continue in a boozy haze of cigarette smoke and Cockney guffaws. (No, nothing happened — the right ones never asked.)
One morning Ray Davies, who rarely attended those Spinal Tap-ian soirees, approached Ruby and me at the breakfast buffet. "You were in the Noisy Room last night, eh?" he teased before becoming positively avuncular. "You look tired. Go home and get some rest."
I started college; Ruby didn’t. We both hated school, but, as was our pattern, she was the one both ballsy and foolish enough to stand on principle. We kept going to shows, but our antics started to pale.
At one point, when she was between jobs, Ruby decided to treat herself to a Kinks road trip, following the tour arc cross-country. I couldn’t take that kind of time off from school, so I figured I’d live vicariously through her adventures. But her phone calls became increasingly strange. Most of her stories seemed to involve abuses at the hands of strangers she met on the road, men she would go home with because she didn’t have enough money for a hotel.
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.
I started going to solo performances by Ray and Dave Davies every once in a while. It felt good to have this back in my life while actually having a life. I even passed on a Ray show one year because it had festival seating — meaning you had to stand the whole time, and that just sounded way too uncomfortable.
Then, in 2004, a classic wave of Kinksian misfortune: Ray Davies was shot by a mugger, and Dave Davies had a stroke. Dave was luckier than my father; he’s back in the studio again. And you can bet the last time Ray toured the States, I stood in line for two hours to get a spot up close, then for another two-hours-plus during the show. I felt no pain. Just a dopamine rush of love and gratitude for this brilliant, aging, all-too-human rock god whose music saved my life and sanity more than 30 years earlier.
From what I’ve gleaned on Google, Ruby went on to study social work, and by now might have a PhD. Her political sensibilities appear to have become no less liberal with time. At some point around the mid-1990s she appeared, under her real name, in a documentary about the mistreatment of the mentally ill. Not as an expert, but as a former patient herself. I ordered a copy of the video.
Four people were profiled. Ruby’s part opens with her browsing LPs in a vintage-record store. She and a guy in the shop are talking about music, and he asks if she’s a frustrated rocker. "No," she replies. "A frustrated groupie. And I couldn’t even do that right." Ruby confides that the only time she hung out with Ray Davies, "all he talked about was [his then-girlfriend] Chrissie Hynde." Of course. That would have been the day they met on Hollywood Boulevard.
Her appearance shocked me. Not that she looked bad: She just seemed, compared with my memory of her, drained of color. No more Madeleine Mono glitter eyes. "She looks so much prettier without all that crap on her face," my mother observed. My husband, who’s never met Ruby, thought she was perfectly lovely. On film she talked about her time in a psychiatric ward and concluded, poignantly, with the question: "How can I be smart and nuts at the same time?"
A mutual friend ran into Ruby at a concert not long ago. He said they had a really nice chat. I hope she’s okay now. I wonder what would happen if we came across each other at the next Ray (or, God willing, Dave) concert. Would we shriek and hug and then watch the show together or just cordially catch each other up on careers and births and deaths, then go our separate ways? The latter, I suppose. We really don’t need to stand together again at the foot of a stage. But I do kind of like the idea that she’s out there, somewhere, enjoying the show.
Nanette Varian, a features editor at MORE, has also written for Glamour, Penthouse and the New York Times Syndicate. She likes the site kindakinks.net. A lot. Also: Dave Davies; Ray Davies; Kast-Off Kinks.
What Nanette was up to in the eighties: What it Was Like to Work at Penthouse