The words behind the music: Ray Davies debuts VH1's `Storytellers' series
What lies beyond the familiar format where the famous rocker unplugs himself or herself for an intimate, mostly acoustic, gig on MTV?
Perhaps it's the rocker who unmasks himself or herself even further and explains the humble genesis of the songs during the performance. Someone who does what many folk singers and songwriters do as a matter of course, but something that is largely foreign to rockers who are generally content to lose themselves in power chords and maintain a facade of the creator and entertainer as wizard and true star.
VH1 kicks off a promising series called ``Storytellers'' June 2 at 10 p.m. with the Kinks' Ray Davies, who performed a string of small club gigs last year in the United States, including a gem at the Paradise, and did the same in his native England in 1994. He played tunes, popular and obscure; he read from his often self-lacerating ``unauthorized autobiography'' ``X-Ray''; he rendered behind-the-scenes accounts of life and strife in the busy Davies family and the equally chaotic Kinks combo.
As such, this hour-long ``Storytellers'' debut is not a case of Davies, the Kinks' lead singer-songwriter, adapting to a VH1 conceit, but VH1 plugging into a masterful, ready-made roadshow. Kudos to executive producer Bill Flanagan, a former Globe free-lancer and Musician magazine editor, for taking advantage of the obvious, and director Michael Simon for keeping it uncluttered. Davies, with backing guitarist Pete Mathison, was taped in New York during an extended run at the Westbeth Theatre late last year.
It is, as Davies says, ``our little experiment, bum notes, warts and all.'' Davies, who can be notoriously nervous, appears comfortable and at ease with just his acoustic guitar and his book. He's among friends and serious fans, those for whom ``Lola'' is an expected tonic, but the diversion of ``Harry Rag'' during ``A Well Respected Man'' might be more of a delight. Here, Davies, the quintessential outsider-Englishman clarifies what made the song controversial in 1968. In the ``A Well Respected Man,'' Davies sings of his snooty protagonist: ``He likes his own back yard/And he likes his fags the best.''
``The word `fag,' where I come from, is a `harry rag,' a cigarette,'' says Davies, breaking into ``Harry Rag.'' (It's Cockney rhyming slang: cigarette = harry rag = fag.) It's a light-seeming tune about nicotine addiction and lifelong futility. Sings Davies: ``I curse myself for the life I've led/Roll myself a harry rag and put meself to bed.''
Davies takes us through ``Sunny Afternoon,'' one of many class-conscious numbers written, he says, when he was overworked, underpaid and in crisis, ``which was pretty normal for the Kinks.'' He jabs his former label, Arista, and its CEO, Clive Davis, for failing to promote ``Come Dancing,'' a brilliant, nostalgic song. ``Clive said it's a great ditty, but it's not a song ... he's right in a sense, there is that ditty quality to it.''
Davies discusses his early influences, the effect his five older sisters had on him, the magic of writing the Kinks' breakthrough hit, ``You Really Got Me,'' in the front room of his family's house, the accidental discovery of the beauty of distortion.
There's more: the aching ``Celluloid Heroes,'' about a wistful walk down Hollywood Boulevard (``inspired by that street and some people I knew in that strange, strange country called Los Angeles''), and ``Days,'' the most forgiving breakup song of all time. And there's ``Waterloo Sunset,'' a gritty, romantic ballad that Village Voice critic Robert Christgau has termed ``the most beautiful song in the English language.'' No argument here. I only wish this show had been longer.
Coming up on ``Storytellers'': Jackson Browne, June 9; Elvis Costello, June 16; and Lyle Lovett, tentatively scheduled for June 23. The weekly show is slated for an indefinite run.
By Jim Sullivan