Mr Songbird: Ray Davies at the Flask pub in Highgate, north London, 1972. PHoto: Gijsbert Hankeroot/Redferns
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The Kinks frontman Ray Davies: an imprisoned rock legend or just plain mean?

The title of veteran rock writer Johnny Rogan's biography Ray Davies: a Complicated Life may be something of an understatement.

Ray Davies: a Complicated Life
Johnny Rogan
Bodley Head, 756pp, £25
 

Let’s focus for a moment on one aspect of the tangled character of the former Kinks frontman, Ray Davies: his meanness. It’s breathtaking. It’s beyond the realms of conventional parsimony: he makes Rod Stewart look philanthropic. On the rare occasions that Davies goes to the bar, he asks, “What half are you drinking?” The pipes freeze in his mid-1960s flat because he won’t turn the heating on. When his first wife begs him for “the money for that coat”, she’s referring to the one she already owns but can’t afford to retrieve from the dry-cleaner. When he is mugged in New Orleans just before his 60th birthday, he pursues the assailant to get his cash back and is shot in the leg. When medical orderlies then tear his clothes to inspect the wound, he yells, “But they’re new trousers!”

You soon discover that he is just as extreme in every other aspect of his thinking. Acute levels of suspicion make him hire a detective to spy on one his three ex-wives. Hell-bent on control, he dictates musical arrangements and tells everyone that his drummer Mick Avory has “the personality of a cucumber sandwich”. His petulant behaviour and refusals to appear on stage get the Kinks blacklisted in the United States and Scandinavia; Davies wryly suggests at his manager’s funeral that he had preferred to die “rather than take another call from me”. The leader of the Kinks attracts a wide range of adjectives in the course of this brick-like, 756-page chronicle – restless, fearful, creepy, neurotic, narcissistic, silent, vampiric – and there’s a story that loudly expresses every one of them.

However, the most important shade of his convoluted make-up, and the key to both his success and failures, is his detachment. His lumps, bumps and idiosyncrasies make him as textured as the songs he writes – “Dead End Street”, “I Go to Sleep”, “Waterloo Sunset” – but he is painfully self-conscious and lacks the urge or ability to merge with any particular crowd. Davies’s magnificent, hit-filled purple patch between 1964 and 1967 puts a swath of humankind beneath the microscope: the posh, the working class, the fashionable, the gauche, the dispossessed. Yet he never seems to identify with any of them. He is always the outsider, the observer peering in, nose pressed to the glass, waspish, brittle, very occasionally affectionate.

All of this makes Davies perfectly suited to his chosen role as the commentator on a fascinating period of social and cultural flux – and of rapid variations in the economy (“Save me from this squeeze,” he sighs in “Sunny Afternoon”). The author Johnny Rogan is exceptionally good at painting a picture of the moment he is exploring (he did it superbly in Morrissey and Marr: the Severed Alliance, one of the best-selling of his 20 or so rock biographies). As his account of 1963 kicks into gear, he sketches a world in which the press considers the Rolling Stones “caveman-like” and the sexual revolution is sufficiently riotous for Private Eye to amend Harold Macmillan’s “You’ve never had it so good” to “You’ve never had it so often”, the Sunday Mirror to offer its “How to Spot a Homo” guide and the ever-curious New Statesman to ask: “Are virgins obsolete?” Ray’s lawless younger brother, Dave Davies, the Kinks’ then 16-year-old guitarist, hurls himself in at the deep end and is discovered by his mother in bed with five girls, but his aloof and acerbic sibling – “a miserable little bleeder”, in the words of an uncle – steps back to try to make sense of it all.

Ray’s friendship with the cartoonist and writer Barry Fantoni soon fuels the satirical tilt of “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” and “A Well-Respected Man”, skilled pen portraits that position people as floundering caricatures in the grand tradition of Swift and in social contexts with echoes of Hogarth. Another of Rogan’s skills is to glance sideways and take the temperature of the prevailing mood. Three lackadaisical hits arrive within weeks of each other – “Sunny Afternoon”, “Daydream” by the Lovin’ Spoonful and “I’m Only Sleeping” by the Beatles – and all, he notes, make the same psychedelic point: the world may be awash with irksome inconvenience and wearying conventional activity but the wise response is to sit back, watch and do nothing.

It’s intriguing to learn that Davies, as the leader of what became the third-biggest band in Britain (the Stones being the second), disparaged the Beatles in public and switched off the radio when it played their music. Yet when his manager reminds him that he’ll never get started unless he adopts their hit formula of using the inclusive words “you” and “me” in their song titles – “She Loves You”, “Please Please Me”, “From Me to You” – Davies dutifully responds with “You Really Got Me”.

By the end of this engrossing book, there are still a few questions you don’t feel equipped to answer – why, for instance, did Davies change his name and age on a marriage certificate? – but you’re left with a sympathetic understanding of the subject’s ways and motives. The death of one of his six elder sisters from heart failure while dancing at the Lyceum Ballroom on the Strand certainly left its mark, as did the exit of another to Australia, which he melodramatically declares was “the beginning and the end of everything”. And you suspect that some of the obstacles in his path were of his own making. The band’s career-denting ban from the US tour circuit smacks of self-sabotage – although, predictably, when they are not invited to play at Live Aid, he sarcastically claims it’s because they’re not as legendary as the Boomtown Rats.

The Kinks had an energy that caused riots at their early concerts and promoters to wish they were “nice and polite like the Rolling Stones” but it melts away in the 1970s and 1980s. The piercing perspective Ray so superbly applied to the dandies and dullards of the 1960s starts to lose its focus. Perhaps there was nothing there to catch his eye; perhaps he was so blinkered by events in his private life that he wasn’t able to see it all. I’m almost glad that there isn’t more on his tense, impossible and heartbreaking relationship with Chrissie Hynde (though it’s interesting to be reminded by a 2010 newspaper report that their daughter, Nata­lie, inherited her parents’ fiery spirit: “Ms Hynde, 28, and her boyfriend – veteran eco-warrior Simon ‘Sitting Bull’ Medhurst, 55 – are on bail facing charges relating to a failed attempt to prevent the building of a road linking Bexhill-on-Sea and Hastings”).

You come to understand, most of all, the imprisoning predicament of any 1960s rock legend. You still want Davies to see the world with the delicacy and detail of old hits such as “Autumn Almanac” – with its “buttered currant buns”, its caterpillar on a dew-soaked branch and the “poor rheumatic back” of its fictional star – but he is condemned to wade through the extravagant and public chaos of personal circumstances that the original success encouraged and underwrote. As Rogan so precisely suggests, it’s “the curse and triumph of the heritage act, forced by market conditions and public expectation to confront their past at the expense of their present”.

Mark Ellen is the author of “Rock Stars Stole My Life!” (Coronet)

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK
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"Someone was screwing here": the cryptic art of Robert Rauschenberg

Dense with allusion and synecdoche, Rauschenberg's art work reveals an extraordinary “stream of unconsciousness”.

Before he was established, Robert Rauschenberg had the following jobs. He was a neuropsychiatric technician in the US navy at San Diego. (Unsurprisingly, he preferred the patients when they were insane.) He worked for Ballerina Bathing Suits as a packer and at the Atlas Construction Company in Casablanca, where he conducted inventories of stock for $350 a week. As he made his way in the art world, he was a janitor at the Stable Gallery. He did window displays at Bonwit Teller on Sixth Avenue, as well as Tiffany & Co and Reynolds Metals. (When window-dressing in penurious tandem with Jasper Johns, they used the pseudonym Matson Jones.) Rauschenberg was also stage manager and lighting designer for the Merce Cunningham dance troupe. He was an occasional emergency choreographer (Pelican). You see? Hand-to-mouth, improvised, a “career” made from whatever was ready to hand.

Then, in 1964, he took first prize at the Venice Biennale and arrived. The jobs are, in their way, a perfect emblem of Rauschenberg’s art – unrelated, aleatoric agglomerations of items that happened to stray into the force field of his personality. In Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart, we hear at one point the voice of a stonewaller: “. . . you see I’m a gatherer, an amateur, a scavenger, a comber, my whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time”. This, too, could be Rauschenberg, ransacking the junkyards, with one eye on the gutter, for the found object, the overlooked, the discarded, the down-at-heel detail of daily life. In the Tate catalogue (but not in the exhibition) is a work called Hiccups. One visual burp after another, it consists of separate, one-size, totally heterogeneous items silk-screened and zipped together. Rauschenberg was said by Jasper Johns to have invented more things than anyone except Picasso. A slight exaggeration. Rauschenberg’s central inventive coup was the combine: that notorious stuffed goat with the automobile tyre round its middle will serve as an example.

For the New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins, this was the legacy of the European surrealists – Breton, Duchamp – who took refuge in America during the Second World War. Rauschenberg’s combines are as arbitrary as the unconscious. His scrolls, his late work The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, are a kind of stream of unconsciousness, works of instinct and intuition held together by his assumed authority. (He once forgot to make a portrait of the Paris gallery owner Iris Clert, so sent a last-minute telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so – Robert Rauschenberg.” The French loved it.) The results are a deliberate unconscious chaos, which, like dreams, give off the sensation, but not the substance, of reason.

This important and vibrant show at Tate Modern usefully complicates this accepted narrative – with its implicit emphasis on the artist as magus, performing a kind of magic, of visual hypnosis. To give one example, there is a big billowing work called Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974). It is an emperor-sized sheet, with solvent transfer of newsprint on satin and chiffon. There is a pillow underneath, more or less invisible, to create the billow. It is a work of straightforward representation, of realism. It is a glacier in which the illegible newsprint serves as shadow, as a great and exact donation of texture. There is an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Varick Street”, which describes a factory at night: “Pale dirty light,/some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” All the grime, all the dereliction and detritus of the glacier is captured in the Rauschenberg.

Leo Steinberg, a shrewd but not uncritical supporter of Rauschenberg, rejected the idea, first mooted by Robert Hughes, that Monogram’s stuffed goat forced through a tyre referred to anal sex. Steinberg preferred to think of the work as “funny”. Indeed, just behind it is a brown tennis ball like a (large) goat dropping. I thought of Alexander Calder’s chariot in his Circus: when Calder started to improvise performances around the work, he would scatter then sweep up droppings behind the horses. Here the tennis ball’s appearance is prompted by the representation of the tennis player Earl Buchholz on the hinged platform supporting the goat: providing an alibi. There is also a rubber shoe heel, which has trodden in something – bright-blue lapis lazuli – another ambiguous allusion to excrement, here transfigured and glorified. Here, too, a man is crossing a gorge on a tightrope (signifying danger), and there is a high-ceilinged room with several pillars (easily read as phallic). “EXTRA HEAVY” is stencilled in one corner, a touch not without ­significance, to nudge us away from frivolity. Goats are a traditional byword for lechery. Two more possible indicators: we have to ask why the tyre isn’t whitewall but painted white on the tread of the tyre, a deviation from the norm. Is it prurient to wonder if this represents sperm? The second touch is a man with his arms akimbo, casting a long shadow – a doubling at once different but identical and therefore perhaps a figure for homosexuality.

We are used to the idea that Rauschenberg was interested in eliminating the artist’s presence and personal touch. At the beginning of this show, we have Automobile Tire Print, the black tyre track on 20 sheets of typing paper that was laid down by John Cage driving his Model A Ford; it is an artwork whose execution is twice removed from Rauschenberg by the driver and his automobile. There are, too, the dirt paintings, as arbitrary as Warhol’s later piss paintings – which produce, in Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (1953), very beautiful, random, blue-grey mould. These are works in which the artist cedes agency to natural process. Nevertheless, it is impossible, I think, to look at the Cage dirt painting and not be forcibly reminded of the marginalised artist and his palette with its attractive, accidental accretions of pigment.

Despite this posture of disavowal, Raus­chenberg’s work isn’t devoid of same-sex iconography. For example, he is drawn, time and again, to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Rubens’s Venus. Both are quoted several times, reproduced in silk-screen. Why? Partly an act of magisterial appropriation and a demonstration of self-confidence. (An act of felony itself stolen from the Picasso who repainted Velázquez’s Las Meninas, part of a sustained campaign of annexing the overbearing classics. No false modesty in Picasso.) Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat is also an attempt to replace Picasso’s signature goat – said by Picasso to be more like a goat than a goat – by a monogram, a sign of ownership, like a pair of monogrammed slippers or shirts.

The other reason for the quotation of Rubens and Velázquez is that both nude women are contemplating and presumably admiring themselves in mirrors, mirrors that in both cases are held up by cupidons. The perfect topos of self-love – and therefore of same-sex eroticism. Originally, the stuffed goat (stuffed!), with its horny horns, was set against a painting called Rhyme (a not insignificant title, suggestive of sameness and difference). Rhyme (1956) has an actual necktie on the left. On the tie are grazing cows and a four-bar corral fence. In the centre of the picture are dense squiggles and squirts of colour – again like an artist’s palette, but which here represent a pallet or bed. Above the bed is a bit of lace and adjacent to the lace a red ball. What we have here is an aubade, dawn through lace curtains, and the tie as an indication of (male, out-of-towner) undress. Of course, nothing is explicit. Yet the self-censorship, the furtive and necessary concealment, is represented – by some kind of structure that has been removed, leaving behind trace elements. And what are they? Angular outlines and screw-holes, a sexual metaphor you can find in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. Someone was screwing here.

Bed (1955) features the famous stolen (and very beautiful, subtly patterned) quilt. At the point where the sheet turns back and the pillow is on view, both are liberally stained with paint. The paint is both fluids and (deniable) paint – paint as itself and a synecdoche. Leo Steinberg wants to restrict the combine to a self-referential aesthetic statement – the flatbed horizontal as opposed to the vertical hang, which he sees as Rauschenberg’s primary revolutionary innovation. But while Steinberg is right to dismiss ideas of murder and mayhem in Bed, the action painting mimicked here is also surely mimicking action in the sack.

None of this is certain. The illegality of homosexuality in 1955 made explicitness out of the question. But I think it unlikely that something so central to Rauschenberg’s identity – his sexistentialism – should be completely absent from his work. Even aesthetically programmatic work such as the very early 22 The Lily White (1950) has references to homosexuality. It is an off-white painting with outlined sections like a street map, each of them numbered. The numbers are sometimes upside down. Steinberg believes this is a strategy to subvert the accustomed vertical hang, because it is not clear which way up it should go. I think the numbers are upside down because they are inverted, with everything that adjective denotes in the sexual context. And the shapes are revealing, too: it is made up of extended interlocking jigsaw shapes that mirror and fit into each other. The title refers to the lily-white boys of “Green Grow the Rushes-O”.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) can be dismissed with Harold Rosenberg’s ­famous quip: “The less there is to see, the more there is to say.” Rauschenberg, the junior artist, persuaded Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing that he would then erase. De Kooning chose a drawing that used oil crayon so that Rauschenberg would have a proper task. It took him a long time. And actually, though no one says this – they are too interested in the sacrilege, in the idea of erasure, in destruction, in the concept – the erasure isn’t complete. It  isn’t the promised blank that you don’t need to see to understand. You have to see it to see the Wunderlay.

What does it mean? Partly, obviously, the picture is Oedipal, an act of aggression against a prior master by a junior. Second, the end product is “poetry”, according to Rauschenberg. You can just make out the ghostly marks so that the surface is like a veronica – or like a romantic fragment. It brings to mind Coleridge’s imitation of fragments of antique poetry, creating an aura of irresolvable suggestiveness. On the surface are extra marks, 12 of them, whose provenance is uncertain, but whose presence is as indisputable as the vague but redolent under-image.

Suggestion is the ground note you take away from this show. In Untitled (1955) there is a sock and a parachute – the combine of paint and actuality, somewhere between painting and sculpture – but also to the left, some crumpled paper, overpainted in white, that reveals an eye, nostrils and a retroussé upper lip with phantom teeth. There is painted cloth, taken from pillow-slips or bedlinen, with a decorative milling effect, which makes this Rauschenberg’s bed scene, a long time before Tracey Emin. Similarly, Short Circuit (1955) incorporates work by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, Susan Weil, hidden behind doors. It is a work all about concealment, reveal and suggestion.

There are many, many beautiful things on show here, exemplary energy, and a few empty failures. Don’t miss Untitled (1958) which hangs, from two tarnished safety pins, a khaki handkerchief, treated and soaked, so that you can make out the pattern in the weave. The humble snot-rag transfigured. Its square is a warp of frail rust, a tuille. Above it is a frame of grey-painted cloth, showing a trouser loop and that milling effect again. It is stunning. And so are his majestic cardboard boxes – Nabisco and Alpo for Dogs – makeshift sculptures that read as solid wood, charismatic brand-name Brancusis.

“Robert Rauschenberg” runs until 2 April 2017. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage