Ray Davies' AMERICANA (2013) is a disappointment, thin and surfacey.
It does in its haphazard way recount The Kinks' adventures touring throughout the States from the days of the British Invasion, through their "re-conquering" of the colonies around the time of "Lola," to their apparent peak in popularity in the late '70s and early '80s, on into the '90s, and even into the 2000's -- when Ray has his Ultimate American Experience: He gets shot during a robbery.
But Ray jumps all over the place, some of his stories are rushed, others get more detail than they deserve, and Ray can't always tell you why he did some things. Davies has been acclaimed in the past for his powers of observation, shown in places like the details in the lyrics of his mid-'60s British hit "Waterloo Sunset." But by the end of this book you don't feel like you've met Ray, and he seems almost like a mystery to himself. He has no insight into the things he did or why some things happened, or really why he's had this long love affair with the U.S., beyond some American songs he heard in his childhood.
There are good things in the book: One chapter is a diary Ray kept during the SLEEPWALKER tour of the U.S. in 1977, and it's worth reading. The band's whole period with Arista Records is pretty well described by Ray, as is their late-'60s experience with Reprise, and their early-'70s "rock-opera" period with RCA.
But when Ray explains how his band fell out with Arista and ended up with MCA, I'm not sure I believe him. Ray just sounds too clueless. He's at a complete loss about how things happened.
Though getting shot in New Orleans is sort of the framework that the book is built around, it takes awhile to learn what happened, we get the details in bits and pieces -- and it's like Ray does his best to take most of the drama out of it.
There are parts of the book that are written with real affection -- usually about former road managers and advance-publicity-team members and "minders" who have died along the road. Ray's first wife, Rasa, who provided nice vocal harmonies on some Kinks hits up through the late '60s, is mentioned by name exactly once -- the rest of the time she's referred to as "the ex-wife." Chrissie Hynde is mentioned a couple times, only once by her full name.
Maybe I expected too much. I like The Kinks. VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY is a charming album in its acoustic, low-key way. LOW BUDGET is a solid, no-frills rock and roll album with sometimes hilarious lyrics. There's half a dozen great tracks on ONE FOR THE ROAD -- I prefer those live versions of "Victoria," "David Watts," "Misfits" and "Celluloid Heroes" to the studio originals. There's half a dozen great should-have-been hits on THE KINKS KRONIKLES.
But some people maybe shouldn't write books. Or they should get some help. I wonder if anybody read this before it was printed -- I kind of doubt it, because the sentence structure isn't always solid, some words are dropped here and there, and bassist Andy Pyle's last name keeps getting spelled two different ways.
Am I an idiot to expect emotional depth from rock and roll songwriters when they write books? Ray's personality seems paper-thin and distant here, not at all the warm, eccentric feeling you get from Kinks albums.
Wendy Leigh's BOWIE (2014) attempts to cover David Bowie's life in 275 rather-large-print pages, and doesn't do the man justice. The book is mostly about Bowie's sexual adventures -- about how many people he took to bed, how few people could resist him, how well-endowed he was, how many drugs he took. The music is distinctly secondary.
The book reads like it was cranked out in a couple of weeks. It's thin and surfacey, lighter than a PEOPLE magazine profile, and reading it didn't make me like Bowie any more or make me want to investigate his music any further.
There is a LONG list of people Leigh interviewed to write her book -- Bowie apparently wasn't one of them. There is a LONG list of magazine and English-music-weekly articles Leigh relied on for background. There is a pathetic attempt at a discography that is merely a two-page list of album titles. Would it have been so hard to include the titles of the songs that were ON those albums?
I was interested in learning more about Bowie's Berlin period and what was going through his mind during LET'S DANCE, not to mention what he'd been doing for the last 25 years -- but the book was so numbing that I gave up by then.Was it just that Bowie was willing to do anything, try anything, say anything, to be famous? Leigh doesn't even note that it took Bowie two years of work and a change of record companies before "Space Oddity" finally broke through to be a hit in the States.
I know there have been a lot of Bowie bios that tell only parts of his story. I haven't read any of them. I picked this one up because he'd died and I wondered if I'd missed anything important. This book doesn't make me want to find out.