Or, how I “met” the Kinks mainman one day but he didn’t actually “meet” me… and lived to tell about it, sorta. Guest-starring: one ladder, one set of stage lights, and one large chunk of Afghani hashish. Above: the band circa 1975.
BY FRED MILLS
Ed. note: With the recent release of the RCA/Legacy Recordings expanded version of the Kinks 1971 masterpiece Muswell Hillbillies—which contributing editor Lee Zimmerman reviewed HERE—now seems as good a time as any to unearth yet another musty piece from the editor’s gradually-deteriorating archives. This was partly prompted by the set’s inclusion of a bonus DVD containing the band’s 1972 BBC performances, which brought back memories of the times I saw the band live. Soon enough, a creaky motion of mental gears ensued, and you, gentle BLURT readers, are the lucky (???) recipients. Don’t blame me, blame Ray Davies…
Dateline: Chapel Hill, NC, spring of ’75. I’m a junior attending the University of North Carolina theoretically majoring in sociology but, from all outward appearances, making classwork a distinctly low priority as I pursue my real passion, rock ‘n’ roll. Granted my educational endeavors would eventually land me a year, albeit an ill-fated one, in law school, such was my ability to snooker my professors into presuming I was mastering my coursework. But the fact that I am sitting here now telling you this story rather than basking in the climes of academia or social research should speak volumes as to my ultimate trajectory.
The Kinks had recently released their 14th studio album The Kinks Present A Soap Opera, a conceptual record that found them knee-deep in their so-called “theatrical period” that had more or less commenced with 1973’s Preservation Act 1 and extended through Schoolboys In Disgrace (late ’75). Although the Kinks had enjoyed critical acclaim for the 1970-72 trifecta of Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround Part One, Muswell Hillbillies and Everybody’s in Showbiz (in between there was also the soundtrack to the film Percy), the suits at their U.S. label, RCA Records, must have become increasingly distressed at Ray Davies’ determination to plunge full-tilt into Big Concepts with Big Ideas and, accordingly, Big Productions that didn’t necessarily cost Small Money. The Kinks were popular—yours truly, indeed, was a massive fan, eagerly scooping up any and all Kinks-related recordings and ephemera—but they weren’t exactly the Rolling Stones when it came to record and ticket sales.
UK music blog the BBChronicles outlines the background of Soap Opera:
“Unlike most of their other concept musicals, which told their story exclusively through the music, as a sort-of rock opera, this show is more of a direct Musical Theater Stage show, in that in addition to the songs there is also quite a bit of story and dialogue, like an actual musical play. Not surprisingly, this was not received well by The Kinks more rock-oriented fans. However, as musicals go, this was actually quite a good story that worked very well. And musically, although not as rockin’ as most would like to see, it still had some excellent songs, including the Bonafide Kinks classics ‘Everybody’s A Star’, ‘Face in the Crowd’, and ‘You Can’t Stop The Music.’”
Wikipedia further picks up the tale:
“It tells the story of a musician named Starmaker who changes places with an ‘ordinary man’ named Norman in order to better understand life. Starmaker goes to bed with Norman’s wife Andrea and then goes to work the next day, getting caught in the rush hour. He works 9 to 5, then goes down to the bar for a few drinks before making his way home. He then is greeted by Andrea whom he tells is ‘making it all worthwhile.’ By this point Starmaker has lost his grip on reality, he doesn’t know who he is anymore. In the end he settles down with Andrea, accepting that he is now just ‘a face in the crowd.’ The album finishes by saying that although rock stars may fade, their music lives on. (The Starmaker is a parallel exaggeration of Ray Davies, he would often use his name in the stage version on Soap Opera and perform previous top Kinks songs as examples of his work as a star to explain that he is not Norman.)
“The material was initially developed for a Granada TV live teleplay in 1974, which was broadcast under the title Star Maker, starring Ray Davies and June Ritchie as the leads, with the Kinks providing live accompaniment. (View the teleplay, below.) A Soap Opera adapted the same songs and plot to an audio presentation, with Ritchie in the same role. Plans for a full-scale theatrical tour were not realized, but the Kinks, with their extended mid-70s lineup, did perform the entire album on tour in 1975. Though the album was not well-received, Dave Thompson, reviewing an unofficial bootleg recording, called the live presentation ‘a revelation.’”
And that’s where we come in. (The BBChronicles blog, incidentally, has a great-sounding MP3 download of a June ’75 London performance of Soap Opera originally broadcast over the BBC.)
Unable to tour the album as he envisioned it but determined, as was typical for him, to put his brain-blast on display for the public, Davies marshaled his Kinks krew for a North American tour in April and May, and included on the announced itinerary for April 25 was UNC—the band’s very first Southern appearance, no less, as duly noted by Doug Hinman’s essential Kinks kronicle All Day And All Of The Night. Upon learning the news I very nearly redecorated my apartment with duck-image wallpaper, such was my excitement. My girlfriend and I, along with several fellow Kinks acolytes, summarily made our plans.
When the day of the show arrived, one of my friends suggested we wander down to the venue—Carmichael Auditorium, the old, original “Dean Dome” that hosted the Tarheels basketball team and which was, sonically speaking, one of the least hospitable arenas in the country for musical acts—and see if we could get a peek inside during soundcheck. Not only did we get that peek, we wound up getting “hired” (term used loosely) as student volunteers/grunts with the load-in staff. For reasons you’re about to read, my memories of the afternoon remain somewhat hazy, but I do recall a couple of hours’ worth of humping sundry boxes and carrying armloads of cables from one area of the building to another, not particularly glamorous or even gratifying work but, hey, I was an honorary Kinks krewmember!
“Come over here and steady this ladder for me, mate,” barked one of the actual crew. I climbed up onstage and dutifully braced a long ladder while he ascended to secure a rig of lighting. He fiddled for what seemed a long while then, apparently satisfied, signaled to the lighting operator that it was time to test them and make adjustments. Suddenly various colored lights are flashing on and off, seemingly at random intervals and frequently with a blazing intensity. And there was me, staring directly up at them from the floor, and gradually starting to feel…. a bit woozy. Then a tad nauseous. I didn’t have a history of epilepsy or seizures, but I could tell that I was having a negative physical experience due to the lights. Yet I couldn’t abandon my post, either, because Mr. Lighting Rigger was still at the top of the ladder and relying on me, Mr. Student Volunteer, to keep it steady while he twisted and shifted in the process of adjusting the lights.
What seemed like an hour passed (in actuality it was probably less than 15 minutes) and then we were done. The crew man climbed down and stared at me. “Mate, you’re sweating like a pig. Are you okay?” Indeed, my teeshirt was drenched and I felt extremely lightheaded. I mumbled something about the heat from the lights—which he clearly should have realized was a lie since I had been 20 feet away from the lights and he had been just a few inches away and wasn’t sweating at all—and told him I was going to take a quick bathroom break. I jumped somewhat unsteadily down from the stage and went looking for a men’s room.
Oh. I’ve forgotten one important factoid. Earlier in the afternoon my friend and I had decided to eat a couple of chunks of hashish. Quite good hashish, in fact, of the Afghani strain, and already well-tested via the combustion method. Our reasoning was that we might not get a chance to smoke any prior to the concert, and of course we needed to catch a buzz for the show. This was the Kinks, after all, one of our favorite bands.
What I hadn’t sketched out was the timing of drug’s effects, nor the intensity. I’d eaten my share of pot in the past, typically sprinkling it on a juicy burger or mixing it into spaghetti, with the desired results beginning to kick in about an hour and a half to two hours later. I hadn’t eaten hash, though, a far more concentrated (and potent) intoxicant, nor had I done it on an empty stomach. So I didn’t expect to start “getting off” (for you novices, that’s a quaint term we used back in the ‘70s) less than 45 minutes after ingestion. But there I was, clutching a tall ladder and staring directly at flashing spotlights, gradually realizing that my body was turning to rubber and my vision was shifting sideways and turning two-dimensional.
Down a long corridor I wandered/stumbled/floated, eventually spotting the bathroom. I went in, slammed a stall door shut, and just sat quietly for ten minutes or so, calming my nerves and trying to pull myself together. I stopped sweating and the extreme lightheadedness was replaced by what THC aficionados call “a full body stone”; not an unpleasant one, at that. After splashing some water on my face and combing my hair—falling just below my shoulders, it felt at that moment rather like a creamy velvet cloth draped over my head, although I couldn’t look in the mirror without laughing maniacally—I walked slowly back out into the corridor, contemplating my next move. Should I go get back on the stage and await my next instructions?
A figure was coming in my direction from the other end of the hall. I could tell it was a male, dressed head to toe in black. I had already started walking that way, and as we neared one another the realization hit: That’s Ray Davies himself. Oh shit, I’m about to meet Ray Fucking Davies of the Kinks.
When about 10 paces separated us, my right hand involuntarily came up and out, wrist and fingers extended in the universal sign of a forthcoming handshake. There was no reciprocal motion from Davies, however. The look on his face wasn’t exactly an invitation to commune, either. Between the body language, the ominous black attire and the major scowl, I determined that he was in no mood to meet a long-haired, sweaty tee-shirted American fanboy. I may have been giggling to myself as well, which wouldn’t have helped my case. I froze, my hand suspended in mid-air. Davies brushed past me, wordlessly.
I watched him vanish down the hallway, shrugged while mentally berating myself for choking at the precise moment when I could have met a personal hero. It’s not as if I had any particular expectations of the summit; though unplanned, I would have at least said something cheery like, “Welcome to Chapel Hill!” or “I have got all your albums!” or a similarly erudite utterance. Or maybe not. In my particular chemical state at the time, I might’ve been equally likely to say, “Monkey poop turns green when they eat apples!” or “Snkkssssgrphhhjummpshkk…” So it’s just as well; things happen for a reason. (Ask me sometime about a similar, though sober, encounter with Neil Young in Las Vegas in the late ‘90s. Apparently I didn’t learn anything from the ’75 incident.)
The concert itself was awesome. No, I really don’t remember much of it, although we had unbelievably great seats because I was able to hang around for the soundcheck and then remain in the building until they opened the doors. It was a general admission show, no seats on the main floor, so I held down front-and-center spots for my girlfriend and our pals until they all arrived. I am advised that the Kinks performed the entirety of Soap Opera followed by a selection of hits ‘n’ faves and I have no reason to disbelieve that. (The above-listed link to that BB Chronicles download also has a setlist for the Soap Opera portion of the tour’s shows.) The music was sweet, the lingering buzz equally delectable, and a good time was had by all, even though it was apparently sparsely attended, maybe just a couple thousand ticket buyers according to Doug Hinman’s indispensible Kinks kronicle All Day and All of the Night: Day By Day Concerts and Broadcasts.
I would see the Kinks a couple more times during their ‘70s and early ‘80s heyday, notably a show in Atlanta on the Schoolboys In Disgrace tour for which I smuggled in a small Super-8 camera and filmed a couple of five-minute reels’ worth of footage. No, I have no idea what happened to it, but hopefully one day it will turn up in some random box of crap that’s been stored away in the attic and weathered multiple moves of domicile. If and when it does, you, gentle readers, will be the first to hear about it…
God save the Kinks!
Special thanks are in order to Jon “Bubba” Heames (of Let’s Active/Motocaster fame) for the additional archival help, and to Jud “Prof” Cost for his unconditional love for all things Ray Davies and the accompanying encouragement.