Both as engaged with Americana as London mythology, this unlikely pair have walked surprisingly similar paths
In 1969, the year the writer Iain Sinclair bought a near-condemned house in Hackney, complete with period features like an outside toilet and a tin bath hanging from a hook on the wall, Ray Davies of the Kinks was at work in Pye Studios near Marble Arch finessing Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), the sequel to his band's album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. Both records obsessed over the declining cultural currency of hardy-perennial British institutions: china cups and custard pies, vaudeville and variety, strawberry jam and Desperate Dan. And outside conveniences, a reality of everyday life in a Hackney landscape still wearing the scars of war, were part of the same disappearing London that Davies was lamenting.
Sinclair used his new foothold in East London to begin his life's work circumnavigating the city, meticulously documenting the rising tensions between London's underpinning mythologies and resonant historical ghosts and the city's slide towards being just another clone, coffee-chain metropolis. Books like Lights Out for the Territory, London Orbital and Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire have a literary style that reads as though it's blossoming out of Blake – until Sinclair abruptly punctures his own intense poetics with stark, enraged documentary. Meanwhile, Davies rhapsodised and satirised. Like Hogarth with a rock backbeat, he sketched portraits of transexuals in Soho (Lola), lovers on Waterloo Bridge (Waterloo Sunset) and, of course, those all-too dedicated followers of Carnaby Street fashion.
London handed both men their art and now, with unlikely synchrony, they both publish accounts of another cultural milieu that would transform their visions of England. Sinclair's American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light is about his creative debt to the Beat poets and writers, while Davies' Americana: The Kinks, the Road and The Perfect Riff is a memoir of certainties rocked by the melodic patterns and syncopated beat of American popular culture. Davies grew up in a two-up two-down on Fortis Green, the road that leads from East Finchley to Muswell Hill in north London. Jerry Lee Lewis, Leadbelly and Charles Mingus changed his world. Sinclair arrived in London from the small Welsh town of Maesteg, and Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Charles Olson would help fashion him into the writer he is today.
In his preface, Davies tells us that America as mythic nirvana entered his consciousness via flickering celluloid images of superheroes and cowboys. But it was his burgeoning appreciation of rock, jazz, skiffle and country that properly lifted his spirits out of the monochrome of post-war Britain. And discovering Kerouac in his late teens provided Sinclair with a comparable portal. "That whole Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin affectation of provincialism and small-town Englishness, and their sense of distrusting what's foreign," he told me earlier this summer, as we sat in his Hackney living room, "felt so inward turning and against what I wanted to do. These people were terrified of pretension, which meant they were terrified of ideas and keeping an open mind. I was repelled by that way of looking at things."
Because of his type-casting as a "London author", there has been a tendency to overlook Sinclair's roots in American counterculture. But without Ginsberg there would have been no house in Hackney. Sinclair purchased his home with the £2,000 he earned making a television film about the Howl poet and Bob Dylan intimate. And it's no coincidence that much of his literary career has put him "on the road", walking and searching and observing, then walking some more, before writing up what he finds. "English novels all had this predicable structure," he explained. "Characters would appear, do this and that, and then a resolution. But Kerouac is totally open-ended: not going anywhere necessarily in terms of narrative plot, not resolving anything. He hears Charlie Parker in a bar and puts those rhythms, as he understands them, into his writing and it becomes a riff, or a solo, as he picks up on that same energy – the jazz realities of how you can jump about with language."
Sinclair's loyalty towards a pool of fellow travellers who accompany him from book to book, and through thick and thin, baffles some reviewers and commentators. Among his companions have been Renchi Bicknell the artist, Marc Atkins the hard-living photographer and the tenacious agent provocateur artist/writer Bill Drummond, who made his statement about the corruption of art by commerce by torching a million pounds in cash. In On The Road, Kerouac constructs heightened mythologies around his travelling buddies, especially the inscrutable Neal Cassidy whom he fictionalises as Dean Moriarty. Sinclair's dramatis personae fulfil a similar literary function as fully-rounded characters around which hyped-up mythologies and playful invention can be hung.
Where does real life fade into fiction? That, said Sinclair, was the question that dogged the writing of his 2009 book Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire. A chapter about William Lyttle, the so-called "mole-man of Hackney", who in 2008 found notoriety for digging a honeycomb of tunnels under his Dalston home, has Sinclair imagining going beneath the road, shovelling deep into Lyttle's secret realm: "Kids in this area imagined the tunnels went even further than they did and all kinds of curious things happened there. I tried to gain access, but in reality couldn't, so fictionalised an imaginative mythology – mythologising the myths of a real person and his real situation."
Mythology doesn't come more frenzied than that surrounding rock stars and Ray Davies, in notable contrast to Sinclair, aims to myth-bust. An affecting passage about the sudden death of Labour leader John Smith in 1994 – Davies is driving through the Surrey countryside when he hears the news on his car radio and stops at a local church to pray for the loss of the Labour movement as his own father would have understood it – triggers a chain of events that takes him back to mythic America. Who loathes and distrusts Tony Blair more, Sinclair or Davies? It's too close to call. But Davies prefers to observe New Labour's 1997 Southbank coronation from the relative safety of digs on New York's Upper West Side.
A kindly teacher handed Sinclair his first copy of On The Road; Davies heard Elvis Presley and bebop for the first time through the generosity of his eldest sister, married to a Canadian serviceman, who shipped records back to the Davies' north London home. "I loved blues singers like Howlin' Wolf, Big Bill Broonzy and Bo Diddley," Davies once told me. "But eyebrows were raised when You Really Got Me went to No 1 and I wasn't singing in an American accent. The generation before us, like Cliff Richard, sang transatlantic. But I didn't know I was going to be a songwriter when I wrote You Really Got Me. I assumed it was a fluke. So, I thought, I'll sing it the way I am. I'm a London person. That's my voice."
Truth is, Davies loved blues and rock'n'roll too ardently to defer towards vocal caricature – "I sing as I speak," he says. And nor does Sinclair ape the mannerisms and verbal ticks of Kerouac. To love Kerouac or Big Bill Broonzy is to learn from their freethinking spirit of independence. With polite society still blushing at the pelvis of Elvis, the carnal desires of which Ray Davies sang in You Really Got Me left nothing to the imagination. When the record was released in 1964, the Who's totemic My Generation was a whole 12 months away. The song's raw-boned, rootsy riff had a physicality that could only have emanated from a mind fixated on authentic blues and rock. Thanks to his sister's parcels, he had absorbed and distilled the American mother music earlier than most and British pop had never heard anything like it before.
Sinclair has just turned 70. Davies becomes a septuagenarian next year, and their generation were more knowing in their approaches to American culture than the generation who proceeded them. In Revolt Into Style, George Melly's pioneering book about British pop culture, he writes of "the spontaneous if mysterious enthusiasm which sprang up all over wartime Britain for Negro jazz of the 1920s." And what began with the scholarly devotion of British jazzmen like Humphrey Lyttelton and Chris Barber would collapse into Kenny Ball and his rhythmically mushy Jazzmen hamming up Jungle Book songs as guests on The Two Ronnies: cartoon light-entertainment jazz with layers of unthinking racial stereotyping. But Davies needs his readers to understand about that sticky patch in the Kinks' history when he decided to add a Trad jazz band to their lineup for 1970s concept albums like Preservation and Schoolboys in Disgrace. Davies lived in New Orleans and has walked the streets and searched and observed. New Orleans jazz represents fundamental, unchanging truths.
And for Sinclair, there's a point of connection closer to home. The work of Dylan Thomas, the man whose inspiration turned Robert Zimmerman into Bob Dylan, was intricately woven into Sinclair's Welsh childhood. "Ginsberg was very drawn to the apocalyptic, deep rumbling resonance of Dylan Thomas," he says, "and I knew its relationship to chapel sermonising and natural Welsh speech rhythms. I could feel how Thomas's work had been appropriated by the Beats, while knowing the thing itself. And so I took on both."