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Flame Dancer: Martha Davis and the 'Twisted Pop' of the Motels

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Wednesday, Sep 21, 2011

"The time we were together"

Though certain tracks from Apocalypso had appeared as bonus tracks on a re-issue of All Four One and the Motels’ 2001 Anthologyland collection, most of the album had been dormant for 30 years. Released as both a CD with bonus demos and a limited edition LP with orange vinyl, Apocalypso captures the Motels at their musical peak, specializing in what Marty Jourard affectionately calls “Twisted Pop”.


Apocalypso immediately grips with “Art Fails” and “Tragic Surf”, a pair of songs that epitomize the writing partnership Martha Davis shared with Tim McGovern. “I actually fell in love with that guy because of his musicality”, Davis shares. “I really loved this rawness and craziness. The other part that went along with it was that it didn’t work out for us so well. Musically, it was really fun, but there’s no reason to put up with situations that are at all toxic when there’s great talent that is so gifted and is sweet as the day is long.” Though McGovern had left the band by the time All Four One was recorded, he still appears on that album since “Tragic Surf” was the only song from Apocalypso that was not re-recorded. How did it escape unscathed? “‘Tragic Surf’ seemed right for what it was,” says Davis. “I’ve always loved [Ray Peterson’s] ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’, so it’s the surf version of ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’.”


Whether it’s the slyly disquieting “Schneekin’”, the smokey ambience of “Lost But Not Forgotten”, or the sparse theatricality of “Sweet Destiny”, the remaining eight tracks attest to the range of Davis’ own songwriting style. Culled from her observations and personal experience, “So L.A.” is a starkly illustrated post card of the city’s tainted allure. “Los Angeles is pretty hardcore,” Davis says. “Unlike New York where you just get told to ‘Fuck off’, in L.A. it’s, ‘Oh, how great to see you!’—knife in the back, knife in the back, twist it, twist it. It’s sort of a factory where they take people and grind them up. It can happen anywhere, but L.A. is such a special place.”


Elsewhere, the droll wordplay of “Apocalypso” translates to a brilliant lyrical and musical passage. Rather than surrender to an impending inferno, the song’s characters dance into the night upon a flicker of hope. The inspiration behind the album’s title track typifies the organic nature of Davis’ songwriting process. She explains, “I never sit down every day and try to write a song. It’s not like they come on any regular basis and they usually come in herds. Art is influenced by air, by touch, by everything. Whatever inspiration will get me, I’ll sit down and different things will come from it. A flock of songs will come in.” Davis cites the Red Frog album as a recent example where such a flock produced no less than 10 songs in one day.


Davis credits a vampire for prompting the exotic qualities of “Who Could Resist That Face” on Apocalypso. “I had just seen Nosferatu [the 1979 version] with Klaus Kinski”, she remembers, “and I was talking about his face! No matter what you look like as a vampire, there’s something sort of sexy about you. You’re going to seduce somebody, even if you look like that.”


The bonus tracks on the CD edition of Apocalypso highlight the writing talents of Marty Jourard on the tango-tinged “Fiasco” and bassist Michael Goodroe on “Don’t You Remember” and “Obvioso”. Even in four-track demo form, the potency of each song makes them more than mere footnotes in the Apocalypso story. Davis is especially partial to the unearthed Goodroe cuts. “They’re two of my favorite songs,” she enthuses. “Goodroe’s minimalism is beyond anyone’s I’ve ever seen. The lyrics to ‘Don’t You Remember’ are so profound and so wonderful. They’re so many people you know like that—the regret, the I-could’ve, I-should’ve. My mother’s suicide was from that whole emptiness that comes from not getting up and going for it.”


Of course, there’s one title on Apocalypso that’s familiar to anyone who was within earshot of Top 40 radio in 1982, “Only the Lonely”. While the re-recorded, hit single version on All Four One has certainly outlived the trappings of the era, the Apocalypso version accentuates the tune’s timeless melody. Both Davis’ voice and Jourard’s sax solo are just as appealing and powerful in the original incarnation of the song. Even the ubiquity of “Only the Lonely” has not curbed Davis from gleaning new insights about it over the years. “I sat in at a gay pride in Portland and just did that song”, she recalls. “I’ve always had a great gay following. I always figured it was because I’m so dramatic and the shenanigans onstage but I started singing the lyrics: ‘We walk the loneliest mile . . .’ It’s a goddamn gay anthem is what it is! It’s all about alienation and I write a lot about that. That was a wonderful epiphany and a great moment.” To think Capitol didn’t hear a hit single on Apocalypso . . .


“It makes me feel good now”


On the first night of the Apocalypso tour in Philadelphia, Martha Davis is concerned. “I hope people can take this.” She’s referring to the set list and has taken to YouTube and the Motels Facebook page to warn audiences in advance that, though hits will be played, the concert will revolve around Apocalypso, both in repertoire and mood. “It’s going to start off with a song called ‘All the Rage’, which is off the This album,” Davis reveals. “My first line is, ‘I was born the day the earth died and I never met my mother’. Basically in my head, I’m seeing (the set) like one of those old movies where they show you the ending first. All of the songs are kind of how we got there and then we end with ‘Apocalypso’.”


Davis needn’t worry. The audience enthusiastically embraces the Apocalypso material. Demo songs like “Obvioso” and “Don’t You Remember” are total revelations onstage. “Before we got polished by the record company, this is what we were,” Davis tells the crowd after a particularly mesmerizing performance of Jourard’s “Fiasco”. In fact, the voltaic energy exhibited during “Mission of Mercy” nearly supplants both the Apocalypso and All Four One versions of the song.  As promised, the hits are played during a five-song encore.


All throughout, the tightness of the band belies the fact that they’ve only had two days of rehearsal to prepare the new set. Marty Jourard has joined the Motels on sax and keys for the first round of Apocalypso dates. Ironically, one of the original members is now the new guy. “We have Marty, which is fantastic,” exclaims Davis. “Everybody loves him.” The band is rounded out by Clint Walsh on guitar, Nicholas Johns on keyboards, Brady Willis on bass, and Tig Moore on drums. “These guys are young and talented,” Davis continues. “They’re sweet. They’re the nicest guys in the world. No egos, no trips. We have the best time.” Swaying dreamily to Jourard’s sax solo on “Lost But Not Forgotten” and stridently strumming her guitar on “Art Fails”, Martha Davis is clearly enjoying the return to Apocalypso.


Davis remains philosophical about periods like the recording of Apocalypso that challenged her resolve. Having long ago made peace with the past, her contentment at 60 years old stems from placing the preceding 30 years in perspective. “Life can be real shitty and a lot of real bad things can happen,” she says. “When those things happen, everyone’s allowed to wallow for a little bit but you also have to open your eyes because it’s during those times that all of the information comes. All of the big lessons come through the trials. I have many theories but one of my theories is—and I can’t think of anything that doesn’t do this—everything breathes, everything expands, everything contracts. It’s nothing to be afraid of. The worst thing that we can do is be overcome by fear.” Ever fearless, Martha Davis can tame even the most apocalyptic of flames.


 


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As far as lost albums go, Apocalypso may not exactly be Smile, but it ain’t no Chinese Democracy, either.
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What's a red frog doing in Martha Davis's basement? Waiting for his record debut, naturally. On the eve of releasing her children's album, concurrent with launching a T-shirt line, recording a jazz record, producing a podcast, and digging through the vaults of the Motels, Martha Davis is primed for the year of the Metal Tiger.
17 Jan 2010
You'll enjoy your extended stay with the Motels on UK reissue of All Four One and Little Robbers.
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