Tuesday, April 12, 2005

John Davis: A New Suit for the Man in Superdrag

This is a new article for The Mars Hill Review (http://www.marshillreview.com)

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His earliest musical memories involve automobiles -- little Deuce Coupes, classic Chevy 409 engines, and, of course, daddy’s T-Bird, which provided the wheels to never-ending fun, fun, fun. Those early Beach Boys songs are embedded deep in John Davis’s memory, and profoundly influenced the music Davis made with his former band Superdrag. And so it is only fitting that Davis would experience his spiritual epiphany, his “road to Damascus” blinding light, when he was behind the wheel of a car.

“I was barreling down the Interstate at 80 miles per hour,” Davis says. “I was on my way to buy a new suit for my wedding. And believe me, Jesus was the furthest thing from my mind. I had absolutely no intention of changing anything about my life. I can’t explain it rationally. How do you ever explain this stuff in a way that makes sense? But I started feeling uncomfortable. And then I broke out into a cold sweat. It was terrible. And it was terrible in ways that went way beyond the physical. It was like I was staring at my life, and all I saw was a yawning black hole. So I started praying, crying out for help. I mean, I was literally cruising down the highway, yelling at the top of my lungs, just telling God that I was tired and sick, that I couldn’t live like this. And then it was like a cool breeze washed over me. I just knew. I can’t explain it in any way other than that. But sometimes you just know that you know. And it was like God was telling me, ‘I’m here now, so what are you going to do with me?’”

“That was it,” John Davis says. “God gave me a new set of clothes, new heavenly robes before I ever made it to that store for my tuxedo. That was a little more than three years ago. I was a raging, out-of-control alcoholic up until that moment. And I haven’t had a drop of alcohol since that day. God delivered me from the crushing need to kill myself.”

And now he wants to sing about it. Davis’s self-titled debut solo album, recently released on Rambler Records, is a musical chronicle of a changed life. The music will sound instantly familiar and striking to anyone who followed Davis’s career with Superdrag, and the basic building blocks – Beatlesque power pop (particularly as filtered through the loose raggedness of Big Star and The Replacements), intricately layered Brian Wilson song structures and Beach Boys chorales, indelible choruses and hooks – will sound reassuringly the same. But the message is something altogether different.

In a world where many Christian rock artists long to cross over to the world of MTV and Top 40 singles on Clear Channel radio stations, John Davis did a U-turn on the highway of life. After years of mainstream success and MTV airplay, now all he wants to do is sing about Jesus.

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“I don’t feel any sense of entitlement for anybody to listen to anything I have to say,” Davis states matter-of-factly. “I’m not trying to shove anything down anybody’s throats. I’m just telling my story. And if it resonates with some people, then great.”

The story dates back to a childhood spent in Knoxville, Tennessee, and to a conservative Christian upbringing that found John Davis in church three nights a week.

“The church was literally in our back yard,” he says. “We walked out behind my house, and we were there. My dad was a deacon, and held other offices in the church at various times. We were very, very involved. And I heard the gospel message clearly. It wasn’t like this was new to me.” But adolescence ushered in the usual period of rebellion and questioning. Rock ‘n roll only accelerated the process.

Davis fronted a number of local bands before forming Superdrag in the early 1990s. The band’s 1995 debut album Regretfully Yours was the stuff of rock ‘n roll legends. The first single “Sucked Out” was a major hit, a jolt of pure power pop adrenaline that crossed over from alternative stations to mainstream radio and garnered airplay on MTV. The non-album track “Alright” had the good fortune to end up on the soundtrack to the wildly popular Clueless, and hundreds of thousands of music fans were exposed to a new band thanks to the breakout success of the movie. In an era when grunge-still ruled the airwaves and dominated the musical landscape, Davis’s tightly constructed songs and sure pop sensibilities marked Superdrag as the Next Big Thing. Along with like-minded musicians such as Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub, Weezer, and The Posies, they had rediscovered melody and welded it to a sturdy foundation of raw, punkish power chords and a backbeat. The future seemed limitless.

But Regretfully Yours turned out to be the commercial high point. Subsequent albums were well received critically, but suffered from a lack of label support. Months of constant touring sapped the energy and patience of the band, but that didn’t stop John Davis from continued experimentation, musical and otherwise. “I’m Expanding My Mind,” a track from 1998’s Head Trip In Every Key, showed off both a late-sixties Brian Wilson obsession and a preoccupation with psychedelia in all its manifestations.

“It’s part of the rock ‘n roll lifestyle,” Davis explains. “It’s that whole ridiculous, romantic notion that self-destruction is part of the job description. Hank Williams did it. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin did it. So you have to do it, too. And it’s easy to fall into it. But it sucks the life out of you. Eventually you lose hope.”

It’s a theme that is readily apparent in Superdrag’s music. It is easy to brand it as fashionable cynicism, but in truth it goes much deeper and darker. On “Annetichrist” John Davis sang:

Nothing's cool Nothing matters
I'm jumping off the bridge

It is the sound of the yawning black hole.

“I had talked myself out of the notion of a loving God who cared about individuals,” John Davis says. “And life just got seriously crazy. I’m not saying that there weren’t fun times along the way. I have nothing but love for the guys in Superdrag. I know they care about me, too. And the drugs and the drinking actually work on a certain level, you know? But it got horrible, and it got horrible fairly quickly.”

“The truth is I had no hope; none at all. My grandfather was the greatest guy; one of our biggest fans. He’d come to the shows and he actually liked what we were doing. And when he died a few years ago, it sent me into the worst tailspin. That’s when the drinking really got ugly. By that time I was going through a fifth or more of sour mash whiskey every day. And the drinking got stupider and stupider, and I got more and more depressed. During our last tour, when we were promoting our album Last Call for Vitriol, I would just sit in the van before shows and listen to the saddest country music I could find and guzzle whiskey. I spent a lot of time crying, or wanting to punch somebody, or both. Then I’d go out on stage, hammered out of my mind, and pretend like I was having a wonderful rock ‘n roll time.”

“I had no time for God,” John Davis says. “I never even really thought about God. I figured that the next time my body would enter a church would be when it was inside my coffin. And I figured it wouldn’t take me that long to get there, either.”

Those were the basic ingredients: John Davis, one life out of control, all hope sucked out. And it remained that way until that fateful night on the Interstate.

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John Davis, the album, opens with the hushed piano chords and soaring, plaintive vocals that could only come from one person: Brian Wilson. Okay, two people. But it is genuinely startling to hear how painstakingly and lovingly John Davis has captured the Pet Sounds sonic landscape. “I Hear Your Voice,” the opening track, sounds like a long-lost track from that Beach Boys masterpiece. With echoes of “God Only Knows” and “You Still Believe in Me,” the song is a soul-searching prayer that finds Davis confessing his own spiritual poverty before it builds to a wordless multi-tracked chorale wherein Davis proves that he can imitate Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Carl Wilson equally well. It’s gorgeous and thrilling, and a whole different kind of fun, fun, fun. The Beach Boys homage continues on “Salvation,” the second track, which captures the upbeat, poppier side of Brian Wilson, and recalls mid-sixties Beach Boys hits such as “California Girls” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”

Although there are echoes of sixties and early-seventies musical icons throughout the album (the early Beatles on the impossibly infectious “Me and My Girl,” John Lennon’s more raw and anguished solo work on the bluesy, growling “Have Mercy” and “Tear Me Apart,” Bob Dylan and The Band on “Jesus Gonna Build Me a Home”), Davis still finds room for his own musical imprint. Superdrag fans will recognize the familiar power chords and fuzzed out guitars on the album’s first single “Nothing Gets Me Down” and the cautionary “Too Far Out.” It all sounds fresh and uncalculated. Only on the ballads “The Kind of Heart” and “Lay Your Burden Down” does Davis succumb to the dreaded CCM disease and let the Christian sloganeering overpower the music. It’s the conundrum of every Christian musical artist, and Davis struggles to find the balance.

“It’s hard,” he admits. “On one hand, you want to tell people about Jesus. Jesus changes lives. He changed my life. But there is so much already out there, so many preconceptions that people bring to the table, that it’s impossible to do what I do without offending somebody. I’m going to be perceived as too preachy. Or I’m going to be perceived as watering down the truth. So I try not to worry about it. I’m focused on telling my story. This is what Jesus did for me. Listen, when I was downing a fifth of whiskey a day I could rationalize and make excuses with the best of them. I was doing all right by some standards. They weren’t very high standards, but there you go. But still, I was out there, making rock ‘n roll, and people were paying money to hear me do it. So I understand how the defensive walls can be up. But all I’m here to do is tell people that they matter and that it can be better, and entertain them in the process. It can be a lot better.”

That generosity of spirit is readily apparent on the album’s twelve songs. “Do You Know How Much You’ve Been Loved?,” the concluding track, throws a musical life preserver to those who are drowning in their own self-sufficiency. It shows a John Davis who is characterized by compassion, sensitivity, and understanding. And something else – clear-eyed honesty and vulnerability. Maybe John Davis doesn’t know any better yet; maybe he’s na├»ve enough to think that he can actually continue to be himself and to abstain from the feel-good slogans, but one hopes that the CCM industry doesn’t latch onto him and smooth over the searching and the questions. On “The Kind of Heart,” an otherwise standard-issue Christian ballad, Davis sings, “Sometimes I find myself at a loss for words/When taken at face value, it seems so absurd/To believe in a love that comes on like that.” It’s refreshing in its candor, and unlike so many of the write-by-the-numbers musical Hallmark Cards one hears in CCM, it bears the imprint of a real human being with a beating heart.

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On a bright April afternoon John Davis is on a tour bus, on his way from Pittsburgh to Manhattan, where he will perform at an East Village club called Mercury Lounge later that night. He’s running late, and nothing so far has gone according to plan. The bus has been making suspicious grinding noises that threaten a breakdown, and there is unexpected construction on the highway. It’s the same arduous schedule he’s known for years, the same routine of sheer boredom punctuated by two hours of musical intensity, the same interminable road trip with its trials and temptations. And it’s the kind of moment that would have pushed him over the edge three years ago. But this time everything is different.

“It’s like switching careers without really switching careers,” Davis explains. “Outwardly I’m doing the same things I’ve always done, at least from a musical standpoint. We roll into some town and up to some bar, we set up, and we play rock ‘n roll. At this point we’re not doing the church circuit. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you usually don’t have the same kinds of conversations that I’m able to have right now. I love it when somebody comes up to me after a show and says, ‘Hey man, you’re not drunk. What’s your problem?’ Because that’s when I can tell them my story, and tell them about Jesus.”

The journey is a big part of that story, the long, circuitous sojourn that has taken him from church to rebellion to church, with a thousand detours and side trips along the way. It is a journey that has taken him through the blaring clamor of stardom, or something very much like it, and left him empty. And it is a journey that promises something better in the hushed piano chords that accompany a prayer of repentance and confession.

“Look,” he says. “This is a blessing. To compose songs, to sing them, is the best thing I can do as a human being. If I wasn’t doing this, I honestly have no idea what I would be doing with my life. This is what I do best. So I don’t take any of it for granted. Sure, it’s hard sometimes. It’s hard to be away from my family. But I’m playing with guys who are not only great musically, but who are believers, who are there to support me. I’m doing what I love. And this time I’m doing it for somebody other than me.”

He’s thankful for the opportunity to sing his new songs before an appreciative audience. And he’s thankful for the newfound serenity that is centered on serving God, his wife Wendy, and his infant son Paul.

“He’s named after the apostle,” Davis explains. “And McCartney and Westerberg. And Les Paul, the great guitarist and guitar designer. It all fits together.”

It certainly does; like a puzzle where the missing piece has finally snapped into place. It’s all part of a new life characterized by hope. It has to do with highways that open up to new vistas of the heart. It has to do with old-fashioned rock ‘n roll and a new suit of clothes. And it fits just fine.

3 comments:

John McCollum said...

Wow.

I think I'd like to hear that.

danthress said...

This hits home on a couple of fronts. I used to play with a band called Illyah Kuryahin which was also on Arena Rock, Superdrag's label. I know some of the history.

Reading your piece I was struck by how outward John Davis is with his faith. I read this the same day that I took out a couple of Jesus references on my blog cause it might have offended a couple of my friends who may be reading my blogs. Yeah, I know, Peter. Exactly.

Well done, John Davis. Good for you.

jameson of a gun said...

I loved Superdrag and I bought John Davis' solo album the day it was released. In fact, it's in my car stereo right now. I have all the respect in the world for the man. I am a Christian (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints)and I connect with the album's themes (both spiritual and musical) in a profound way. It makes me wanna break out my copies of Pet Sounds and Plastic Ono Band as well as reaffirming my love for the Scriptures. Davis has crafted a very honest, faith-promoting, candidly joyful record.

p.s. oh, and i must cordially point out that the song "alright" (mentioned above)is actually by superGRASS (also a great band), not davis and co.