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Joe Davis was born in 1970 in Pinehurst, a small mining town in the northernmost reaches of Idaho's panhandle, a region more famous for its infusion of survivalists and neo-Nazis than potatoes. He grew up there as any precocious tyke would, breathing Pinehurst air, drinking Pinehurst ground water, kicking up Pinehurst dust. But Davis had a lot of health problems. The asthma attacks could be easily explained away—kids get that; it happens—but not the stunted growth or the severe food allergies that pretty much limited his diet to lima beans, Tums and, if he was lucky, juice. Doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong with the boy; they thought his ailments might be tied to a heart condition (which, after many tests, turned out not to be true). Davis suffered various other illnesses until he was 5, when he and the family moved south to big-city Boise. As he got older, a lot of the childhood maladies faded away, though the asthma and poor blood circulation always remained. By his 20s, Davis had settled in Portland, Oregon. And—like any precocious guy in his 20s—he took up the guitar and started to write songs, with the idea of maybe putting a band together. Then his phone started ringing.Listen to: Pinehurst Kids
Download the RealPlayer FREE! "I was getting all these calls from this government-sponsored medical-research group," says Davis. "When they finally got ahold of me, they were pretty relentless. They wanted to set up a time so they could ask me three hours' worth of questions, this huge survey. That's when I found out that the Sunshine Mining Company had gone bankrupt."
Sunshine was a silver mine that loomed large over the Pinehurst of Davis' youth. Years after Davis left, the family that owned the mine—and got rich off it—sold it and moved to Washington, leaving the town and its citizens a poisonous legacy: lead. It turned out that lead had been everywhere in Pinehurst. In the air. In the water. In the dirt. Black slag from the mine had even been used to fill the sand traps at the town golf course.
After talking to the government health people, Davis went in for tests, where he discovered that the amount of lead in his bones was three times the normal amount.
Not surprisingly, he blames all of his early and current health problems on Sunshine Mining's toxic wastes. "The lead was all over," Davis says, in a tone that sounds like he's still quite pissed-off about the entire ordeal—and rightly so. "They said that they were even going to have to replace everybody's yards because they didn't want all the kids who are living there now to be playing in the dirt. We don't really know if there will be any long-term effects or anything. It's pretty fucked. The whole town was like a guinea pig, in a way, which is why they're keeping such close tabs on the kids who grew up there."
The ones the government can locate, anyway—it hasn't been able to track down everyone. Davis, now 28, has completely lost contact with the few friends he remembers. There's no reason to think he won't live a long, reasonably healthy life, save for the asthma medication he has to take regularly. But even if he were terminal, you get the feeling that Davis probably would have put a band together anyway, which is what he did: the Pinehurst Kids, which is named after his comrades in toxic arms.
Which is where "Johnny Mercer," a song off the Pinehurst Kids' excellent 1997 Minnesota Hotel CD, comes in. "Johnny Mercer was actually a friend I grew up next door to," Davis says. "The investigators asked me if I knew where he was, but I didn't know—I was just 5 years old at the time we moved. He might have all this stuff inside him, and he may not know anything about it." It's a sad, sentimental sigh of a tune, in which Davis sounds like he not only genuinely wants to warn his old neighborhood playmate about a potential threat to his well-being, but also maybe just wants to hang out again like they did back in the day: "Johnny Mercer, where are you?/Now I'm going to the moon/Will we ever meet again?/ Thanks for coming to my playground."
Davis writes and sings all the trio's songs, and the tunes on Minnesota Hotel include lines that you'd think might allude to his Pinehurst troubles: "I eat time like a parking meter/You know death/I'm gonna cheat her"; "This town is over for me"; "They tell me it's a new day/And another chance to pray." But Davis says his only other real reference is on "Switch," where he spookily equates a glass of Pinehurst water with a loaded pistol.
But the Pinehurst Kids aren't all thatdreary. Other Davis songs off the Hotel disc are about such fluffier, brighter fare as his cat, Gatsby. Another is about Davis' incessant fan-boy worship for Jodie Foster (but he's not so obsessive that he wants to flip out and be a junior John Hinckley or anything). And a band that recorded "How Much More" for a Go-Go's tribute album—no, really—can't be too morose. And they're not. But Davis' vocals often sound desperate, as if he laid down each track like he only had one chance to nail it, or like he's struggling with time, straining to make every pitch-shift count.