No Vacancy

The sublime poetry of the motels Martha Davis

And in the darkness/You will hide/Until all mercy's/Been declined/Forever yours/Forever right/Forever and ever/Is the night/Forever still/Their beauty lies/Forever still/All their cries.

—"Schneekin'"

I recently saw a PBS interview of that art-reviewing nun with the bad teeth. She was saying how one shouldn't ask an artist to describe his or her work. Why? Because the artist does not know how that work affects the viewer. What the artist thinks of the piece doesn't matter.

I feel the same way about the Motels' Martha Davis. Her wounded vocals have been compared to Billie Holiday's, but what's always haunted me are her deeply profound lyrics. What good is it ringing Davis up on the road somewhere in Bumfuck to ask her, "So, what were you thinking when you wrote this or that little ditty?"

It doesn't matter what she thinks.

What matters is what the listener gets out of her tunes, which are obviously quite easy to write. Like the Doors' Jim Morrison, Davis just slits open a vein and lets the stuff gush out.

I'd never seen such a night/The air was still/The moon was bright/The shore glistened/As Johnny and I listened/To the waves as they crashed on the rocks/Who would have thought/Who would have known/That night I'd leave/The beach alone.

—"Tragic Surf"

Fuck me, but that chick can write. She's a female Elvis Costello. Or Costello is a male Martha Davis. Whatever. All I know is when those lyrics are accompanied by Davis' smoky, genuinely melancholy voice, her dominatrix-like command of the stage and her band's hypnotic soundtrack, you've got a helluva show. The latest incarnation of the Motels plays the Coach House on Thursday, Oct. 12.

They dance all night at Lost Café/Gina like it very good that way/Moonbeams/Air full of light/Perfumed pleasure/Scent the night/And the hopeful young/Caress with care/The girl, the boy/And the night that's theirs.

—"Apocalypso"

You wanna make someone who witnessed the original Los Angeles punk scene feel old? Tell him or her that Davis' daughters are 32 and 34. The Motels honed their act at the Masque—which was literally an underground club —alongside then-pubescent punkers X and the Go-Go's. Before long, Davis and her band mates were knocking around what Frank Zappa referred to as the "cesspools of enjoyment" up and down the Strip. They eventually landed as the house band at Madame Wong's in Chinatown.

If nothing else, the Motels stood out. They weren't punk enough to be punks, and they didn't suck enough to be part of the whole Eagles/California-sound thing. When the Knack's "My Sharona" took over the airwaves in 1979, labels scoured LA's clubs for the next big new wave thing. The Motels were waiting.

Capitol signed them on Mother's Day, 1979. Electronic keyboards—a staple of every fucking band on KROQ at the time—actually sounded okay when layered beneath Davis' lilting alto. Unlike chirping female contemporaries—Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons immediately comes to mind—Davis' only affectation was a cool, Patsy Kline-like yodel (as demonstrated when she sings, "only the lone-ah-leeee can play").

But damn if it wasn't hard admitting you were a fan at a time when your punk overlords had declared war on bands with electronic keyboards. You thanked God for wraparound shades whenever you entered a Motels concert.

Like a statue he stood there/His shadow filled the room/The curtains became restless/Witness the moon/Hypnotized by pleasure/He lit up through his madness/With his right hand he undressed her/With his left hand the knife/Take me back I pray/Hide me from the day/Evening haunts this place/'Cause who . . ./Who could resist that face?

—"Who Could Resist That Face?"

Back in the day, no less than the Los Angeles Times' Robert Hilburn slobbered over Martha Davis as only he can (think Springsteen, Dylan and U2), writing that she was "arguably the most charismatic female performer in rock" and that she "could become one of the most influential female performers in rock." Unfortunately, as happens to most bands fed through the LA music meat grinder, the Motels were overtenderized for mainstream consumption. The last two of their six albums for Capitol tanked.

Davis' professional troubles coupled with some heavy shit in her personal life (single motherhood, a cancer scare and lingering scars from her mother's suicide) caused her to break up the band in 1987 and get herself out of her contract with Capitol.

Mama hasn't been sleepin' well at all/As she lies stretched out in the hall/Waiting for him to . . ./Call us please someday/At least you could explain/Call us please someday/I never knew mercy could feel this way.

—"Mission of Mercy"

Martha Davis never lived up to the most-important-woman-in-rock hype. Staying out of the biz for 10 years certainly didn't help. But with the help of what she called a "chakra-rooter," she was able to chase her inner demons away a few years ago.

She returned to the music scene in the late '90s with various bands, including the grungy Martha Davis Jr., but resisted all efforts to get her to join the '80s-rock revival packages. She's got other plans. DreamWorks recently bought the Motels' catalog with plans to rerelease the material—a lot of which is hard to find on CD. Meanwhile, Davis revived the Motels' name, but only after convincing herself that her current lineup was worthy of it. Besides her old songs, which she performs gladly, the 49-year-old grandmother is eager to get new material she's been working on before audiences—and hopefully a new record label.

Gazing from locked windows/Pacing miles of halls/Chasing after fantasies/Nothing there at all/I walk in different rhythm/I speak in different tongue.

—"Killing Time"

THE MOTELS PERFORM WITH HAYESLAND AND ELVIS & SWEETIEPIE AT THE COACH HOUSE, 33157 CAMINO CAPISTRANO, SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, (949) 496-8927. THURS., OCT. 12, 8 P.M. $21.50.

 
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