Checking in at the Martha Davis Memory Motel
"I'd sell my soul," she once sang, "for total control." While those very words often returned to haunt her, Martha Davis still knows a thing or two about staying true to your life's calling. Especially when a new retrospective album now arrives to set the record straight.
Enter then the world of Anthologyland, an unusual collection due from Oglio Records on February 6 that charts the course of that unique musical phenomenon called Martha Davis and the Motels. "A lot of stuff that I realize about my career," Davis now recalls, "is that I wasn't really experiencing it as much as I would have liked to. I was on automatic pilot, just getting through it, and now when I hear these tracks again, it's like being in a time machine."
This time machine contains 32 songs, collected in a two-disc package of demos, outtakes, rarities, film soundtrack pieces and unreleased live songs, of which a whopping total of 25 tracks have never been made public before. There's even a brand new song, "Coco and John," which Davis penned about the wedding day of two personal friends, a bonus "hidden" track for her fans that makes this set a very different entity from the previous greatest-hits album No Vacancy: The Best of the Motels, issued by Capitol Records in 1990.
Verily, this new anthology breathes new life into the ongoing legend that made Davis and her band one of the more endearing artifacts of the Eighties L.A. music boom, never mind that the group had officially dissolved on Valentine's Day 1987 after several personnel changes and much business acrimony. In fact, after Davis's own solo album Policy appeared in 1988 and tragically sank without a trace just as quickly, thanks to virtually no marketing help from Capitol, she often faced the tiresome question "Where have you been?" and her terse reply was in itself a classic retort.
"Looking for my sense of humor," she said. "I seem to have lost it somewhere around 1984."
She seems to have regained it now, with this new collection. "A lot of them are demos," she reveals, "which are not things you hear every day. Like, there's a version of 'Suddenly Last Summer' which has me doing a rough vocal. And I can still picture it. It was four in the morning and I'd had way too much to drink. I was exhausted, and I just sounded so wrecked. Some people might say you can't put something like that on a CD, but there's just something so telling about it, you know. Even if it's a terrible vocal, it tells a story of its own."
Some parts of that story aren't too cheerful. Davis had decided to become a full-time musician after her mother had committed suicide, as a testimony to fulfilling her dreams - her mother had left behind a journal documenting the regrets of her life and Davis was determined to leave no room for regret in her own. "I hadn't realized till much later that all through those years of trying to get lost in rock 'n' roll that I was still dealing with her death," she now says. "And I spent eight years trying to be rock star while I was bringing up my two kids. It wasn't a pretty thing. I still look back and go, 'What the hell was all that about!'"
Sifting through the debris of those years wasn't easy, but Davis enlisted the expertise of Cheryl Pawelski, director of A&R at Capitol/EMI's Special Markets and Catalog division, who chose many of the songs and cleared copyright permissions with many of the album's "guest artists," including Sly Stone, Ivan Neville, Bernie Taupin and Giorgio Moroder. The latter's participation is particularly interesting, because Davis had originally cut a demo for his song "Take My Breath Away," which later became a huge hit for Terri Nunn and the synth-pop band Berlin.
Nunn's version, and not Davis's, was chosen to propel the soundtrack for a film, an airplane flick called Top Gun, starring some dude named Tom Cruise. "For whatever reason, they chose hers for the movie. It was one of those things," Davis muses philosophically. "Who knows how it would have affected anything?"
Her version of that song now sees light of day here, as does some real gems of great value to Motels fans. Like a version of the band's hit "Only the Lonely," which was recorded for Apocalypso, the band's unreleased third album - "The record company heard it and they hated it and refused to release it," Davis wistfully recalls - and, more poignantly, there's also a demo from 1975 called "Everyday Star" that features Davis with her original band under its original name, the Warfield Foxes, featuring original bassist Lisa Brenneis. After Brenneis left, the first of many personnel changes, the band became the Angels of Mercy before becoming the Motels, a name prosaically inspired by all the seedy lodgings lining Santa Monica Boulevard.
"It was my first band and it was the first outlet I had for my art," Davis explains. "There's no fire that burns like that. It's like discovering sex in your adolescence, like, 'Hey, this is very good, you know!' Even though it's traumatic and you sweat everything twice as bad. When you're in your early 20's and in your first band, everything is so important."
Equally important to her were unique collaborations with some folks she'd long admired, like Bernie Taupin (with whom she co-wrote a song, "Mystery DJ") and Sly Stone (with whom she recorded the Joan Armatrading song "Love and Devotion," found also on the Soul Man film soundtrack). "I'm a Bay Area girl and Sly's from the Bay Area too, and I loved R&B so much when I was growing up," she says. "So I was quite awestruck when I was asked to do this duet. But we recorded our parts separately. Thanks to the miracle of modern recording, we sound like we're in the same room but we've never even met, not even till this day."
There's even a demo of Willie Nelson's "Crazy," recorded in Davis's own garage, her personal homage to Patsy Cline. And, in homage to her fans, Davis is touring again, with sporadic dates starting February 10 in Orlando, Florida, leading to a nation-wide tour in the spring and then Australia in May. This version of the Motels features Mick Taras (guitar), David Sutton (bass), Nick Le Mieux (keyboards) and Fritz Lewak (drums). Davis is hatching the whole scheme from her current home in a small town in Ventura County, California, that's a far cry from her former base in Los Angeles.
"I lived in Encino for 14 years," she says, "and I don't need to live there anymore." Most of the past year has been filled with creating the new anthology album, for which she conceptualized the artwork package and even wrote the liner notes. "The whole kit and caboodle," she quips, ever the relentless rhymer, "came from my doodle."
February 6, 2001
by Gerrie Lim