Thursday, May 12, 2011

Drinking with the Real Davis

For the record: Davis McAlary is a character, a fiction, a role played superbly by Steve Zahn. Davis Rogan is a real guy. A musician who lives in New Orleans, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of music, is physically huge and very, very funny. He is by another standard, a character.

Last Sunday night after the latest episode of Treme aired to a packed sitting-on-the-floor-silently-during-the-show crowd (seriously, if you'd had to go to the bathroom you'd have been out of luck during the show as the HiHo was wall to wall), Davis Rogan and his band took to the stage. Eventually. Although often the HiHo will empty out almost completely after the Treme viewing, lots of folks stayed to hear Davis. Some appeared to be his friends, others, as he quipped between songs, stayed out of curiousity.

As he and his band, comprised of Jimbo Walsh, Charlie Kohlmeyer and accompanied by Efrem Towns on trumpet, started playing I watched the crowd not sure if they would stay but they did. It wasn't wall to wall anymore, but the people who were there were clearly loving it, and loving him. They played a set, Davis was tossing his new CD to people in the audience, and one woman walked up on the stage to get one from his very hands.

Now, here's where I might be spilling the beans. This guy is a sweetheart, a truly sensitive sweetheart, although I think he covers it well with bluster and manic self-deprecating humor so no one knows. His kindness to the woman who walked up on stage was just the first glimpse of that side of him. He seemed genuinely stunned that it mattered to her that she get straight from him. "Really?" he said as he handed it to her.

After that set, a few left and the rest of us retired to the bar. Davis sat down next to me and I learned a lot. He and Efrem hung out drinking with us and between them I had to listen fast, I know that's a strange term for listening, but the speed with which these two blasted musical information and brass band lore was astonishing. When Efrem ordered a Hennessy, Davis said, "Don't know how that guy drinks that stuff! It's only good for cooking." I asked him if he cooked, and very seriously he said, "Oh yeah. I cook. Kermit barbecues, but I COOK." Efrem backed him up and we tried to talk him into cooking for us.

We talked about his school, his college ("By the way," says he, "do you know who else went to Reed College on the Treme staff? Eric Overmyer.") and I tried to imagine him in Portland as a very young man. He's just so totally OF New Orleans. I asked him what his long term goal was, and although we were already perilously close to being seriously drunk, he very seriously answered, "To make a living playing and writing music." That answer, by the way, was interrupted by the replaying of the Treme episode and the scene where Antoine (Wendell Pierce) walks up to the closed Gigi's. There is music in the background of that scene. Davis interrupted his answer to point at the screen and say, "That's me making money. That's MY music you're hearing."

To talk with Davis Rogan is to get on a roller coaster and you better not be afraid of the apex. Just close your eyes and hang on. Try to follow along, you'll be the better for it. He can switch subjects, answer someone's question, then come back to the original subject all in the blink of an eye.

We started talking about his new CD. I told him the the Louisiana Music Factory had had it prominently displayed the day the Treme cast was there. He looked steadily at me and asked if I'd bought it. No, I hadn't. There was no way to get to it as the store was so crowded, which was true. There was very little possibility of shopping at the Factory that day. His eyes narrowed and he asked if I'd bought his first CD. No. I hadn't. Truth be told I didn't know there was one. Hell, it could have been a construct of the Treme writers. See, that's the part he's having trouble with, some of those constructs. I could see it on his face. I asked if he had a girlfriend. No. He doesn't. Does he really write lyrics on the wall? Yes, he did once but mostly that's a Simon creation. He laughed when I said I had a crush on the Messrs. Pierce and Peters, saying, "Not Michael Huisman?" I told him if I was 25 he'd probably be in the running. Yes, it really is Huisman, Zahn and young India Ennenga we hear playing on the show. I thought it was Davis, but he said no, it's really the actors and that he taught them all. He was proud of that. "Huisman is the best player of the three and a really, really nice guy."

After a couple more drinks (and I dare you to keep up with him--game girl that I am I gave it my best shot) he decided to play another set. There were only a few of us there, but he and the guys played their heart out and we all enjoyed it. I think those of us there felt like they were playing only for us. At one point he talked about tipping the band, so I grabbed the tip bucket and harassed the patrons out of another forty bucks or so. As I put the tip jar down, someone tossed a hundred dollar bill over my shoulder into the bucket. I never saw who did it. While he's asking for tips, he's still giving away CD's. Giving them away. Later he asked me to split the hundred (which he now had changed) into three piles. I failed miserably and it was left to Miss Clawdy to fix the error.

When that set was done, the HiHo crew and the band sat down and, yup, drank some more. Efrem had another only-good-for-cooking cognac and the two of them talked to me about the Dirty Dozen, Uncle Lionel's son (known around town apparently as Stinky), Milton Batiste. Finally they decide to pack it in. Davis had all the CD's in a Treme tote bag, which I frankly coveted. While we were sitting at the bar, he asked Efrem to go get two CD's which he tried to give me. I told him that I'd happily take one, but I wanted to buy it and handed him ten dollars. When I explained that I'm a broke writer and he's a broke musician and we had to help each other out as artists he seemed truly surprised. Then, eyes narrowed again, he said, "You really want that bag though, don't you." I had, in fact, been trying to get that bag, offering to buy it at one point. He got up from the bar and started breaking things down on stage. Suddenly I hear him say, "If you want the bag, help me find my keyboard case." I couldn't find it. Someone on stage asked for a light. That I could provide.

Then I saw Efrem standing next to me with a tiny, jewel-like trumpet. I asked him what on earth that was. "My pocket trumpet," came the reply. He then played a song right in my ear, asked me what I wanted to hear, and I said I'll Fly Away. With the bell of the pocket trumpet five inches from my left ear, he launched into it. I thought that if I became deaf from that tiny trumpet bell but the deafness came after he finished playing that song, it would be okay with me. It was beautiful. Then Davis says, "Here's the bag. Help me load out." I grabbed his piano stool and took it out to his car which looked remarkably like McAlary's only with all its windows intact. "Come on. Get in the car. We're going to Mimi's." I had my bicycle there so I told him I'd meet him, and did. Somewhere through the liquor haze I got home about 4AM.

The next day I listened to his CD. Admittedly I wasn't sure what to expect. I listened, then listened again, then listened again. Once again I was struck by the bluster covering up the sensitivity. The lyrics for The New Ninth Ward are a sardonic look at the sociological changes in New Orleans since the storm. The guy can certainly write, and he's a tremendous observer. His rant on Back in the United States asking for a go-cup in Europe--"Get me a plastic cup and put some ice in it, some ice in it!"--struck a chord with me because when I to into the United States I'm still disconcerted by the no go-cup rule. He does two versions of Rivers of Babylon, with John Boutte and others singing harmony, that are gorgeous. (I particularly liked the Mississippi Dub Mix he tacked on to the end of the CD. He likes experimenting and that experiment was very successful.) In Bones in the Bouillabaise, one of my favorites, it was clear that the man does indeed cook. His humor shines throughout, and while you can absolutely see how Steve Zahn got some of Rogan's speaking cadences down pat, it's somehow different listening to the real Davis on a tangent.

And for anyone, anyone, who wants to interview the Real Davis, I'd suggest you come armed with some questions he's not been asked before or your interview will be merely a re-write of two of his songs. In funny, poignant and sometimes faux arrogant lyrics he answers just about every question that he's no doubt been asked a zillion times. In Fame he calls Jimbo on the phone, saying the "mega-check has arrived" and asking him to have brunch with him consisting of whiskey and sushi. Jimbo's recorded response is, "You've got some maturity issues." Davis says in the song that now "all the girls are returning my phone calls and no one has the guts to tell me I'm lame." (Great guitar solo by Mark Paradis.) In My Every Day he says that yes his house is a little bit messy, asks people to stop asking him, explains that he never sacrificed a chicken on the radio and regarding the Garden District upbringing of McAlary, says he's a Carrollton boy but "it allows the producers a window into a certain facet of New Orleans society" to make McAlary come from money. While clearly ambivalent about his being confused with the McAlary character, he's sometimes amused, sometimes angry, sometimes seemingly amazed by his good fortune, and he puts it all out there. These are intelligent, brave, naked lyrics. The guy has balls, that's for sure.

I didn't go there to interview him. I didn't go there intending to write anything about him. I just went to watch the Treme episode with friends. He didn't ask me to write this and might even be upset that I did, but he was just too interesting not to.

Now, I guess I better find a way to drop that bottle of Makers off to him. I promised I would at the point that he was told "well drinks only for the band." I should be singing Damn You, Sweet Bourbon as I hand it off to him. I think he thinks no one is listening, but I was. And yeah, shhhhh, the guy really is a sweetheart.

NOTE: The Real Davis CD is available at

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