Only The Lonely Can Play
Updated: Mar 22, 2018
Oh the 80's-- The illustrious 80's. That decade of overly sincere movie rock anthems, acid wash, and Gordon Gekko greed. I became a teenager in the 80's. I lost my virginity in the 80's. I got drunk and stoned for the first time in the 80's. Wrote my first song. First appeared on stage. Moved to California, got my first job, cultivated some big dreams, made some of my biggest mistakes, and got really passionate about life in the 80's. I also for the first time became equally depressed in the 80's. The 1980's was my decade to begin myself.
And so it's really been no huge surprise that after writing and recording four albums, each honoring different musical influences and childhood memories, I would land back on roughly -- 1981. This most recent rock project I've been swimming around in for well over 18 months now sits squarely in the Cars/Pretenders/Tom Petty sound bin. And as of very recently- I've had to add another name to that list of icons since I've realized she's clearly another early 80's influence of mine: The Motels. Or, more specifically, Martha Davis of The Motels.
I've been lucky. These last few months I've gotten to work with a handful of the musicians who make up the latest incarnation of her band. Martha and The Motels are still very much writing and recording. She is still kicking at the ripe old age of 60 something-- hip, happening grandmother that she is. Her lead guitarist and two of her drummers have been working with me on the second half of this molasses-moving record of mine. And I certainly tip my hat to these men. Because without them in my current musical world, I don't think I would have landed so heavily upon how much Martha and her music now resonate to me- and to this particular project of mine.
The thing is this. While immersing myself in Motels material I'd only been vaguely hip to back in my early teens, I began to listen in a different way. As the light bulb got turned on inside of me for Chrissie Hynde and Patti Smith rather late in the game, so it illuminated for Martha as well. At the behest of my newest musician peers, I dug deep and got to experience in all their grainy detail many key YouTube moments from old live Motels shows. Martha slightly drunk and drugged, cigarette dangling from her lip..sometimes guitar in hand..sometimes whiskey glass- crooning her sultry, boozy melodies atop her band's sloshy synth pads and melancholy guitar lines.
Suddenly I discovered another famed kindred spirit in my sand box. And I sprouted a wee bit of a crush on the sloppy-haired, silken-bloused rock n roll harlot queen that Martha embodied. I started to understand that this was yet another influential diva for me to dive into. I studied the way her mouth wrapped around her words. Like watching Chrissie navigate her sassy way through the veil of her raven bangs, I was immediately struck by Martha's blousy way of holding everything- barely- together and how vulnerable and beautiful and tawdry it all looked. How fucking hard core rock and roll.
So needless to say, when my co-producer/engineer Kevin (Martha's ex-drummer) invited me to see the Motels headlining the auspicious 50th Anniversary of the Whiskey A Go Go, I was thrilled. Thrilled like I should have been as a teenager to go see my idols in person- which as a teenager, I didn't do. Perhaps making up for lost time, I am just now truly cultivating the deepest wounded teenage punk Holly in her 40's. The Holly who should have slipped out more often in the middle of the night to go see local punk rock bands at Chicago's Cubby Bear. The Holly who perhaps would have been better off spending less time cultivating her 4.0 GPA in high school, and more time cultivating her power chords on the electric guitar.
Anyway. No time like the present- as Martha Davis was to remind me late night in mid January 2014, at The Whiskey. No time like now. To be here and present and working any old yearning teenage version of myself, or wise old crone, or sultry mid twenties version. No time like now to bring them all to bear in one big swell of dusky pink and blue stage lighting. And of course, since it was the Whiskey, and this was the Motels, after all-- lots and lots of smoke machines.
But I'm jumping ahead. Because the night began for me by picking up my pal Kevin, and driving through eerily empty Sunday night streets. After digging valid CA ID out of my wallet (really?) and getting branded on BOTH hands with the nearly indelible club stamps, we saunter in. Brief look around the first floor indicates that one of the various opener bands is still roundly in mid-set, so we make our way up the smokily lit stairwell toward the backstage entrance door.
I am struck right away by two things. Number one, remembering the last time I was in this joint, George Bush the First was president. And number two, how little had changed since that time. The decor looked literally the same- and surprisingly well-preserved. Not so the overly tanned and wrinkly retired strippers mingling with the lusty Jagermeister girls clad in metal studded Playboy bunny negligees. Grizzled rock stars with more tattoo than skin had arms slung in equal amounts around both these groups of women. There was a fair amount of high-fiving, fist pumping and tossing back shots of amber liquid. It was almost like the 90's and following decade of Naught were a mere flimsy dream, and we were all back here safe and sound somewhere around 1987.
I am immediately and dizzingly filled with nostalgia and am in desperate need of an alcoholic beverage. Luckily, that is not far away, for Kevin and I are now headed up the smaller, dingier set of stairs to the Motels' green room where beer, wine and liquor of all sorts lays casually about on every small table, guitar case and faded velveteen armchair. Here, my friends, is where the Flag of the United States of Cigarettes still proudly flies. Backstage in an aging rock star's green room- the air may be ripe with sprayable freshener, but smoke still pours from the mouths of most every soul in the place. I hug the wall a bit- clutching my newest friend in the form of a plastic glass filled to the brim with wine.
I sort of don't want to catch anyone's eye- preferring to take in the scene as a whole like the proverbial fly on the wall. A casual observer. Martha is holding court in the corner over there- clad in a long black coat...some sort of a silk purplish scarf around her neck, black bowler on her head. I can't really tell what she's talking about but she has the air of a warm matronly presence mixed with a little cougar. Her hair is still dyed jet black, her eye makeup and false lashes still gilding her face...though I do notice Martha's skin moves a bit like fine tissue paper- especially around her eyes and mouth when she offers up her engaging smiles. She reminds me of the sexier rock version of what my own grandmother looked like in her late 50's.
My reverie breaks, and after a briefly awkward interaction between myself and some notorious early 90's porn star, a guy in a headset lifts his finger and those of us not in the band whisk ourselves back down the dingy fluorescent lit stairwell to the second story of the Whisky. Which is now packed with even more tattooed and aging rocker couples. So we go further downstairs- try to squeeze into a slot at the back of the mass of folks who make up the mosh pit on the dance floor. The drummer's lovely artist girlfriend who looks (as all drummer's girlfriends should) like an ex-super model appearing effortlessly beautiful in nothing more than a raggedy Tshirt, jeans and dusty boots...she has wisely brought earplugs for all those in her immediate vicinity. I stuff these little waxy globules in my ears.
The band makes their way onstage after a sweet but lumpy introduction by (also beautifully preserved) Rosanna Arquette and another brunette writer/ actress clad in her rockery best whom I feel I should recognize but don't.... I am shooed away repeatedly by brawny nightclub bouncers who are apparently trying to maintain a little pathway in the back of the audience for the cameras that will be moving through the crowd, filming the event. Desperately trying to find a spot where I can place my five foot eleven inch frame and not be continually poked in the back by another testosterone enhanced human being in a tank top, I make my way back to the first floor bar. Ah. Space back here. Can't see so well, but that's ok. It's the Whiskey after all- not the Forum.
The lights come up, the smoke starts whirling, and boom- Martha's on. Band is rolling. Keyboard guy intently plunking his array of jazz-esque 4ths and 7ths. The lead guitar player begins a repeatedly impressive headbanging in time to his own fierce and precise licks. Drummer is hitting those skins HARD. Martha's old sax guy is on stage too- already in full swing. You'd never know he wasn't a contemporary of the rest of the band- his energy is high and strong. The bass player has a perfect greasy slink to his demeanor. Slightly apart and yet totally connected at the same time. The band is rocking. They sound great.
And then she starts singing. And it's like- for the second time tonight- I am fully transported back to the 80's. If I close my eyes, I swear I would be back here in '80 or '81- years before I actually made my trek out west- attending an early Motels gig in support of their first record. Martha's voice sounds amazingly the same. Same pout and lilt. Same throaty gush to it. Unlike many of her contemporaries, say Joni Mitchell or Sinead O'Connor, whose voices have dropped significantly since their early heydays, Martha Davis' voice sounds almost better than it did when she first began.
But then opening my eyes is really even more fun. Because throughout the show I am visually reminded that here is a woman who has kept significant parts of herself going strong- strong enough to strut them around on stage like this. But it is also hard to keep completely at bay the fact that she is in her mid SIXTIES. Her body is mostly covered by a scarf and coat. Her face softened by her black bowler hat. At some point in the show, a young man in the audience (obviously a friend) yells at Martha to "Take off yer top!" She chortles, "Honey- do you know this is my birthday? And more importantly- do you know WHAT birthday this is?"
What is undeniable is that regardless of her age- Martha Davis is a rock star. Timeless and true, balls to the wall, guts out there in her voice, her vulnerability and power raging simultaneously. She was Woman Incarnate for these moments. Whether strumming madly on her Gibson, or reaching out her arms into the smoky air hovering above us, her audience, Martha was continually inviting you into her world. Full of steamy one night stands. Of lusty longing and pathetic moping, she was beckoning you to join like a friend and a lover. Reminding you that we're all merely players in a game rigged against us. We all have desires unmet desires and sit home alone on Saturday nights. And that this set of lonely dreams and burning passions aren't the stuff of shame-- No. This is the stuff of expression and showmanship and LIFE.
Martha and her gorgeous aubergine voice throbbing like a ripe bruise, reminded me again how to BRING IT. And that if you're not- what the heck are you doing up on the stage? No room for guilt or apology. No need to ask for permission, which you can only give to yourself anyway. Martha's performance and complete presence for every second of it reminded me that in order to truly honor the forces that work in your favor, enabling you to get up there as an artist, one must be also willing to inhabit it fully. You bring it all. And that way each moment becomes transportational for the audience as well as the artist. This is community. This is art.
Later on after the show was over. After the second standing ovation finally brought "Only the Lonely" to our ravenous ears-- Kevin and I wearily climbed the stairs yet one more time to see the guys and say congratulations to Martha. She enveloped him in her arms- high on the drug of the set. A bit steamy from the stage lights. Kevin told me he's been to her 17 acre ranch in Oregon and she's cooked him and the other band members a huge turkey dinner. You could see that in the way she hugged him- a little bit like a son, a little like a friend. But also- there was something else in her embrace. This band of young men that surround her now- as they did back when she was a younger woman- are a mark of her persona. She needs the beautiful boys around her as any aging siren would. They keep her vivacious and young.
And then her attention turned to me. The truly lone stranger in the green room that night. Known only vaguely by one or two associate musicians-- Martha turned toward me as Kevin made our brief introduction. "Martha- this is my friend Holly. I'm working on her album." And I looked at her fully enrapt and with nothing much else to say - uttered my sincerest "Thank you so much Martha. Just-- thank you for tonight. It was spectacular. You were amazing." She gathered my face in her hands and planted an enormous fleshy kiss on my lips. If it had been a graphic novel there would have been an "Mmmwah!" in big red and white print in the corner of the frame. I don't know how drunk she might have been- but I didn't care. I myself was not anywhere near sober. But still it was a sweet sort of innocent moment. Iconic Grandmama Rocker Bear kisses lesser known, but no lesser warm and furry younger Mama Bear...acknowledging their kindred path. Even if blithely fueled by red wine and bourbon.
I drove back to the westside of Los Angeles that night riding on a weirdly blissful cloud of calm. Again- like a teenager would having just spent backstage moments with his or her idol. Martha has only recently become one of my deepest muses- though in truth- as mentioned before I have only recently truly become awash in my true teenage fan self.
Days passed as I spent more and more time gleefully alone in my little office- hours on the guitar. Bits and pieces of songs swirling around in my head. Some of them actually clung to the edges and are now recorded demos. Fodder for the next session with Kevin and those Motels members Martha and I share.
I have her truly to thank for the inspiration. And for the cheap red wine. And glorious night of witnessing a flesh and blood Diva of the Rock and Roll Stage.