Saturday, August 27, 2011

SIRIUS Radio show postponed due to Hurricane Irene

Sorry to say I will not be on Dave Marsh's SIRIUS radio show tomorrow at 10 am due to the approaching hurricane.
I will be at Bluestockings Cafe (172 Allen St.) Monday night at 7pm for the first extended reading from New Atlantis: Musicians Batle for the Survival of New Orleans.
Thanks to the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars for letting me introduce them with short readings from the book last Wednesday in Fairfield, Connecticut and Thursday in Manhattan. I met a lot of nice people who wanted signed copies of the book or just to chat and I hope those who received cards from me stay in touch. And what a band! All leaders of their own groups, these gentlemen play together as a unit with grace and purpose. A true All-Star aggregation indeed.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Philadelphia Folk Fest exceeds expectations

If someone had told me that all three days at the Philadelphia Folk Festival would feature violent, tornadic thunderstorms and incessant downpours I may well have given it a pass. But the 50th anniversary of this event was an extraordinary weekend of music and fellowship. After attending hundreds of outdoor festivals over the last 40 something years I had forgotten what it felt like to among such a large group of people who'd gathered not for hedonistic purposes but in hope for and service of a better world. The music was inspirational and democratic. Although I heard many demonstrations of instrumental excellence from the likes of Jorma Kaukonen, the Campbell Brothers, Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, David Bromberg, the Battlefield Band and Levon Helm's group, I was just as pleased to hear the amateur musicians who brought goodwill and a healthy attitude to the music they played. Most of all I heard the work of some of America's greatest songwriters played with real purpose. One of the most emotional moments in the festival for me came when a crowd sitting in a driving rainstorm sat under their umbrellas and sang along to the only real National Anthem this country ever deserved, Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," performed by a group of children whose parents were longtime festival goers. The moment repeated a theme that ran through the entire weekend. I kept seeing families who'd come to share this music together -- young people with their toddlers bouncing along beside them; older folks with their teenage kids, who usually were carrying some sort of acoustic instrument; and in a couple of instances three generations of family members who'd come together for the party. This was a case of people who'd been coming to this festival, some for many, many years, bringing their children and grandchildren along to carry on the tradition.
Trombone Shorty once again demonstrated his extraordinary ability to read a crowd and instictively understand what it wanted. The Folk Festers danced to Shorty's funk and applauded his and his band's instrumental prowess but their greatest response was to strong melody and excellent songwriting. For the first time in all the Trombone Shorty shows I've seen the showstopper here was "Show Me Something Beautiful." The crowd loved the song and stood on its collective feet to let Shorty know it. Then when the band kicked into the big finale, "Saints" was not the table setter but the main course. The chorus of voices from the audience singing along to the famous refrain gave me goosebumps. I know some people might regard this cynically, with the jaundiced eye of those who've dealt with too many Bourbon Street tourists looking for cliches, but this crowd response was a pure and heartfelt reaction to a song whose words had real meaning to them.
The festival also managed to shine a spotlight on what is a very strong local folk music scene in Pennsylvania. I was particularly impressed with two local groups, the Celtic-influenced quartet RUNA, which kicked off a spectacular Sunday afternoon set at the Camp Stage during one of the festival's few dry moments; and The Angel Band, which features the wonderful vocalist Alison Paige, who has a side band called AlyCat. Paige sounded like Tracy Nelson belting out a soulful blues during a jam sessions with David Bromberg backing her up. Bromberg, who accomplished the nearly impossible feat of following Trombone Shorty with his big band, was in classic form playing material from his great new album "Use Me" (see my review of this record in Stereophile magazine).
Tom Paxton held the crowd in the palm of his hand as he sang the best song about 9/11 I've heard from anyone and a song about the old days in Greenwich Village at the legendary Sheridan Square watering hole The Lion's Head. I always wanted to have one of my book covers framed on the wall of that venerable pub, where I drank with friends like Morthland, Tosches, Altman and Lester. New Atlantis would have been an appropriate candidate but sadly the Lion's Head is no more. I will, however, console myself with Paxton's observation about nostlagia: "It's OK to look back as long as you don't stare."
The star of the festival from my perspective was 80-year-old David Amram, who participated in a tribute to Phil Ochs, held a spellbinding workshop recalling his days playing with Jack Kerouac, led a lengthy World Music jam, performed his own jazz set which made me realize he influenced Mose Allison rather than the other way around, and finished off the festival by sitting with Levon Helm's outstanding band, which included Larry Campbell on guitar, Steve Bernstein on trumpet and Howard Johnson on tuba. Amram's double pennywhistle solo on "The Weight" at the close of the night was the perfect grace note for the festival.
Amram's best quote: "When they're telling you that the policemen and the firemen are the enemies, going after the Archie Bunkers, you know they've overplayed their hand."

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Dave Malone of the Radiators back in action

I spoke to Dave Malone of the Radiators last month and he told me he had been able to put down his guitar for a couple of weeks for the first time in decades. But after freshening his batteries following the grueling six months of final Radiators shows Malone said he would reveal his plans to get back on the road some time in August. True to his word, Malone's fall schedule came out on the HeatGen list yesterday. As promised, it includes duo gigs with his brother Tommy, in a full band called the Malone Sharks, a couple of gigs with Bonerama and several other configurations.
> 1) Sept 16 San Fran area.... The Malone Brothers (Dave and Tommy)
> acoustic duo house from Jon Hart (Tommys' Birthday)
> 2) Sept 17 San Francisco...The Boom Boom Room...The
> MaloneSharks..Dave and Tommy,Mitch Stein and a bass player and drummer
> 3) Sept 28 NOLA Harvest the Music Lafayette Park Bonerama w/
> special guest Dave Malone
> 4) Oct 5 NYC The Canal Room Benefit for New Orleans
> Musicians Clinic with Dave Malone,Camile Baudoin, Ivan Neville,
> Tony Hall, Adam Deitch
> 5) Oct 7 Houma,La Voice of the Wetlands Festival Tab
> Benoit and Anders Osborne w/special guest Dave Malone
> 6) Oct 8 Gretna.La Gretna Fest Tommy Malone and the
> Mystik Drone (Johnny Ray Allen, Carlo Nuccio, David Torkanowski) w/
> special guest Dave Malone
> 7) weekend of Oct 28,29,30 NOLA Voodoo Fest Bonerama w/
> special guest Dave Malone

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

New Atlantis on WWNO tonight!

Tune in to WWNO at 6:30 Central time tonight to hear my interview with host Susan Larson regarding New Atlantis: Musicians Battle for the Survival of New Orleans. The interview is part of Larson's show "The Reading Life." To listen online:

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Real Davis article

My profile on Davis Rogan in the current issue of OffBeat magazine left out a lot of detail that I think is essential to the piece. Fortunately a longer version ran on the magazine's website, This is the more complete version:

Déjà Davis Rogan
01 August 2011 — by John Swenson

Davis Rogan. Photo by Aubrey Edwards.
It’s a Tuesday night at the Hi Ho Lounge and Alison Fensterstock sits at the bar waiting for contestants to solve her latest series of music trivia challenges. Her husband, DJ Lefty Parker, is behind the bar announcing the questions and serving drinks. Things are moving along smoothly until the middle of the second round, when Davis Rogan bursts through the door, arms flailing and head turning vigorously as he surveys the scene before he hurls himself into the middle of the activity. At a beefy, long limbed 6’4,” Davis shakes things up when he enters a room. “What have I missed?” he asks as he slides up to the bar, picks up an answer sheet and waves it ceremoniously, simultaneously ordering a tumbler of Maker’s Mark and a Miller High Life.

The category is “Jacksons.” Lefty reads the question: “Who is the weirdest living member of the Jackson family?” Davis shouts out delightedly, “La Toya!”

The groans and muttering from contestants fill the air; after all, a $20 bar tab is at stake. Others quietly write down the answer. Having made what can only be described on his own terms as an entirely successful entrance, Davis is immensely pleased with himself.

Fensterstock just smiles.

“It’s interesting to watch Davis versus trivia,” she later notes. “It adds to the fun.”

Adding to the fun is a life’s mission for Rogan, even if his definition of amusement doesn’t always find a willing audience. But the Hi Ho is home turf for Davis these days. The club is where the Brassy Knoll, one of the featured bands in the HBO series Treme, plays its gigs. Davis is the keyboardist in the band, which is fashioned after his notorious 1990s aggregation All That. And another Davis is also the leader of the band in the person of Steve Zahn, the actor who plays Davis in the series.

Let me explain.

There are in fact two guys named Davis—Davis Rogan, or as he now calls himself “The Real Davis,” and Davis McAlary, the Treme character based on Rogan. That Davis is so well played by Steve Zahn that a number of New Orleanians who will never be Davis Rogan fans prefer the fictionalized TV version of Davis, a man whose unpredictable behavior is nevertheless always subject to potential revision and improvement.

This is the strange case of a man who lives his life in the penumbra of another man who is creating an alternative version of his life on television. Both men are walking through these lives in the same city a mere five years apart, often interacting with some of the same people. When it’s the actual person living his life under the camera’s scrutiny, this is popularly called “Reality TV.” When there’s a second version of the man living a fictional recreation of that life, complications of many forms ensue. Indeed, the question “What is reality?” becomes central to the identity of Davis. Perhaps we can call this “Déjà vu TV.”

The trivia episode is a characteristic Davis anecdote. All over New Orleans, people have encountered the Davis genius for disrupting events of any kind. Some find his social high wire act deeply unsettling. Others think it’s funny in a Three Stooges-at-the-black-tie-dinner kind of way. He’s seen his reputation enjoy a dramatic turn for the better since Treme’s first season began in April 2010. The show’s musical supervisor Blake Leyh agreed to produce an album for him and the result, The Real Davis, is the best thing Rogan has ever recorded, a game-changing moment in his career that presents him in his best light as a songwriter and surrounds him with top local musicians. The Real Davis is a terrific springboard for live performances, and Rogan is suddenly more in demand to play local gigs than he’s ever been.

When the trivia contest was over, Davis and I left the Hi Ho and climbed into his 1995 Toyota Camry station wagon, a virtual duplicate of the 1989 Toyota station wagon memorialized in the 2005 album The Once and Future DJ. As we careen across St. Claude Avenue heading towards his Treme home, Davis flips on music. It’s opera and he’s got it cranked to the max.

“Recitar!” the singer intones. “Vestila giubba.” Davis is listening to the apotheosis of bad clown stories, Pagliacci. “Listen to those bitches sing” he yells. Davis pulls his car to a dead stop in the middle of the intersection of Gov. Nichols and North Robertson, grooving to the music. Several of his neighbors get out of their car to check out what Davis is up to now, laughing and shaking their heads as they greet him.

Davis lives on the second floor of a dilapidated house in Treme. The Rebirth Brass Band used to use the ground floor as a rehearsal space. After climbing up a long, vertiginous stairway you find that Davis lives in a man cave of almost unimaginable disarray. You get the sense from these rooms that Davis cares nothing about any of his possessions, which are thrown haphazardly all over the place, except his musical instruments and playback equipment, which are all meticulously maintained and readily accessible. While eating a plate of crawfish etouffee with his fingers because there are no utensils anywhere in sight, Davis suddenly turns morose.

“Can you fathom the depths of my inanity?” he asks.

I took an instant liking to Davis the first time I heard All That back in the 1990s. He was funny and smart and had the creative musical vision that the past was also part of the future. All That collected some of the city’s best players under one umbrella, a cornucopia that encompassed both Kirk Joseph and Matt Perrine on sousaphones. Of course the band was doomed but at least Davis got as far as scoring a contract with Rounder records and actually documenting this moment in history. Then I got to know him and liked him even better because I like iconoclasts, satirists, cynics and clowns, especially when they’re loyal drinking buddies. When Davis calls, you know you’re in for it: “I’ve got ten pounds of boiled shrimp and a case of Tecate and I’ll be at your house in 15 minutes.” At moments like that a simple “no” doesn’t work. Davis arrives and your kitchen table becomes a freak symposium. Shit will be shot, music will be played and the afternoon will slowly descend into evening. And as the evening progresses, sometimes things can go wrong. Davis has been known to act out and has been tossed from more than a few drinking establishments in the city for transgressions ranging from dropping trou to mouthing off a bit too vociferously. But it’s some kind of measure of his genius that in a city notorious for bad behavior, he manages to stand out.

One doesn’t get to be the kind of larger than life figure Davis has become overnight. The traits that lead to such notoriety usually display themselves at an early age. Born in 1967, Davis soon learned that having a good sense of humor could be very useful. At the integrated public school he attended, McDonogh 15, he discovered that making his classmates laugh was an effective deterrent to getting beaten up by them. He played trombone in the school band under the direction of the legendary Walter Payton. The band actually performed at Jazz Fest, but Davis recalls that his parents didn’t encourage him to be a musician. Rogan’s father, a mechanical engineer, worked for the offshore drilling industry. “His job included supervision of what would now be called the blowout preventer,” Davis notes. “I’m sure the Deepwater Horizon disaster wouldn’t have occurred if he’d been working on that one.” Rogan’s mother Ama was a homemaker, a professional puppeteer and an aspiring writer.

Photo by Aubrey Edwards.
Davis was the second oldest of four children, two girls and two boys. “I always wanted to be a guitar player,” Davis says, “but my parents thought it was tacky. Same with the saxophone. We didn’t have a piano, but I walked to the church and practiced on the piano there two times a day. I was brought up on Joyce and Hemingway. I think they wanted me to be a writer. It was such a dreadful disappointment to them that I didn’t become a novelist.”

Davis speaks in awestruck tones of his mother, who died when he was a teenager. One of his defining musical memories is inextricably tied up with his memory of her.

“In 1978 when I was old enough to cross Broadway, they had a sale at Mushroom Records that if you brought in three records, they would give you one. I brought one of my mom’s Stan Getz records, one of her Gerry Mulligan records and one of my mom’s Chet Baker records, and I traded them in for a copy of Sticky Fingers. When my mom found out, she gave me a spanking. So my memory of mid-‘70s Rolling Stones was of a zaftig brunette beating the piss out of me.”

Davis credits his mother’s influence for his habit of telling people things they don’t want to hear, a discipline he has mastered skillfully.

“Maybe when I was young and I said to someone something like, ‘Good Lord, you’re fat,’ or, ‘Hey, you’re old.’ Maybe my mom taught me never to lose that.”

Ama Rogan died suddenly in 1984 after suffering a brain aneurism. The event changed his life and may well have left him with a huge emotional chip on his shoulder.

“It’s a little rough for me to celebrate Father’s Day,” Rogan admits, “because my mother died on Father’s Day, which is a unique way to eliminate both Hallmark holidays. I’ve carried that for a while. Maybe that’s why I was such a dick.”

Davis dealt with his loss by getting as far away from home as he could, enrolling at Reed College in Oregon, where he supported himself selling pot to his fellow students. He ostensibly majored in literary criticism, but his real education took place on the college radio station KRRC, where he honed skills he’d nurtured throughout his teenage years. He listened to WWOZ and WTUL and imagined his own voice coming over the airwaves. By his senior year of high school, he had become a DJ on WTUL.

Upon his return to New Orleans, Davis struck up a friendship with members of the Rebirth Brass Band. He became tight with Kermit Ruffins, playing piano in his band and performing with him in what sounds from Rogan’s description like a comedy team, which makes sense if you consider that performance for Davis back then was as much about comedy as it was music. He took himself most seriously as a DJ, and became notorious on ‘OZ for playing New Orleans bounce at a time when it was essentially banned from the station’s playlist. When Bunny Matthews profiled Davis for an OffBeat cover in 2002 Rogan still openly disparaged his talents as a vocalist and musician at the expense of his prowess as a radio personality.

Such self-effacement obscured the fact that Rogan had done great work with All That, starting with 1997’s Eponymous Debut and continuing through the Rounder Records release Whop Bam Boom and the band’s final recording, a live album recorded at the Mermaid Lounge in 2001. Davis was eventually fired from All That in what he describes as a coup instituted by drummer Derrick Freeman. He still holds a grudge against Freeman, a fact which became a minor plot point in season two of Treme. But Davis also recognized that he was falling apart himself at the time. “All That went though several lineups, and at the end the newest members conspired to kick me out of the band,” Rogan recalls. “But I was sad and I couldn’t really play. My insouciance was mysteriously misplaced.”

All the while, Rogan was also teaching music at the kindergarten and grade school level. Watching him lead groups of young kids at events like French Quarter Fest offered an important insight to Rogan’s personality. Instead of teaching the kids songs from the rote curriculum, Davis brought his own songbook of New Orleans folk songs, Coasters material and Fats Domino classics. He taught these little kids about their musical legacy as New Orleanians, and they responded to Rogan fanatically, year after year. When he finally quit his teaching job to work full time on Treme, his students delivered a petition bearing 50 hand-scrawled signatures begging Davis not to leave them.

“His work with the kids really tells you something about Davis,” says Rogan’s bassist, Dr. Jimbo Walsh. “He’s genuine with the children, and they really respond to that. It’s a wonderful thing to see in action. He is a kid himself—that’s part of it—but he’s a teacher. He’s professional about it, he’s in charge, but he listens to them and takes them seriously. One time we were at the Jazz Festival playing at the Kids’ Tent, and the group was little kids from the inner city. At one point, this little 6-year-old kid gets the idea that we’re losing the crowd and he goes up to Davis, pulls on his shirt and says, ‘Mr. Rogan, we got play ‘Charlie Brown’ right now!’”

Davis met Walsh at a low point in his life. “All That went south and I was a densely problematic singer/songwriter who Jimbo agreed to play bass for and drive me around because I was incapacitated,” Rogan recalls. “He started working with me in the dark hours. I had lost my girl friend and All That’s record deal.”

Walsh had been working in trumpeter Michael Ray’s band before joining forces with Davis; he remembers liking Rogan the first time he met him.

“I was sitting at a café uptown and he came walking in,” says Walsh. “I was sitting with some jazz musicians and he said, ‘I play funk because you can get more girls that way.’ I thought he was funny. I love jazz, but I’m not precious about it. I had been with Michael Ray for a long time, and he had just moved back to Philadelphia. All That was in a state of collapse and we started hanging out. We came to the conclusion that I was the only musician in New Orleans who hadn’t played with All That.

“I thought he was a very good songwriter, a real classic American songwriter in the Lieber-Stoller way of working with traditional forms but doing things to make each song unique. And in terms of lyric writing, he has an incredible way of turning a phrase. I also thought he was a pretty good piano player in the New Orleans tradition, so I joined his band.”

With Jimbo’s help, Davis put together a strong album’s worth of songs that became The Once and Future DJ, an album that was almost lost in the federal flood of ‘05 before a safety copy was discovered, allowing it to become one of the first post-Katrina New Orleans recordings. The songs were filled with funny stories and journalistic detail cataloging Rogan’s experiences living in Treme, dealing with girlfriends and interacting with his students. Davis matched his carefree, mocking spirit as a songwriter with the ingrained understanding of the foundations of New Orleans music that is the birthright of a fifth-generation Crescent City resident. Two songs in particular stood out—“Hurricane,” an almost miraculously prescient account of a local who refused to leave the city during a hurricane; and “I Quit,” a riotous string of invective hurled at WWOZ, mightily enabled by a deeply excoriating rap from Cheeky Blakk.

I wrote about The Once and Future DJ in the first issue of OffBeat released after the flood. David Simon, who was still working on The Wire at the time, read the review and recognized Davis as the perfect character to build his developing idea about a New Orleans series around. Rogan was in France taking advantage of an artist’s exchange program offered by the French government after Katrina when Simon tracked him down.

“I was in the Loire Valley and I get this email saying, ‘I work for David Simon and he wants to talk to you about this upcoming HBO show he’s going to do.’ I thought he was going to ask me something about some musician, but he called me and said, ‘I read this article and I have an idea for the main character of my next HBO series and it’s you. I want to meet you and talk with you about this.’

“So I came back to New Orleans and I made him take me to Bayona and drink $300 bottles of wine.”

Over the course of many meetings, Simon collected Rogan’s story and filed away the details for future use. Davis himself had no idea where this was all leading, but the process itself excited him.

“David Simon was like, ‘You’re Davis. I want to base a character on you. I need your input to get New Orleans. I’m trying to research. Can you make a leap of faith and share your knowledge with me? We’re going to try to build a relationship.’ The part about Kermit not knowing who Elvis Costello was came from Kermit not knowing who the Rolling Stones were. Basically, I gave him my stories and started sharing my stories and background. It was a little bit painful because obviously New Orleanians as musicians have a long history of getting screwed, so I had to put that aside and work with this guy and hope that in the end he would choose to do the right thing. Which, in the end, he did.

“Me and Kermit and Donald Harrison, we all got placed in season five of The Wire,” says Davis. “In Episode One of Season Five of The Wire, these journalists are gathered in a bar talking about work and my song is playing on the jukebox. My song on a jukebox in Baltimore. That is what we call fiction.”

Davis also considered his frequent meetings with Simon a kind of payment for services rendered.

“We would go to dinner at Clancy’s or Bayona or Herbsaint and have the $300 wine, so in that sense I wasn’t giving a donation. From the ‘This is pie in the sky and I’m buying you lunch,’ to ‘This is going to happen and I’ve got something for you,’ there was definitely some rough ground about what my deal was going to be. Around Christmas 2008, I was wondering if I needed to hire a lawyer. There was a definite period where it was in the works, but it might not happen. I was getting these calls: ‘My name is so and so and I’m an actor in New York. I’ve read the script, and can you give me some pointers?’ Another guy texted me: ‘I’ve been waiting all my life to play you, man.’ I emailed him back and said, ‘I’m currently under the delusion that I’m a contender for the role, so any advice I would give you would be wrong’.”

In the end, Rogan did read for the part of Davis, but he understands what a coup it was to cast Steve Zahn in the role.

“He’s a great actor,” says Rogan. “In terms of capturing my verbosity and the manic energy, that speaks volumes to the capacity of the writing team and the casting. But Steve Zahn ain’t no musician. He’s so fucking white. In one scene, he’s about to do a version of ‘Sex Machine’ and he turns to Kirk Joseph and says, ‘Bring your bot-sy to this one.’ I had to explain to Steve Zahn who Bootsy Collins was. There’s an arc starting with me explaining to Kermit who the Rolling Stones are and ending with me explaining to Steve Zahn who Bootsy Collins is.”

When the scene Rogan refers to appears in the final episode, Zahn’s Davis is clearly enacting the lame white guy he feels he’s perceived to be. Mispronouncing Bootsy’s name would be in character, but since this is an ironic comment on a character that is already an ironic comment on a real person, it’s easy to see how this might blow Davis Rogan’s mind.

“We have to specify,” notes Blake Leyh. “Are we talking about Steve Zahn, Davis McAlary, Davis Rogan the actor, or Davis Rogan the guy? The character is self satirizing. For me to try to deconstruct the levels beyond that—that’s the fun of watching that stuff. When you and I try to discuss this, we literally get lost in a sort of hall of mirrors. It’s hard for Davis to navigate through that hall of mirrors himself sometimes.”

After viewing the final episode, Davis adjusted his opinion.

“Watching Steve perform ‘Liza Jane’ and ‘Sex Machine,’—I mean watching on the TV not doing the scenes with him—I see from the camera’s view what a hilarious character actor he is,” says Rogan. “In a way, it’s a brilliant move on the part of the producers having McAlary be a so-so performer which makes me, not much of an actor, look irritated at him on screen. I also realize that Zahn the actor excels in realms where I am an absolute novice. There’s no way I could do those splits!”

Part of David Simon’s genius is his ability to work effectively with a personality as strong-willed as Rogan. Simon did it by being a genuine friend, hanging out with him but making no promises, and finding creative ways to incorporate him into the production. In Season One of Treme, Davis was a script consultant, piano teacher and part-time scriptwriter, co-writing Episode Eight with David Mills.

“I bitched and moaned and kicked at the fucking door,” he admits, “until I became a writer.”

It didn’t take long for Davis to make a crucial contribution in the writer’s room.

“I was a junior cub understudy writer,” says Rogan. “I was half an hour late to the meeting. I was terrified, clueless and hung over, which was probably good because it got me to shut the fuck up. What they were thinking about was that Creighton would commit suicide and how to account for all these straws that pushed him to it. He’s an English teacher and they’re saying, ‘What book is he teaching? Is there something by Lafcadio Hearn? We need a book.’ Suddenly the cartoon light bulb went on over my head. I had Alex McMurray’s freshman lit copy of The Awakening [which ends with Edna committing suicide by walking into the Gulf of Mexico] with his notes in the margins. I blurted out, ‘Holy shit, you guys gotta use Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.’ I forwarded the final four chapters to the principal guys.”

In the weeks before the first season of Treme aired, Davis Rogan was caught in a maelstrom of gossip related to his role in the show. Friends found it hard to believe his claims about how much of it was based on him. Detractors traded horror stories about his behavior on the set. Everybody claimed to have inside information about what was going on: Davis had been thrown off the set and banned from the show; Davis was contractually required to stay at least 200 feet away from Steve Zahn.

I ran into Davis one day at Johnny White’s and told him the alarming rumors. Davis laughed it off, saying, “Watch the show and see if I was banned.” Today he can look back with satisfaction and say, “The people who were saying that stuff were people who had drunk the Hater-ade. Obviously because I had been banned from this or that event or fired from this or that place, they had to extrapolate that. Small-minded people have a right to be small-minded, bless their little hearts.”

The proof, of course, was right there on your TV set. Episode One began with Davis running out of his house to join a second line and went on to include so many references to his real life it began to seem like some kind of personal revenge fantasy that he’d scripted himself. Zahn played Davis as a Shakespearian fool whose antic disposition provided much needed comic relief to a relentlessly tragic story.

Treme did more for the musicians’ community in New Orleans than any single event in recent memory, and arguably no musician benefited more than Davis Rogan. Though a few people might have still harbored grudges from past offenses, Davis was able to rehabilitate his reputation as a live performer, finance and record a representative solo album, and quit his teaching job to become a full time musician once again. Blake Leyh agreed to produce The Real Davis as soon as Rogan brought it up.

“It just made sense,” says Leyh. “I could see right away that Davis benefits from an outsider’s perspective. I think I understand quite well his work and what he’s doing, and I have a great respect and appreciation for it. But I’m also not like a fan, so I’m not going to ever shy away from telling him what I really think. I also think I might have a better sense of what someone outside of New Orleans will think of the work and add that perspective to it.”

Leyh sent Davis 30 songs to listen to and asked him to consider doing cover versions.

“’Just listen to them with an open mind,’ I told him. ‘Think what it would mean if you covered this song. It will allow you to view your own work in a more critical perspective and think about what is it that makes Davis’ work Davis’ work. Also it’s a signifier for people outside of the immediate circle that you do know about other things in the world.’ So we end up with ‘Rivers of Babylon’ and Alex Chilton’s ’13.’

“One thing that I encouraged Davis to do more of is face fear. Not all the time, but take five minutes and ask yourself if the sarcasm and the monolithic cynicism about the universe, part of that might be the result of covering something up. What if you were to tip your hand a little bit? Show a little more of a side of you that I know exists when you’re not thumbing your nose at the world. What would that look like if Davis did that? I was interested to know. It’s one thing when you’re 25 to have a punk attitude, a sarcastic attitude, but as you get older that can wear kind of thin. I would encourage him in the future to think about that too. I think he’s a brilliant guy who has a lot of really good ideas, and I think it would be interesting for him to perform a work at some point that would be more sincere. So I think his cover of the Alex Chilton song is that. When you hear that you think it is kind of interesting to hear that side of Davis.

“I would also push him. That was the flip side. Although I was encouraging him to show a more vulnerable side, I was also encouraging him to go for it. People don’t think of Davis sitting down and saying, ‘Should I really say this?’ But there were moments and I said, ‘Yes. Don’t even bother to go and check with people to see if they’re going to be offended, just say it.’ Someone does need to be saying these things. Someone does need to be the trickster. New Orleans is such a small town and everyone knows everyone. As much as it has a reputation of everyone partying and being crazy, I also see how cautious everyone is. It’s nice to see someone not being too cautious. Davis’ work is not cautious in that way.”

Davis took on a more mature glow in the aftermath of Season One. Though his satiric instincts remained solid, he seemed to appreciate the fact that not all institutions existed simply to be made fun of.

“In the past, I might have been introduced to celebrities and just blown them off,” he says. “But when I met Anthony Bourdain and said, ‘I’m Davis Rogan and I write songs for the show,’ he knew who I was and we actually had something real to talk about. I realized for the first time in my life that I was a member of a team.”

By the time Season Two began production, Rogan was no longer part of the writing staff. Simon hired him specifically to write songs for the Brassy Knoll, and Rogan put together an album’s worth of material for the season.

“This season, David said, ‘You’re going to write songs.’ He tells me what he wants and I write it for him. David basically moved me from one shop to another, and now I’m master of my realm.”

Simon would tell Davis he wanted a song about a specific subject, or perhaps ask for a set of topical lyrics to an existent song. He’d already done this in Season One, asking Davis to fashion new lyrics to Smiley Lewis’ “Shame Shame Shame” criticizing George W. Bush.

When asked about that process, Davis insists that it was Simon who wrote the new lyrics to “Shame Shame Shame.”

“I sent him a set of lyrics,” Davis explained, “and they were inadequate and he rewrote it. But I set the spike for him.”

For Season Two, Simon asked Rogan to write a song about The Road Home Program.

“He said, ‘The Road Home was a disappointing for a lot of people’,” Davis recalls. “’I want you to create a song for DJ Davis and the Brassy Knoll with that title. Davis is trying to recreate All That. It’s a mix of funk and brass and jazz plus it’s going to have a bounce flavor’.”

So Rogan sat down, wrote the song and sent it to Leyh, who told him it needed a hook. Davis took the tune to Don B., Dave Bartholomew’s son, for re-grooving. Davis actually met Don B. through Simon.

“I got a call from David Simon during the Saints playoff run’ 05,” says Rogan. “He calls and says, ‘Meet me at the Roosevelt.’ We’re at the Blue Room and Allen Toussaint is doing this tribute to Dave Bartholomew. There I met Dave Bartholomew’s son, who said, ‘Man, put me on the show.’ So that’s Don B. Don B is one of first bounce guys. Dave Bartholomew, the songs he wrote broke the color barrier, moved it from race music and R&B into pop music. It turns out that Don B, who is his youngest son, is my age. Don B did all the stuff with Cash Money before they got signed. The Bartholomews, they’re just genetically inclined to make hit records.”

I went with Davis to Don B’s studio, where Davis figured “The Road Home” would be fashioned with a hook. The studio was a small room in the back of an empty house outfitted with a computer and a keyboard. Don B’s son was there, along with rapper Altonio Jackson, who Don B had suggested for the part of Lil Calliope in the Brassy Knoll. Jackson sat quietly on the floor studying the script while Davis began to party. He’d brought a six-pack, a bottle of Jameson’s and some killer weed, which he offered around. Davis played the track and said that Blake wanted it punched up and given a hook. He showed Jackson the lyrics to the song.

“I’ll write something based on this,” Jackson said, then sat down and began composing on a yellow pad. The room began to fill with people, blunts were rolled and smoke hung thickly in the air. Don B sat at the keyboard with his earphones on, silently pounding away as he sculpted new parts for “The Road Home.” Davis bantered, drank and smoked, explaining his ideas for the song and generally carrying on.

He kept reciting the chorus:

“Funny how you’re calling it the road home

You left my people in the street now they’re all alone

You wrap them up in red tape and fuck with their head

You might as well use duct tape and shoot ‘em dead”

Jackson showed me the pad he’d been writing on. “You want to see what I came up with?”

Just like that, he’d fashioned a lengthy narrative about his life that seems to have nothing to do with what Davis has written. Meanwhile, Davis explained that Don B and Jackson were doing more than he needed. “It’s just a demo,” he said. “We just need to punch it up.”

Don B said, “We want it to be so good that they’ll have no choice but to use this version.”

After considerable jousting back and forth, Davis came to a compromise. “Okay, do whatever you want to it, but you have to keep this part in.” He ripped the chorus from his note pad and handed it to Jackson.

After another half hour of work on a very good track that was moving further and further from what Davis brought in, Jackson did his rap and then said, “I understand everything about it except this part,” holding up the piece of paper with the words to Rogan’s chorus on it.

The whole scene appeared chaotic, but Davis was unflappable in this midst of it all. I later realize that this whole episode anticipates what actually will occur in the show because in addition to the developing versions of “The Road Home,” we see in Season Two that the new material Jackson is writing will be the basis of “The True,” Lil Calliope’s joint that eclipses Davis McAlary’s songs for the Brassy Knoll.

Later, when I told Davis I thought Don B and Jackson were trying to write their own song, Davis explained what happened.

“The misunderstanding we had was about what you submit to the producers,” says Davis. “There are times when you want to give the producers a rough sketch, a frame they can hang their trimmings on. Other times you’re taking a song to a completed recording because it’s going to be placed in the background somewhere. In the third case, you’re making a demo which the producers give you notes on, then you modify the tune based on what they want, then you make a final demo, write out lyric sheets and chord charts and horn lines which you distribute to the musicians and the actors. Don B’s a rap producer. He doesn’t think in terms of demo; he thinks of final, finished, Bangin’ product [the name of his company is Bang-N-Records]. In the end, I took Don’s ProTools files over to Jimbo’s home studio where we put in a guitar hook, but I sure as hell used Don’s beats.”

Rogan’s ability to function amid the seeming chaos of this studio scene is part of the reason why he’s so valuable to the series in this context as a songwriter.

“I think there’s a path that the songwriter has to take,” he says. “The path of the scriptwriter from determination to realization is a well-defined path, but the path of a songwriter in this context is territory that is currently being charted as it happens. So there’s steps and missteps to it which are all part of that process.”

Blake Leyh reflected on the difficulty of separating the songwriting process itself from the actual narrative of the show.

“In the middle of all of it, it’s difficult to break out the significance,” he says. “You’re telling a story about the difficulty of writing a song and in order to tell that story, you have to write a song. So the process you go through of writing the song informs the storytelling and vice versa. It’s all one big bundle. When you have all of these personalities involved, like Davis and Altonio and me and David Simon and Don B and Steve Earle and Wendell, it does turn into this rolling carnival of insanity. It’s hard for me to be analytical about it. The conflict you see on the screen is the exact same conflict we had in trying to do that stuff. It’s even more so with the Soul Apostles. All those arguments about ‘Are we talking about horn pitch or concert pitch?’ ‘Do we have the right charts, motherfucker?’”

Rogan was presented with some unusual challenges in coming up with material for the Brassy Knoll, including being asked to write material that was deliberately lame.

“At one point I was told to write something so painfully white and so overintellectualized that it became obvious that the black guy should be put in the band,” he explains.

But Rogan admits he had difficulty writing down to Davis McAlary’s character.

“I bring what I bring,” he concluded, “and Steve Zahn’s interpretation of the script will deliver that. One time we were making a demo and I was saying, ‘I was trying to not get it right.’ Jimbo said, ‘Why don’t you do the best that you can and Steve’s going to hear that and he’s going to deliver the terrified Caucasian incompetence.”

It’s clear that The Real Davis is unhappy with the fact that Davis McAlary is such a poor musician. As much as he can separate himself from the caricature Zahn is playing, Rogan still seems to feel that he is diminished by Zahn’s portrayal of him.

“Davis can’t sing, Davis can’t play and Davis is not a convincing front man,” Rogan explains. “This smarts on two levels, because A: when I started out with Kermit at Little People’s Place in 1991, those criticisms were probably true. But B, it’s also a bit of a drag because if I’m portrayed as a sucky performer, then how can I get people in a room to show them that I’m not? David Simon warned me when I insisted that the character’s name remain Davis that they might have the guy crawling through sewers fucking alligators. What I was not prepared for was having Davis portrayed as an unconvincing front man.”

Zahn has been careful to keep his distance from Davis. The 200 feet rule is ridiculous because Rogan is a member of McAlary’s band, but Zahn has never discussed how to play the part with Rogan. Rogan sometimes seems amused with McAlary, who he refers to as “Mini-Me,” but when the Brassy Knoll is rehearsing and McAlary ruins the groove with a distorted guitar solo, it’s Rogan who jumps up from the piano, waving his hand for McAlary to stop playing. And at the Hi Ho when Lil Calliope ignores McAlary’s instructions and starts into ”The True,” Zahn stands shocked in the middle of the stage while The Real Davis gleefully joins the chorus.

As Season Two ends, Rogan finds himself exacting a unique kind of scripted revenge on his alter ego. Davis McAlary’s fate with the Brassy Knoll echoes Davis Rogan’s ouster from All That when he is essentially forced out of the group. This time though, The Real Davis is still in the band.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

NOLA Half Notes

Satchmo 4-ever
Much fun at Satchmo Summerfest. The addition of tents to shield listeners from intense sun and thunderstorms was a great move. The tents were large enough to accomodate the crowds. Nice to see tourists from all over the world come to salute the American legend Louis Armstrong in the city of his birth. His music is as vibrant today as it was more than 80 years ago when he started recording; it still resonates in the city's young musicians today.

Play That Fast Thing One More Time
$1000 Car played an impromptu early evening gig at the Kingpin Saturday. People stopped in for a drink on their way to White Linen Night and were surpised by such rocking gems as "Security Guard" and the Nick Lowe-esque "From the Eyes Up," a classic from the great songwriter Jake Flack. D.C. Harbold brought a hellacious "Little Sister" to the mix, reminding us that Clockwork Elvis brings a scheduled gig to the Pin later this month. Will pizza be delivered?

Sixteenth notes: Davis Rogan reminds European tourists at the Spotted Cat that coins are no longer considered money "Back in the USA" (bar gold)... Bizarre and beautiful moment of Satchmofest: the Armstrong set played on calliope by the mad genius of the Natchez steamboat... very cool to sign books alongside Michael Patrick Welch in the doorway of 600 Frenchmen on Friday night. spooky resonance of last season's Treme, huh? No cabbages, though... everybody's favorite spot during Satchmofest was Snug Harbor. Great music, but that AC was quite a treat.