Of musical mavericks
Wednesday, April 4, 2018
When it comes to music careers and their trajectories, a few general narratives prevail: 1. Toil in obscurity, get a big break and then attain fame, fortune and all the attendant blessings and curses that go along with those things. 2. Toil in obscurity, get a big break and then fade back into obscurity without ever becoming the next big thing. 3. Toil in obscurity.
Needless to say, the vast majority of musicians aim for the first scenario, but nearly all of them are forced to settle for the last one.
Then there are the outliers, the ones we never hear about, the musicians who toil in obscurity, get a break—and then walk away, from their bands, their opportunities and sometimes even from music itself.
I’m not sure why these musical mavericks don’t loom larger in lore, but it might have something to do with our need to believe all serious musicians are born with insatiable ambition and musical myopia to match. The notion that, in the cold light of life, risks can outweigh rewards and some investments can cost too much and return too little, doesn’t sync with our long-held ideas about the life of an artist. Truth is, these conscientious objectors are probably greater in number than we realize, and such dissent more common than we know.
John Davis is one such musical expat.
If you’re searching your memory trying to place him, you’re going to have to go back to the mid-1990s and the veritable cottage industry of lo-fi music that Lou Barlow created. By the time Barlow began trading cassette tapes and creating music with Davis as the Folk Implosion, he’d already been through an ugly—and now legendary—public breakup with J Mascis, his Dinosaur Jr. cofounder, and had gone on to form beloved indie band Sebadoh, which would suffer its own Barlow-based personnel changes.
The Folk Implosion was supposed to be yet another of the endlessly prolific Barlow’s side projects, but as so often happens, it took on a life of its own, thanks to an unlikely assist from an even unlikelier source that brought with it both acclaim and controversy: Harmony Korine’s 1995 film Kids. The movie, which is now hailed as groundbreaking, was raw, rough—and somehow a perfect fit for the songs Barlow and Davis provided for its soundtrack. Even more improbable was the Folk Implosion scored a bona fide hit with “Natural One”—the fact that the song appeared only on the Kids soundtrack and not in the film itself was irrelevant given how few people actually saw the movie during its theatrical run because of its NC-17 rating.
What comes next suits the music-career narrative as we have come to understand it: The Folk Implosion scored a major label record deal—with the most major label in the land at the time, Interscope—and made an album, One Part Lullaby, that was critically polarizing and commercially ignored.
Not long after, Davis, taking in the lay of a land only he could see and understand, decided he was done. And not just done with Barlow and the Folk Implosion and Interscope and all the opportunities and obligations that were part and parcel of those things. Davis was pretty much done with music altogether, at least the parts that entailed playing live or touring or being artistically beholden to anyone but himself.
But stepping away from his hard-won piece of the spotlight was not the end of anything for Davis. Instead, it allowed him to begin again, to use the skills of his former, pre-musician life as a librarian in his new start as an educator and activist, a role at which he has excelled and one that has brought him satisfaction and success. He’s also chronicled his life and interests in a lively blog that ranges from introspective to downright geeky depending on the subject matter.
After a more than decade-long hiatus that was broken occasionally by sporadic solo recordings, Davis made a more concerted, considered return to music, and he has yet to retreat again. He sometimes plays solo, sometimes with a band, but in this part of the plot, the songs are all his and everything happens on his terms and in his own time. While previous efforts dealt with the age-old musical fodder of love and relationships, more recently he’s melded his music with the social conscience and political beliefs that have come from time spent in his classroom and the greater Durham, N.C. community he inhabits, and this amalgam of his disparate vocations makes for music that is sharp, smart and unsparingly literate.
In a world of musical narratives that are stubbornly resistant to change or revision, Davis is writing his own story—and this outlier continues to make it up as he goes along.
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