Misfits Unite


I FEEL SO awfully tired sometimes driving through Kingston, New York. I’m talking about the strip-mall area in particular, that stretch of franchise after franchise that somehow always makes me feel completely disenfranchised. Every American with half a pulse knows this particular ennui. The bleary, arrhythmic stopping at red lights, absently looking out the window at Baby Depot, Staples, Dress Barn. Dress Barn: two words in the English language that should never have been put together. Same for Baby Depot. I want humanity to do better than this.

On a flatlined afternoon recently in this area I was revived when I put a CD in the car stereo. It was a blind shot, a record that had been sent by a friend (thank you, Camden Joy), with a $1.99 sticker on it from a used record store. Devin Davis’s Lonely People of the World, Unite! from 2005. Never heard of him.

“It’s hard to live in a basement and not get carried away….” he starts off in the first song. I interpret this to be Devin himself toiling obsessively underground on his record, and I recognize this feeling, the euphoria of getting lost in one’s own world of make-believe. He sounds on the edge of spilling over into too much emotion; I know this feeling too. I have found a kindred soul on a disconnected day, just what his album title exhorted me to do.

I check the credits on the sleeve of the CD. Devin is one of these guys who plays everything himself—guitar, drums, bass, vocals, saxophone, organ, piano, theremin, trumpet, trombone, giant gong. The record is a mix of guitar-fuzz rock (I hear a young Stephen Malkmus and also David Bowie in there) and slow songs of extreme melancholy. Some of the lyrics are deliriously impressionistic: “Keep on watching your movies/on the backs of your eyelids/that we shot on abandoned lots/that we found back when we were kids….”  Others are perfectly direct: “Awake through the sound of the sad city sleeping/I turned around to find out who was speaking/but there was no one there.” The song “Sandie” is so pretty and lingering it sounds like something I was waiting a long time to hear. His voice breaks a lot. It’s a good voice but a little messy. On a couple songs the melodies and chord changes put me in mind of Elliott Smith, another guy who could do it all “from a basement on the hill.”

So what do I do after falling for his record? I find him on Facebook, of course. Because in this day and age we expect everyone to be just a friend request away, even if they live, in Davis’s case, all the way in Chicago and have no idea who I am. I write and ask him when his second record is coming out. From the looks of his website he has been working on this second record for years. He has written something on his site about hoping it’ll be out for the holidays, but I can’t figure out which holiday of which year. A day later he writes back a friendly message and says he wishes he knew when it was coming out but he just can’t say for sure. I send another message and tell him I may want to write something about the first record, give him my magazine credentials, and ask him a few more questions, about finding his place as an artist, about obsessiveness. For days I don’t hear back from him. I assume either he has lost his Internet connection or he didn’t like my questions. Or maybe he just didn’t want to drain the mystery out of his art by talking about it. (Unpleasant sucking noise here.)

So I’m left to commune only with the music, not the person, which I figure is probably for the best. Why did I need Devin the person anyway? Devin may have disappointed me. Instead I can cobble together a persona that floats to me from the songs combined with my own vision of who Devin Davis might be, or who I would like him to be.

In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” John Updike once politely complained about the craving in people to find out more about artists through reading interviews with them: “In some ways I do resist and resent the tendency to milk people through interviews to get them to betray or reveal…the real John Updike, let’s say, when the real John Updike has been trying to show the real John Updike in his writing all these years.”

And what do I want the real Devin to be? Perhaps a little awkward, not too at home in the world, not arrogant, a little tortured. A misfit, as juvenile as that sounds. I even ask him this—do you consider yourself a misfit?—which sounds sort of idiotic. But there are certainly clues that this may have some truth to it. On his Facebook page one day he posts: “I think the stork delivered me to the wrong universe.” And on the record, well, the speaker in the last song ends up on a “deserted eyeland.” Actually, in that song we’re all there on a deserted eyeland.

In a wonderful interview back in 1992 with Yoko Ono, who as we all know did not fit in very well with one particular club, the writer and composer Kyle Gann quoted Ono on the subject of belonging: “There were always people who felt [what I did] was very Fluxus, or that [it] was not Fluxus. Or, that’s not rock. Or, what I thought was poetry, no, that’s more like prose. Something maybe doesn’t fit, but that part is me. You always end up being yourself.”

If you’re lucky, that is. It can be a lonely business being yourself, but consider the alternative. Even in these days of DIY home recordings, some musicians still sound like they’re trying to be something they’re not. Not Devin, though. Even with all the influences he’s mining, he sounds heartbreakingly like himself the whole way through, or at least he sounds like what I think he is.

Just as I’m about to give up on hearing from him, a message appears, a beautifully articulated missive carefully contemplating the things I had asked him. Is he a misfit? He actually sends me two dictionary definitions of the word—I like his attention to detail—because he had to really think about whether that was the right term for him. They sound like descriptions of a sociopath, so he qualifies things: “Maybe I’m a ‘functioning misfit.’ I mean, I have a nine-to-five job, I have never been arrested. I don’t talk to myself on the train or walk around shaking my fist at the empty sky.” Or perhaps he’s more accurately a “loner,” he says, which explains the labor-intensive recording process of laying down every track himself. “I think I have always had an obsession with figuring out how everything works. I definitely think that slows down my productivity….When I listen to something off of Lonely People of the World, Unite! after not listening to it for a long time, I don’t necessarily notice a particular drum fill, for example. But at the time I was recording the song, the drum fill was a life and death matter.”

He goes on, “I’ve always said that I have this little bell that goes off when something is ‘done,’ when it says what I want it to say, when it sparkles (to me). I remember when I knew that Lonely People was done.” As for the new songs, he says, “I hope I hear that bell ringing soon.”

He is obsessive, thoughtful, humble. I have not been disappointed—not one bit. I want to take him out for an ice-cream sundae in Chicago, if I ever get to Chicago.

“At times with this new album,” he writes, “I have felt like I was trying to look at the Great Pyramid through a microscope, grain of sand by grain of sand. It is my great ongoing personal battle to try to relax the scrutiny I have for all of the individual parts being ‘just right’ and to let the big picture reveal itself.”

It’s an exquisite description for so many things—for just, well, the process of learning to be oneself. Thank you, Devin. I’m glad I asked.

Devin Davis

About Janet Steen

Janet Steen started on the editorial staff at Esquire, where she tweaked the prose of writers including Norman Mailer, Denis Johnson, and Mary Gaitskill. She went on to become the books editor at Time Out New York, an editor at Us Weekly, and the literary editor at Details. She has written for the New York Times, Interview, Details, Us Weekly, and Time Out New York. Her profile subjects include such widely varying personalities as Steve Martin, Barry White, Martin Amis, and Dennis Hopper. She edits books and is a co-founder of Editrixie.com, and lives in upstate N.Y.
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