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In Defense of Davis McAlary: Epistle in B Flat

May 11, 2010

There are a lot of folks who absolutely hate the character, Davis McAlary. Others who just don’t like Steve Zahn. The nola.com site was full of commenters applauding poor Davis’ come uppance.

I was not among them.

I love Davis. I know this guy, and lots just like him. Tell the truth. So do you. We all have a friend who’s a bit over the top, a little bit out there, annoys the hell out of us, but still we shake our heads and regale our other friends with stories about him. As he walks out after talking us into something of a dubious nature, we do the same thing one of the guys he talks into playing on his record does: We smile, laugh a little and say, “Asshole.”

Davis is absolutely self involved, no doubt about it, but he’s also absolutely passionate about New Orleans, the people, the music. He’s completely caught up in the sheer joy of living here, even with the sudden drops into despair or anger.

In Episode 4 he made me laugh at myself. We were here right after Katrina and in the first two months we replaced one tire and repaired one with five nails in it. By the first year anniversary we had replaced them all. I even laughed at the “Lagniappe Guy.” One of our tires blew out in, yup, truly, a hole Entergy had dug on Whitney Blvd on the Westbank. I pulled over to the side and voila! Like magic a guy came off his porch with tire changing tools. A buddy of his sidled down to help out. They probably made a hundred a day putting on spares. They just sat there waiting for the next tire to blow, knowing that those of us with no inflatable Santa or Entergy exec to kick would drop a twenty on him for helping and another ten for his helper. My guess is he was very sad when that hole got fixed.

In that same episode, he stood in the Apple Barrel and ranted about FEMA, Bush, Nagin, Entergy, and all the other usual suspects, while raising a glass and eliciting groans and cusswords from the other patrons. It was a scene I’d seen played out over and over again during that time. Hell, all anyone had to do to get the bar patrons to holler something in unison was say “Bush SUCKS!” The entire place would stop, mid-pool shot, mid-conversation or mid-pickup line to raise their drinks hollering, “Yeah, you right. The fucker.” I used to laugh and say that if anyone got out of hand in a bar, the bartender could ignore the baseball bat on the bottom shelf. All she had to do was get up on the bar hollering “FEMA SUCKS!” and the problem would be solved without violence as everyone’s attention, including the out of hand patron’s, would have been riveted to Norma Rae in tats and black torn tshirt standing on the bar decrying in two words the commonality of despair felt by the people with reams of paper in their pockets stamped with the words PENDING.

Lost property (“Hope there was nothing of value in there.”), a stint in jail (“Davis, you don’t motherfuck the National Guard!”), blown out tire, the city he loves in ruins, politicos yammering instead of doing, an ambivalent girlfriend (“For a private life I’ve got YOU!”), lost job–Davis maintains his passion and more importantly, his optimism. It’s clear he’s not stupid, and not oblivious to the problems of post-Katrina New Orleans. He’s just simply trying to get by, live his life as normally as possible and have fun doing it. There were folks like him, still are. We need them. While sitting in a pity pot, miserable and angry, a wild eyed guy like him stands up and says, “Pot for Potholes!” Magically you find yourself laughing, agreeing, enthusiastically supporting the idea and your issues are gone for a little while. Oh how important those people were then and still are now.

Davis is the personification of the people of New Orleans’ ability to use humor to get through a crisis, dark humor often, but humor nonetheless. He’s the personification of their ability to make art out of pain, scrawling lyrics on the wall to turn into music a half a bottle of wine later. He’s the guy with no hot water unabashedly running through the second line dancing like a scarecrow for the joy of it.

In Episode 5 his speech to the musicians he’s trying to recruit is inspired. As they sit eating, he assaults them with reasons to do it: not for the money, for posterity, for New Orleans. And they agree because as bizarre as his idea may be, it CAN be done, and there was so much at that time that could NOT be done. And ya know what? They showed up. The smiles on those musicians’ faces said it all. Laughing out loud as he did his Bush imitation, “Your City’s WET.” His Shame, Shame, Shame rendition was great! (“Should we lay down the bass and drum tracks?” “What band is this? Journey?”) He said in that song what everyone was thinking.

Finally he ends up drunk in a bar with two black friends. He quotes Antoine Batiste, unfortunately using the n-word. Clean cut guy takes issue. His friends try to shut him up. He’s not seeing the problem. Hell, he said in his recording that folks were stuck listening to this white guy because the great black musician was stuck in some town far away with no way to get back home. When the clean cut guy clocks him, one of his friends gives the hitter a shame on you look and his other friend tries to help.

Although he’s clearly chastened by the incident, we all know that Davis’ enthusiasm won’t be dampened for long. And that is his appeal.

As for Steve Zahn, I love that guy too. Before this series started I saw him hanging out at Vaughn’s one night. He talked to us for a while (and no, he did not behave like the Davis character) but was clearly there to hear the music. I saw him darting in and out taking photos at Super Sunday. It seems Mr. Zahn has been “gotten” by New Orleans, somewhere between the solar plexus and the heart.

I am looking forward to watching Davis develop as a character. And if I ever see Mr. Zahn in Vaughn’s again, I want to buy him a drink.

Two great lines from the Davis storyline this week, one was nearly a throwaway.
The gay guys next door saying to an incredulous Davis, “We’re your NEIGHBORS.” One of the musicians at the Shame recording session hollering out when they finished, “That was true shit!”

Yeah. They right. Along with the music, there are the people of New Orleans. Davis’ passion is not misplaced, and he knows that as he lowers his uber speakers down from their perches in the windows.

____________

Oh yeah. I should give a shout out to David Kern for his appearance in the Krewe du Vieux captain’s scene. He had a great time doing it and now feels that his battered signature hat should be placed in the Smithsonian. Not for the money. For posterity. For New Orleans!

19 Comments
  1. May 11, 2010 5:38 pm

    Sam, I was one who didn’t like the character after my first viewing of episode one, but tend to agree with your assessment here, and I’ve learned to love him. I do want to point out what I thought was one very telling moment, in terms of knowing who this guy is, and that was during the second line, when we see Janette eager to see him, obviously more vested in their relationship than she’s let on, to tell him about what had happened at her restaurant the night before. He wasn’t interested and didn’t allow her to finish, but immediately told her all about his recording. I wonder if, after he danced away, later he wondered to himself, what she might have been about to tell him that he didn’t get to hear. She just smiled affectionately, seeming to know exactly who he is.

  2. brueso permalink
    May 11, 2010 6:07 pm

    I’m with you, Sam. Been a Davis fan from the git go (already was a Zahn fan)- “Treme” without Davis would be a less interesting show to me. He is often written as The Fool as in Shakespeare, but man, I need some of that to balance out some of the heavier stuff.

    It was funny cause after reading so many people bitching about him and about Zahn’s performance in particular, I had some folks over to watch and was wondering what their reaction would be. Everyone loved Davis, and Zahn’s performance. The Pacific NW can be a pretty staid area, and in some circles, there are so many people playing it cool it can make you drowsy. When someone like Davis spills out, it’s a relief from the monotony. Doesn’t mean you necessarily want to spend alot of hours (in a row) with such a person, but man- we can all use a little strange now and then.

    Yes, I see the selfishness (cracking the $350 bottle of wine, not listening to Jeanette wanting to tell her story about her big meal, rude to the neighbors, and alot of ‘boundary issues’), but alot of the time he amuses me, and I especially dig his passion. Wanting to turn the church kids on to where to go, wanting Kermit to prosper, wanting to turn on Creighton’s daughter to Professor Longhair, reveling in the Louis Prima.

    I’m going to be interested to see where the team goes with the character- we’re already seeing some subtle changes. I’m confident Zahn can do whatever they need.

  3. Franklyn Ajaye permalink
    May 11, 2010 6:25 pm

    The guy is annoying as hell and represents the worst aspect of the show — white people as self-absorbed idiots longing for a (black) culture that can barely tolerate them and their serpentine ways.
    Any chance it would have been a black character breaking into Tower Records to steal cds? Any chance the writers would ever show the black cook serving a Hubigs Pie to one of his loyal customers?
    When did self-hatred become hip?

  4. Maggy permalink
    May 11, 2010 7:15 pm

    I love Davis also. I loved the scene where he was justifying taking those CDs at Tower. I have loved so many of his scenes. Of course he acted like a total a-hole to his neighbors, (I loved his shock when his neighbors knew the Treme music history as well as he did!), and it was very touching in the most recent episode when they totally redefined “neighbor” for him.

  5. May 11, 2010 8:01 pm

    Whatever you do, lady, don’t get him an absinthe and cran. ;-)

  6. May 12, 2010 7:10 am

    Franklyn, Davis is clearly accepted (tolerated?) by some people, even hustling Kermit to be on his bash Bush record, but when he steps over the line he gets cold cocked. I was waiting for a scene like that, because so far New Orleans has been way to kumbaya. Still, things have changed drastically since I was a kid. And part of the beauty is that New Orleans is the one place in America where the melting pot actually sort of worked: everyone who truly gets it becomes Creolized, a mongrel culture part African, part Mediterranean and entirely New Orleans. There are a lot of people with an ante-bellum pole up their ass who live here (Stacy Head being the example I would stuff and put in the wax museum) but the reason a lot of us are here are because of that Creolization.

    That said, I’ve been waiting for the racial tension (and the crime) to come washing back in. I see it coming in Lambreaux’s worry about the bricks, in my suggestion that bouncer boy would wind up working at Razzoo’s and we all know where that plot twist would go. I trust Simon to show us warts and all, and in this week’s Davis knockdown.

    Which, Sam, is part of the charm of Davis: warts and all, and still I think by the end the people who can’t stand Davis will be a tiny minorit

    Franklyn, do you really think people who go to Super Sunday or to Indian practice or who seeks out the neighborhood bars where bands are started are “barely tolerated?” Why is that? Why wouldn’t people welcome the acceptance of a genuine enthusiasm for an entirely African-American culture, something people have talked about since the Harlem Renaissance? Yes, people who think they are inside that culture when they are not are annoying, and Davis is annoying, but he’s the exception.

    I’m was always pretty sure the crime would come back, but I always hoped in my heart that the shared experience of Katrina would bring the entire community together (as the Saints did for a while), a realization that we’re all here in the same boat. I would rather the folks out on the Lakefront (and parts of Uptown, Stacy) who don’t get it and maybe never will and the high Creoles who think themselves better than everyone else in this town white and black would in the end be the laughable, Davis-esque minority.

    When Simon finally takes us into the racial swamps (and we will, I see Lambreaux’s story taking us to that ugly council meeting) I hope what is also shown is that there are a lot of people in the middle hanging out, listening to music, and hoping to be graced with a bit of barbecue.

  7. doctorj2u permalink
    May 12, 2010 7:37 am

    As a New Orleanian, I love colorful, harmless characters. Life would be awfully boring without them. Davis never bothered me. I find him entertainining. Now Sonny…. that is a horse of a different color. That man is trouble!

  8. kerlerec permalink
    May 12, 2010 8:44 am

    Serving a Hubig’s pie to a loyal customer? You say that like it’s a bad thing.

  9. racymind permalink
    May 12, 2010 9:19 am

    Yeah, lotsa folk find Davis annoying, we get that. He evidently has a gift for something if he can get a group of competent musicians in a studio to put something together. Whether his gifts completely compensate for the obnoxious qualities is certainly, uh, debatable.

    What about whether “black culture” can “barely tolerate” people like Davis ? I am hardly qualified to speak, I am so white I could eat a carrot and have a darker complexion by the time I finish this post. If I wanted to venture a general outlook about any group with a different culture, and a group of black urban residents with a distinct New Orleanian history in particular, I’d say that outsiders are generally given a chance to show what is real and true about themselves after the introductions are finished. I’d say maybe even Davis has some “soul” in him deep down, yeah. (A little)

    Maybe a pinch of the laid back “Caribbean” attitude makes them in NOLA deal with a Davis in a different way. And Franklin Ajaye sounds like someone who spends his time in New York or LA. C’mon man, go easy on the dude. Maybe Davis is this shows version of Snot Boogie. He’ll get beat when he tries to grab too much of something that ain’t his … but you got to let him play! This is America, man!

  10. virgotex permalink*
    May 12, 2010 9:56 am

    People have protested loudly otherwise but I still think Davis gets under people’s skin because he’s close to a line they are very conscious of not crossing, but they fear crossing that line, or have been accused of crossing that line, and maybe they don’t themselves know if they have. And that’s very true of many Americans — we are raised and conditioned to consume, we appropriate, we are very good at entitling ourselves to what we desire to be closer to, We are not at all good at questioning our motives and privileges, self-examination, and bona fide selfless altruism.

    Most of all, we hate not having what we desire, or giving those things up. When we are called on our shit, we resist because we don’t think we’re doing anything wrong, but mostly because we don’t want to lose access, don’t want to admit something we admire/desire/enjoy is not ours to do with as we wish.

    And Davis is not just that American, he’s from the upper class, the owning class. Not necessarily a bad guy, as in evil, but definitely selfish. Some of what he does is good, some is shitty. He’s comfortable in his skin. He’s frequently entertaining, often annoying.

    It’s oversimplifying sure, but I’m betting he’s put there to rankle us, to make us question those things. Those aren’t bad questions.

    I don’t disagree with most of what Franklin says, but as to “represents the worst aspect of the show” — I think the show questioning these very things via this character and in other ways is one of the best aspects of the show.

    And yeah, like Sam, I’ve know a whole lot of Davises in my time.

  11. May 12, 2010 12:31 pm

    I wonder if, after he danced away, later he wondered to himself, what she might have been about to tell him that he didn’t get to hear.

    No, he didn’t wonder. And it wasn’t that he didn’t “get” to hear, it was that he didn’t “want” to hear. The “Shame, Shame, Shame” of that moment is that he absolutely takes for granted her “obviously more vested” interest.

    Story-wise, the viewer has celebrated two accomplishments for the scene to make sense: Davis’ recording and Janette’s culinary triumph. Then we see that Davis does not care about anyone else’s accomplishments, only his own. Which he presents in a flippant way by handing her a CD and dancing away.

    She is willing to share his victory, but he is not interested in acknowledging hers. I can hope that she would be content to have the compliments of the Top Chef crowd and the dedication of her co-workers (you are my chef forever), and not invest too much in Davis’ malleable attention, but I’ve seen this situation too many times in real life to expect such hope to be rewarded. I know too many people who chase the approval of those who will never give it.

    And not because he’s being mean. He doesn’t know better. He is so self-involved, his investment is in an idealized version of New Orleans that only he understands and can verbalize. That imaginary friend is whose attention he craves.

    (On a related note, did you pick up when Creighton did the same thing to Toni?)

  12. Kevin permalink
    May 12, 2010 2:14 pm

    People have protested loudly otherwise but I still think Davis gets under people’s skin because he’s close to a line they are very conscious of not crossing, but they fear crossing that line, or have been accused of crossing that line, and maybe they don’t themselves know if they have.

    Or — applying Occam’s razor here — because some of us (a small minority) think Zahn’s characterization is bush-league, K-ville stuff compared to the textured, subtle performances of the other actors: Carrot Top in a Cassavetes movie. It has nothing to do with the Davis character — at least, not for me.

  13. virgotex permalink*
    May 12, 2010 2:33 pm

    Respectfully, I should have said “gets under SOME people’s skin because…”

    It’s all subjective, sure, but the character works for me as acted. He’s recognizable to me that way-an annoying obnoxious gnat.

  14. May 12, 2010 10:38 pm

    I think Davis is hilarious and Zahn is doing a helluva job playing him. If people want to hate someone, hate the condescending piano player.

  15. May 12, 2010 10:38 pm

    You’re right and very wise, Patrick, but I’m going to give Janette more credit, thinking she knows what Davis is, and isn’t. There’s a worn liberation that comes from letting go of needing or even wanting approval from those who will never give it, and she looks to me to have reached that point. Certainly the manner of her interaction with Davis up until that moment would make it seem so. She slipped, briefly, but seemed resigned, even amused, upon realizing she was silly to even think he’d be interested in her accomplishment.

    I love your image of New Orleans as Davis’ imaginary friend. Perfect.

    I missed Creighton doing it to Toni, although it’s not surprising, now that I think of it. I guess I’ll have to watch it again (oh, darn).

    ‘Night, darlin’.

  16. brueso permalink
    May 13, 2010 12:59 am

    Janette probably just regards Davis as someone to ‘get’ with ‘when she wants to blow off steam and fool around. Given that she devotes so much energy to her making her business work, it’s not entirely surprising she’d be fine with having a “Mr. Right Now” if “Mr. Right” hasn’t shown up yet.

  17. butters permalink
    May 13, 2010 1:10 am

    Kevin nailed how I feel about Davis– blunt force with not enough subtlety. But I forgive his over-the-top characte somwhat because so far he’s carrying a lot of water. With the exception of Baptiste who lost his bone on a whiskey night, Davis is The DRUNK on the show so far. This is New Orleans…

    I loved it when he got punched. I did too once at 3 AM in ’94 at Molly’s -not the one on Decatur but the other one-, by some predatory cabbie who claimed I broke his antennae. Which I didn’t. Anyway, the show is getting better.

    ps: LaDonna is a hottie.

  18. brueso permalink
    May 14, 2010 11:45 am

    I was thinking about Davis’s little rant in episode 1 about having to play the ‘pledge drive CD’- ‘containing every piece of the fucking New Orleans canon on every Big Easy Feelgood radio station’ (or whatever he said- it was a brilliant little collection of phrases)- Most producers of shows set in New Orleans would feel like they deserved a medal if they threw in ‘Iko, Iko’ – and here’s Davis slagging some of that admittedly great material because of how obvious (and how comparatively overplayed) it is.

    That character is a great opportunity for these writers to go beyond the usual surface examination of New Orleans culture. And that includes Davis butting heads with his neighbors- uptown vs. everywhere else, gentrification, how people of different races get along (and sometimes don’t), etc.

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