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Austin Chronicle Cruel Summer

The Night Lisa Davis Died

By Kate X Messer

JULY 10, 2000: 

"And when you die ... nothing" -- "Out of Control," Meg Hentges, Afterlaugh, 1995

It was the deadest of July's dog-day nights. The malaise of the season had set in. On this particular night -- July 15, 1995 -- it didn't matter. Despite the Electric Lounge's comedic ventilation system, the crowd packed into the smoky club was ready to rock.

Magneto USA, who would later become Fastball, were opening for Meg Hentges, the ex-Two Nice Girl whose all-woman band was playing out with great frequency that summer. The show's local lineup saw the regulars out in full force, and brought together musical communities punk and rock, gay and straight. People who hadn't seen each other in ages were hugging and smooching and boogalooing together for the first time in a long, long time. It was one of those Austin rock & roll nights that people move here for, one of those perfect convergences of audience primed and bands pumping -- a night that could've been remembered for those merits alone, were it not for the unforgettable horror.

"I can't tell you what I've found ..." -- "Submission" Meg Hentges, Afterlaugh

Walking out into the night to catch some air, I saw Jason out of the corner of my eye. I tried to avoid his gaze, for no other reason than the fact that I was about to score a record third phone number from a girl in one night. It was that kind of night -- the heat made everyone frisky. He had a look on his face that I did not want to know about. "Dammit, not now," I thought as he made his way toward me. I was high on whatever Meg's band had just inspired. Not now.

Jason was ashen, the skin on his neck taut from clenching his teeth. What he had to say couldn't be good, and from the look on his face, nor could it wait.

"Lisa Davis killed herself."

She had been found with a bag over her head and evidence of massive sedative ingestion nearby. It couldn't be true. Surely Jason didn't have his facts straight.

"It's true -- her parents found her this morning," he said.

The news spread through the club like a virus, the wave ripping a visible path of destruction as it traveled across the room, across the faces of Lisa's ex-lovers, across the faces of friends, across the faces of people who at first didn't recognize the name. No, not Lisa Davis. Lisa Davis should have been at this show.

After a few minutes of holding and hugging and weeping and sheer disbelief, my insides begin to crawl out of my skin. Wanting to be alone, I left the club, taking off on foot north on Bowie.

Having learned the fine life lesson that smashing fist into pulp is so much better than a variety of other self-destructive behaviors, I searched for something inanimate with a little give. I leapt up onto a concrete loading dock and bashed away at a corrugated metal accordion door, managing to slam the bastard right off its track. I would have a fine stigmata for my troubles.

Leaning my head against the now-unstable folding door, I began laughing, tears streaming. Laughing. Sobbing. Horrified. I couldn't go back to the club just yet. Sitting down on the slab, it occurred to me, as I took one of the deepest breaths I had ever inhaled, that I was drinking in a perfect view of this lovely Austin skyline -- a sight my friend Lisa Davis would never see again.

"I feel blood, I feel blood ... though it's flowing through my veins, it's not enough." -- "Guilt," Marianne Faithfull

Lisa Davis worked as a photographer all of her adult life, most of which she spent in Austin. She began shooting while at the University of Texas, studying for her degree in photojournalism in the mid-Eighties. Her talents brought her international recognition: The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Out magazine, Saturday Night Live, VH1, and the London-based Business magazine, among others.

Savvy enough to make a living at it, Lisa stayed busy shooting for textbook layouts, annual reports, local advertisements, and the like. Chronicle readers will recognize the well-known Huts onion ring ad, still running today. Her focus, however, was always on the culture that defined the city she loved. Some of her own favorite work was of Ann Richards, documented in the ex-guv's first 100 days in office. Even after that ambitious project was complete, Lisa made a point to catch the high-haired head of state any time she was within the range of focus.

Lisa's best-known local work was probably her spirited takes on Austin's music royalty. When she was young, she became a regular at the Hole in the Wall, and for a while worried that she was setting some sort of odd pattern, dating two well-known drummers -- Rusty Trapps and Barry "Frosty" Smith -- in succession.

Her first love was the music. It was not uncommon, through her decade of shooting, to catch her front-row center, taking full advantage of her media access -- even at shows she wasn't assigned -- snapping away at Stevie Ray, at the Fabulous T-Birds, at Soulhat, at k.d. lang or the Indigo Girls for her own pleasure. Not that she didn't succumb to that Austin malady known as "Am I on the List?"

She was well-acquainted with the fine arts of schmoozing, gatecrashing, and getting her way. Thrown out of numerous backstage parties at the Austin Music Awards, she'd find her way back in moments later, slipping in on the arm of some hotshot or celebrity and grinning all the way. After years of owning the front lines of UT athletics, the Governor's Mansion, and the Cowboys training camp, she was not about to settle for general seating.

Closer to her heart than all the hobnobbing was Lisa's burning desire to document, chronicle, and validate the work of the many local activists she supported and often joined. In the early Nineties, she came out as a lesbian -- and it was a coming out heard 'round the world. Her aggressive boosterism for the Women's Action Coalition and Lesbian Avengers showed up not only in her darkroom but in the thick of the protests and actions as well. Not content to stay behind the lens, Lisa gained quite the reputation as Austin radical and music-scene cheerleader.

Lisa was attractive, charismatic -- one of those people who gets a party started the minute she enters a room. She was tall and Amazonian, a trait she flaunted in picking up chicks or crowd-surfing at a rock show. For such a big beast, she had the most delicate hands. Even when she'd front by scrunching up her face and throwing those dainty mitts into a ridiculous Marky-Mark pose, swaggering like an underwear model packed with cucumbers, she couldn't pass for tough. Her bright baby blues and big cheeks would crack into a disarming grin at the slightest provocation and give her away. Yet no one fucked with her. She was tough inside.

Lisa Davis had a virtual all-access badge to everywhere and knew how to use it. Her privilege in the media world made it easy for her to slip undetected through boundaries, and like a Trojan horse, she made a point of bringing some of her upstart friends -- or causes she truly believed in -- along for the ride. Coupled with a bottomless generosity, Lisa's ability to bring together different groups of people was her calling card.

She took well to this role of community catalyst, scheming shows, parties, and actions all over town -- whether it was the huge "Let Them Eat Bush" fundraiser for WAC after the national elections or an intimate taco party to plan exactly who was going to be the model for the chalk outlines the Lesbian Avengers were going to put all over town as a reminder of the victims of gay hate crimes.

Her tactics were forceful, manipulative, cocky, and most of all effective. Everybody loved her.

"The razor thin line between madness and art is a lie. It's a hundred feet wide." -- "I Still Get Up," Meg Hentges, Afterlaugh

After news of the suicide, many of the very communities that Lisa Davis brought together began to fall apart. Many of us close to her found ourselves playing the vain game of "If I had only ...," deluded in our dream that there was something that any one of us could have done to make it all better, to make it all go away. And perhaps there was, but there was no point in hashing through that after the fact. Even still, it was difficult not to fixate on the last eight months or so of her dynamic life -- the beginning of her visible downward spiral.

Lisa and I had shared a particularly bleak winter together, both suffering from depression, both bemoaning respective recent breakups. She had a couple of couches to crash on. Mine was one of them. When an ex-girlfriend would tire of hearing the self-indulgent whine of the recently jilted, Lisa would come to my place, where I had an insatiable appetite for the stuff.

Funny thing was, she and I had endless late-night debate about depression, what's out in the ether, and popping oneself off -- the "S" word -- all of those positively Sylvia Plath-y kinds of things that the maudlin wallow in. We both looked that pit in the eye. We both looked deep into the dark pool, and I wrongly assumed that we both concluded that testing the water was not an option. After supposedly surviving this depression, Lisa fell her hardest.

"Are you coming or going away?" -- "I Still Get Up," Meg Hentges, Afterlaugh

During the spring of 1996, and most specifically that crazy frenetic period around South by Southwest, Lisa began to show the signs of mania, her behavior becoming more erratic every day. The dyeing of the hair wasn't a big deal, and neither were the plans to take a few long road trips across the country. Lisa was Lisa, after all, and spontaneity was expected. But things began to go terribly wrong.

The house she was living in was due for a major overhaul and rent increase, forcing her out. Local bands and personalities were turning over with greater frequency -- sure signs of a scene settling into another boom. Her freelance photography connections were becoming more demanding and less casual. And the supposed love of her life had just dashed any hopes for a future together.

All of this was sad, to be sure, but I'd be lying if I didn't say, even with the 20/20 hindsight, that Lisa certainly kept the public side of her free-fall quite entertaining. It's only natural to grin at the memories of some of her harebrained schemes, even in her deepest throes of mania -- like the time she crashed the stage at the Texas Lesbian Conference in a rage of new purple hair and no sleep. She began raving into the mike about the upcoming "March on the Capitol" to honor the eight gay men killed that year, using the opportunity to promote her new cassette single "Eight Dead in Texas Now," liberally lifting the tune from Neil Young's "Ohio."

Or the time she got up during the Q&A segment of Bob Mould's speech at SXSW and began promoting an Olive show. Or the times she implored us all to take off our clothes at various rock shows around town, with many of us complying. Or her plot to buy up a bunch of decrepit vehicles and rent them out to touring bands. Or going around saying that she was -- and perhaps she really was -- the first woman to stage dive at the notoriously PC Michigan Womyn's Music Festival.

"Down in the dirt with the fossils and the dinosaurs ... makes me wanna get you high." -- "High," Meg Hentges, Afterlaugh

Back at the Electric Lounge, things were settling into a dull throb. A few of us hung out on Meg's yellow VW, trying to make sense of it all. People who didn't know Lisa were holding and comforting those who did. Our scene came together in a way that I had never seen before. The ultimate irony of that night was that it was exactly the type of night that Lisa Davis would've dragged her friends out to, kicking and screaming, until they were having the time of their lives.

"I had to close my eyes ... Am I afraid?" -- "When I Peaked," Meg Hentges, Afterlaugh

Odd that in retrospect, that night of sorrow provided more closure than the ensuing months and more comfort than a lovely memorial hosted by friends a week or so later. People aren't beautiful when they've had a chance to practice their sorrow and made choices as to which emotions are proper to share and which should remain safely tucked away. That's what funerals and memorials are for -- discreet, face-saving ways to share without threatening to break the serenity with too much honesty. This night was rare in its simple beauty, and healing with an elegance and a naked truth that no commemorative event could ever hope to capture.

The hour before the news struck, onstage with Meg, honored to be sharing the temporary spotlight with one of my all-time heroes, it occurred to me that Lisa Davis was conspicuous in her absence. Little did I know that she was there all along.

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