On the TV, a man is begging for money. He’s doesn’t look hungry. In fact, he appears well fed and prosperous. Nestled in a dark suit and a bright red sweater, he’s sitting quite comfortably in a cozy studio in Arlington. All of which hurts his cause not a whit.
Good-natured but emphatic, he implores viewers to send in tall money, but it’s not really begging; his soft touch echoes a televangelist persuading his flock to help keep the gospel on the air and triumph over the forces of darkness and cancellation. There’s no question that he’s preaching to the converted. The studio phone lines chirp like baby birds. The pledges pour inhundreds, even thousands of dollars a pop.
He’s not plugging some 700 Club brand of instant-grits Christianity, though. He’s proselytizing for a far more elite but no less fanatical religion, the highfalutin cult of the fine arts.
It’s the height of WETA’s fall fund-raising drive, and Robert Aubry Davis is once again the public TV station’s mouthpiece and marathon man, as he has been for nearly two decades. As usual, the money’s rolling in, but Davis keeps upping the ante as he woos wealthy couch potatoes all over the Washington area:
If you made that pledge for $1,500, you would also be a very special member of a club that over 800 individuals and families are members of at WETA, known as the 2691 Club. The minimum amount is $1,000, but the 2691 Club entitles you to very special privileges, including receptions in honor of public TV and radio celebrities, invitations to special concerts and many special events, and access to the fabulous videotape lending library.
A date with a roomful of minor luminaries and chilled white wine seems less like a special event than the seventh circle of hell, but when Davis is doing the inviting, it sounds like something I should feel guilty about missing.
The night of fund-raising is interrupted occasionally by a re-broadcast of a concert featuring the Three Tenors, opera legends José Carreras, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti. It’s quite a spectacle, the big guns together on stage, shoulder to shoulder, sweating out the hits from Verdi to Sinatra, and it’s also the evening’s main attraction: After all, it would be unseemlyand ineffectiveto simply sit there and beg for moolah all night. Thank-you gifts for pledges include a Christmas CD of Carreras singing “Jingle Bells” and Domingo “O Holy Night,” a collection of Yuletide favorites that Davis is particularly fond of:
It is just an absolute joy, to say the least. Our tradition in the house is to go ahead and put the CD on, build a fire and kind of watch the Christmas-tree lights on Christmas Eve and enjoy it. That’s the way to go, and we hope you do the same thing.
Davis serves as the evening’s fourth tenor, though he’s actually a deep, rich baritone nearly as ubiquitous as the Big Three. His voice is his calling card, so instantly recognizable it might as well be trademarked. Davis’ is a mellifluous and melodramatic delivery, described by one jealous admirer as “plummy,” but derided by his detractors as unearned pretentiousness, like some classical-music DJ run amok. Davis doesn’t just talk, he chews on words like expensive chocolate candies, drawing out delicious-sounding syllables in long, luxurious sentences. Intoxicating or grating, his WETA-hawking voice has become part of Washington’s autumn landscape, like honking geese over the Potomac or Sonny Jurgensen bitching about a ref’s call. Thoroughly, intrinsically Washingtonian.
It’s a great way to show all your friends that you love great music and you love WETA…
The pitch goes on and on. And so does Robert Aubry Davis. Trying to find the end of a Davis sentence is an arduous task. Just when you’ve found a place to put a period, it turns out you need a comma; the pause leads to further digressions on the remarkable exquisiteness of a particular patch of the cultural quilt of Washington.
Even if you switch channels or turn off the TV, Davis’ voice forges on, a force of nature that can’t be stopped. This evening’s program is being simulcast on WETA’s FM outlet (90.9), giving Davis dominion over the local broadcast spectrum. Tomorrow he’ll be on the radio again; he juggles several other shows, including a nationally broadcast program that airs on 80 stations. And his massive presence is regularly visible on Around Town, an Emmy-winning arts discussion TV show that airs twice weekly on Channel 26.
Davis has assumed sole responsibility for the cultural literacy of an entire region.
He also makes a decent living as an arts impresario. He’s got his own production company, RADMAN, based in Arlington. In any given week, he gives lectures and pre-concert seminars as D.C.’s self-proclaimed pre-eminent cultural commentator. He also performs in his own right, sometimes spouting Renaissance poetry backed by a lute. If it has anything to do with the arts, Davis will be around. There he is at an opening of a new exhibit at the National Gallery, here he is leading a coven of medieval-music enthusiasts, and again, you see him in the front row of some cutting-edge production at a repertory theater.
It is this omnipresence that makes Davis one of the most beloved and reviled figures in the Washington arts scene. “He’s got this haughty, arrogant Victorian manner,” gripes a former disc jockey. “It’s like he’s trying to be the spokesperson for Masterpiece Theater, piping out of his ass. He’s the embodiment of the Kennedy Center culturesafe, upper-class, poser culture.”
Still, for every person sick of his cheery face and flighty monologues, there is a devoted member of the Robert Aubry Davis cult. Some will tell you he’s the most influential early-music DJ in the world; others claim there’s nobody better on landscape painting. In a town where most people in the arts have a specialty or field of expertise, Davis veers all over the cultural map, ordained experts be damned. He has somethingusually windy but dead onto say about everything.
“If there’s a Renaissance man in Washington, it’s Robert Aubry Davis,” says William Dunlap, painter and Around Town panelist. “This is not just some radio personality. He’s a borderline genius, and I don’t enjoy calling people geniuses. His knowledge is encyclopedic, his skills are limitless, and the thing that ties it together is he’s a native Washingtonian and he really loves this town.”
However, it is Davis’ pathological arts advocacy that sets him apart more than his expertise. To that end, he will do just about anything. He will beg for money and act the buffoon for the fundraisers. He will lecture on any topic he’s given. He will play guitarjust name the tune. He will recite poetry, just name the ode. He will dress up as Bach or Oscar Wilde. Nothing is beneath him, if it’s in the service of culture.
“Without Robert Aubry Davis and the efforts he makes to disseminate information about the arts in Washington, the arts community would be one-10th of what it is now,” says Dan DeVany, classical DJ and former general manager at WETA. “And it’s because of Robert’s passion and knowledge and ability to communicate it that makes it possible.”
No matter that the District is falling apart. Potholes? Merely inconvenient obstacles on the way to the next play, the next concert, the next big exhibit. The city may be hemorrhaging, but that doesn’t mean its high-culture tradition need be amputated. If the power fails, light some candles, tell ghost stories, dance.
In Washington, the political parties come and go; personal fortunes rise and fall. Except for Strom Thurmond, everyone must one day die. Like life, congressional terms are usually short, but art is long.
For the arts to really thrive, they need defenders and patrons. Renaissance Italy had the Medici family. France had Minister of Culture Jack Lang. Washington has Robert Aubry Davis.
Like many people, I have avoided public TV as a matter of course, tuning in very occasionally for programs about exotic, endangered animals humping or killing each other. I’ve never donated a dime to keep it on the air, but I often pass through its rarefied zone when I’m channel surfing. And more often than not, it’s Robert Aubry Davis and his red sweater who greets me.
Among the dull pundits and marinated opiners of WETAdom, Davis stands out like some kind of Elizabethan carnival barker, an exuberant fireball out to save your soul even while picking your pocket for a pledge. For years now I’ve paused in spite of myself to watch Around Town as he holds court with his round table of critics.
The show’s purpose is to highlight current cultural offerings, a sort of whirlwind tour of what’s worth checking out and what’s to be avoided. But the show can render a viewer helpless with its barrage of informed opinions, turning you into a victim of drive-by art attack. The Around Towners sit around celebrating the local arts scene as if it were some delectable banquet (the panel’s pet critical adjective: “wonderful”), but ultimately it’s like waving a menu in front of somebody who can’t afford the tab. After all, who the hell has the time and money to go to all these can’t-miss events?
Tell that to Davis and he’ll tell you that you might as well try to survive without air. Absent art, life is…well, why would anyone bother?
At the show’s center, Davis pontificates on every conceivable subject, from the quiet joy inspired by an exhibit of Dutch landscape paintings to the shudder of awe he felt strolling through the exhibit of ancient Olmec statues. He seems to know everything about everything, from the ancients to the post-moderns to the latest new thing. At his worst, he somehow manages to swagger even while seated (off-handedly mentioning that he’s related to Union Gen. Winfield Scott), his hefty shoulders registering as he describes some recent frisson.
It doesn’t matter what he’s talking about. Even when he comes off like some pompous windbag he makes me feel like an idiot. The show always ends with Davis’ signature sign-off: “And I’ll be seeing you around town.”
But I’ve never seen him around town. Maybe because, as Cleveland cranks Pere Ubu once put it, I don’t get around much. I rarely go out even for a movie, much less a bona fide arts-related event. I’m the sort of culture-shocked townie who only ventures near the Mall when out-of-town visitors demand to see the sights. Week after week, Davis mixes up a scintillating cultural cocktail, and every week I decline to take so much as a sip.
Recently, a pair of guests blew into town from South America ready to take in the artistic and cultural offerings of the nation’s capital. One, a rabid opera buff, swore his stay wouldn’t be complete without a world-class production at the Kennedy Center. The last time I’d been to the Kennedy Center was years ago for a screening of Cocksucker Blues, Robert Frank’s drug-soaked, banned exposé of the ’72 Rolling Stones tour. Naturally it sold out, and I was turned away along with a horde of fellow Keef fanatics. I was presented with a voucher to see Topper, part of an upcoming Cary Grant retrospective, along with an attached note thanking me for patronizing the arts. I’ve never been back to America’s playhouse for the performing arts, even though, as a tax-paying citizen, a chunk of that ugly concrete belongs to me.
My other recent guest wanted to visit some art exhibits; she was especially excited about an Impressionist landscape extravaganza, the sort of shower-curtain twaddle reprinted and framed in half the living rooms in America. I wasn’t going near that stuff, and besides, the last time I had been in a museum it was to use the bathroom.
Suddenly cornered, I suggested a new Harvey Keitel film, From Dusk Till Dawn. Since I’ve never seen a bad Harvey Keitel movie, and this one was touted as a Keitel/vampire/Mexico combo, I figured it was a sure bet. Not exactly art-house cinema, but it wouldn’t be coming to their country for a while, so they could get a sneak preview.
Barely 20 minutes into the movie, just as Keitelplaying a minister who has lost his faith after his wife’s deathleads his children on a Mexican getaway in a fully equipped RV, my friends took a powder. They fled the theater, the sobbing woman appalled by the wanton, brutal carnage. After the movie, which I savored all the way to the wild, spectacular finale (holed up in a Mexican bar called the Titty Twister, Keitel and his crossbow-wielding kids fight off the vampires), I met my companions outside the theater.
They looked at me piteously as I raved about what I called the best movie of the year. Of course, it was the only movie I’d seen in a theater all year, and the big-screen imagesespecially the slo-mo liquor-store explosionhad bowled me over. My guests quietly explained that Dusk was a piece of ghoulish garbage, as offensive as it was stupid.
Their knee-jerk verdict was the sort of stuff I’d been hearing from highbrows all my life. The kind of smugness that I saw displayed every week on Around Town. The culture patrol, always ready to declare what’s good for us: “Miss the Monet show only at your own peril.” I decided to find out what was shimmering over the horizon of my limited cultural sensibilities; I wanted to get a taste of this Washington I’d been missing out on all these years.
It was time to step out on the town with Mr. Know-It-All.
I’ll tear the wreath off his head.18th-century German author Heinrich von Kleist on poet, dramatist, philosopher, and Renaissance man Goethe.
When Davis steps down from Around Town’s studio set to greet me, he is in no way diminished from his larger-than-life TV self, either in physique or in personality. At 6-foot-2 and nearly 300 pounds, he’s an imposing presence, not so much portly as simply massive. With his eagle nose, languid eyes, and warp-speed repartee, he is a preppy version of Oscar Wilde. (In fact, he often portrays Wilde in a one-man play, Diversions & Delights, in a role bequeathed to him by the late Vincent Price.)
Unlike Wilde, the ultimate dandy, Davis is no natty dresser, and his clothes have a lived-in look more suited to an absent-minded professor than an aesthete. In fact, his rumpled intensityan uncanny blend of seeming distraction and utter engagement with the outside worldrecalls the classical pianist Glenn Gould. Davis only has eyes for the those parts of reality that cohere to his version of it.
But he is not a prisoner of his own idiosyncrasies; Davis is one of the most truly sociable creatures you’ll ever encounter. Resistance is futile. While his presence on TV always provokes an involuntary gag response in me, from the moment I met him and for days afterward I could not find a way to dislike him. Yes, I wished he would shut up every once in a while, but in the main, I was entranced by his Coleridgian monologues and his self-deprecating humor. Go ahead and hate him. I can’t.
In person, he’s as gracious as he is garrulousan odd combinationeven as his running (and constantly punning) monologue confronts and comments on every stimulus in its path. As he maneuvers the maze of hallways in the WETA building, Davis has a quip-greeting for every passer-by.
Near the Xerox machine a woman says hello, thanking him for some help he’d given her on a project.
“Hey, leopard woman,” Davis booms.
She’s startled, but he gestures to her spotted outfit and assures her that she is merely the star of a sort of vision he’s having, right here in the hallway.
“I just saw the Olmec exhibit and there are all these mystical statues transforming into jaguars.”
“Oh,” she murmurs.
“You’re in the process of transforming, right?”
Right off, I’m confronted with the maddening nature of his sprawling interests. He can go high or low, pop or traditional, prehistoric or post-modern, depending on the gig. Today it’s his encyclopedic knowledge of ’60s folk music that’s on display.We head into the record room, where shelves hold tapes from hundreds of his radio shows, including his Sunday program, Songs for Aging Children, which he co-hosts with NPR’s Martin Goldsmith. Long a local favorite, the show features the music of the singer-songwriter generation from Bob Dylan to Leonard Cohen, whom Davis has interviewed several times. Rifling through the stacks, it doesn’t take long for him to launch into one of his classic monologues:
Cohen is a reductionist. He would say things in such a directed way, about the role of the poet and the subjects, priests, you know: “Who will write those songs for you when I am Lord at last and your body is some little highway shrine that all my priests have passed,” meaning, my acolytes, my followers, poetically….But the remarkable line on that: “Who will shoot the arrow that men will follow through your grave when I am Lord of memory and all your armor has turned to lace,” which is saying, when you become a little old lady, they’re going to remember the poem, not the person. Short, but a very, very intense way of putting a very profound and difficult thought. That’s the art of poetry.
Davis closes his eyes as he riffs, an affectation that punctuates much of his conversation. In this dramatic fashion, he rummages his mind for precise quotes, names, and datestrivia that most people keep in reference books instead of their noggins. This may be less a conversation than a minilecture on Leonard Cohen and the troubadour tradition, but it’s a pretty good lecture at that.
Walking outside, through the industrial park that surrounds the WETA complex, Davis asks if I’ve ever written any poetry. I tell him that I tried sonnets years ago; the only one I ever liked was a dramatic monologue delivered by antebellum Southern nullificationist John Calhoun as he turned into a werewolf.
Davis mentions that he wrote a sonnet for an actress friend, Carolyn Swift, who played the role of the angel in Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Angels in America. “She’s a deeply spiritual person and taking on this role was a whole universe for her. So I just sat down for her one day last year and wrote her a sonnet, which I’m going to read to you now because it’s better to do it outside than inside.”
Apparently, it’s time for an impromptu recital. Davis reaches into his jacket and pulls out a piece of legal paper with some handwritten lines on it. (I don’t know if he brought it along to show me, or if he carries it around like a talisman.) Leaning against his car, he holds the paper, apparently oblivious to the fried-meat fragrance from the nearby Weenie Beenie takeout joint wafting through the chilly autumn air.
The prior now, the old familiar door,
The age-old loves, and fears, and dreams,
The certain sense of who we were before
Within, beyond, the daily life that seems
To pass along a flood plain of swift years
And washes us with truth’s primordial earth.
We have embraced in ecstasy and tears;
We have held on in pain, in death, in birth.
So now the storm is clearing in the sky,
And once again we climb the seasoned stage
And some director says to catch your eye:
“Speak words of fire writ on a golden page
And touch a heart that sighs and weeps and sings;
Take one last bow, and pass into the wings.”
It seems a bit wordy, a bit too precious, but overall it’s a good performance and I tell him so.
Davis appears completely indifferent to my praise. “It’s like the secret skill that nobody knows,” he says, carefully putting the poem back in his coat pocket. “Someday when I’m dead, they’ll publish ’em.”
His more enduring legacy will doubtless come from his advocacy forrather than creation ofart, but we are having a moment, so I don’t say anything. I actually know something about poetry, and having finally stumbled across a bridge between the bon vivant and myself, I seize the opportunity to invoke John Keats, my favorite poet. Naturally, as if he can’t help himself, Davis starts spouting lines from some of the famous odes:
Turn the key slowly in the oiled wards
And seal the hushed casket of my soul.
“‘Ode to Indolence?’” I venture, thinking it was from one of my favorite Keats poems on the pleasures of sheer laziness.
“No, that’s from ‘To Sleep,’” Davis corrects me.
Then he tells me something about Keats I didn’t know: The 25-year-old poet’s last whispered words, as he lay dying from tuberculosis in a garret in Rome: “It comes like ice.”
He closes his eyes againthis time clenching them shut as if trying to block out all the daylightand repeats the phrase again and again. He says that Keats’ tragic life story worked a powerful spell on him when Davis was a romantic youth. “I remember very clearly when I got to be his age when he wrote the odes, and I remember when I got to be his age when he stopped writing and then when he finally died. It was a very powerful thing to imagine that.”
Out of anyone else this would sound like pretentious bullshit, but Davis has me in his thrall, and I’m genuinely moved.
I follow him over to the offices of RADMAN Productions in a nearby skyscraper overlooking I-395. Davis’ cluttered desk is covered with fan mail; above it are photos of Wilde and of Davis as Wilde: It’s an uncanny resemblance. Davis recommends some early-music CDs that he has premiered on his nationally syndicated program, Millennium of Music. I ask what’s the big deal about all this pre-Bach monk-singing from the Middle Ages. To me the whole genre reeks of death and fear and trembling, I say. And of course, there was that obnoxious “chant” that hit the charts and became an anthem for the new-agers.
Davis listens to my complaining, clears his throat, and speaks in the tone of someone making a pronouncement: “It is cusp of the greatest invention in the history of Western artmultiple-voice music, that miracle of polyphony which gives us everything elseit really gave the world an opportunity to hear music in a different way.”
He starts into a big spiel about how polyphony created the first “vertical” music, but there’s no time to explain it any further right now. Davis remembers that he’s got a pressing appointment across Arlington. He’s introducing a film at the Pentagon City mall, a WETA-sponsored premiere of Elmo Saves Christmas.
Less than 10 minutes later, Davis is standing in the packed theater, joined by an audience of shrieking children anxious to see the movie and to meet Elmothe costumed Sesame Street character hovers at the back of the cinema. In the audience is Davis’ 5-year-old son Patrick and his grandmother, who is baby-sitting. A pleasant, matronly woman, she and the boy took the Metro from Wheaton to see the movie: It turns out it was Mrs. Davis who first introduced her son to Washington culture, taking him to concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra when he was just a tot himself.
Waiting for the movie to start, I read a copy of the October 1996 issue of the WETA magazine, and this Davis-penned passage catches my eye:
As a native Washingtonian, every memory that led to what I have become is here: the Monet exhibit at the National Gallery in the 1950s, colored like the lights in the Woodies’ and Hechts’ Christmas windows but miraculously captured on canvas; Howard Mitchell and the National Symphony Orchestra giving concerts in the vast cavern of Constitution Hall; “Our Town” coming to life on Arena’s Stage, more real than any movie ever could be; at the National Theatre, “Camelot” reincarnated in a time and place that defined an era that no one would ever guess would shatter and be lost. Every day, I remember that there is no dedication or effort great enough to repay this place for the incalculable wealth it has given me. All I can do as moderator of Around Town is to reinforce our community’s gratitude and support for the artists and actors, singers and dancers, curators and directors who are the ground troops and the warriors in keeping culture vital and indispensable in our lives.
The theater darkens and I fall asleep for most of the film. I dream about the Titty Twister but awaken just in time to see Elmo save Christmas.
A few days after our first meeting, I’m
listening to a broadcast of Songs for Aging Children, and I’m not impressed. I’m apparently in the minority, though. It’s another fund-raising show, and the station is flooded with callers pledging gobs of money.
The special program is paying tribute to Joni Mitchell, from whose song the show gets its rather twee title. I’ve always despised the music of this pale, brittle folkie, and this afternoon it really sounds especially simpering, praised to high heaven by Davis and Goldsmith. They’ve even got the nerve to hail Mitchell as one of the “greatest artists of all time.” It’s the typical fawning-classical-DJ treatment, as if they were talking about Mozart, fer chrissakes. Then they play “Chelsea Morning,” the treacly tune that inspired a young, pot-smoking couple, Bill and Hillary, when they named their daughter.
During a break from Mitchell’s insufferable warbling, Davis listens as Goldsmith waxes sentimental in an on-air confession of sorts: “You know, I took a walk this morning at Brookside Gardens, and the combination of the cloudy skies and the gorgeous foliage and the water and the architecture, it’s just so gorgeoustears were coming to my eyes, it was so beautiful. And the same response is true when I listen to the music of Joni Mitchell: What was it Mr. Keats said about truth and beauty? This is true artistry and true observations and beautiful songs and we hope that you’ll take advantage of this opportunity, not only to listen in as we are all doing, but to make a pledge in support of this kind of programming.”
There it is. Keats, achingly beautiful local tableaux, and true artistry; every morning’s a Chelsea morning when you’re Robert Aubry Davis. By the time the two-hour program ends, he and Goldsmith have raised more than $17,000, a staggering amount of pledge money. It’s a coup for the DJ duo and a cash cow for the radio station, but the event leaves a sour taste in my mouth. This whole Joni-as-Joan-of-Arc tripI mean, wasn’t punk rock supposed to put an end to all this navel-gazing hippie drivel?
But just in case I didn’t like this version of Davis, another appears right on schedule. The same evening I attend an event at the Washington Hebrew Congregation in northwest Washington. Davis is presenting a pre-concert seminar before a performance by the Tallis Scholars, a renowned early-music troupe from England. For medieval-music enthusiasts, the Tallis Scholars’ appearance here is a real happening, as if the Beatles were on tour.
During the seminar, mostly a question-and-answer affair, I have no idea what anyone is talking about. Once in a while, I hear the word “polyphony,” but that’s about the extent of my comprehension. Davis manages to keep things looseif that’s possible in such a settingcracking off-color jokes and generally cutting up when the air gets stale. The Tallis Scholars are nowhere to be seen, apparently cloistered in some back room, probably getting their vocal chords ready to sing 1,000-year-old chants in Latin. The troupe’s director, an extremely reserved British gent, mutters something about the acoustics of the place, but I can’t really understand.
In the break before the concert, Davis strides into the cavernous foyer and is mobbed by a group of middle-aged women. “These are my fans,” he kids softly. But in fact, that’s exactly what they are: early-music fanatics and Robert Aubry Davis groupies, as giddy as rose-tossers at a Neil Diamond show. One tells me that she could hardly bear to attend tonight’s concert because it means she’s missing Millennium of Music, which Davis tapes in advance of its 9 p.m. Sunday time slot. Another says that to her, Davis is simply the best thing about Washington, period.
The ushers hustle everybody inside, but at the door I see a sign that says you can’t leave the show once it begins. Visions of being trapped in the auditoriumas the tuxedoed troupe chants my funeral songoverwhelm me and I flee the building; I end up sharing a smoke with some security guards out front.
As the performance begins inside, I notice Davis standing on the dark sidewalk. He explains that he’s having a bout of recurring pneumonia and his voice is almost shot, which is why he didn’t speak much on that afternoon’s Songs for Aging Children or during tonight’s seminar. Despite his hoarseness, Davis still feels compelled to explain in detail the type of pneumonia that has nagged him all his life. There’s a bunch of fundraisers ahead, so he’s heading home to be healed.
Though many of its institutions, museums, and theaters remain, the Washington of Robert Aubry Davis is in a sense a vanished world.
An eighth-generation Washingtonian, Davis has his roots here, literallyhis grandfather is buried near the grave of John Philip Sousa in Congressional Cemetery. “Of course, they knew all those families that were here then, Kate Smith’s family, Al Jolson’s family,” he says. “The old family home is down on 4th and Virginia SW in a neighborhood that’s about gone now.”
His father, a lawyer, was the first to move outside the District. The 47-year-old Davis grew up and went to high school in Silver Spring, but he visited the city constantly, staking his claim in the art world: “When I was in elementary school, my mother brought me down. She got me into the symphonies and the galleries….I grew up in the National Gallery of Art, so I know that collection. From the time I was 12, I was riding the S2 bus from Silver Spring, going down there myself.”
The pint-size art lover wasn’t much with a brush (his elementary-school art teacher had given him a “needs encouragement” grade that devastated the straight-A student) but he was already a self-described “connoisseur.” Not bad for an adolescent in the age of the Beatles.
But the early overdose of high culture didn’t turn him into a nerd. He was also a fan of rock ‘n’ roll, whose culture shaped his aesthetic as much as the classical world. After his studies in literature and art history at Duke and American University, Davis roamed the country as a long-haired hippie, for a while working at Janis Joplin’s club in Austin, Texas.
Davis worked throughout the South at small newspapers and radio stations. “Burt Reynolds called me ‘fat boy’ once when I was in Jupiter, Fla.,” he cracks. It was in the tiny town of Jupiter that Davis had a defining moment: He met a rock DJ who had been a legend at New York’s WABC back in the ’50s; he’d drifted around, coasting on his fame, and was now a has-been at some nowhere station. “He said, ‘Never make that mistake. Go back to your hometown, invest in it, and really make it count,’ and that really stuck with me as good advice,” Davis says.
He’d already decided that classical DJing was the way to go (“I liked the work environment”), and he returned to Washington to try to make it in big-city broadcasting. While helping out at his father’s law firm in Rockville, Davis got in the door at Washington’s venerable classical-music station, WGMS-FM. But there was a slight problem: The station already had a disc jockey named Bob Davis, so Davis has been Robert Aubry ever since. He joined WETA in 1978 as an on-air personality and producer; for years, he was the afternoon DJ.
Once the prodigal had returned, there was no way he was ever leaving. His franchise is relentlessly local. It’s hard to imagine Davis down in Florida spinning golden oldies for aging hippies. But as a well-known classical-music personality for WETA in Washington, he can play those same records on an acclaimed show that has the veneer of scholarship and culture.
It took years of hustling for Davis to crack into the D.C. culture scene, and he’s grateful to be in the fold. “Washington is funny. It’s not forgiving and it’s not easy to get on the inside, but if you dedicate yourself to the town and you really care about the place and want to invest in it, it’ll take you in. This city will take care of you, and it will carry you if you’ve done something for itit’s like a familybut you’ve got to treat it with respect, because it’s a great city with a great heritage,” he says.
All of which makes Davis mighty prickly when it comes to defending Washington’s arts scene. He bristles when he hears New Yorkers disparage his turf as the “provinces.” He’s had Boston pinstripers tell him they’re tired of funding his “cushy government arts job.” “These political types that come ina lot of times you sort of get the sense that they’re above it all, and that’s what we’re always lamenting about on Around Town, that it’d be nice to get a sitting president to go to a local theater.”
So far, Clinton has yet to pop in at Woolly Mammoth, but that doesn’t mean Davis will stop trying. There is another term to come, after allplenty of time to raise the president’s cultural IQ.
It’s a Friday evening at the Folger Shakespeare Theater on Capitol Hill. Davis has just given a seminar on tonight’s performance of medieval and Renaissance music. Dressed in a black tuxedo and draped with a red scarf, he stands at the entrance to the lavishly adorned theater, which is modeled on the Globe Theater of the Elizabethan age. He’s as comfortable here in his tux and Shakespearean splendor as he was introducing Elmo to a passel of screaming kids. He seems to know everybody, from the concession workers to the spectators, who nod in recognition as they file in.
“He’s a real citizen of the Folger,” says the theater’s director.
“This is my home away from home,” quips Davis. “My Hyatt House.”
Through the front door bursts a silver-haired matron in a fur coat that brings to mind three dry-cleaned ferrets.
“We’re a little bit late, but our grandson and our daughter are visiting us, so we’re a little bit late.”
“That’s great,” says Davis. “You should make them come to this.”
“Well, he’s only a year-and-a-half old,” she explains. “He might be distracting.”
Davis nods his head in parental sympathy. “I had Patrick here and we had to keep our fingers in his mouth the whole time.”
“Wyatt’s 20 months old and he comes in from Montanathey don’t really know much about this kind of thing out there.”
“That’s a little surprising,” comes the playful reply. “It’ll startyou’ll see.”
In walks the woman’s husband, resplendently tacky in a red sport coat, white slacks, and white shoes.
Davis sizes up the sartorial mismatch and lets loose a sly volley:
“How come she looks like this and you look like thatare you going to two different events?”
“I’m not sure where she’s going, I just drive her car,” says the grinning hubbie, following his wife inside.
A small group begins to clump around Davis, his usual crew of groupies.
“What did you think of the Tallis Scholars?” asks Davis.
“It was a good show, but they were kind of having an off night,” says a tall, serious man with a clipped beard. “It wasn’t as good as when they played the National Cathedral in April.”
“The hall was tough,” says Davis knowingly, even though he left when I did.
Then comes the evening’s performance, Political Fortunes, a concert of satirical music from medieval France and Renaissance England. I’m catching a buzz from a mouthful of Swiss herbal cough drops (free at the door), but the show’s not working for me. The French portion would seem to have potential; it’s about a talking horse named Fauvel, but unfortunately he’s no Mr. Ed. The singing is forced, the humor stilted, and the effect sheer pretension. At times, the Folger Consort, a quartet playing period instruments, rises to the level of a competent bluegrass band, but mostly the whole thing leaves me cold, especially the audience of rich politicos chortling at the bawdy, scatological jokes safely removed by a few centuries. A geezer next to me gently snores through most of performance, his gold Timex ticking away precious seconds from both our lives.
Afterward, I realize that Davis has scooted early and I’m back to square one. I still can’t stand this artsy crap.
All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music.19th-century British aesthete Walter Pater, mentor of Oscar Wilde
“It’s piss, it’s horrible, it’s not beer.” Davis and I are sitting in Mama Ayesha’s, the laid-back Adams Morgan landmark, having a meal before an evening of theater. I’ve just made the mistake of ordering a Budweiser to his Heineken.
I am offended. Davis may know more about polyphonies, but beer is something I’ve done a fair amount of research about. And his overpriced skunk import is nothing to brag about.
“I understand what you’re saying as far as a connoisseur,” I say pointedly.
“NO, NO, NO,” he thunders. “It’s piss, it’s horrible, and it’s not beerthat’s what I’m saying. Oh, God! That’s not really beerit’s rice and cobalt. Upgrade!”
“I’m into ale,” I offer.
“Ale’s not beer, either,” he says. “Now, the English can make ale.”
Gulping his beer, Davis reiterates his love for Dutch beer and Dutch landscape painting, the subject of his college thesis paper.
He raves about the restaurant; Davis has been coming here since the ’60s, when it boasted a wild jukebox of rock and Middle Eastern tunes mixed together.
“I’m very hyperaesthetic, musically. I’m always aware of every piece of Muzak wherever I goI know exactly what I’m hearing.” He pauses to focus on the Middle Eastern tune blaring from the restaurant’s sound system and immediately launches into a riff. “This is a love song sung in Palestinian, a song from a popular Palestinian movie…. Most Eastern music that we would identify as Eastern is very influenced by Western music. This is an interesting conflation of the twoit’s aware of Western music, but it follows the modal system of Eastern music and at the same time it goes back to the very ancient form of singing known as the ghazal, a devotional love song.”
Where in hell does he get this stuff? And how can there be so much of it? I have spent days wandering around in his vapor trail and have never caught sight of a moment of uncertainty. I’m anxious to get away from further digressions into ghazal singing, so I tell him how much the Joni Mitchell show depressed me. Then I venture that Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny was a much better, more soulful singer, the real diva of folk music. Trying to get him back on his heels just once, I suggest, “It’s like here’s a goddamn dandelion and here’s fucking sassafrasand you know which is which.”
As soon as I say it, I realize I’ve just lobbed a softball to Babe Ruth.
“Yes I do, actually,” he says, licking his chops. “Sandy is sassafras and Joni is dandelion, and the ironic thing is you’re right because, with dandelion a.) you can make wine from them and you can’t make wine from sassafras, and b.) an actual fact, it’s more healing to have dandelion than sassafras.”
Davis launches into a tirade on my flawed aesthetics. “I don’t walk through a museum and say, ‘I hate that fucking Raphael but I like that Leonardo da Vinci.’ I think that’s exclusionistic, so I try not make those kinds of judgments. So I’m not denying Sandy Denny, I’m only pointing out how wrong you are about Joni Mitchell. Either you’ll grow into it, or it’ll never happen for you. The point is, it’s a specious argument, and the music will live beyond us.”
I pass on the food, while he downs a plateful of lamb kebab and kafta, grape leaves, and rice. My Bud tastes fine and I’m beginning to tire of hanging with this know-it-all.
In fact, except for Keats, there’s little we actually agree on. His total-war defense of Joni Mitchell is unbearable and cowardly, as is his declaration that the argument, which I’ve greatly enjoyed, is “specious.” In fact, there’s only one honorable way to settle our spat: the way my machinist grandfather (whose pronunciation of this city’s name, “Warshington,” Davis informs me was actually Jacobean, according to linguists) would haveoutside, bare knuckles, no biting. I’m glowering by now, but Davis seems not to notice.
“Washington is actually very nurturing for young artists,” he says, chewing on a
grape leaf. “Even though that’s not what people think.”
I wonder aloud why, if Washington’s such a nurturing art community, home-grown culture like the go-go scene, for an obvious example, can barely survive. WETA, Joni Mitchell, and the Kennedy Center are light years from those kid bands beating on buckets on D.C. street corners. Davis probably doesn’t know much about go-go, but I’m too crabby to take any satisfaction in having finally found a form of artistic expression that escapes his eminence.
Outside the restaurant, we take in the view of the Duke Ellington Bridge: “God, that’s beautiful, it reminds me of Europe.” He points to a nearby row house: “President Garfield once lived there; I’m related to him.”
Soon we’re scooting toward the theater in his Subaru, through a cascade of leaves blowing in the evening breeze. “God, I love that,” he says. “There’s an incredible French poem by Paul Verlaine which is actually written like leaves falling.” He recites the poem in French, before translating the final lines: “I am transported as if in this ill windback and forthlike a dead leaf.”
There he goes again. I feel as blown about as one of the leaves, buffeted by his relentless fusing of life and French poetry.
At the Church Street Theater, the tiny repertory house near Dupont Circle, we watch a riveting one-man show, Fixin to Die: A Visit to the Mind of Lee Atwater. It’s a great performance, far better and more disturbing than From Dusk Till Dawn, and I feel as if osmosis is beginning to kick in.
As we head up the aisle after the show, a woman in the audience accosts Davis, telling him how much she enjoyed his performance at Dumbarton Oaks Church, his annual “Celtic Christmas” recital. She can’t wait to see it again this year; “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done in Washington,” she gushes.
Outside the theater, Davis is invigorated. “I happen to think that theater is where the integrity and quality of contemporary art has gone, more than music, more than painting. I think theater is where the real genius has fled, and Washington has an extraordinary theater scene, especially in the smaller spaces,” he says.
We walk to the car under the clear night sky, and Davis takes a minute to explain how important knowledge of the zodiac is to understanding the arts and literature of the ancient world.
Now art should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic.Oscar Wilde
A week later, I’m sitting in a packed auditorium at the IDB Cultural Center in downtown Washington. Even though it’s 6 p.m. on a Monday night, more than 200 people have come to hear Davis give an opera appreciation lecture.
The topic is the upcoming season premiere of the Washington Opera, an obscure Brazilian opera, Il Guarany. Yeow.
“This is a whole new worldwelcome to the 19th century, buddy,” Davis tells me before the lecture. It looks as though Davis has shifted gears on me again, flacking for the Washington Opera. Pulling out his appointment book, he says, “Here’s November. It’s all Il Guarany, except for this huge thing I’m doing on the Odyssey of Homer. There’s a fabulous new translation and there’s a big event for it at the Smithsonian. We’re doing a recital, interview, a communal experience.”
Then, as the bossa nova music of Antonio Jobim pulsates from a portable stereo, Davis addresses the audience: “I spent the afternoon at the Brazilian Embassy finding out what I discovered is the real truth behind Brazilian history and culture. I’ve learned a great deal, because the history books we have don’t tell us the subtext, and so much of what we find in the remarkable Carlos Gomes and his Il Guarany is all about subtext….For those of us like myself who are native Washingtonians, what we know of Brazil is the music we’re hearing nowJobim. Now, what the heck is this Brazilian national opera?”
Davis holds his granny glasses and starts riffing: “Well, I started exploring it and figuring out what this is all about, and it brought about a lot of fascinating issues, which I’m going to share with you in the way that I tend to do, which those of you who know would relate my lecture style to something like the way one looks at a Monet, which is to say, if we all get up kind of close all you find are
little paint splotches, but when you stand
back there’s actually a boat on the Seine, and I hope we can make a boat on the Seine out of
For the next hour, referring only to a few pages of scribbled notes on a legal pad, Davis tells an amazing saga of a forgotten genius with obscure antecedents, including a freewheeling digression about the history of shopping centers in old Europe. He plays snippets of the opera on the stereo, he cracks jokes, he brings the whole thing to life. It’s a virtuoso performance, sort of a miniopera in itself.
I’m inspired enough to actually try to attend the operaa genre for which I once swore an undying hatred.
But then Davis explains to the audience that the show is sold out, except for a few $500 tickets.
Hell, I’d have probably fallen asleep anyway. Besides, life is short and opera is long.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.