Her sallow cheeks, bruise-colored eye shadow and frowsy brown hair give her the look of an Edith Piaf redesigned by macabre cartoonist Charles Addams. Stalking the stage, she nervously drags on a cigarette between bursts of such lyrics as: “I heard him say he wasn’t gonna kill you/He was just gonna f—- up your pretty face.”
As the unorthodox greeter for the hot L.A. punk band the Motels, Martha Davis, 31, seems indeed to be the rock music equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Norman Bates. But she’s Psycho like a fox. Her group recently checked into the Top 10 with its single “Only the Lonely”. The quintet’s third LP, All Four One, has reached the Top 20, propelled by appearances in 32 cities during a recent U.S. tour. The influential Los Angeles Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn has called Davis “arguably the most charismatic female performer in rock.”
Meanwhile, in her Encino home, she is at times a surprisingly normal suburban mom who describes her household as “the Brady Bunch without Alice the housekeeper.” The Davis brood includes daughters Maria, 16, and Patricia, 14, and son Phil, 15, whom she just adopted from her sister. And when Martha shouts, “Could you let the ducks out?” she is referring not to another oddly named punk band but to the real thing—Duckless Fairbanks Jr. and Cluck Kent, to be exact. The family menagerie also includes a homing pigeon on the mend, three cats, a sheep dog terrier called Mole and a caged rabbit named Ruby. “When I walk onstage I have no idea when I become the other Martha,” Davis says. “She almost frightens me. Who is this person?”
Whoever she is, it took some doing to create her. Davis was born to a University of California administrator father and onetime kindergarten teacher mother in Berkeley. “My mother was a complete bohemian nut who loved art, music and philosophy,” Davis recalls. Her father was “basically conservative.” Martha started guitar and ballet lessons at age 8, and by her early teen years, she says, “I wore short black skirts, little spiked heels and teased my hair up. I was a wimp studying the art of juvenile delinquency.” At 15, she had dropped out of school, married and had her first child; soon thereafter she was living with her Air Force enlistee husband, Ronnie Paschell, in Florida. It was a tumultuous, unhappy marriage, and after he was sent to Vietnam, Martha wrote him a “Dear Ronnie” letter and moved back to Berkeley; they were divorced. “I think he’s living in Oregon now,” she says. “I’m not sure.”
When Davis was 19, her mother, by then divorced from her father, committed suicide, leaving a note that just said “Where are you now?” over and over. “My mother became the wife she thought my father wanted her to be,” Davis says. “It was a brutal and lonely lesson when she died, but I learned from her not to give myself up.”
Martha bought a Berkeley house with the money her mother left her and, surviving on welfare, turned her interest to music. Remember the War-field Foxes and Angels of Mercy? Right. As a punk pioneer in Los Angeles, she says, “We were too raw and punk for music when mainstream groups like the Eagles were making it big.” Also around the punk hub Pussycat Theatre was a girl group called the Go-Go’s. “You could tell when they’d been there,” Davis laughs. “The mike would be standing at 4’5″ and covered with Day-Glo lipstick.”
In 1979 the Motels signed with Capitol Records. After two albums that were critically acclaimed but commercially unremarkable, the band recorded a third only to have it rejected. Then Davis and lead guitarist Tim McGovern, who were lovers for almost four years as well as bandmates, began to feud openly. “He began demanding the power,” she says. “I’m not territorial at all until it’s taken away from me, and then I get into a protective-bitch attitude.” The power struggle ended when McGovern split. Martha and the Motels hired Bette Davis Eyes producer Val Garay as the group’s manager. He also produced All Four One.
Davis has struck gold romantically, too, with guitarist Kevin McCormick, 22. They’ve lived together for nine months, loosely chaperoned by Patricia and Maria. “It’s easy to party every night,” Martha says, “but my kids will catch me jawing at 6 a.m. and yell, ‘HEY, MOM, DO YOU KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS?’ It’s the same guilt I felt as a kid when I thought I was messing up.”