Death is an impudent flirt
in satin pumps,
an old dress of Jayne Mansfield's
stockings (one with crooked seam),
bright red lipstick
and an unkempt beard ...
— "Death" excerpt by Rik Davis, published in "Poems of New Bohemia," 1983
Even after 30 years, there is pain.
"I was in a band called the Orthotonics, and we were playing in the 538 Club there on Harrison Street, and Rik worked at the porno shop right beside it," former Richmond musician Rebby Sharp recalls.
"It turned out that we were playing the night he died. ... and he was right on the other side of that wall dying, while we were playing music."
She takes a minute to compose herself. "That always really upset me," she says. "But then there was something that occurred to me: that if he could hear through that wall, then he heard our music while he was dying."
Richmond poet James Patrick "Rik" Davis was savagely murdered in the bathroom of the former B&T Adult Bookstore at 1203 W. Broad St. sometime between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. on April 8, 1983. His death — like his life — remains shrouded in mystery and speculation. Thirty years later, no arrest has been made and the case remains open. Richmond police confirm basic facts of the case, but refuse to provide details from the investigation.
When a lanky, bearded, 18-year-old beat poet turned up in Richmond in 1958, it was only appropriate he find solace on the 800 and 900 blocks of West Grace Street. It was less than two blocks from where he would die 25 years later.
Davis arrived fresh from poetry gigs at the famous Lighthouse Club and Restaurant in Hermosa Beach, Calif., where he recited poetry alongside such beat notables as Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen. In Richmond he endeared himself to artists, beatniks, leftists, writers, college students and especially, young women, in the Village Restaurant at its former location at the southeast corner Grace and Harrison streets. He wrote poetry out of love and soon pornography out of financial necessity.
Richmond had a vibrant beatnik presence in 1958, centered on the Richmond Professional Institute, the predecessor to Virginia Commonwealth University, and the West Grace Street community. In addition to the strong beat community, "there also was a strong intellectual gay community that contributed to this whole scene, and the Village Restaurant was a strong melting pot for this," says Bill Creekmur, a retired investigator lieutenant with the City of Richmond Sheriff's Office.
A couple of doors down and across the street from the Village was a beer joint called Eton's Inn. Originally opened in 1947, Eton's became a hangout for Richmond's artistic, gay and counterculture community.
"Eton's had a large, circular table at the front that seated some of Richmond's early avant-garde such as Bill Jones, Susan Bush, Ray Herman, Chuck Diamond, Paul Miller, Faith Butler, Gypsy, Lester Blackiston, Kenny Potts, et al." artist Eddie Peters writes. "Norman Lassiter eventually moved to NYC where he ran a silk screen operation and did many screens for Andy Warhol. Tom Robbins was also an early character and was close friends with Bill Jones as well as Bill Kendrick. Pat Williams was part of this early bohemian scene and purportedly was a model for a character in Robbins' "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues."
Robbins painted a portrait of the area in part through columns for the RPI school newspaper. He opined of art students as "loners sipping beers in back booths" and of women in their "search for snug harbors in which to drop their delicate anchors." As for West Grace Street, it "takes on an insect quality in the spring," he wrote. "People swarm over the front porches and over the front steps of every 'Beat' apartment house."
"I met Rik Davis there at the Village," longtime friend Roy Scherer says. "I met people I liked, and who liked me — pretty rare experience. I started hanging around there a lot. I also met Lester Blackiston there, and got gradually hooked up with the hippie culture."
Little is known of Davis's childhood. Born Oct. 29, 1940, he was orphaned at a young age and adopted by the Tom Davis family of Allentown, Penn. Every Christmas into his adult life he received a rum fruitcake from a female relative in Elkins, W. Va., possibly a grandmother or an aunt, no one was sure.
"In 1946, I lived in a little village [where] I printed a little newspaper full of gossip," he told the Commonwealth Times in 1969. "No one knew what I was talking about but it was very impressive."
Ever the nomad, and not one to set a pattern, Davis would seem to be established in Richmond one month and in California the next, living in a truck. He was married, but opinions vary about how many times. One of his ex-wives reportedly lives in California.
Fellow Richmond beat poet and local character Lester Blackiston first met Davis at a coffeehouse poetry reading in Washington in 1957. He remembered him as "this tall skinny guy standing at a bus stop trying to make an impression on the world," as he told Donald C. Wilson, in an October 1983 interview for Throttle magazine. "[I took him] under my wing and taught him everything I knew."
Once in Richmond together, Davis and Blackiston began a lifelong friendship, even though the two seemed to have almost nothing in common besides an unquenchable love for writing and reciting poetry and short fiction. One of Richmond's more unique poetic talents, Blackiston was obnoxious and even violent, according to some friends, but at the epicenter of artistic literary activity in the late 1950s while living on Laurel Street near the Mosque, now the Altria Theater.
Friends say Blackiston would arrive at the Village Restaurant or Eton's Inn, and then walk down the aisles, loudly reading poetry and demanding to know if his work was worth money. He sometimes walked out with almost a hundred dollars from people probably intimidated into paying the volatile poet. While living in a houseboat in Shockoe Bottom, he was rumored to have thrown a dead cow into the Kanawha canal to force the city to pump it out for cleaning. He sometimes drunkenly fired a pistol at parties.
Yet Blackiston always seemed to be surrounded by a large assortment of poets, writers, fine artists and groupies, so it was easy to see how an impressionable young out-of-town poet like Davis would be drawn to such an animated personality.
"I found Lester to be ... unpleasant," says Scherer, choosing his words carefully. "I was not friends, I was acquainted. Rik, on the other hand, I liked and admired. He was the unacknowledged VIP in the subculture around the Fan."
Davis was a "kind and gentle man," according to friend Peggy Creel in that 1983 Throttle article, with a "heart of gold and a talent for the unconventional," which emphasized the odd friendship between the two men. While Blackiston was ranting and waving guns, Davis' routine was to go to the Village every night, sit in the same seat near the back, and write until closing. Many times he'd strike up a conversation with whoever was seated near him, then write them a poem and give it to them.
Davis stuck up for Blackiston, his unpredictable friend. "One night Lester was down at Rik's apartment and he was real intoxicated," longtime friend Chuck Wrenn recalls, "and Rik called me up upstairs and asked me if I could give Lester a ride home ... and I said, sure, but how drunk is he? I wanted to know what I was dealing with, because Lester was kind of volatile. And Lester heard me say that on the phone, and I heard him say 'I'm gonna come up there and kill ya!' And I went out the back door and just left."
For many years starting in the mid-1960s, Davis wrote graphic pornographic novels for various publishers under the pseudonym "Jack Vast" (among others) to support himself. Some Jack Vast titles include "Sex Marathon" (Playtime Books, 1963), "Society Swinger" (Golden Books, 1967) and "Lust Can't Hide" (National Library Books, 1965), although it's unknown if Davis was the sole author of all of them.
In 1968 Davis was admitted to Virginia Commonwealth University's English department — the year RPI and the Medical College of Virginia merged into VCU. In the fall of 1969 he wrote a humor column for the Commonwealth Times called "Electric Kumquat Cabala." Soon after, he apparently left VCU without a degree.
"My impression of Rik was not particularly good," says former acquaintance, Bunny Creekmur, in the kitchen of her Fan District home. "I thought the fact that he was a pornographer was interesting. If you want to make a living and do it right and that's the only way you can support the habit, then go for it. Other than that he was kind of slimy."
Musician and former Orthotonics member Sharp recalls her impressions of Davis when she arrived in Richmond in the mid-'70s. "Rik could be a little scary, and he had a way of talking that was a little off and odd," she says, "but there were a lot of people on the street who were off-putting, you know. Let's face it, this was Richmond in 1975, and there was all manner of strange and creative and seedy people that I had not before been exposed to. I do know he was in contact with some people who were active criminals."
"I used to hang with him," says longtime Richmonder and former furniture designer Sam Forrest. "We would leave the Village when it would close about 10, then everybody would get a six-pack or a bottle of wine and go over to somebody's house. Rik would frequently have people over, but he would be sitting there typing and people would be drinking and hollering all around him."
Another love Davis and his friend Blackiston shared was the underground newspaper The Sunflower, which published biweekly between October 1967 and November 1968. While Blackiston got his first byline with an article titled "A Three Part Article or Bust" in the debut issue, a byline by Davis did not show up until the second issue. It was a touching back page eulogy to the recently deceased musician Woody Guthrie, a man with whom Davis probably felt a strong kinship: "Woody held as many jobs as any Beat author ever bragged about — farmhand, oilfield roustabout, factory worker, merchant mariner, soldier, singer ...Woody left his home in Okemah, Oklahoma, to begin crisscrossing America, everybody knew him, him or his songs."
In that eulogy Davis acknowledged visiting the American poet and songwriter when he was hospitalized in Greystone hospital in New Jersey for Huntington's disease in 1956, claiming that Guthrie was "as glad to see a 16-year-old stranger as he [was] to see Pete Seeger."
Davis closed his article on Guthrie with poignant remembrance that became a horrible omen of things to come: "No, Woody, you don't have a home here anymore, not in the world. But, as long as men toil with their hands, as long as they walk the highways out of futility and deprivation, as long as they sing; because there is nothing else to do; you'll have a home in our hearts. Goodbye, Woody Guthrie, goodbye."
Oh, gleaming star against the dreaming days;
Women's legend is writ within your eyes:
And every knowledge of your kind is there, for
him who dares risks learning the secret of
the language of your swift and thirsting gaze.
The aching hunger for today now flies
From ancient wonder standing at the door,
Dancing gestures speak another guise of love.
And Artemis another time portrays
The loving fury of her great surprise:
The threat'ning bliss that men, and Gods, adore;
Joy that soars above the highest flying dove.
Heaven stands atremble with sudden awe
Of the sweetest heresy it ever saw.
— Untitled, from "The Carol Poems" by Rik Davis, Oct. 8, 1968
In 1981 Davis took a job working the night shift at the now long-gone B&T Adult Bookstore at the corner of Harrison and Broad streets. Concerned for his safety, Blackiston suggested that he get a gun for protection — a prospect Davis rejected, refusing to carry any type of weapon. Davis did accept a small pocketknife from his friend on his 40th birthday. And that's the pocketknife purportedly used by an assailant to stab Davis to death that awful night the Orthotonics played on the other side of the wall.
The word around Richmond at the time was that the killer plunged the knife more than 40 times into Davis' body, which had been stripped nude and tied to a chair in a bathroom with the cord of a wall clock that was stopped at 11:30 p.m.
According to a story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on April 10, 1983, Davis apparently was sweeping up when he may have let the killer into the store, because there was no sign of forced entry. The assailant inexplicably remained in the store all night, surprising and overpowering the day manager, Edward Henderson, when he showed up the next morning at 7. Though Henderson was robbed, bound and gagged, he wasn't seriously injured. The assailant stole his car, which was recovered at Bowe and Broad streets.
Henderson was able to extricate himself after the assailant left. He ran to the Village Restaurant and called police. It was after the police arrived that Davis's body was discovered in the bathroom.
"The apparent motive for the attack was robbery," the Richmond News Leader reported April 11, 1983. "An undetermined amount of cash was taken from the bookstore and Davis may have been robbed also, according to police."
"In the unlikely event [Davis] accidentally left the door unlocked after he closed, or someone hid in one of the booths, and he started cleaning before checking the booths, it was apparently somebody that he knew," Scherer says. "A mutual friend was living in the apartment over Dutch's [restaurant] on the corner of Grace and Harrison, on the third floor, and he was in the habit of bringing Rik a sandwich or something that time of night. But he had been tripping that night, and did not do so. He was pretty broken up over it, and we wound up taking him to Central State [Hospital] with a psychotic breakdown. He was blaming himself for not having been there."
Scherer recalls that there were three main suspects in Davis' death, although a 2013 inquiry into the original police report doesn't substantiate that recollection. Rumors that Davis had been arrested in the weeks prior to his murder were also unsubstantiated in the file.
"He has outdone me," Blackiston said in the 1983 Throttle story. "This gentle, sweet fool Davis killed by some poor bastard who thinks so little of life that he'd take it from someone else."
"Why can't people like that just give it up?" he continued, "just do themselves in and leave the rest of us alone. ... Do they want poetry to come out of the fucking mud?"
His death still haunts and angers Scherer, who recalls his friend, eyes piercing. "There is a perennial debate over capital punishment, and I am against it," he says. "But if I ever find the person that killed Rik, and knew that was the person, satisfactory in my own mind, that person would suffer the death penalty. And they would confess before they died. That's where I am on that one."
Davis, killed less than two months after his last reading at Roger Coffey and Richard Bland's Grove Avenue Gallery, left behind only a roomful of secondhand possessions, a box full of fiction and poetry and almost 200 pornographic novels written by him. His body was claimed by his friends Gene Creel and Mike Woods. As per Davis's request, his body was cremated and the ashes given to Scherer.
It was half-seriously suggested at a post-mortem party in Shockoe Bottom to mix his ashes with alcohol and drink a toast to his memory, but that idea was eventually rejected.
"I no longer have Rik's ashes" Scherer says. "I had them, along with the rest of my other stuff in storage on Grove. They sold the building and cleared everything out of that space, and it all went to the dump, including back issues of damn near every underground magazine published in Richmond, and about 150 underground comics. ... But that's the way that shit goes."
Davis never lived more than four blocks from the Village, never learned how to drive a car, and except for B&T Bookstore, never held a job for more than a year. Yet he seemed to know people all over the United States. But his murder received no more than passing mentions in both of Richmond's daily newspapers. No family was available to provide an obituary.
As for the unanswered questions about his murder, there are many. The store manager, Henderson, who was neither killed nor injured, told police that the assailant who surprised him in the store that morning had a gun. But Davis was supposedly stabbed to death. There's also no explanation why the assailant remained inside the store eight hours after killing Davis. If the sole motive was robbery, as the police told the daily papers, why was Davis murdered so brutally?
Detective William Thompson of the Richmond Police Department's cold case unit re-opened Davis' file Feb. 5, but wouldn't offer any possible answers to those questions. "I am unable to release those case facts," he writes in a Feb. 7 email, "even though the case has not been looked at by our unit until now ... releasing any open case details would taint any possible information down the road and it just isn't ethical for me to do knowing the case has not been solved."
He did confirm that "there is no indication of revenge as a motive."
Years after losing his "compatriot," Blackiston moved out of his Shockoe Bottom houseboat and relocated to Deltaville. He died Oct. 30, 2007.
In Blackiston's obituary, published in the Times-Dispatch, Bill McKelway writes: "A gravel-voiced, two-fisted Bohemian, Mr. Blackiston was as comfortable in the boxing ring with novelist Norman Mailer as he was living on a houseboat 40 years ago on the Kanawha Canal in Shockoe Bottom or reciting his own poetry in coffee houses from New York to Atlanta."
A scarce few collections of Blackiston's poetry can be found online, including "Concrete and sunlight; Twenty-one poems" (1958) and "Poems to girls, women, and the dead," which was published in an edition of a thousand copies by Richmond's Leake Printing Press in 1968.
Ever loyal to his friend, Davis reviewed "Poems to girls, women, and the dead" in the May 28, 1968, edition of The Sunflower, writing: "People who know only the legendary Lester think of him as a mad, wine-drinking, brawling poet/fool/saint/hermit. Well, he is, but he's also capable of extreme gentleness, compassion and magnanimity."
A few chapbooks and anthologies containing Davis's poetry also can be found online, including "Dreams and Heresies" (South and West Inc., 1966), "Dreams do not Reflect Mirrors" (Park Andrik Press, 1968), "The Carol Poems" (Daltus Press, 1972) and the anthology "Poems of New Bohemia" (Roger Coffey, 1983), which includes work by Richmond writers Joe Essid and Deana Campbell, among others.
The whereabouts of all of Davis's personal possessions, books and poems is unknown. S
another fire has died
long before we had
gotten warm enough.
— "Reaction to the Death of Jimi Hendricks" by Rik Davis, c. 1973