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JUNE 2005


Robert Davolt and the Legacy of Drummer

By Dusk Peterson

Robert Davolt and I were arguing again. I say "again" because, during the seven months we had been corresponding by e-mail, our conversations had often come in the form of battles over various issues.

Drummer was the subject that was most likely to tick off a new round of fiery e-mails between us. I was researching the gay leather magazine that not only had shaped the lives of thousands of leathermen at the time it was published, but which had also shaped my own life, changing my views on gay pornography and shifting the direction of my career.

For Robert Davolt, on the other hand, Drummer was not simply part of his career; it was his passion. He had been the final editor and publisher of Drummer – indeed, he told me that most of the content of the final issues, published at a time when the magazine was drained of money, had been his own. Since the day when the influential magazine ended in 1999, he had considered himself to be the guardian of its legacy. He was the man who claimed rights over the publication (though another claimant existed), and who kept what he called the "mortal remains" of Drummer: the magazine's existing records.

So here I was, freshly arrived in the leather world, making pronouncements on what I regarded Drummer's legacy to be. Nothing could have been better guaranteed to irritate him.

In conversations about Drummer, Mr. Davolt was like a father lion protecting his cub. (The usual image is of a mother cub, but the leather community has shown that daddies have nurturing qualities as well.) He was convinced that, without his careful watch, vultures would descend upon Drummer and strip it to its bones.

Though we were both agreed on the need to respect the legacy of Drummer, Mr. Davolt and I sometimes disagreed on the best way to do so. One night, I found myself quarreling with him by e-mail on an issue that I believed he was getting far too worked up about. When I was foolish enough to make a blithe joke about Drummer, Mr. Davolt exploded. He was apparently convinced that I held a cavalier attitude toward a serious issue. We wrangled for a couple of e-mails, with me becoming more and more exasperated at Mr. Davolt's ferocity. At a certain point I grumbled to friends that Robert Davolt was making a mountain out of molehill.

Two hours later, he e-mailed me again. He had news, he said. He hadn't been sure whether to tell me, because the news hadn't yet been officially announced, but he wanted me to understand why it was that he took the issue of Drummer's future so seriously.

It was April 30. Sixteen days later, Robert Davolt died of cancer at the age of 47, as his doctors had predicted during that bleak month of April.

* * *

The daddy lion cared over his cub till the end. Mr. Davolt's final e-mails to me were mainly about Drummer, for he rightly guessed that I would want to explore his personal papers. These were being donated to the Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago, and they included the surviving records of Drummer. He wanted me to understand, before it was too late, what that legacy meant.

Mr. Davolt's accomplishments were not confined to his work for Drummer, of course. At the time of his death, he was heavily involved in the San Francisco leather community, was a former titleholder (having been Mr. San Francisco Leather Daddy XIX), was editor of the long-standing leather magazine Bound & Gagged, was a columnist for LeatherPage.com, and had authored Painfully Obvious: An Irreverent and Unauthorized Manual for Leather/SM (Daedalus, 2004). He had other writing projects in preparation, which may see print some day.

But Drummer was the main point of interaction between the two of us, and he was generous in providing me with information on the magazine. In my first letter to him, in September 2004, I asked him simply whether he had any objections to my placing the Drummer tables of contents online. He responded with a lengthy and fascinating discussion of Drummer's history, as he had experienced it. Immediately after announcing his impending death to me, he offered to answer any remaining questions I had about Drummer. When I tentatively said that I wouldn't mind knowing the pen names he'd written under at Drummer – but not if he was busy with more important matters – he quickly responded, listing all the pseudonyms he remembered.

His passion was not confined to Drummer. It lay in many issues related to leather, as readers of his column could tell. Nor was his interest in leather issues abstract; anyone who has read the tributes to him on e-mail lists can gather that he was eager to serve as a mentor to others. Each person who met Robert Davolt encountered a different aspect to this multi-faceted man: positive, negative, or both.

What struck me most forcefully in my dealings with Mr. Davolt, during the short time that I knew him, was his strong belief in the importance of leather publishing and journalism.

"Journalism, politics and prostitution are said to be the three professions most often ruined by amateurs." This is Mr. Davolt's biting beginning to his "Advice for the Ambitious Leather Columnist," an essay reprinted in Painfully Obvious that I virtually memorized when I first began to contemplate entering leather journalism. Yet, in correspondence, his tone softened as he discussed his own career as a journalist, editor, and publisher. 

"I have letters that I treasure from men in small, intolerant towns, in prison, in isolated circumstances," Mr. Davolt wrote to me in April, describing his time as publisher of the world's most famous leather magazine. "Drummer was more than just porn to them . . . it was a touchstone for a larger world, a community and a camaraderie. It wasn't me, personally, of course . . . or the magazines or the contests . . . but it was the idea of Drummer, the whole indefinable concept of being a part of it. It made the job unique."

That Drummer touched many readers was obvious from posts made by members of a leather e-mail list in response to remarks by Mr. Davolt about the magazine.

"Drummer was the secret motivator that led me out of the woods of rural North Carolina to the dark recesses of Los Angeles," wrote one member. "[In those days], I had no Master under whom to learn, I kept my leather desires mostly secret for years. I had only Drummer to instruct me in this world, and I learned to play both roles, forcing myself to take more pain, to stretch my hole larger, to take the self-inflicted blows in hopes of one day finding the Master to own me. I worked to prepare myself, alone in an isolated farm house, to be worthy of serving Men."

Mr. Davolt himself attributed the success of Drummer to his fellow leathermen. He wrote to me in that same discussion:

"We – me with the bottom line practicality and you with your academic literary models – both ignore the intangibles of  leather culture which always interplayed with the business end of Drummer at the strangest times. I had to rely on the leather brothers I had known for 20 years (and that mysterious element of leather brotherhood) to pull me through more than once. Maybe if this were a Asian weekly newspaper that would be the 'Asian community cultural bonds' or if it were a Catholic charities organization that would be the 'faith and community of believers.' I can't define it exactly, but it pushed me to do things I never thought I could do . . . and I have heard similar stories from my predecessors at Drummer."

His next paragraph was a tribute to the other men and women who ran Drummer. It also serves well as a final and fitting tribute to Robert Davolt – a testimony to the role he played in helping establish Drummer's legacy.

He said, "I can't explain why Drummer – considering who ran it and how – survived as long as it did. Take every rule of small business and we broke it. Maybe Drummer defied the odds because there were a whole successive line of overdedicated lunatics who kept it going . . . who were stupid and crazy enough that, when the ink ran out, they willingly opened a vein to print in blood."

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About the Author


Tributes to Robert Davolt: With Writings by and about Him.

Copyright © 2005 Dusk Peterson. All rights reserved.
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