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Big Cheese

Somehow, the night just doesnt feel complete until the hot blonde in the "I ♥ Dick" tee shirt bends over, peels down the back of her jeans and asks the tuxedoed Richard Cheese, "Sign my ass?" It's 10 o'clock on a Friday night in Las Vegas -- actually, in nearby...
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Somehow, the night just doesnt feel complete until the hot blonde in the "I ♥ Dick" tee shirt bends over, peels down the back of her jeans and asks the tuxedoed Richard Cheese, "Sign my ass?"

It's 10 o'clock on a Friday night in Las Vegas -- actually, in nearby Henderson, Nevada, in a sprawling, mall-size casino called Sunset Station (home of, says Fortune, the happiest employees in Greater Sin City) -- and Richard Cheese, an ultra-smarmy nightclub crooner with Sinatra's style, Howard Stern's musical taste, and -- though he's battling it -- Jon Lovitz's profile, has just finished wowing the sold-out crowd in the Club Madrid room with his patented lounge-lizard-meets-modern-rock routine.

For two solid 45-minute sets, Cheese, who, over the course of three independently released CDs, has become an unlikely favorite of the college rock crowd, belts out "swankified" versions of rap's raunchiest and alt-rock's angriest hits.

It's high-concept lowbrow. Kicking off with a jazzy overture of Nirvana's watershed anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit" played by Cheese's crack jazz trio -- the cleverly titled Lounge Against the Machine -- Cheese strolls onstage crooning, "Here we are now, entertain us," in a style that slyly epitomizes the very show-biz schmaltz Kurt Cobain's original railed against. Cheese follows that with the opening song off his brand-new fourth album, Aperitif for Destruction, to be released May 24: a finger-snapping take on 2 Live Crew's "Me So Horny," the wildly explicit 1989 rap hit famous for launching the Parental Advisory label.

As in all the tunes he covers, Cheese doesn't change any of the words, just edits the song down to its most memorable lines -- in this case, that happens to be a graphic suggestion involving lips and an exterior anal sphincter. But when Cheese applies an even coat of Robert Goulet polish to the lyrics, even that comes off sounding like an exotic French phrase the singer simply likes the sound of. (To drive the point home, he later delivers Ludacris' slightly less raunchy "Stand Up" over a melody that samples "Danke Schoen.")

Along the way, Dick Cheese shakes and stirs the most twisted songs on the current hit parade with a hilarious Homer Simpson cluelessness until it all sounds, well, swingin'. The defining moment comes in the middle of his percolating cover of The Offspring's "Come Out and Play," when Cheese becomes distracted by a female fan in the middle of belting out the dark, Columbine-themed lyrics. In one fell swoop, he manages to water down 15 years of alt-rock angst and rap misogyny. "Are those real?" he asks the busty admirer. Then, right on the beat, back to the lyric: "Do me a favor: Keep 'em separated."

It's only fitting, then, that after nearly two hours of reducing the extreme sex and violence of today's Top 40 into pee-in-your-pants-funny Looney Tunes, the entertainer is greeted at the autograph-signing table outside Club Madrid by the almost cartoonishly sexy blonde with the bared behind.

Cheese watches admiringly as the tight jeans are lowered to half-mast in his honor and graciously signs, around the pulled-up pink thong that bears the same Dick-loving slogan as the girl's skimpy black tee shirt, "Thx, RC." To prolong the experience, he adds several exclamation points.

"Thank you," he says, in the same ingratiating voice he uses onstage at the end of nearly every number, as the girl zips up her jeans and vanishes into the blinking maze of quarter slot machines.

None of the uniformly hot young women who offer Cheese their butt cheeks, breasts or -- his favorite -- a newly purchased CD, tee shirt or poster to autograph seems particularly concerned about extending the womanizing crooner their companionship for the evening. After all, weren't there enough names on that "People Who Want to Have Sex With Richard Cheese" sign-up sheet that Cheese began circulating midway through the concert?

But about a half-hour after the procession of dressed-to-kill girls and their frat-party boyfriends finally thins out, a man who looks an awful lot like Richard Cheese, sans the tiger-striped tuxedo, sits alone at a table for eight in the casino's cafe, waiting for the three musicians from Lounge Against the Machine to join him for a late-night dinner before retiring to his hotel room.

"There may be some others joining us," the man tells the waitress after the trio arrives. Alas, none of the shapely derrières Cheese autographed ever fills the extra seats.

Mark Davis is a pro at staying in character. Sometimes he wonders if anyone in his audience even knows his real name, and considers whether he should do a curtain call, like the stage performers do on Broadway. Mark Davis as Richard Cheese, ladies and gentlemen!

"I would like to think that people want to see the show because it's a good show," Davis says a few weeks before the Vegas concert, over lunch at Carlos O'Brien's Mexican restaurant on Northern Avenue in Phoenix, where the Los Angeles resident grew up and still visits frequently to see his aging parents.

"But I'd also like to know, are they there because they think Richard Cheese is a real person? Or are they in on the fact that it's a portrayal?"

Davis, who today is appearing in his natural form -- floppy, un-gelled hair, simple black tee shirt and baggy khakis -- chooses to keep his real name buried in the CD credits and on his suitably cheesy Web site,, mainly to keep it simple for the fans.

"Whatever I'm doing with this, I want to keep it really clear," he says. "Like NASA, when they launch the space shuttle, they're not also selling ice cream. We're basically launching a space shuttle."

Still, each night after the Dick shuttle comes back down to Earth and the dizzied fans stagger off to their respective lives, the actor behind the comical cad every luscious lady loves to tease is often left to wonder, where is the love?

"I don't think the groupie knowledge I have is accurate," says Davis, still single at 39 -- a fact that, lately, seems to be weighing on his mind.

"We're a joke band, so we don't get what you'd call fully operating groupies. I get girls who say they are big fans, but then once they realize that the tuxedo is gonna be removed, well . . . they don't necessarily want to see what's really behind the tuxedo."

For a moment, Davis falls uncharacteristically silent, and the scene feels like one of those TBS "Real life: not funny" promos that the cable station always follows with a parallel "very funny" sitcom clip from Friends or Sex and the City.

He regrets ordering the Coke -- he usually sticks to bottled water -- and worries whether the quesadilla was a smart choice, even with the guacamole on the side.

While a stout frame suits Richard Cheese's hedonistic, larger-than-life image, Davis himself is noticeably self-conscious about his weight, dodging studio photo sessions and asking to be photographed onstage only from a distance. His latest album cover, a play on Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction art, features only a skeleton in Cheese's familiar tiger tux. Apparently, he'd rather be caught like that than looking pudgy.

Or maybe the skeleton image is really foreshadowing what Davis has planned for his lounge-pimp alter ego. Davis has already proclaimed this as Richard Cheese's last year of touring. "There's so many more things that I'd rather be doing now," he's said.

He's also been haunted by images of his own death onstage -- mostly from watching The World According to Garp one too many times. "Remember at the end of that movie, where the childhood friend who's been stalking him all his life ends up killing him? It would be the ultimate irony for this thing to end that way."

Richard Cheese does get his borderline stalkers, fans who show up at every Vegas and California concert and just seem a little too obsessed with the whole lounge lifestyle of which they believe Cheese is their tiki god. "Even though it's 2005, there are people who'll put on the bowling shirt, decorate their homes with tikis and mix a martini every day after work," Davis says. Naturally, he faces his adoring public with the same warm thought before each performance. "I'm always wondering, 'Which person in the audience is ultimately gonna kill me?'"

Clearly, he doesn't want to go out in the tiger stripes. Richard Cheese will have to die first. But if Cheese goes, will the women who do come on to him still be around? Davis is uncertain.

"I mean, are they interested in Richard Cheese? Or are they interested in the creative person who created Richard Cheese?" he says. "I don't want to go out with them if they think I'm going to be singing all the time or wearing the tuxedo."

Another pause -- or, this time, a comic beat. "I mean, I will if she's hot!" he adds, summoning up his Cheese persona, graciously lightening the mood. "But I don't want that to be the only thing."

Mark Davis never set out to be a big cheese onstage. He did dabble in drama while at Washington High School in west Phoenix, landing the lead in the school's production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

But his first love was radio, specifically, the wacky kind of personality-driven radio Jonathon Brandmeier was putting out in the early '80s on Phoenix Top 40 powerhouse KZZP. Brandmeier, who later went on to bigger fame in Chicago and, most recently, L.A., made his mark by goofing around with phone callers on the air, and quickly attracted a group of regular callers he dubbed his "Loons."

Davis was a standout Loon, calling in whacked-out impersonations of Floyd the barber from The Andy Griffith Show and singing parody lyrics over the day's pop hits (REO Speedwagon was an early target). After a semester working at the campus radio station at Arizona State University (he soon switched to studying broadcasting at the community colleges -- first Phoenix, then Glendale -- but never completed a degree), Davis finagled himself into a series of bottom-rung jobs at KZZP, eventually leading up to a job as assistant producer on the morning show with Bruce Kelly (now host of XM Satellite Radio's "The '80s" channel).

Davis recruited ASU pal Rob Izenberg, who had a spiffy Yamaha electronic keyboard and a high Joe Pesci voice that sounded naturally comic paired with Davis' Harry Shearer-like baritone. The two friends set about making comedy for Kelly's show. Davis and Izenberg, who was by now going by the nickname "The Iceman," wound up cranking out oodles of Weird Al-style song parodies for Kelly's show, most taking aim at the day's local news stories. "I think we were instrumental in getting Ev Mecham recalled," Davis says proudly.

Realizing there was an entire nation of unfunny morning DJs starving for ready-made comedy bits to play, Davis and Izenberg left the fertile Phoenix comedy mill that had developed at KZZP (KROQ's Kevin & Bean and ABC-TV's Jimmy Kimmel shared the same launch pad) and took off for L.A. in 1990, eventually going to work as parody songwriters for Premiere Radio Networks, a top syndicator of radio programs.

While Izenberg quickly settled into what would become his dream job (he's still at Premiere today, where his jokey songs are distributed to stations reaching more than 190 million listeners a week), Davis remained restless, returning to the role of morning-show fourth banana on top-rated L.A. station KROQ, then moving to New York to create promo jingles for Nick at Nite and later, back in L.A., for NBC, where he became the loungy singing voice of the animated peacock mascot Johnny Chimes, a feathered precursor to Richard Cheese.

For a while, Davis' clever work as "jingle boy" for Nick at Nite and NBC earned him industry cred as the New Voice of the Snarky Generation. Bill Clinton bought a political joke from him. Disney hired him to come up with snappy names for the rides and restaurants in its California Adventure theme park (sample nomenclature: Pizza Oom Mow Mow; Sam Andreas' Shakes -- "Delicious to a fault!").

The Richard Cheese character was at first just another in a series of wacky comedy detours by Davis, taking the character of a senior rock radio intern he'd developed at KROQ and expanding it for an album-length bit.

This time, though, Davis struck gold -- or at least cheesy imitation gold. His 2000 debut album, Lounge Against the Machine, became a word-of-mouth smash with the college hipsters, quickly landing him a gig on MTV as the bandleader on the momentarily hot Say What Karaoke show. That led to a three-night stint leading the house band on NBC's Last Call With Carson Daly, international tour dates opening for the likes of Blink-182 and Lit, and a soundtrack appearance in the horror flick Dawn of the Dead.

All told, the first three Cheese albums wound up pulling in combined sales topping 56,000 units -- "really impressive" for a one-man marketing machine, according to Keith Emrick of California's Surfdog Records, which recently signed Davis to its quirky roster anchored by the similarly swingin' Brian Setzer Orchestra.

Izenberg, who played keyboards on the first Cheese album but later parted ways with his old pal for reasons he'd rather not discuss ("Mark is a guy who does not take 'No' for an answer, and he's an expert at promoting himself," is all he'll say), remains happy for his former partner in yuks.

"I give Mark all the credit in the world for making this happen," Izenberg says. "For years, he had wanted to put together a character like this and do lounge versions of rock songs. He's not the first one who's ever done it -- Bill Murray and Joe Piscopo had done things like this years before on Saturday Night Live" -- influences Davis openly acknowledges. "But he really made this character come to life."

Though Izenberg hasn't spoken to Davis in some time, he worries Richard Cheese may ultimately trap the comedic jack-of-all-trades in a confining role, something the Mark he knew always seemed to dodge.

"I think anybody who creates a popular character can begin to feel typecast by that character," Izenberg says. "I mean, even Robin Williams had trouble shaking Mork for a while.

"I get the e-mails, and I know Richard Cheese has really become a personal success for him," he adds. "But whether or not it's making his life better, I really have no idea."

Top five reasons Mark Davis is no Richard Cheese -- Number 5: Unlike Cheese, who is obsessed with the curdled milk byproduct of his namesake and insists on giving his band members stage names of various cheese classes (Bobby Ricotta on piano! Gordon Brie on the bass! Frank Feta on drums!), Mark Davis is a cautious eater who steadfastly avoids all processed cheeses, not to mention any food containing MSG or other neurotoxic food additives, or NTXAs. Kraft macaroni and cheese is really his Kryptonite.

Number 4: While Richard Cheese seems so at home playing the Vegas casinos that you'd think he was conceived during a Dean Martin set at the Copa Room, Mark Davis hates the smell of cigarette smoke and booze ground into the gaudy casino carpets, almost as much as the sight of so many desperate people chained to the one-armed bandits. "It just makes me sad," he says, sadly, as the crowd from his show filters back into the rows of slot machines.

Number 3: Cheese likes to stroll onstage carrying a huge martini glass, and gives the audience periodic updates on how inebriated he's becoming, in the hopes that they'll join him there. In reality, Davis is drinking bottled water that he only pretends is gin or vodka, and actually loathes the standard house practice of telling the crowd to drink up. "It's all about getting the audience to spend lots of money on drinks -- which I get none of," he says, somewhat bitterly. "So I'm an idiot, I guess."

Number 2: Before intermission, Richard Cheese typically informs the audience he'll be taking a 15-minute break to receive some, ahem, manual stimulation from a female fan (he offers girls a two-dollar discount on his CD as incentive). Davis, by contrast, is likely to seek more common relief during that time, a matter he takes into his own hands. "It's hard singing for 45 minutes straight without even a break to go to the restroom," he explains. "Not that I'm that incontinent."

And finally, number 1: While Richard Cheese sings the current rock and rap hits as if he has only the Vegas idea of what any of these songs are actually about, Mark Davis is a keen fan of alternative rock who believes, sometimes, he's giving new depth to what seem the shallowest songs.

"Some of the songs we do, we do them in a lounge style to make them sound ridiculous," Davis admits. "But some of the songs we do as a genuine homage."

Davis cites Jet's "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" and Radiohead's "Creep" as examples of classically well-crafted songs that beg for the same kind of respectful arrangement Nelson Riddle might have framed around a Harold Arlen melody for Sinatra. And indeed, on Richard Cheese's versions, a surprising tunefulness often emerges that's buried in the original rock mix. That's particularly true with the rap tunes, where Davis and his band manage to extract a winning melody from the limited loops and samples on the original tracks.

"The comic premise for this -- to take the new songs and do them in a traditional jazz style as 'tomorrow's standards today' -- turned into the serious result," Davis says. "The truth is, there are some songs that are still waiting for the right style. 'Self Esteem' by The Offspring has one of the best lyrics I've ever heard. It's right up there with Rodgers and Hart's or Cole Porter's best love songs. And I think a lounge treatment of that song will make it even better."

Richard Cheese might say those same words in his wheedling way and sound hilariously dense. Mark Davis makes it all sound insidiously brilliant.

If doing swing versions of Snoop Dogg and Slipknot sounds like an amusing way to make a living, imagine having to discuss the lyrics to "People Equals Shit" around the dinner table with your 75-year-old parents.

Bev and Sol Davis have occupied the same house in north central Phoenix since 1973. Even when the couple lived in California for a couple of years, they held on to the Phoenix house, which today remains furnished with tasteful heirloom keepsakes and framed Hebrew blessings (a sign by the front door translates into "May the LORD bless you and give thee peace"; a tea rack announces simply, "Shalom").

This is the house Mark Davis lived in from age 8, when the Davises first transferred from New York City, to age 23, when he finally moved into his own apartment in Mesa, to be closer to his job at KZZP (he moved to Los Angeles at 25). When he visits, he sleeps in a guest room just down the hall from his childhood bedroom, which Bev has now converted into her "messy office."

Talking to the folks about what he does as Richard Cheese can be "excruciating," Davis says. There are times he admits he wishes he worked a job that was easier to explain, "like actuary accountant."

"When I first started doing this, my father heard my cover of the Nirvana song 'Rape Me,' and he said, 'Why do you have a song telling people to rape you? That's horrible!'"

Bev Davis recalls she had problems with that song as well. "Why are you singing, 'Rape me! Rape me!'?" she remembers asking Mark. "I have many friends who are moral, caring parents, and they reacted badly to that 'Rape Me' song."

It's easy to imagine a mortified Mark slumped over the dinner table during such conversations, like Seinfeld's George Costanza enduring his mother's shock over catching her son treating his body like an amusement park.

The Davises maintain they're proud of their son, whom Bev boasts was dubbed a gifted child in elementary school and, interestingly, an introvert by a child psychologist they once brought him to see ("He's a very complicated person," she says).

Still, they, too, often wish he had a job that was easier to explain to their friends. "It's very hard for me to describe what he does, except to use the old phrase, 'He works with blue material,'" Bev says slowly. "My generation understands that."

Bev, who admits she gets offended whenever TV Guide puts "very exposed women" on the cover and even had to turn off PBS' Masterpiece Theatre the other night when the mystery delved into what she considered unnecessarily sexually oriented "titillation," stresses her son didn't get that potty mouth at home.

"We rarely used curse words around the house," she says. "We may have said 'damn.'"

"I always tried to use appropriate words for sexual functions," Sol (who's been coached by his son not to talk too much today) interjects. "For example, some people don't like to use the word 'urinate.' That wasn't my philosophy. I say, if it's a valid word, you use it."

Bev says it's "the culture today" that Mark reflects in his act, which concerns her much more than a few swear words.

"The music that's being written today is an expression of young people's unhappiness and frustration," she says. "So that's why Mark's act is the way it is. The moral state of people in this country is not good, and Mark's music is just pointing that out."

That's not to say Bev and Sol haven't tried to get into the fun of a Richard Cheese show.

"The first time we went to see his show, Mark told us, 'You will hear a lot of profanity,'" Bev says. "'But when you hear the word "f-ing," just substitute "very."' So at the end of the show, Sol goes up to him and Mark asks how did he like it? And Sol says," she pauses for a moment, summoning up the nerve, "'It was fucking great!'"

"Just to get into the spirit of it," Sol adds, chuckling. "It's not my usual language."

"You'd think you'd want that! is a phrase Mark Davis finds himself repeating more and more these days. Seems every time his success as Richard Cheese allows him to check off another item on his lifelong-dream To Do list, reality rears its ugly head.

Like the time he was pulling down a weekly Sunday night gig at Sunset Station and found himself pursued by a glamorous Las Vegas showgirl. For a few weeks, Davis felt like he was truly living the life of a genuine Rat Packer -- until the showgirl's jealous boyfriend started showing up in the audience, too, convinced Richard Cheese was singing the Lords of Acid song "Pussy" to his woman alone.

"You'd think you'd want a showgirl chasing after you," Davis exclaims. "But apparently, you don't!"

Or the time Davis got a call to play the Playboy Mansion, for a private party celebrating the launch of the cable channel Spike TV.

"That is the call that all men are waiting for," he says. "And I was so excited. I called my band and said, 'Guys, I told you something good was gonna come from all this, and here it is: We're playing the Playboy Mansion!'"

Again, the reality sucked. "We get there and do our show -- not one naked girl. Not one breast. No sex, no drugs. It was mostly dudes. And it was so disappointing. Although I would certainly go back again, because it couldn't possibly be that chaste two times in a row!"

Then there were the TV gigs. MTV! "We had just gotten our first CD out, and MTV called and said, 'Do you want to be on this new show, Say What Karaoke?' Turned out they taped 30 shows in six days, and it was a grind. And the audience for that show was 7-year-old kids that liked karaoke and [host] Joey McIntyre. So we didn't get anything out of that."

The job did lead to a spot as temporary house band for NBC's Last Call With Carson Daly when the show road-tripped to Las Vegas. "Again, the most thankless, nonstop work," Davis says. "They don't pay for anything except your hotel room, and on top of that, they're late with their payments. Working on TV is just not what it's cracked up to be."

Davis says he would give TV one last shot -- if he was offered Max Weinberg's job as bandleader on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, the best show on TV, he feels. But his chances of getting that gig are, shall we say, slim.

"I ran into the head of NBC after Last Call -- I knew him from when I was writing NBC promos," Davis says. "And I said, 'Hey, why don't you have us be the new house band on Conan after Max Weinberg is done.' And he said, 'You know, you'd probably have to lose some weight.' Just like that! I mean, man, they're brutal over there!"

All in all, Davis says he's had his fill of being a rock star.

"It's not all sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll -- at all," he says. "The truth is, every one of those great things that's happened to me has had so many negative things behind it. It's really been a big pain in the ass, across the board."

Mark Davis wants to kill Richard Cheese. He also wants to write a book, make a movie, and maybe move to the tiny Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands, where he's heard there's an opening to run the military radio station on the Army base currently used for missile testing.

"Aside from a strategic defense missile going off every couple of hours," he says, "sounds idyllic!"

After that, he wants to run for president. Seriously.

But first, he must kill Richard Cheese.

He's vowed this is his last year of touring, even though he already only plays a fraction of the live dates he did when he started working as Cheese back in 2000.

He'll keep doing CDs -- he's now talking with Surfdog Records about recording new tracks for a greatest-hits album to be released this fall. But after the five more public appearances he's got spread out from now 'til December, he's not doing Dick onstage anymore.

"Honestly, if anyone wants to take over as Richard Cheese, we can give 'em the tux, we can franchise it," he jokes between bites of his quesadilla (with Cheddar and Monterey Jack -- not processed American cheese) at Carlos O'Brien's.

"I'm just tired!" he says. "I finally understand why entertainers are paid so much. Because apparently, it's hard work!" Davis is quick to stress he's not become rich at this himself. While Richard Cheese boasts, "Ladies, do you want to ride in Dick's Mercedes?" in his riotous cover of "Baby Got Back," Davis drives a decidedly non-bling Toyota Prius hybrid and lives in an apartment in Studio City he describes as cluttered with "thousands of unsold CDs." Baby got debt.

"On top of that, I have to wear hair gel, 'cause I need to look like a lounge singer. I have to wear a tuxedo, I have to wear a tie. It's like going to Sunday school every show. I hate it!"

Mostly, though, Davis just wants to do more with his post-40 years than continue entertaining drunken frat boys and oversexed party girls who never stick around after the stage lights dim.

"Whenever I do this, I always feel like I'm wasting my time," he says. "I'm always asking myself, 'Is what I'm doing going to amount to anything beyond paltry CD sales and a footnote in comedy history?'"

His high school friend and former roommate David Lujan recently got elected as a representative for Phoenix's District 15, and Davis is seriously considering following him into politics. Lujan, for one, believes his wacky pal truly could have a future in public office.

"We talk politics whenever we're together, and I agree with him on a lot of issues," Lujan says. "I think he has some great ideas of where we should go as a country."

His mother insists her son's ultimate ambition is to become president of the United States. "Yes, Mark wants to run for president," she says. "But we keep telling him as long as he's got Richard Cheese in his background, he couldn't possibly. I don't think this country is ready to accept a thing like that."

Lujan is more optimistic. "The Richard Cheese thing won't help," he agrees, laughing. Still, if Arnold Schwarzenegger can go directly from baring his butt in Terminator 3 to a Republican governorship, there's hope for a former Dick.

"I think he definitely has a future in Democratic politics, if he wants it," Lujan says, adding that Davis is considering moving back to Phoenix if he goes for a House seat.

All this talk is bad news for Davis' band, a trio of young, in-demand jazz and swing cats who already feel their boss is not doing nearly the number of shows he could be doing.

"Personally, I think he's sitting on a gold mine," says keyboardist Noel Melanio, a.k.a. Bobby Ricotta, a schooled L.A. jazz player who's also responsible for the sophisticated horn arrangements on the last two Cheese records. "Every place we play, it's a sellout. But he doesn't play a quarter of the shows he could."

Melanio is taking a limo ride back to the Las Vegas airport the morning after the Sunset Station show. Back in early 2003, the Richard Cheese band was playing to a packed house in that room every Sunday night. This year, they won't play it again until Cheese's farewell show in December -- if Davis doesn't cancel that one.

"I shared a long limo ride with him once, and he started telling me about all these magnanimous things he wants to do," Melanio says. "And I finally had to tell him, even though it was bad for my career, 'If you want to do all those things, you can't keep doing Richard Cheese.'"

So why hasn't he yet cut the Cheese? Partly, Davis is determined to use his meal ticket as an instrument for, as he puts it, the greater good. He's encouraged by the new trend in hip-hop to address the destructive idiocy of rap-rival beefs, and thinks the screamo suicide-metal bands need to grow a sense of humor, too -- both things the sly comic jabs of Richard Cheese can help encourage.

Some of his sharper fans are already beholding the hidden power of Cheese. One record buyer posting his comments on Amazon praised the first Cheese album as a brilliant spoof of both alt-rock's self-seriousness and the lounge culture's disconnection from contemporary life, calling the CD "a stark portrayal of a society stuck between a horribly self-righteous discontent and a painfully self-conscious escapism."

Davis doesn't know if it goes all that deep. "What I'm doing is basically very silly," he insists. "It's a comedy sketch." Still, he's begun to feel a pressing need to leave his fans with something more than a few laughs.

At the after-show dinner in the Sunset Station cafe, Davis asks the band members if they noticed he dedicated the closing song of the first set, Radiohead's "Creep," to Edna, a bubbly Latina girl in her mid-20s who had been the band's biggest fan. Davis says he was shocked to get an e-mail saying Edna was just killed in a car crash.

"She was at the shows, every time, always hugging me, always nice. It was really crazy to find out she was just dead, that's it. No more Edna. No more Edna coming to the shows.

"Which I didn't, quite frankly, look forward to, or count on," he adds honestly. "But, holy crap! I'll never see her show up again. And now I remember every time she came to a show."

Dedicating "Creep" to the fallen fan may seem, at first, a lame tribute. But hearing her story after the show and then recalling the performance adds a bittersweet poignancy to Richard Cheese's set-closing number.

Leading the band through a jumping, jiving version of the Thom Yorke droner, the real Mark Davis finally speaks through Cheese, though virtually undetected by the fans:

"I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo
What the hell am I doing here?
I don't belong here . . ."

He slows the song down to a stop, stands alone in the spotlight, and for a moment, Richard Cheese is in a place that only Mark Davis understands. Quietly, and before the audience erupts in one last gale of laughter before heading back to the bar, he repeats the final line.

"I don't belong here."

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