Saturday, August 30, 2008

The greatest band in New Orleans rock history

The Radiators are the greatest rock band in the history of New Orleans music, hands down! There may be some strange backlash in New Orleans itself against this observable fact. As someone who has actively written about New Orleans music since the late 1960s I have to say I have been frustrated in a number of attempts to write about the Rads over the years. The current piece in OffBeat came out well, but an awful lot of the interview didn't make it in. I was told there would be an online version at but no extended online version is in fact offered.
My only recourse is to offer an expanded version on my blog. I will be following this up with more material about an American band whose importance will certainly make it into the annals of history even though it is shunned in the elitist passageways of fashion.

Radiators look back on a 30-year run
By John Swenson
On a hot summer night the Radiators rolled back the clock at the House of Blues with an album release party for Wild and Free, a collection of previously unreleased songs and alternate takes that mixes live and studio material covering the entire 30 years of the band's existence. The two sets were particularly eccentric, filled with quirky Radiators trademarks, like Dave Malone's decision to play one of the rare tracks from the album, "Hard Core," twice during the performance, and Ed Volker springing a new song on the group without warning, "Something Fishy Going On."
A crowd of sojourners who've hopped on the Rads train at some point along the way turned out, even some who were on hand for the band's early days at Luigi's and the Dream Palace.
"It was like old home week," said drummer Frank Bua after the show. "I saw faces in the crowd I haven't seen in a decade."
Many of those fans who frequent the "official" Radiators email list and its offshoots are greeting Wild and Free as the recovered Grail, filled as it is with long-requested pieces like the title track, "All Meat From the Same Bone" and the suite "Songs From the Ancient Furnace."
But Ed Volker's liner notes wonder without sentimentality about the fans who didn't live to see this moment. The title track is a companion piece to the 1998 studio recording "The Wrong Road," which could have easily been the title track on an album simply titled The Radiators.
Songwriter/keyboardist/vocalist Volker began the process of curating this album when he started listening to tapes of performances dating back to the pre-Radiators days. Volker and Radiators guitarist Camile Baudoin, friends since grade school, played in local bands since high school and first worked with Rads drummer Frank Bua in The Dogs. The trio reconvened as part of the legendary Rhapsodizers, which played several songs now associated with the Radiators. Bassist Reggie Scanlan subbed with the Rhapsodizers while playing in Dave Malone's band Roadapple and with Professor Longhair (the Rads would go on to back up Fess as well as Earl King). In 1978 the five of them assembled in Volker's garage rehearsal studio and when they played "Red Dress" the way Volker wanted to hear it three Rhapsodizers and two Roadapples became one Radiators.
The prolific Volker, who had already written a number of songs that would become Radiators standards before the group existed, put this set together with help from Malone, whose songwriting is also represented on the album, and input from the rest of the band. Two new songs were recorded specifically for the project earlier in the year, and Bruce Barielle did an impressive job mastering the collection so that its many different sonic sources created an efficient mosaic.

Red Dress
R.S.: I always thought Ed was a good songwriter and when the Rhapsodizers asked me to play with them I was excited because it was a chance to play with Frank. Frank just has this really cool groove. I was on a gig with Johnny Vidocavich recently and he just spontaneously went into talking about Frank’s drumming and how good he thought he was. It’s very subtle, Frank’s style is kind of rock, straight in-the-pocket playing, but he also has a kind of funk thing going on. Frank has a kind of implied second-line beat, you can hear the syncopation deep in his playing.
When Ed asked us to jam Dave and I both thought it would be fun. When Dave came up with the cool guitar part on “Red Dress,” shit, that was it. We’re a band. I think the Rhapsodizers had one gig left, they were playing the Mom’s Ball.

E.V.: Luigi's was approximately six or seven blocks from 6204 Waldo Drive, which is where the garage was where we rehearsed. We'd take our time with a tune and focus on different sections and repeatedly go back to particular turns or twists that one of us might need to fix on to get clearer comprehension. DM and CB would spend a lot of time coming up with contrasting or complementary voicings for their parts to a particular song. The very first song we ever rehearsed was "Red Dress," a song I wrote during the waning days of the Rhapsodizers and that I was excited about, but thought the Rhapsodizers wouldn't be able to pull it off. DM came up with the repeated descending guitar figure that begins the song at that first rehearsal and not only did the Rads nail the "tune" part that I had written, but the guitar figure set the song and the groove up perfectly. When we had that first rehearsal I hadn't yet officially bowed out of the Rhapsodizers. All of us in the Rads were delirious with how great and high our first jam together felt (about two or three days prior to this first rehearsal), but there was some question as to our chemistry lending itself to the kind of working together and studying that a good rehearsal demands and I thought “Red Dress” would provide an excellent test and opportunity to check all that out and, goddam, we aced it!

C.B.: I had never met Dave before the Waldo Drive rehearsal but there was something that happened between we three and those two. I dug the way Reggie held down the groove. Dave made me laugh and I liked the way he played, soulful and solid. It just all fit in the beginning and it’s been like that ever since. But most of all it was a people thing, not even so much what we played as what we liked to work out on our own or listen to, like Beatles tunes.

D.M.: Everyone lived in the city and we seemed to have a lot more time to get together and just try things out. Pre Rads I was already very aware of Ed's songwriting from the Palace Guards 45 and the band The Dogs and then the Rhapsodizers. I wasn't really a big Rhapsodizers fan although I loved the feel they had. I still always wondered what another set of musicians could do with Ed's songs and then when The Rads had that first official rehearsal and we did such an amazing thing with "Red Dress," it was so damn creative and also didn't sound like anything else that I was aware of.

Last Getaway
D. M.: "Last Getaway" was already a song written by my brother John which we did in Dustwoofie and Roadapple, but I really did not care for the chord changes, feel or bridge, so I re-wrote it, added a verse, changed the chords and feel, and dropped the bridge. This is an early performance of the re-re-written "Last Getaway," in the early stages of what is now the final-final. It's more about "getting away" from some something that you really don't want in your life than any other kind of other thing, and the elation you experience when you realize that you've gotten away. Then the last verse reminds you that things that piss you off or shatter your dreams keep happening and then you have to get away again... but you can.

Suck the Head
RS: “Suck the Head” is one of my favorite tracks. It’s kind of raw. I was taking liberties with how I played the song. I’ll go back and play it like that from now on so in that sense the album is showing me something about how we used to play that is instructive. It was recorded at Luigi’s. Since I’ve heard that track, I’ve been actually approaching it more like that when we do the song now. When we first started listening to it, Ed made the comment to me that it’s a different bass line than what it ended up being.

C.B.: We felt like the rehearsals were so good, let’s try this in front of people and see what happens. Luigi’s was a good launching pad. I remember the pole in the middle of the dance floor that was used by both males and females on occasion. Ray Schultz, he was one of the bartenders, he could get into some trouble, but he could dance, he was just smooth as silk. He danced wherever he damn well pleased. He'd take a couple of swings on the dancefloor then go back and do the bartending. Willie Dunkel was another character, he was Willie-burn-your-shirt. I don't know how it came about, he just got into a frenzy one night and he burned his shirt right on the dance floor. So he became known as Willie-burn-your-shirt, and every night by the end of the night somebody would start the chant “Willie burn your shirt.” It was like the burning of the shirt ceremony. One night he didn't get so far and he set his polyester shirt on fire. It stunk up the place and it started sticking to him. They had to douse him. The smoke from the polyester set off the fire alarm. The firemen came in and that’s when we got fired for a while. We could get away with most anything but you can't have the fire marshal coming in.

R.S.: We had this guy Ramon, our first roadie. He was a bartender at Luigi’s. After one gig he said “I’m gonna make you guys all a special drink,” and he’s splashing alcohol all over the place, and so at the very end we find out that these are drinks you’ve got to light on fire. So he starts to light them on fire and he’s got so much alcohol on him that his arms went up on flames, the guys’ all on fire and the glasses are on fire and the bar is on fire. He’s yelling “I’m on fire, I’m on fire!” This other bartender, Too-tall Tim, comes running with a rag and a glass of water, splashing it all over his face and his arms and everything. He wasn’t hurt or anything, but that’s the kind of stuff that happened every week. It was always some kind of bizarre shit. It was just nuts.

Hard Rock Kid
E V: A title that saw at least two incarnations before becoming what fans are familiar with. It was a slow Sunday morning back in 1973 and I walked from my pad on Waldo Drive out by the lakefront, along Robert E. Lee Blvd., to Ferara's, a grocery store, where I picked up a Times-Picayune, and on the cover (the "lead" news!) was the picture of a wizened fellow wearing a kind of civil war era cap and a grin of sorts who had just been appointed KING OF THE HOBOS, and he went by the name of the Hard Rock Kid.

Like Dreamers Do
D.M.: Wow... the Dream Palace. The thing I most recall is how "right" it seemed. It never felt like we were performing, rather like we were providing the musical landscape for that night's expedition. And the weirdest weird never seemed weird. Even the guy who used to just stare up at the mural of the universe on the ceiling, or the girl with the bullwhip-dildo and the Willie-burn-your-shirt guy. Not too long before we got there the second floor was a brothel. Before it was opened up into the big clubhouse it became, there was a center hall with 10 or 12 six foot by 10 foot little "bedrooms."

E.V: How 'bout the Toga party? I've still got the cassettes and talk about "just like music but only different"!!! Every couple of years, around the second bottle of wine, I put a cassette of the occasion in my machine and I can't make heads nor tails out of any of it. It sure is "only different."

D.M: Jeez, the Toga party. That was where Walter Beck was outside in his Toga and nothing else dancing on top of cars as they stopped in front of the DP. Lady Luck must have lived there (and all her cousins and aunts and uncles, as well) because he couldn't even manage to get arrested. In fact, none of us ever were. On top of that, one night I was loading my gear in the trunk of my car and drove all the way back to my apartment at Jefferson and Prytania and realized that I had left my 1956 Fender Telecaster by the curb where I was parked. Drove all the way back and there it was waiting for me. Lady Luck loves a drunk.

R.S.: I loved the Dream Palace because it was always an intense gig. The audience was totally there to go down whatever road we were going to go. The wildest thing I ever saw in my life was at the Dream Palace, when we played the toga party.
It was right after Animal House came out. Halloween was coming up and they wanted to have a dry run party before Halloween and decided on a toga party based on Animal House. Well, no matter what happened at Halloween, it was pale in comparison to what happened that night at the Dream Palace. Most of the people had on togas which only lasted for about half an hour so basically after half an hour, half of the people were naked running around. The pool table had kind of a little buffet setup on it, but eventually that was just a table where some girl kept on getting screwed by about 10 different guys. There were people fucking on the bar. And when you go upstairs to the dress room of the Dream Palace, there were naked people lying all over the stairs, drunk, passed out, everybody’s on acid. It started spilling out into the street, and it was so hard to get up and down the stairs that people started climbing up those poles to the balcony to get up and down so they didn’t have to fight the stairs. Half of these people there didn’t have any clothes on, and then it got to where somebody is in middle of the street with no clothes on and the traffic’s jamming up because everybody’s in the street. The police said they had reports as far as six blocks away, complaints of people wandering around with no clothes on, screaming and yelling, you can’t imagine how insane this thing was that night. I remember we played “Morgus the Magnificent.” It basically kind of encapsulated what the Dream Palace was all about.

C.B.: There was a lot of carryover from Luigi’s to the Dream Palace. Frenchmen Street didn’t have the number of clubs it has now. There were a whole lot of Tulane students. Barney Kilpatrick was on the Tulane radio station and I think he was instrumental in getting us to play on the Tulane quad. We won a lot of fans there and through the years those fans have followed us. A lot of those people ended up in different states and cities and when we would come there they’d phone everybody they knew. That eventually developed into the various krewes of Rads fans around the country.

Have A Little Mercy
D.M. It’s a harder sounding guitar only song, which there are only five or six of (Zeke plays percussion, no keyboards) and I really like it when the vocal harmonies sound so right and easy. We're not very strong in the vocal harmony department. That was always a main thing with my music before the Radiators (country rock and soul music and Brit Invasion type stuff) and I really like it when the Rads can pull it off.
Camile and I used to really work out guitar stuff but mostly do it instinctively now, we've been doing this so long that we just sorta fall in to complementary parts, voicings and chord shapes, on stage, and sometimes it doesn't become readily apparent that we should try other voicings until we're in the fine-tuning setting of a recording studio. Licks and guitar harmonies have to be worked out, sometimes in advance, sometimes right before the show.
I don't think we lost our whimsy on stage during the Epic years so much as tried a half-assed attempt at playing the "Music Biz Game." There were only certain gigs and cities where we tried to be more of a showbiz band and less of the "spirit of the Dream Palace" entity. Truthfully, I think at least some of us subconsciously realized that we were not gonna be very good at playing by the rules. Ed and I realized when listening back to this older, no-longer-played-live stuff, that we were more ambitious in songs taking left hand turns and with more complicated parts, probably because we were on the road much less and rehearsed a lot more and didn't have so many hotels and airports eating our lives.

R.S.: Signing with Epic put us on the road big time. They had a hard time pigeon-holing us because, with something like 2000 original songs, it was hard for them to figure out an angle to put us in. We didn’t really even get pigeon-holed as a southern band as much as a roots rock band because at that time, that was the thing. That was the catch word, roots rock, Springsteen, Petty. That whole genre was getting ready to make it big.
By the time of our second Epic album Zigzagging Through Ghostland bands were being dropped and tour support had dried up. We ended up begging to be cut. Most bands would have broken up ever before that point, but through all of that stuff there was always this feeling of “this is the band; what are we going to do if we break up? Then what? There’s no guarantee that you’ll ever be in a band this good again. How are you going to find a songwriter this good?”
The Allman Brothers asked me to audition, but we all had this kind of feeling, like this is it. This is the band. And, the idea of breaking up, I don’t think was even anything that was a consideration. That just wasn’t even an option. The same thing happened with the Neville Brothers a year after the band got together; they asked me to audition for them.

Songs From the Ancient Furnace
E.V.: Some things just have their time and then that's it. We did re-learn it briefly within about three years of its original run (circa 92-94). Later, when "Soul On Fire" became this beautifully grooving song on its own, that somehow lent a sense of scrapheap to "Songs..."
R. S.: I’m really sorry that Ed doesn’t write this kind of stuff anymore because I thought those are some of the more interesting things that we did, like “Songs From the Ancient Furnace” and “# 2 Pencil,” which is basically in a concerto form where you have a lot of pieces that you never to back to, but they’re all connected. To me, “Songs…” didn’t work because I don’t think we ever really tweaked it enough so that when we changed from one part to another it was never really smooth like in “# 2 Pencil.” I thought that if we had really analyzed it we could have gotten it. So we kind of dropped it, and the only really official version I know is on the CD right now. Ed’s kind of moved away from that, but I thought it was a chance with the band to really shine doing those kind of complex arrangements. Now, we do a lot of jamming and stuff like that, and that’s great and we’re good at doing it, but I do kind of miss doing the big gigantic orchestrated thing because I think it shows up well against the kind of jamming that we do.

Wild and Free
E.V.: "Wild and Free," I wrote not long after I had moved to Minneapolis, in early '91. The song, musically, was written with more harmonic twists and turns, but, like so much of what eventually becomes emblematic of the Rads ("Raindancer," "Doctor Doctor," "Seven Devils"), I simplified the tune to fit well within the repeating piano motif that intros the song, and it didn't take long, once I'd injected the tune into a gig, for it to become a likable staple. W&F says it all in the lyrics. It's a song of thanksgiving. The band sings it to the audience and the audience sings it to the band.... the graceful and grateful conviviality of community.

D.M.: The sessions at Nothing Studios, although financed and overseen by outsiders with a ringer producer on board, were not micro-managed like the Epic stuff. We were pretty much left to our own devices. For instance: the middle "psychedelic" section of Crazy Mona. I actually took an ADAT rough mix copy home and put that whole section together in my home studio and then brought it back, got Camile to play a guitar harmony on the end piece of that middle section and then we re-inserted it into the two inch multi-track. The producer Jim Gaines was encouraged to share his opinions, which were quite often very helpful, but we really called the shots.

Girl with the Golden Eyes
E.V.: Like a certain number of titles, this appears throughout my books and tapes several times ("Nail Your Heart To Mine" is another example). There's actually another version of “Eyes” on Lost Radio Hour, my trio CD from Minneapolis '92, with pretty much the lyrics I sing now, but with a feel something like a slower, slanted Tangle. Often, for me, a title will call forth a song, but it's got to be the right one, the song the title most needs...and fortunately I've given myself the slack to pursue this sometimes elusive puzzle; sometimes I've been lucky and sometimes I just didn't have the wit to give up and just kept hanging on like a dang fool....

D. M.: “Girl With the Golden Eyes,” that's one of the songs that we learned on stage. I've always stressed that nothing is more important than the song itself and sometimes the song tells you what to write/play. I seem to have some knack for coming up with signature guitar parts that sound like they belong to the song. It's been that way since the first original we ever learned, "Red Dress." My fingers started playing that lick. Usually the song dictates what I write/play with not a whole lot of scientific type thought put into it, but the time frame where we learned Girl With the Golden Eyes and Wild and Free and Seven Devils and Lovely You was also the time frame where we were doing a lot of gigs with Mark Mullins as the sixth Rad, and for those songs I was thinking not only of what suited the song but also what might sound cool with Mark doubling the parts I play on trombone.

R. S.: It’s kind of funny because sometimes you think “If we only had done this, or if we only would have done that,” kind of hindsight second-guessing. But, when you get to it, the bottom line is, here we are 30 years later, and we’re still together and we’re still playing gigs, maybe all those bad decisions ended up cumulatively being good decisions because bands that made the right decisions are history. You don’t even remember who they are anymore. Especially at CBS, an album will come out, this guy’s going to be the next Michael Jackson, he’s going to be the next whatever; I can’t even think of the guy’s name now because you haven’t hear of him in 20 years, and there’re tons of bands like that. They made all the right decisions, and say for a year or two, they might have been flying real high, but then they all get in a fight, they break up. And, also one of the things, I think too, that made it easy for the band to negotiate a lot of the stuff is Ed cutting the band in on his publishing. That, I think, went a long way with the band, subconsciously, at least, making a go at it because with a lot of songwriters, they’re going to keep all of their royalties. Ed’s attitude was I’m writing the songs, but these guys are coming up with ideas and changing the songs sometimes radically. So he kind of felt like everybody’s contributing to the songs, everybody ought to get something, and I think in that kind of generous spirit, everybody felt included and nobody felt left out.

1 comment:

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