Thursday, March 1, 2012

Ed Volker's "Snag"

Some of you have read the article on Ed Volker just published in OffBeat. It was cut and shaped (and slightly rewritten) to reflect the editor’s desire to make it a news story, but it was written as a review/essay. I think some important nuances were lost in the process, enough that I think concerned readers who have no other access to information about Volker’s activities since the breakup of the Radiators deserve to see the original. Here is the piece as written:

Headline: Where's My Monkey?

Members of the Radiators wasted no time forming new bands since the group announced it was calling it quits last year after a 33-year run that defined an era of New Orleans rock. We now have Camile Baudoin's Living Rumors (acoustic and electric versions); Reggie Scanlan's New Orleans Suspects; Dave Malone's group with his brother Tommy, the Malone Brothers; and all of them along with Frank Bua in the ever evolving Raw Oyster Cult. The only Radiators member who has stayed underground since the band performed its "Last Watusi" back in June is Ed Volker, who organized the group at an infamous jam session in his garage on Waldo Avenue back in 1978 and wrote most of their songs.

The reclusive Volker has not been inactive, though. He's just released his latest solo project, Snag, the seventh album's worth of songs recorded in his home studio under his nom de plume Zeke Fishhead and distributed as downloads on (hard copies are available on order and from the Louisiana Music Factory) since 2007. These recordings cover a lot of ground but it's easy to read the material as the ruminations of a man who was sensing that his life's project was nearing its end. It's also a personal biography of Volker's own journey through the trials of Katrina (I reviewed Prodigal, which covers this timeline, in a previous OffBeat piece.)

When you're dealing with poetry as dense and imagistic as Volker's it's always dangerous to apply strict interpretations to the lyrics. Most of the songs travel along multiple paths. But it's impossible not to see the outlines of a story emerge from these albums.

Radiators fans tend to view these songs in terms of how they would sound if the band played them. It's an understandable point of view given that Radiators songs were always worked up from Volker's demos. Volker would record his ideas on a home system with bare bones arrangements. He'd give tapes to Malone, who would add guitar parts to the songs he liked.

But the songs on these seven Volker releases are not demos, even the few that made an appearance in Radiators shows. These are all fully realized pieces that stand on their own. Without the big arrangements, rock production values and dueling guitars of the Rads versions, these concentrated, low-fi recordings are meant to tell stories. Zeke Fishhead's vocals articulating the lyrics provide the magic in these sonic imaginings; the accompanying music is often incantatory. The resultant outside-of-time feeling these recordings evoke sounds oddly contemporary.

Volker does bring a wealth of musical influences into the mix, evoking ancient folk themes, blues, rock and the dancing clave rhythm at the heart of all New Orleans music from Jelly Roll Morton to Dr. John (and Volker himself). He writes of love both carnal and platonic in an almost religious reverie that makes those themes evocative of the Felliniesque circus/church of the rock 'n' roll concert.

Snag begins with "Let's Get Shiney (Zeke’s spelling) Tonight," a glorious celebration of that communion, a kind of description of what it feels like on a perfect night in New Orleans back at the 501 Club when Professor Longhair was holding court:

"... oh professor, strike up your band

oh roberta, dance me to the promised land

let's get shiney tonight

like the stars over Tipitina's

let's get shiney tonight

like a cricus full of dreamers

set your wild heart free

let's let tomorrow be

m m mm let's get shiney tonight"

The sense of pagan abandon Volker conjures here recurs in various ways throughout the album, from the sultry slow burn of "Don't You Come Down Here" to the apocalyptic desperation of "The Six White Horses." Elsewhere we hear his ruminations on the mythic runes of his own history, "1978 I can't think straight," he sings in "Last Lick," one of the songs written over the years for Mom's Ball themes. "Sometimes it seems it was all a mirage/ did I ever leave that garage/ but I lived to tell the tale that we know." At the song's coda Volker offers an anthemic lament that seems to echo the joy and sorrow of a lifetime: "where is my monkey? Where is my monkey girl?"

You can get glimpses of Volker's reasons for getting off the rock and rolllercoaster in several songs on Snag. "Just a Little Snag," a catalog of contemporary white noise events, references the indignities of travel in post 9-11 America. "Dead Man's Hand" is a travelogue of places where Volker and his bandmates brought the noise over the years, "shakin in chicago in shakopee in skinny Minny in Memphis Tennessee..." But Volker calls for mercy: "I can't shake it I ain't gonna make it... let me loose come on dead man you gotta let me loose." This sense of futility spills over to the commentary on current events "Nothing Works": "Nothing works well, maybe for a while/ sooner or later it all ends up on the pile/ the dungheap of history the scrapyard of time just ask Captain Kirk nothing works."

There's a lot more going on in these songs than I'm alluding to and Volker also ventures into narrative territory that the Radiators seldom visited. A perfect example is the version of the traditional folk tale "Delia's Gone," much more fully realized here as a story in "The Ballad of Delia Green." Volker's version of this story, based on Blind Blake's sheet music chord sequence with an original melody of Volker's own design, is the most detailed account of the murder of Delia Green ever put to song. From the moment the dancer captures the gambler's fancy through the impulsive possession of murder, the remonstrances of the judge and the curse of being haunted by his lover forevermore, Volker delivers this tale of human obsession and folly with cool, mournful precision. Elsewhere Volker ventures into completely new territory on "The Fatal Dose," a film noir script set to song about a mysterious beauty who arrives in New Orleans, wends her way into the nexus of power and corruption of the city's elite and ends up getting the fatal dose.

Anyone who thinks Volker is kidding about leaving the Radiators behind should check out "Kryptonite," an almost giddy renunciation of his superhero powers: "I used to be a man of steel... now I'm just like and Clark Kent without a phone booth in sight... this speeding bullet ain't coming back."

The exultant chorus indicates how happy Volker is with his decision:

ka-boom lordy lordy lordy lordy

ka-boom lordy lordy lordy lordy

looking for a little taste of kryptonite

Volker goes on to acknowledge that others haven't given up the chase:

"saw Bruce Wayne speeding up Rampart St.

faithful Alfred at the wheel

he's a hundred if he's a day

and he's still looking fit to kill"

Volker is obviously very pleased with the opportunity to sit at home with his musical amusements. That satisfaction allows him to look back without bitterness as the elegiac "Save the Last Watusi for Me" indicates. But the final song, "Honeysuckle Still Hanging On the Vine," depicts Volker in his own private Avalon:

"I try not to keep up

So I can fall way behind

and stay right back here

where the honeysuckle's still hanging sweet on the vine

I was a raver and a rover

in a whole 'nother time sone

when New Orleans was New Orleans

and everything wasn't just a secret code"

--John Swenson

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