Hammer out those words burnt red from the coals. Scrape the bark off those gnarly melodies and bend them to your will. Wince at the stinking coal fire smoke and fashion your temple. Pray to the muse to bring you the song. Should you celebrate or sail away? Will the dream make you whole or tear you apart, agony by agony?
Such is the nature of inspiration. The pop industry is easy, just another job. But the song, that’s hard work. It’s a vocation, like generations of diligent monks scribing away in the candlelit twilight, like poets in their attics selling their books to eat just so they can keep writing.
New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, Miami, Chicago. The wheels are grinding, the content comes rolling swiftly. There is no choice. The goal is celebrity itself.
New Orleans. The goal can only be the lost song. The poets work in bare, ruined abbeys where the birds bring them stories, tales told by the seers of old, carried forward by Allen Toussaint and Earl King and Professor Longhair and before them by Champion Jack Dupree and before him Jelly Roll Morton and…
The lost song contains the secrets hidden from us in our own hearts. That search is as relentless as it is priceless. It doesn’t matter whether the audience is one or one million. It’s the search that matters. But it’s got to be the right search. Forget about Faust, forget about Ponce de Leon. They were chumps. The search is for the Grail and nothing less. The Holy Wine Special.
It’s only money/ Just dust on the shelf/ You were always about something else—“Holy Wine (Hey Mac)”
Ed Volker has always been looking for the song, the one he heard as a child on the lost radio, the one that comes to him in dreams so vividly he has no choice but to keep journals of the experience, to write thousands of songs dating back over the last half century based on the one that keeps visiting him in his dreams. As if by accident or magic some of these songs made it to the public ear and people liked them. The songs rode their way through the legend of the Rhapsodizers and brought them to the brink of fame. But the price of that fame was the song itself and Volker refused to sacrifice it. Instead he formed the Radiators, who kept the song intact and all the songs that derived therefrom. As luck would have it a kind of fame came with it and the Radiators got the job with the grinding wheels and rolled that wagon around the country for 30-plus years.
All the while Volker kept writing the songs, although the Radiators used fewer and fewer of the new ones as the years went on. Then, a few years after Katrina, Volker told the band he had decided to quit the road and never leave New Orleans again. He has spent his time since then in his alter ego as Zeke Fishhead, organizing his archives and turning out a series of visionary exercises for a seeker and a one-man band working out of his home studio near Bayou St. John. This torrent of material is available over the course of numerous releases available at livedownloads.com and the Louisiana Music Factory.
Holy Wine Special is Volker’s latest creation. He sings and overdubs all the instrumental parts on a new system that has improved the fidelity of his recordings, yet the tracks still have a dreamlike, otherworldly sound to them. Included here are two old songs that Volker has been playing live with his various bands—“Jolly House,” from 1996, and “My Baby’s Got Some Bad Kung Fu,” from 2005. “The Blue Distance,” which closes the set, also hails from ’96. Several songs are about women—earthly and celestial and, well, statuesque would be a good description of the woman in “Antoinette Pines.”
Then there are the figurative songs like “Melt Away”: “It’s 8 in the a.m. in New Orleans/ 99 in the shade/ We’re having a hot time down here on the fiery rock/ And I don’t wanna melt away.”
Despite the fact that Volker is the only player, the songs all have different shapes and feelings. The swirling, hypnotic grooves he builds on with layers of synthesized piano, organ and percussion each move along and stand out from each other like singular organisms. The lyrics speak of the deep recesses of emotion that transcend love and become existential. He has an uncanny ability to build dreamlike scenarios out of concrete images and allusions to archetypes, evoking alternately pleasant and unsettling emotional overtones. Like in “Cigar Box”: “I’m standing on North Lopez/ Cigar box holding my ghost/ It’s a long long time/ Since I left my mama’s home…/ Now what you gonna do/ When that low down chill gets in your brain/ I got one foot in the graveyard/ The other on the monkey train…/ Now I’m dancing on North Lopez/ Cigar box holding my ghost/ We done smoked up all the cee-gars/ But we still got a ways to go.”
Volker has written many songs about wine over the years. The Radiators could probably play an entire show of wine-themed material. The metaphor is completely appropriate for the Dionysian search for the other that Volker and the Radiators have always inspired in their audiences, who’ve spilled more wine in their lifetimes than most others drink. “If only I knew now/ What I used to know back then/ Before we came to be what we came to be/ Don’t the wine taste sweeter as the years go rolling by.”
The long game is what’s on Volker’s mind, even if it’s in the late innings. One foot in the graveyard, the other on the monkey train. The experience gives depth to the appreciation of just about everything. Even the bad stuff, like in “When Your Way Gets Dark”: “And memory is torn and bleeding/ You can’t even recall/ The sad sweet sound of your sister singing/ Every song that lifted your heart/ Whispers away faded and gone/ Pray for the light of another star/ When your way gets dark/ And you stumble blindly through the briar/ The place you intend/ As lost as the place you came from/ No going back now there ain’t nowhere to go/ You keep moving into the unknown/ Pray for light from another star when your way gets dark.”
That urge to “keep moving” is central to “Holy Wine (Hey Mac),” Volker’s tribute to his friend James McNamara, the road manager for Barrence Whitfield and the Savages who died last year. Jimmy Mac loved the Radiators and relished drinking wine with Volker when he came to New Orleans. Volker’s tribute is a joyous call-and-response: “Hey mac (hey mac hey mac)/ Step on the gas/ There’s wine down in New Orleans/ To defrost and dissolve our dreams.”
Who needs celebrity when you’ve got the Holy Wine Special?