It was 1993 and two years removed from their release of their contract with Epic Records and Frank Bua, the drummer for the Radiators, was doing his own publicity. He picked up a copy of UR Magazine in Atlanta and called the number. When I answered, Bua asked me if I'd ever heard of a band called the Radiators. He was in luck. I had been to Mardi Gras a few times and I was quickly becoming a fan of New Orleans' music.
Bua invited me to their show later that night at the Roxy and I got to meet the band. We did a short interview for the magazine and Bua told me about the decadent invitation-only costume party called MOM's Ball. At the time, I didn't know the implications of the invitation and meeting him on the Northshore to pick up tickets for a show in Arabi was too daunting a task for a 23 year old from Atlanta.
It wasn't until the following year that I met Bua again and reviewed the band's latest live album Bucket of Fish. Again the invitation to MOM's was extended and this time, I was convinced to go. That moment that I first stepped into the Ball and heard Ed Volker's haunting lyrics- "crawfish head, crawfish head, your head is burning red"- was one that I'd never forget. It was the moment that convinced me that New Orleans was meant to be my home.
Since then, I've become immersed in the Fish Head scene, catching 15-20 shows per year and every subsequent MOM's Ball. And now that it's coming to an end after 33 years, the thousands of Radiators fans around the country are wondering what's going to happen to the scene that bassist Reggie Scanlan affectionately refers to as "a working community." "What's even more important than the music we played," adds Scanlan, "is the community that we were a catalyst in forming. We've made friends with our fans, traveled to Europe with them. One of my best friends is a photographer that I met at one of our shows in California. Frank met his stockbroker at a gig. Each of the band members has a story like that. " It's this camaraderie that enables me to attend any show by myself and feel welcome by 50 familiar faces whose names I don't even know.
Now after more than 4000 live shows with all the original band members, lead singer/songwriter/keyboardist Ed Volker told his bandmates that he was ready to hang it up. "I told the guys that this is something I was debating for the last couple of years. Just because of the situation or stresses of getting off the road and getting out of this kind of life. There was no personal animosity or dissention that my leave-taking was addressing. It was mainly for my own health so I figured I'd give them a long passage rather than leaving in a huff. More like, I gotta leave this life with six or seven months to go so everyone could get there own houses in order so they could figure out what they want to do next."
That strategy has benefitted the band greatly. Their recent performances, both locally and nationally, have been mostly sellouts. If there is any animosity between the band members, it hasn't shown on stage either. "I can't let the crowds see it," said guitarist Dave Malone. "I did get choked up at MOM's. Listening to a song that isn't normally in our repertoire but is connected to MOM's past. And listening to the song and realizing that, wow, this is the last time that the original five guys are gonna play this song at MOM's. It's a big deal. When May or June comes around, I don't know what kind of emotion I'm gonna be in. We're gonna put it to rest with as much dignity as we can muster."
"It's better to go out this way," adds Malone. "Better than getting a call in the middle of the night that one of your bandmates had died."
Scanlan agrees. "I've been wanting this (breakup) for a long time. But you can't just leave for practical reasons. I've got a household to support. But, as soon as the band decided to split, I was like, this is great, new opportunities. I'm a person who likes change. Life is change, if your not on that plan, you're gonna get left behind and totally run over."
Scanlan also appears to be the most ambitious of the band members. He's already moving on to a new project. "Me and Willie Green, for years have been wanting to do a band together. The band we have now is me, Willie Green (drums-Neville Brothers), Jake Eckert (guitar) and Kevin Harrison (sax-Dirty Dozen Brass Band) and CR Groover (keyboards). We're playing some Neville stuff like 'Congo Square' and 'Hey Pocky Way,' Radiators stuff and Dirty Dozen stuff. We're gonna play anything funky. We want to keep the fan bases of those bands. It's a good way to keep up with your past and get your fan base into something new. Hopefully the fan base will get drawn into the bigger picture. I'm totally thrilled. I'm like a kid. I'm terrified. I think it's great. We have 4 tracks down already. We shot a (promotional) video last week."
Not everyone is as complacent about the breakup. "It's gonna be sad," said a sentimental Bua. "I cried. I didn't think I'd cry, but I listened to some old CDs and old music of ours and I got very emotional. I was angry too. I was backstage at Tips and kicked everyone out. I was mad, but then I realized I was being childish and there's nothing you can do about it. Sometimes your emotions get the best of you."
And Bua is still holding out hope. "I'd like to see us play locally. We've played Jazz Fest, MOM's every year since we've been together. I love Tipitina's. I said to Ed, "Can't we just play in New Orleans once a month and let the fans come to us. I don't want to split. The group is my life."
Volker, however, says "I have no ambitions any more. I want to get back to playing the piano again. I want to get back to being a piano player again and not just the keyboards. I have a side band, but I don't have any big ambitions for it. I don't want to do anything for at least 6 months. Who knows what the future will bring? I've been teaching myself an old Earl King song. We used to back him up. There's Always a First Time and the chorus is 'Nobody knows, nobody can tell what tomorrow's gonna bring.'"
Dave Malone thinks the band might go on without Volker. "I can't afford to take six months off. I don't know if Zeke (Volker) can either, but that's none of my business. I have other ideas being talked about, but the easiest thing to do, would be the four remaining guys will get another keyboardist that can sing, or get a keyboardist and a singer and just continue what would be The Radiators Part two or whatever that might be. The original act of The Radiators is gonna be a hard act to follow."
Scanlan doesn't seem too sure. "Playing with the Radiators again is not gonna be my number one priority. I'm not opposed to it, if it works out fine. I'm sure the fans would love it."
And what of the legacy the Radiators left behind. To many, they are the greatest rock 'n roll band in the history of New Orleans. To others, rock 'n roll doesn't have a place in New Orleans history. When asked about the Jazz & Heritage Festival's snub of the coveted Jazz Fest Poster, Malone muses, "The Radiators have always been swimming upstream. It's always been us trying to be a square peg in a round hole. It's not just The Radiators. New Orleans rock and roll has always been treated that way. We don't like music as an idea of a competition sport anyway. Maybe we shouldn't bitch about our recognition because we never worked for that."
Volker adds, "There's a lot of different perspectives on that. I don't know about success, but we've managed to achieve a pretty good livelihood for 34 years. So that's something. Closing down one of the main stages of Jazz Fest is a pretty awesome thing right there. But the poster goes to Jimmy Buffett. Jazz Fest is playing to more of a commercial interest than they were 20 years ago. That's the way things go. It's nice to get recognition in your lifetime, but time will tell a more concise and true estimate of whatever value we had."
Whatever their historical value may be, there are thousands of Fish Heads wondering what's next. John Driver, music promoter and Radiators' aficionado, emphasizes that "I'm at a loss for words about what we're gonna do (without the Rads). What are we gonna do musically without a guitar band from New Orleans? We have Honey Island Swamp Band and Tommy Malone and the Mystic Drones. These may replace them musically, but nothing is gonna replace the lifelong friends that I've made through the Radiators."
What the fans will have to settle for now is one more Jazz Fest run and their final three shows at Titipina's dubbed The Last Watusi- in mid June. Most of us hope that it'll be like the subdudes, who have had several reunion tours. But Malone says that Volker "sounded very unlikely (to play with us again). The final tour for my brother's band was very successful. They did it three or four times. I just find that a little distasteful."
As for the MOM's Ball, "the show will go on," says the Krewe's venerable captain. "We want to find a band that isn't bigger than the party." He's open to suggestions.
As for me, the Rads have been the one constant in our lives. No matter how rough the patches have gotten, my wife and I always knew we could go see the Rads and have fun together. We could lose ourselves in the bluesy rock 'n roll and fall in love all over again.
That's gonna be a hard thing to replace.