photo by Steve Rosen, from the Voltaire website
by Trevor McNeil
"The Number One Rule In This Game/Never Call One By His Real Name"
-From "Vampire Club"
Imagine the perfect, archetypical, Goth-rock super-star. Got the image? Good. Forget it. There is no ideal. Someone who represents strength and highs of the Goth culture, however, is the Lucifer-bearded minstrel calling himself Voltaire.
As with most things in the post-modern era, names can be problematic, particularly when one is in a culture that routinely assigns new names and, hopefully, new identities as a matter of membership. Such is the case with Voltaire who evaded the question when asked about his real name. Only recently has he admitted that Voltaire is, in fact, his given middle name, his full name being Aurelio Voltaire Hernandez.
Names are one of the themes used by Voltaire in his songs. One of the best examples of this the song "Vampire Club" (2002). The song is sort of a guided tour of the goth club scene with Voltaire as our narrator and tells the story of the night a bunch of Pirates show up, call a Vampire by his real name (Bernie Weinstein) and a fight breaks out. The chorus which reads: ‘Fangs were flyin', capes were torn, Hell hath no fury like a Vampire scorned/Number one rule in this game, never call one by his real name/wigs were pull, top hats were crush, pointy boots in a rush/And Boris at the bar orders a Bud and says it's just another night at the Vampire Club.' In addition to drawing attention to the naming/identity aspect the song also brings attention to the different aspects of the goth culture, referring however subtly, to the different factions within the larger Goth community, including those who ascribe to the more 19th Century Romantic vision (top hats were crushed/Vlad and Akasha) as well as those from the 1980's Bauhaus school (pointy boots in a rush) and the more recent RivetHead tribe (made more intriguing by the fact that the Goth label is seen as an insult by some RivetHeads). Has some overtly humorous and satirical touches such as "when we hangout it's always upside down/Dressed in black from toe-to-head, singin' ‘Bella Lugosi's still undead!'" another reference to Bauhaus.
Also in this vein is the vividly-titled "Death Death (Devil, Devil, Devil, Devil, Evil, Evil, Evil, Evil Song) (from 2008's To the Bottom of the Sea)," which is a tongue-in-cheek treatment of his chosen profession, the title referring to how his conservative grandmother once described his music. One of the funniest verses is third, including some of the more silly elements of goth culture ("I was shopping at Hot Topic and I walking out the door/When two dumb jocks came up to me/They said ‘hey fag it ain't Halloween'/And kicked my lipstick to the floor"). Though perhaps the sharpest poke at the genre is "If I Only Were A Goth": "The world would be depressing/Over death I'd be obsessing/With my diet I'd get scurvy and I'd worship Peter Murphy if I only were a goth!"
Having no illusions about Goth culture (or should that be cultures?), Voltaire also knows how it is usually seen in the wider society as something dark and dangerous, more akin to something like a biker gang or worse, a Manson-like murder cult, than a music scene with a rich history, drawing on a long literary tradition. Voltaire has taken on this issue in his songs, both lampooning it with "When You're Evil" (from 1998's The Devil's Bris) written from the point-of-view of a demon ("I'm the fly in your soup/I'm the pebble in your shoe/I'm the bump on every head") and subverting it with "Almost Human" (2000), a gorgeous track from the point-of -view of the Fallen Lucifer, showing that the angels and humans really aren't that far apart and making a surprisingly good case for why the pre-Fall Lucifer was and should have been angered by the announcement of his demotion ("I'm just like you/Made by He/Despised by they/I'm almost me!/I'm nearly Human/Look at me/I'm almost a human being!"). Also in the same vein is "Goodnight Demon Slayer" (from 2004's Then and Again), a funny and strangely touching ballad to his son who was having nightmares. A choice verse is the first, leading things off with "there's a monster that lives ‘neath your bed?/Oh for crying out loud!/ It's a futon on the floor/He must be flat as a board!" which is followed by a dissertation on how to kick some evil ass. "Tell the devil it's time you gave him his due/He should go back to Hell he should shake in his shoes/ ‘Cause the mightiest, scariest, creature is you!" is a personal favorite.
Perhaps the most notable instance of his world view was his appearance on CNN after a teenager who was into the goth scene killed his parents. When asked by the ignorant, blow-dried, living cliché of an anchor ‘what is Goth,' Voltaire summed it up the basic ethos as ‘there is a lot of mean spirited people in this world and that makes me sad,' quickly pointing out that this was an over simplification of a very complex philosophy. He went on to point-out that Goth also has ‘a lot to do with the human condition' and he considerers it more like a new Romanticism if anything. This is quite an astute and literate observation considering that much of the old-school Goth look is drawn from the likes of Lord Byron.
For all his satire and self-depreciating humor, there is also a good deal of depth and cleverness to Voltaire's songs. In addition to theological subjects such as those found in Almost Human, he also delves into poetry and history, with the former manifested in the track "Graveyard Picnic" (2002) and latter in "Crusade" (2004). Despite it's somewhat goofy title "Graveyard Picnic" is an ode to Edgar Allen Poe, including lines tied to the poet's verse. These include references to well known works; ‘if you fright at the mere site of the corpse of my Annabelle Lee' and ‘it's just me having tea with Lenore.' There is also a somewhat more esoteric selection; ‘if you squirm at the Conqueror's Worm.' He also has a veiled reference to "The Tell-Tale Heart": "If you fear/there's something you hear/like a heart beating under the floor." "Crusade" is, essentially, what the title implies but with a few key twists. First, while it is about the Crusades, it is from a clearly Muslim point-of-view; "Long ago I went to war/to fight the scourge of Christendom/I held aloft my blessed sword and said by God, let them come." There is something of a character arc however, after the character actually meets the enemy referred to as The Dragon and realizes much of what is going on is based on lies ("it's said their eyes are red as flame/I heard it told from Hell they came"). The mood of the song changes quite a bit at the end when he tells of his son going to war and how he "holds aloft his brazen sword and said, Death, let them come." The chorus also changes to "Son, hear your father clear in your heart/Son know your enemy, as I would have them know my son." Puts that whole ‘Clash of Civilizations' thing into perspective doesn't it?
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