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All The World’s An Oyster … Blue Öyster Cult Embraces Cowbell, Etc.

October 13th, 2008 · Tags:Arts

… Ironic that a line came to me for this blog during my pastor’s sermon on Sunday.  When he quoted the saying “The world is your oyster,” I suspected divine intervention.  Or was it?  What a perfect phrase to describe the Web, where any blogger can publish and be read instantly anywhere.

Now, couple that thought with the subject matter.  The focus today is Blue Öyster Cult, and an interview of the band’s lead guitarist/vocalist Buck Dharma (Donald Roeser).  Dharma and friends will play with a host of other bands at South Padre International Musical Festival in a few days.

http://www.spimusicfest.com/2008/

Buck Dharma

Buck Dharma

But frankly, the band isn’t all sunshine and surf music. Oh contrar … I mean, the “Cult surname” is a clue … (But hey, read the Eagle’s “Hotel California” lyrics before passing judgment.)

Myself … I am a believer, and therefore I take that dark stuff pretty seriously.  I am the guy who will tear up check #666 instead of sending it in to the electric company.  Or, if the gas pump reads $6.66 when my car is full, I will stick some petrol in someone else’s car before I stop on those digits.  (I don’t mind putting a tiger in the tank, but I do draw the line at the beastmaster …)

So, should I talk to BÖC, or is that flirting with Old Scratch?  I am going to vote its okay.  Here’s my logic.  If you plug in the DVD of Will Farrell’s great skits from “Saturday Night Live,” two are pertinent here. There is of course the now-legendary skit with Christopher Walken playing a music producer who urges a mock BÖC to give him what he needs – “MORE COWBELL!”  If you don’t know, that song is “Don’t Fear The Reaper” (DFTR).  Also on the Farrell DVD, you will see the comic genius made up as the devilish Beezlebub in another skit.  My point – I don’t think twice about watching Will Farrell with horns, why shouldn’t I interview Buck Dharma?  I mean, BÖC only flirts with the dark side … it’s actually tongue in cheek.  Isn’t it?

Well, Dharma pretty much decided to leave all of that a mystery.  So I choose just to consider them a guilty pleasure – one that new generations are discovering … yes thanks to the SNL cowbell skit and films “Joe Dirt” and “Larry The Cable Guy.” There’s even a Mercedes Benz commercial where the customer says he is a fan.

“The cowbell to us was a total surprise.  We didn’t know it was coming. It took us a while, but we’ve come to embrace the cowbell,” Dharma said.

Dharma, raised on Long Island, lives in Florida now – where they too are embracing the cowbell.  A few hours after the telephone interview, Dharma was scheduled to play “DFTR” at a Tampa Rays pep rally, because the team’s fans all bring cowbells to urge the team on during games.  (Side note: well now, they used to be the Devil Rays, didn’t they!?!)

Anyway … Dharma and the band’s publicity over the years speak more to the band’s intelligence … the sense of humor … the references to science fiction … and a diverse style that crosses over from ballads to  unadulterated heavy metal to … yes … even surf music. Go to iTunes and check out “Golden Age of Leather,” case in point.  The tune begins with a boys choir, singing a beer hall toast, rocks out for a while as the lyrics
describe some sort of futuristic biker war … then all of the sudden …

“ … Definitely … That breakdown section in the middle … that’s definitely a nod to ‘Good Vibrations’ by The Beach Boys,” he said.  “What I was trying to do was to take that emotional touchstone and set it in the middle of the story.”

Personally, it is one of my favorite moments in the entire BÖC catalogue … so what the heck, I asked Dharma to sing it on the spot.  He did, and he still hits the notes with ease … some 36 years into his “endless summer” … or “endless touring” as BÖC calls it.

“I … came here willingly.  And I … will go down valiantly …” Dharma crooned for my recorder.

For many, his soothing voice juxtaposed with cindering guitar licks and dark themes has become the “voice” of BÖC, although bandmate and co-founder Eric Bloom sings more than half the songs, particularly the harder hitting tracks.

“This was just sort of evolutionary and accidental.  Eric was the front singer and I was on one or two tunes an LP, and Albert also sang, and Joe Bouchard sang too,” Dharma said. “When the band started taking off on radio, it was my songs that were the popular ones.  Now, years later, the public’s perception of the voice of BÖC is largely me …”  (See history of the band on the official site.)

So, Mr. Dharma, we embraced the cowbell … so what about Guitar Hero which has also revealed the cult magic to another generation?
“The Guitar Hero game has really opened up BÖC to a new generation — younger than what the cowbell did,” he said. “I tried Guitar Hero, and I was pretty good at it. But the nature of the instrument in Guitar Hero is such that if you actually play guitar, you will do less well than someone who doesn’t play guitar.  Because, you know how it goes on a guitar and it’s not the same instrument.”

Ha … a non-issue for me on both accounts … I digress …

In preparing for this conversation, it seemed BÖC popped up all around me.  I won’t count my pastor’s oyster comment … but this was spooky.  I flipped through the TV channels a couple of nights before the interview and there was that new HBO series about vampires – “FirstBlood.”  (I call it a “suck opera.”) Anyway … in a vampire bar scene, guess what music was playing.  Yes … a cover version of DFTR! Oh, and get this.  I read Wired magazine about once a year.  There was a copy in my hotel room at the Aloft in Chicago, so I opened it up.  Yes … there was a blurb about Christopher Walken, A to Z, which payed homage to “More Cowbell!”  They’re everywhere.  So what about this vampire thing?  BÖC had an LP called Mirrors and then there is the subtly named tune “Tattoo Vampire” on the flip side of some pressings of the single DFTR.

Dharma didn’t see the episode of “FirstBlood” and he doesn’t even own a tattoo.  But legions of BÖ Cult’s following have actually tattooed their skin with the group’s famous logo – the Kronos, a cross with a meat hook … sort of … the alchemy symbol for lead, heaviest of all metals.  I asked him what future cultures will think, when they unearth some mummified remains sporting a BÖC tattoo.

“They’ll probably think it was a bigger deal than it was. One album cover design we never got around to doing was a huge archaeological dig and what they were unearthing was a humongous Blue Öyster Cult logo,” he said.  “No, I don’t have any tattoos.  I still can’t decide what I want on my skin for the rest of my life.”

(Hahahah … as I was typing this blog, radioio.com via iTunes played the band’s “Sinful Love” “… I love you like sin, but I won’t be your pigeon”… okay … then something about “taking a knife and cutting ‘you’ out of my life.”)

South Padre International Music Festival

South Padre International Music Festival

“BÖC tends to write stories, and set it to music. We think of ourselves as sort of a cinematic kind of a storytelling outfit – even when the lyric is purposefully obscure,” he said, “where you can sort of fill in your own imagination as to what the lyric really means.”

Perhaps a better example of storytelling is “Then Came The Last Days of May” – a slow, melancholy song with mood-swing guitar, about a drug deal gone bad, based on a true story.  It would make a great movie.

“It was written from newspaper accounts of the incident,” Dharma said. “I had a personal relationship with one of the people who got killed.  I didn’t really know him well, but I knew who he was … enough to say ‘hi.’”

Finally, I had to do it even though I was afraid of where it might go. I had to ask about my favorite recording.

Me personally — I liked BÖC sporadically over the years … a song here and there:  DFTR, Godzilla, Golden Age, Last Days of May … but there are so many LPS.  Then came the ultra-polished “Fire Of Unknown Origin” recording in the early ’80s.  I loved it … but I just assumed it was probably that album that haunts the band … a concerted effort to put out a recording that would rival the commercial success achieved by the DFTR hit.  I guess I was right.  Dharma wouldn’t really say what he thought of the effort.  He definitely prefers their first three records.

How can you not love these lyrics from “Fire”?:  “Death comes driving down the highway, in its Sunday best” … or who could forget:

“Junkies down in Brooklyn are going crazy
They’re laughing just like hungry dogs in the street
Policemen are hiding behind the skirts of little girls
Their eyes have turned the color of frozen meat”

Those are from that crazy song – “Joan Crawford” (has risen from the grave.)  So, as “church lady in another SNL skit would say, “What inspired that … Buck … I don’t know … maybe … was it Satan?

I always wondered about that J.C. – Joan Crawford?  J.C. – Jesus Christ? thing  … “Risen from the grave” … and all that.  Dharma shot me down.

“That was written by the late David Roter who had a whole catalogue full of satirical lyric songs.  The reason that song was written is because Joan Crawford’s daughter just released that book and it was getting quite a lot of play … and the whole getting beat with a coat hanger thing … So the whole thing was that Joan Crawford comes out of the grave to beat her daughter one last time. And the world tilts on its axis for this to happen and everyone starts behaving in a ‘bizarro’ world fashion.”

Makes sense to me.

“Ever since ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’ was a hit, we were under pressure – self imposed and the record companies — to have another hit.  We were competing with bands that had more hits,” he said.  “The ‘Fire of Unknown Origin’ record was the second Martin Birch record we did.  Obviously the first three BÖC records are sort of a crowning achievement of the band’s initial conception and very successful in that regard.  But I like the first records … you know, ‘Agents’ and ‘Spectres.’”

They have been successful on many fronts, including the newfound popularity.  So, nothing left to do but count royalties, I suppose? Actually, Dharma said they “tour their butts off,” still playing 100 dates a year in the States and in Europe. They have only done a couple of recordings in the last decade, but their record company is re-releasing their catalog pieces at a time.

They are Internet savvy, especially some of the newer members of the current line up which includes Bloom, Dharma, Richie Castellano, Jules Radino and Rudy Sarzo.

And of course, I had to ask this too.  Does Buck Dharma open up his laptop and blog at his local Starbucks?

“Actually, no, I despise MySpace. Just the way it is set up.  I can’t abide,” Dharma said.  “My Web site was good when it came out.  It’s a little stale now and needs some revamping.  I figure if people want to get in touch with me, they can go to my Web site.  I have the domain, so that’s where you go.”

He is more likely to whip out his iPhone, and use Wi-Fi or the AT&T network to read political blogs with the built in browser.  On his site,  in true blue sense of humor, the “feedback” button doesn’t launch an e-mail — it plays a distorted guitar riff.

Dharma said that digital downloads now account for 70 percent of the royalty checks he and the band receive.  (“I think iTunes has transformed the business … probably saved it from extinction,” he said.) In his iPod, he has music ranging from Rosemary Clooney (now THAT is scary) to Ice Cube.

He likes The Clash, especially the more commercial songs like “Rock The Casbah.” (Trivia: Sandy Pearlman worked with The Clash and BÖC.)  He credits opening for Alice Cooper during the Killer tour with teaching the band the showmanship to play to an arena crowd. (He now plays golf, just like Alice – maybe they will tour together again one day on the senior tour.)

The band has been compared with Black Sabbath, because of a shared manager (Pearlman) and the resulting project where they toured together “Black and Blue.”  But the similarities end there.

He confirmed my theory that “Agents of Fortune” is his band’s “Sergeant Pepper” and then added that “Cultosaurus Erectus” would be their “Pet Sounds” for those of you who study the theme

Young Buck, circa 1983

Young Buck, circa 1981

record/experimentation. He found little humor in my story about a pig farmer from Hereford, Texas who told me he feeds the hogs to “Golden Age of Leather.” He also found no humor in the comment that I think a young Buck Dharma looked just like the actor in “The Princess Bride,” the guy who says, “I am so-and-so Montoya … Prepare to die!” (“Well, I know there are virtual doppelgangers of me walking around.  I have run into them a few times in my life,” he said.)

He wrote “Godzilla” because he was a fan of the big lizard and the voiceover versions of the film. He joked that today, they would probably rifle off a long list of profanities in the song to earn the coveted parental warning stickers that actually help to move more product. The South Padre International Music Festival is the first time he has played on a bill with Willie Nelson, although they have crossed paths before.  But, he said Willie’s harmonica p

Mandy In The Middle (Pantinkin in P Diaries)
Mandy In The Middle (Pantinkin in “Princess Bride”

layer was in the studio to record “Dr. Music,” with BÖC. (Perhaps more important, Willie is a golfer too.  Maybe we have a foursome.)

“I feel very fortunate to have made a living for so many years, and a good living doing something that I love to do.  That’s the secret to having an enjoyable life – for anybody, just do something you like,” he concluded.

So, where does the name Blue Öyster Cult come from anyway … I mean seriously? Some of the publicity credits it to a science fiction story about visitors from space.

“The song ‘Subhuman’ on the ‘Secret Treaties’ record  was originally going to be called ‘Blue Oyster Cult’ … At the time we called the band Blue Öyster Cult, it was just a set of lyrics and hadn’t been written as a song, but that’s where the name came from.”

More thoughts?

“The band now is probably more powerful than any band … even the original lineup. I think it is really good and I think you are going to be knocked out when you hear it,” he promised.

And, as if this was not enough, check out:
http://www.blueoystercult.com/

OH … and then read the Wikipedia if you dare.

And finally … why the umlaut above the letter “O” in Blue Öyster Cult?
Because the band was experimenting with the Internet smiley emoticon, early on.  (I just made that up.)