Buck Dharma in the 21st Century!
Epic Q&A with Blue Öyster Cult’s “Reaper”
By Raoul Hernandez,
4:20PM, Wed. Aug. 9, 2017
Long Island singer-songwriter cabal Blue Öyster Cult composed art-rock unlike any of their era peers between the late Sixties and the original quintet’s last LP in 1988. Throughout, lead guitarist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, 69, wrote charters “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” “Burnin’ for You,” and “Shooting Shark.” BÖC plays Friday at Empire Control Room.
Austin Chronicle: The “Buck Dharma” alias originated because the whole band was supposed to have stage names back at the beginning?
Donald Roeser: Yeah, right. We toyed with the idea, but I guess I was the only guy that liked my name, so I kept it.
AC: What was it that appealed to you about it?
DR: About being Buck Dharma? I don’t know. It’s just been awesome being Buck Dharma [laughs].
AC: I assume your family calls you Don or Donald, but do some of them insist on calling you Buck?
DR: They call me Buck sardonically, you know. It has been fun to have an alter ego.
AC: Bandmembers had aliases, as did the band – Soft White Underbelly, Oaxaca. What was that all about?
DR: We were the children of the greatest generation, the World War II guys. Baby boomers. When we began to create music was right when rock & roll started getting artistic airs. We thought of ourselves as artistic – that what we were doing was art rather than cheap, popular entertainment. So as far as creating a legend for ourselves, we were very much into that.
AC: “Buck Dharma” sounds ripped from a Fifties serial and on your 1982 solo disc Flat Out, you close the album with the Fleetwoods’ “Come Softly to Me.” I see a trend.
DR: I tell you what it was, my dad gave me a crystal radio when I was in grade school. It didn’t need batteries; I’d put headphones on and fall asleep every night listening to the radio. The local Top 40 station had a rhythm and blues bias, which meant I heard all those chart doo-wop songs and started avidly following the popular music of the day from then on. So yeah, I was really into the Fleetwoods. That was like a seventh grade slow dancing song. When I did try it out, it was a good vehicle for my wife and I to sing, because she’s a great singer herself.
AC: Thinking about that song, I made the leap to John Carpenter using “Mr. Sandman” in Halloween, which famously employs your song “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” Was BÖC fusing the sweet with the sinister as well?
DR: Well, I’d say that’s more of a Buck Dharma thing than a Blue Öyster Cult thing since I represented the more mellower, softer style of the band and Eric [Bloom] always sang the more aggressive material. I also think that was just a consequence of the sound of my voice versus the sound of Eric’s voice. If you remember, in Blue Öyster Cult, everybody sang. We all had lead vocals.
AC: I’ve always compared Blue Öyster Cult to the Band – four distinct vocalists and incredible harmonies.
DR: Yeah, it wound up being a bit of a drawback for the record company. They never really knew how to promote us without an identifiable voice for the band, because you heard everybody sing. That’s just the way it was. We couldn’t help it. We all wanted to sing and in that regard Blue Öyster Cult was sort of a workshop for everybody’s individual creativity.
AC: There’s a theatricality to Blue Öyster Cult.
DR: Yes, exactly. We envisioned it as more cinematic than theatrical, but you’re right. We were never theatrical onstage like bands such as Alice Cooper were, but we definitely always heard our music as cinematic. We wanted to tell stories, were very much into telling stories. We didn’t like moon/June songs. The subject matter was all over the place and it was varied. We had Richard Meltzer’s Dada-esque free-association lyrics, and we had [manager] Sandy Pearlman’s historical visions and fantasies. We were inspired by them. When I met Sandy and Richard, I hadn’t even conceived of writing a lyric at that time. All of it came after that. I’d say the same thing for Albert Bouchard and Joe [Bouchard].
AC: Not many acts come to mind that were doing the same thing as consistently.
DR: It’s sad to say that Blue Öyster Cult’s pretty unique. There’s nothing else like it. You can’t really say, “Okay, Blue Öyster Cult and blah, blah, blah.” There isn’t anybody else.
AC: You said that was a problem with record companies, so do you feel the band got its due ultimately?
DR: Oh, I’m totally satisfied with the arc of my own life and the band’s career. It never failed, and we’ve never been at a loss to make a living. We probably could’ve been more popular, but there’s something about popularity that requires – from my perspective – a little more coherent presentation. Simplified. I’ve always said there’s no accounting for taste, the public’s taste. Turns out there are things I have little respect for, and I’m sure you can think of somebody, too. On the other hand, you have to admire anyone that succeeds, because they’re doing something right.
AC: As a Blue Öyster Cult freak, I feel like the band’s been reduced to an SNL punchline.
DR: Well, the cowbell’s been a curse and a blessing. What can I say about that? I had nothing to do with it. It was from the mind of Will Ferrell, and what’s remarkable to me about it is how funny it is. It’s really funny [laughs].
AC: Ever had that moment with Ferrell backstage?
DR: No, I would love to meet him. As it turns out, it’s never happened. We came close to maybe getting him to come down once when we were in L.A. and play cowbell with us, but it hasn’t happened. Certainly, as time has rolled on, we’ve all learned to embrace the cowbell – or at least accept it.
AC: I was surprised to discover that last year the band covered in its entirety Agents of Fortune, which of course houses “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.”
DR: Yes, we did that in a few select cities. We did it in New York, London, and L.A. It went great. We certainly didn’t invent the idea. A lot of bands play their records like that, and we hadn’t done it prior to that time, but it was the anniversary of Agents of Fortune, the 40th anniversary, so we got together and invited Albert Bouchard to come sing the songs. He sings three songs on that record, so we invited him back to perform with us and he did. He’s a good friend.
AC: Some of those songs had never been performed live. Was that nerve-racking or all in a day's work?
DR: We just had to woodshed and learn them. We did the same thing with the first record this year – played the whole thing.
AC: I interviewed Albert a decade ago and we talked about arrangements, because there’s a lot going on in some of those songs. He said: “Mozart was like Donald, the ideas would just burst out of his head fully formed. How ‘The Reaper’ came about was amazing. Donald wrote the whole thing in one go.” Being compared to Mozart is a pretty big compliment.
DR: [Laughing] That’s great. Yeah, that’s funny. I presented “The Reaper” when I was done, but it actually took me about two months to write. There’s a lot of nuts and bolts work to do. What happened is after we got multi-track tape recorders when they became available, the members brought in songs that were a lot more fully formed in terms of arrangement and conception than previous. Then we had to hammer them out in a room together. It was great, a lot more of a collaborative effort, and you could say there was a certain organic elegance about that, which was a great way of working. “The Reaper” was the first song I wrote after I got my four-track recorder.
AC: What was the second!?
DR: Umm, gee I can’t remember what it was, but I wrote “Godzilla” that way, I wrote “Burnin’ for You” that way, and all the subsequent songs after that time period. I had the luxury of multiple tracks to conceive the arrangement than previously where you just come in with a guitar and lay out a song.
AC: How much was a song like “Golden Age of Leather” completed before the band began working on it, because there’s so many moving parts to it.
DR: Yeah, right. “Golden Age,” the bulk of the lyric was written by my college buddy Bruce Abbott, who was also in a band with Albert and I in college. He didn’t pursue a career in music, but he called me up around that time and said, “I got an idea for this song,” and in his mind, he didn’t foresee the enduring popularity of Harley Davidsons. He thought that the whole biker epic was going to fade away with the march of technology, and in Bruce’s mind, “Golden Age” was about a last blowout in the desert – some last huge party before it was all over. Of course Bruce was wrong. The Harleys endured, and now every boy and doctor has a Harley.
AC: When BÖC played the Republic of Texas rally in 2010, y’all performed on a hill above our Travis County Expo Center while bikers circled in a massive bike pit below. It was quite a sight.
DR: You know, we’re doing Sturgis [Motorcycle Rally in the Black Hills of South Dakota] again this year at the Buffalo Chip Campground. We’ve done it probably six or seven times over the years. I’ve seen Strugis change in that time period. It used to be pretty outlaw, but now it’s very much – I wouldn’t say corporate, that’s the wrong word – but it’s a very civilized event compared to what it used to be.
AC: When you played the ROT Rally, I was surprised you featured your song “Then Came the Last Days of May.” Has that stayed in the set list this whole time?
DR: Oh yeah, that’s a staple performance piece now. We do two long guitar solos with myself and my co-musician Richie Castellano, who’s a stellar guitar player himself, so it’s a crowd pleaser now and we basically do it all the time.
AC: Tell me about composing that song.
DR: It was still in the Soft White Underbelly days when we were playing dances at Stony Brook University [on Long Island] for our sustenance money. Three Stony Brook students went to Tuscon, Arizona, to buy some bulk marijuana for resale. I don’t know how they got whatever contact they had, but it was two brothers – scions from one of the better-to-do families in Tuscon. They never intended to sell them any pot. They just wanted to rip ’em off and shoot ’em, which they did. They took them out to the desert and shot them. It was three guys, and one managed to survive and get back to the highway. The brothers were arrested and convicted, and spent 10 years in jail, but then they got out.
I wrote the story from basically the newspaper accounts of the Long Island newspaper, Newsday. They were collaborating with a Phoenix reporter, whose name eludes me now. He became famous later for his civic and mob corruption stories, and later was killed when they put a bomb in his car. There’s a personal connection, too. I knew one of the guys casually from Stony Brook University when we were hanging out there.
AC: This was during college?
DR: Well, I wasn’t going to college. I never went to Stony Brook. I met Albert at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, where we were both going to be engineering students. After a couple years of that, I realized I did not want to be an engineer; we’d been in a bar band. I went back to Long Island and enrolled in a communications course, but then the opportunity to begin what became the Soft White Underbelly happened and I decided to stop wasting my parents’ tuition money and give it a chance. They wrung their hands for about four years about me getting a real job, which is when we got the Columbia [Records] contract and the rest is history.
AC: Albert had a funny story about meeting you at Clarkson, something about meeting you in line at a gym and introducing himself with a crack about you both being short.
DR: Right! There’s a fraternity of short people.
AC: He said you were not amused.
DR: [Laughs] I probably would be today. I was a little less self-assured than I am now.
AC: Was “Last Days” the first song you wrote?
DR: Nearly. It was nearly the first song. I was just dipping my toes in the idea of composition. Before Sandy Pearlman, it never occurred to me to write a song.
AC: There’s a lot of glacier under the waterline of BÖC, with the album on Elektra that didn’t come out before the band signed with Columbia.
DR: We were trying very hard to get somewhere. And the reason I got on board was after meeting Sandy. He was one of the first rock critics and he had all these contacts with record companies. He got us demo time, because back then you couldn’t make your own demos. You had to go to studio. It was a great opportunity, so I decided to give it all I had and see what happened.
AC: I had lunch with Sandy at South by Southwest a few years ago and was saddened to hear of his passing last year.
DR: Yeah, he got unlucky and had a catastrophic stroke.
AC: Were you still in contact at that point?
DR: We hadn’t seen each other for a long time, and then in the last few years, he’d come to our shows in Santa Cruz. We’d have an annual reunion even though he didn’t have much to do with our business or anything at that point. In fact, I was about to ask him if he had any lyrics because Blue Öyster Cult is likely going to make another record this year. I was going to try and get some new stuff from him, but that was not to be.
AC: Likewise, once when I was in Portland for North by Northwest, I got to see Richard Meltzer do a spoken word set. Are you still in touch with him?
DR: I don’t see much of Richard these days. I send him a check once in a while.
AC: Your father was a musician.
DR: Yes. My dad’s still alive. He’s 94.
AC: So you grew up in a musical household.
DR: My dad was like a weekend warrior. He played weddings and clubs and stuff. He was a saxophone player, and I think a lot of the way I play comes from listening to sax players, you know, melodically – single melody lines.
AC: He gave you your first instrument?
DR: When I was 9, my parents encouraged me to play the accordion. I started the accordion for about a year, then I saw that the instrument was going nowhere culturally, so I put it down. Then, a couple years later I started playing drums and they helped me there. They bought me some lessons and got me a drum set. I was a drummer up until ninth grade when I broke my wrist playing street basketball. While I had the cast on, I picked up a cheap guitar they had bought for my brother and I started playing it. I knew a drummer that was better than me, so I just never went back to the drums after that.
AC: Were there family jams at home?
DR: No, I would jam with my dad periodically over the years, but not in any performance context, no.
AC: So he never laid down any sax on a Blue Öyster Cult record?
DR: No. The thing about my dad is he never really understood rock & roll. It just sounded alien to him in a way that I imagine a lot of hip-hop alienates parents now.
AC: Was there a point where he finally got it, like perhaps seeing the band on television?
DR: He always encouraged what I was doing, but musically, he was really locked into his be-bop generation. That’s what he liked. He never understood my end of the music. It must have osmosed into his brain over the decades. I was just reading something Mark Stein wrote about the 50th anniversary of “Light My Fire.” It’s 50 years since “Light My Fire,” but only 30 years between that song and flappers of the roaring Twenties. Between the Charleston and rock & roll it’s only 25 years.
AC: Since your first album was recorded for Elektra, did you meet the Doors?
DR: We were friendly with Ray Manzarek and still am friendly with Robby Krieger. I jammed with Robby last year when he came by where I live, Annapolis, Maryland.
AC: Ever meet Jim Morrison?
DR: No, I never met Jim. He had died by the time we became friendly with Ray and Robby. They didn’t have a very long run when you think about it.
AC: I’m wondering how you felt when Columbia Legacy sent you the BÖC box set, which contained your whole catalog from the label, 1972-1988. Is that something you hold and think, “My life’s work," or you just shelve it?
DR: It was high time that they did the box. I thought they did a very nice job on it. It’s a fine testament of our Columbia career.
AC: Ever foresee getting into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
DR: I think there’s a reason why we’re probably not in it. There was something personal between Jann Wenner and Richard Meltzer. I think Richard insulted [Rolling Stone] at some point, so I think there’s a strike against us as far as getting in there. But I don’t know the particulars because, again, the band wasn’t really involved in this. I guess Sandy, Richard, and Jann were all in the same circle at the time. I think there’s bad blood between the ultimate decision-making body.
AC: Is that something that’s important to you?
DR: You know, there’s lots of bands that should be in the Hall of Fame that aren’t. There’s probably some bands that are in that shouldn’t be. Do I care? It would be a nice feather, but I’m not holding my breath. I’m in the Long Island Hall of Fame.
AC: I read where you were the poppy side of BÖC, and it occured to me that something like “Deadline” from Cultösaurus Erectus would’ve fit right in on Flat Out.
DR: Yup, that’s definitely true. My soul is rooted in the great, melodic pop music of my time. I never thought of myself as a jazzer, even though I’m a little bit jazzy, but I’m definitely a pop guy.
AC: Was there another solo record besides Flat Out?
DR: No, I did an underground – just my own sales – archive collection that’s mainly my demos. My four-track demos. But no, I didn’t do another major, aboveboard release. Not to say I wouldn’t. Maybe I’ll do that in my retirement. I just built a studio in my new home and I might as well use it.
AC: Flat Out is a perfect album. Did it feel like that to you, like, “This came out the way I envisioned”?
DR: I definitely put my back into it and tried to make it the best I could. You know, “Burnin’ for You” was supposed to be on Flat Out and Sandy Pearlman convinced me to let the band have it [for Fire of Unknown Origin], because the band needed a strong single. I like Flat Out to this day.
AC: Like “Burnin’ for You,” one of the singles off the next album, The Revölution by Night, your song with Patti Smith, “Shooting Shark,” also charted. How did that collaboration come about?
DR: There’s a demo of “Shooting Shark” on my Archive. That was a Patti Smith lyric I had for a while, not paying attention to it, then I came across it and thought it was terrific. I just tried to do the lyric justice musically, and I think it turned out to be a great song.
AC: Texas – when did the band first make it here and what was that like?
DR: It was after the first record was out and we immediately loved Texas. The whole energy down there, and the girls are beautiful for whatever reason. Always loved Texas. The germ of “Godzilla” was written in a Dallas hotel room. I was messing around on the guitar and came up with [hums the opening riff], and it made me think of "Godzilla" immediately. As often happens, I write the first two lines of lyric and that gets the ball rolling. That all happened in Dallas.
AC: Did Blue Öyster Cult ever play the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin?
DR: I think we did. I love Austin. I got to see some blues on Sixth Street. I bought a guitar there, a Paul Reed Smith – one of the few guitars I bought resale, where you just go into a music store and buy a guitar. I’m looking forward to coming back. I love Austin.
Isabella Castro-Cota, April 25, 2017
Raoul Hernandez, June 9, 2016
Oct. 16, 2017
Oct. 8, 2017
Blue Öyster Cult, Donald Roeser, Buck Dharma, Albert Bouchard, Joe Bouchard, Eric Bloom, Sandy Pearlman, Richard Meltzer, Richie Castellano, Will Ferrell, Mozart, Alice Cooper Band, The Doors, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, Bruce Abbott, Michael Moorcock, Patti Smith, Republic of Texas Rally, Sturgis Motorcycle Rally