Death Valley Nights
Heavy metal love: Blue Öyster Öccultism
Blake Mutter, blond, lanky, in his ever-present BÖC concert tee, repeated the lyric, heavy metal mysticism firing his blue eyes.
"He-devil, she-devil ... I love you like sin."
Junior high home economics lesson No. 666: Pentagrams! You couldn't beat the late Seventies with a stick. I smiled back at him reassuringly.
Too late it turns out. That's me removing a Blue Öyster Cult tape, $8.99 list, from my sock on the sidewalk outside a record store before all too long. And not just because of BÖC either. Had this mom-and-pop hole in the wall not rolled like a biker bar, things might have turned out different. Pulpy sunlight sludging through honeycomb windows, ye olde decor, mustachioed Camaro owners in bell-bottom corduroys: The Devil handed me the cassette.
Could've been/should've been 1976's Agents of Fortune, off which "Sinful Love" suckled in the shadows of biggest hit "(Don't Fear) The Reaper." Mirrors, maybe, paging "Dr. Music" in '79. 'Twas the tweener: Spectres, 1977. Opener "Godzilla" had already demolished both FM radio and Tokyo, "with a purposeful grimace and a terrible sound." Even in this art-challenged format, the cover reeked of the occult. Blue Öyster Öccult.
He picks up a bus and he throws it back down
As he wades through the buildings toward the center of town
Oh no, they say he's got to go
Go go Godzilla yiiieaah!
Oh no, there goes Tokyo
Go go Godzilla yiiieaah!
Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser's buzzing, high-tension-wire guitars; Japanese bulletins bouncing off bunker walls; and a recoiling refrain chorused by some sort of Freemason society prehistoric tongue-in-cheek crunch born of the drive-in and infinitely retelecast. Improbably, "Godzilla" proved a Spectral runt. Once that same men's choir hoisted their beer steins on the succeeding cut, Harley horsemen "poised on the brink of eternity," any suspicion surrounding this particular cult vanished. Hail the "Golden Age of Leather."
Blue Öyster Cult was no Thin Lizzy, though; saints preserve Phil Lynott and his medieval musings ("Renegade," January 20, 2006). For all its evocations of the "year of our lord AD," "a last crusade, a final outrage," and sacred vows to "die as we had lived," Spectres blood-and-oil-stained "Golden Age of Leather" mocks epic metallurgy even as the Long Island, N.Y., quintet rides out its rousing embodiment. "Four and 90 studded horsemen closed the knot of honor," sure, but only in "this day of flaccid plumage." Battle begun, they flail "at each other like bugs at a light." Mumbo jumbo in any other theatre, yet here, dying "valiantly" came promised with a sweeping bow at the curtain call.
All the while, chopper riffs pull wheelies left channel then right, bass surfing easily underneath, until the tempo doubles and a lancing lead prompts the heavenly chorale to cry, "Dawn colored the sky." Competing harmonic factions call and respond back, over, across while musical tides heed the pull of the moon. Shifting tone, perspective, and all manner of voice, "Golden Age of Leather" hoofs it like West Side Story, thrusting and kicking at the floodlights, its "solitary shaft of chromium steel" at the finale an operatic antidote. Perhaps the Devil really does wears Prada tights.
Catherine Deneuve, blond, standoffish, black-hole-beautiful, went to my high school. The French Revolution's personification of beauty, Marianne, once modeled after the Parisian actress, materialized fully formed out of the Weird Science bombshell incubator and, to quote the Lizard King, walked on down the hall. Months of summoned resolve were duly rewarded with her encore to our rainy day lunchtime meet 'n' greet: During fifth period, her family cashed out the Bay Area for Southern California.
"Burnin' for You" smoldered still on BÖC's last solar flare, 1981's Fire of Unknown Origin, when a certain she-devil reappeared in a hallway just down from the first, one year later, in a nearly undetectable puff of sulfur. So began my own "Golden Age of Leather." Leather and lace. Or rather, corduroy and Yves St. Laurent/Christian Dior/Prada.
To first love one promises eternity. The returns vary. This one came with corporate trappings: a large house, two-way radio in the trunk of dad's Olds (in case of kidnapping), and two older screwups. She was the white sheep of the family. And you know what they say about lupine lamb's wool.
Charles Manson probably never crossed my mind when she led me to the back room of the house. I was the only male other than her brother allowed in the hindmost kids' quarters, and on the wall-to-wall carpet of the communal listening station, the answer was spelled out in vinyl strewn around a cheap turntable: Sabbath, Zeppelin, Maiden, Deep Purple, Def Leppard, Scorpions, UFO. She smiled sweetly, Princess Grace, only now I could see the silver studs in her Blakeian blues.
Milady's boudoir would've sat next to the linen closet at the Waldorf-Astoria. Except for the poster. Behind the door. Sanctuary always locks the escape hatch, especially when there's something needing protection. That didn't happen for months, but when our smackdowns finally graduated off the floor, Bon Scott cackled with glee. Highway to Hell translates as the AC/DC hyena, bare-chested in bulging blue jeans, leering down at my brown eyeball blinking through Rapunzel's cascading locks, directly opposite. So this was "Sinful Love."
College doubled as the draft, so I skulked south, first-generation boom box our lifeline. Now thoroughly possessed by my mate's metallic peccadilloes, I cut and pasted a 90-minute pledge of chromium steel balladry Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, Rainbow. A pair of Spectres. Elvira had lit her very own Fire of Unknown Origin that year away at the convent; Agents of Fortune were her siblings' intimates. Mine were new ghosts. Over the next seven years that TDK tape loop summoned the witching hour's feverish rituals, entwined through two separate strands of DNA hers and mine. Worship the soft white underbelly.
R. U. Ready 2 Rock
Albert Bouchard, drummer, Soft White Underbelly/Oaxaca/Stalk-Forrest Group/Blue Öyster Cult, 1967-1981:
Austin Chronicle: Let's just say it: You were the best songwriter in a cabal of them, and seldom more so than with your contributions to Spectres.
Albert Bouchard: I'm a little OCD. When I'm arranging things, I like them to be right. You know, with a song, there are a lot of things: You have to have an element of surprise; you have to have balance; you have to have depth of emotion. You have to have all these things. "Death Valley Nights" is one where it was just me and [BÖC brain trust/lyricist] Richard Meltzer. Richard was really going through a rough time when he wrote that song, and it's one of the most heartfelt lyrics he ever came up with.
AC: What about "Fireworks"?
AB: The only lyric I ever wrote on a Blue Öyster Cult record by myself was "Fireworks." I wrote that about a girl I was going with. It was a tender love song, basically. [Laughing] She'd kill me if she heard me saying this, but she had never had an orgasm, so this was the story of her having an orgasm for the first time. [BÖC Svengali] Sandy Pearlman made fun of me for the line "To consummate their love at last." He'd say, "You mean they're gonna make some soup?"
AC: Your other grand ascension on Spectres is "R. U. Ready 2 Rock."
AB: That started with Sandy. He was on the phone with Patti Smith. It was Easter. There was some show about Jesus on TV. They were both watching it and talking about what a great image Easter is: of coming back to life, of rebirth. So they both started writing a song; hers was "Easter" and his "R. U. Ready 2 Rock." The thing started out with the bridge, "I only live to be born again." That was his first line. He came in with a set of lyrics; I put music to it. He didn't like it. He came in with different lyrics; I put different music to it. He didn't like it. We kept going back and forth, back and forth. Each time we'd redo it, we'd save a little piece. So it took about a year to write. We knew there was something great there, but it wasn't "The Reaper," which was written in five minutes. Donald would get these ideas, and it'd be pow full-blown song.
AC: You mentioned Patti Smith. Some of your best songs are co-writes with her.
AB: We were buddies, still are, but I don't think I ever really sat down with Patti and said, "Okay, let's write a song." It was more like she'd have an idea, she'd tell me about it, I'd start working on it, she'd tweak stuff for me, and then we'd have a song. "Career of Evil," I basically took everything that she wrote and threw it into a song. "The Revenge of Vera Gemini" was the first song she ever gave me before "Baby Ice Dog." She gave it to me on my birthday. I think it was '73. I wrote a song that night the night of my birthday. The next day I played it for Donald, and he says, "That's awful. Horrible. It sounds just like Bob Dylan." So it was back to the drawing board. "Vera" took years to write.
AC: To what do you attribute your gift for arrangements?
AB: To me, Beethoven is the ultimate. I still cannot get over how he did some of these things. He broke every rule. He had a very long career, but not a lot of output because he would rework things forever. He was not like Mozart. Mozart was like Donald: The ideas would just burst out of his head fully formed. How "The Reaper" came about was just amazing. Donald wrote the whole thing in one go. He played it to me over the phone.
AC: "The Reaper" was a huge hit, as was Agents of Fortune. How much pressure was there to follow it up with Spectres?
AB: Goooood question: Unbelievable pressure. And really the thing was, once we had a taste of having a hit, that became the criteria of what would make it onto this record. We'd gone from trying to be very different than everybody else, and if it sounded too commercial we wouldn't do it on the first three records. Then we had success. We had money. All of a sudden we were filling huge halls and headlining. We wanted to continue that. I would say that if Spectres had a weakness, it would be that we started feeling materialistic about the whole thing.
AC: Did Spectres turn out the way the band wanted?
AB: A lot. I was disappointed in a couple of the songs. "Death Valley Nights" came out good. I was disappointed in "Golden Age," which I thought should've sounded heavier, but it was Donald's song, and he liked it. "Fireworks" I was disappointed with. I thought it wasn't as smooth as the song I was imitating, [Boston's] "More Than a Feeling." I'd put them on side by side: "Aw, man! This is not as good" [laughs]. Then Bruce Springsteen came in, saying, "What? Are you kidding me? This is great. This is a hit. I'd be happy to have written this song." He was working on Born to Run in the studio next door.
I Love the Night
Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser's silky "I Love the Night" acts as Spectres' nightshade, its belladonna. Like his parched and bloody "Then Came the Last Days of May," drifting though the band's transmaniacal debut, and later the guitarist's co-seance with Patti Smith on The Revölution by Night centerpiece "Shooting Shark," Roeser's nocturnal caress kills. "No mortal was meant to know such wonder," laments the song's suede-voiced soul possessed. "One look in the mirror told me so." My own "lady in white" wish fulfillment exacted a similarly Mephistophelian tariff.
"Come Softly to Me," the Fleetwoods lullaby cooed by Buck Dharma and his wife, Sandy, on 1982 solo album Flat Out (reissued at www.woundedbird.com), impersonates Spectres only now that the BÖC apparition has been appended with a faithful, previously unreleased cover of the Ronettes' "Be My Baby." Fading out my tape same as its LP, "Come Softly" came sequenced specifically for my shark. "Buck Dharma," she'd whisper with relish.
Roeser and Bouchard met their first week at Clarkson College, piling into the school auditorium for a lecture on the importance of physical education. The latter, from the French-Canadian side of upstate New York's 1,000 Islands, spotted his Long Island, N.Y., counterpart immediately.
"I was looking at the size of all these fellow engineers, future engineers," remembers Bouchard, "and I see this one short guy. So, I fall in behind him, and I say, 'Hey, man, you're the first guy I've seen who's as short as me.'
"He's like, 'Oh, that's great.'
"The second time I saw him was at the freshman talent show when he and his roommate were playing a song. I knew the roommate, so I went and said hi. Since I'd heard Donald's guitar playing, I said, 'Gee, you're almost as good as my brother.'
"He goes, 'Who's your brother?'
"I was like, 'Oh ... his name is Joe.'"
One best friendship later, on the Fire of Unknown Origin European tour leg, Roeser was even less amused by his free-spirited comrade.
"After the show, my girlfriend and one of the wives get into a screaming match," recounts Bouchard. "So, I came in, and yelled at the wife. Called her some names. Then I went back to the dressing room, and Donald came over, saying, 'You just threatened my wife.'
"I said, 'No, I was just ... I'm sorry. I lost my temper. I'll apologize. I called her some bad names.'
"He's goes, 'No, you threatened my wife. That's it. You're out.'
"I said, 'No, no, no. I'll apologize, I'm sorry. I just lost my temper.'
"He said, 'Nope. No. We're sending you home.'
"That was it."
For me too that day arrived. May 1989.
Joe Bouchard's punk muse, Helen Wheels, began as Albert Bouchard's priestess on Agents of Fortune, rattling off "Sinful Love" and the huffing "Tattoo Vampire." On Spectres, Wheels (née Robbins) teamed with BÖC bass-playing brother Joe on starry night "Celestial the Queen" and final nail in the coffin "Nosferatu," the fiend sealing the deal.
"That night her kiss told me it was over," begins "I Love the Night." And when it was, she took Buck Dharma, Flat Out, and Spectres, well, you'd sooner get my skeleton. A broken heart abhors its past-life music cues, even in the face of nostalgia's martyrdom. Left untouched were Albert Bouchard's limpid piano chords and plaintive vocal on "Death Valley Nights," its methane guitar, and the rapturous "Fireworks." No cowbell, thanks.
For me, Spectres had always wrapped with "I Love the Night," only because the album's actual final track fluttered in a most unsettling manner. Not until last decade at the Alamo Drafthouse did F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent shocker, Nosferatu, confirm the uncanny aural doppelgänger Joe Bouchard and Helen Wheels had brought to life. The Bouchard brothers' supremely Secret Treaties, howling "Astronomy," Fire of Unknown Origin's hellbent "Vengeance (the Pact)," even Joe's uncredited piano intro to Albert's harrowing "Joan Crawford," had finally met their match more than 20 years after the fact. Heart stake not heartbreak.
Only a woman can break his spell
Pure in heart, who will offer herself
"We've always had a good relationship," warms Albert Bouchard regarding the Dharma-Roesers. "And after all this time we still have a good relationship."
A 20-year veteran of NYC's high school system, currently teaching music and transitioning his band, the Brain Surgeons (www.cellsum.com), Bouchard recently took in a 1,000-seater by Blue Öyster Cult, which, consistent with most classic rock institutions, still counts its frontline intact Roeser, lead vox Eric Bloom, and keyboardist Allen Lanier but with a younger rhythm section. In the past few years, "Death Valley Nights" has risen again in Bouchard's various acts, as opposed to when he used to "ruin" it live with BÖC.
"People really respond to that song," he laughs. "They say things like, 'I played it at my wedding. ... I played it at my divorce.'"
I'll probably opt for something more traditional, Bouchard's "Dominance and Submission" for instance, but make no mistake. With any single track on Spectres, or any other BÖC treatise for that matter, I always reminisce wonderingly about one person in particular: Blake Mutter.