By Moina Arcee, Sep 26, 2015, edited August 26 2018
Donald Roeser and Albert Bouchard started jamming in an old house by Stony Brook College in upstate New York. Others joined the fun, including a film student named Alan Lanier. The boys played the local scene and bounced in and out of forgettable bands. It may not have gone any farther without a catalyst, in the form of boy genius Sandy Pearlman.
Pearlman, the student body president of Stony Brook College, had glitteringly subversive imaginings inhabiting his high IQ head. He was a founding father of rock music criticism and a guiding light for the flagship magazine for this new genre, Crawdaddy.
Pearlman offered Roeser, Bouchard, and Lanier paying gigs in exchange for influence over the band’s direction. Pearlman had big plans for the boys. They would be the mouthpiece for Imaginos, a science fiction fantasy world Pearlman had created. The first step was to give the band a name. Pearlman decided on “Soft White Underbelly”(SWU), from Winston Churchill’s description of WWII Italy.
SWU was a riff oriented instrumental psychedelic rock band – instrumental because they didn’t have a lead singer. As the band soldiered on their sound man, Eric Bloom, tried his hand at lead vocal for SWU and got the job. The last piece was adding drummer Albert Bouchard’s brother Joe as bass player. Pearlman used his influence to get SWU gigs opening for The Grateful Dead and Muddy Watters, and the band was on its way.
The band received the moniker with gritted teeth, but when no one could come up with anything better the name stayed with a couple of modifications. The “The” was dropped and, at Alan Lanier’s suggestion, an umlaut was added over the ‘Ö’ in Öyster.” Later the band’s umlaut would be copied by big ticket groups like Mötley Crue and Motörhead.
Producer Sandy Pearlman had the idea for the song, and liked the provocative nature of the subject. Roeser and Bloom were not as enthused but also collaborated. Although all three men are Jewish, this did not appease critics who called the band fascists and accused them of glorifying the Hitler regime.
Later the band attributed the lyrics and attraction to Nazism as Pearlman’s penchant for causing controversy. Perhaps, but it is also true that the band went along with it, at least for a while. During this time BÖC was trying to define itself. It used some goofy bondage gimmicks in some shows, and some mild satanism in others. Perhaps the “ME 262” period falls in this category. As the years went on Nazism was not something that recurred in album art or song lyrics, so the controversy passed.
Back in the studio again, the band began working on the follow up to On Your Feet Or On Your Knees. Roeser had been working on a song he thought had possibilities as a single, something that had been elusive for the band. The album, released in 1976, was Agents of Fortune.The song was “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.”
Reaper is a beautifully textured rock song with hypnotic guitars, almost angelic (!) choruses, and one of the baddest, most hypnotic guitar riffs ever created. The lyrics are typically cryptic. Roeser described writing the song this way:
“I was thinking about my own mortality. I wrote the guitar riff, the first two lines of lyric sprung into my head, then the rest of it came as I formed a story about a love affair that transcends death. I was thinking about my wife, and that maybe we’d get together after I was gone.”
So Reaper is a love song that faces death and mortality. Then we hit the second verse, “the one that’s caused all the trouble all these years,” Roeser admits. Here are the words:
Valentine is done
Here but now they’re gone
Romeo and Juliet
Are together in eternity (Romeo and Juliet)
40,000 men and women everyday (like Romeo and Juliet)
40,000 men and women everyday (redefine happiness)
Another 40,000 coming everyday (we can be like they are)
Come on baby (don’t fear the reaper)
Baby take my hand (don’t fear the reaper)
We’ll be able to fly (don’t fear the reaper)
Baby I’m your man
Critics interpret the reference to Romeo and Juliet as a veiled invitation to suicide. Others interpret the “40,000” as the number of suicides in a day. So the message, it is argued, is this: Come with me, let’s commit suicide: “We can be like they are/come on baby/don’t fear the Reaper.”
Roeser says: “It frankly never occurred to me that the suicide aspect” would outweigh the real message of the song, which, according to Roeser, is this:
“ ‘Valentine’ is a metaphor for mortal love. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ I used as an example of a couple who had faith to take their love elsewhere when they weren’t permitted the freedom to love here and now. What I meant was, they’re in eternity cause they had the faith to believe in the possibility.”
And the 40,000? “The “40,000” number was pulled from the air,” Roeser explains, “as a guess about how many people died every day worldwide, not how many people committed suicide.”
As with “ME262”, the controversy over the Reaper has been forgotten over the years. The song still gets airplay, and is a fan favorite at BOC concerts. Yes the band is still touring, even after thirty odd years together.
Not bad for a bunch of Long Island college kids. Blue Öyster Cult, thanks for your songs; for your unique sound; your style, and your indecipherable lyrics. Godspeed to you on your trip down the rock and roll highway.
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