Buck Dharma of Blue Öyster Cult

by Greg Prato

The man who wrote "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" shares his thoughts on the song and explains how he feels about MORE COWBELL!

It's funny how it took a now-classic skit on Saturday Night Live to introduce a whole new generation to Blue Öyster Cult - rather than simply their influential music (after all, everyone from Metallica to the Minutemen have covered them, while Ghost has seemingly made a career out of modeling their sound after BÖC's self-titled debut). Either way, mission accomplished.

And the band, still led by the last two original members left in attendance, singer-guitarists Buck Dharma and Eric Bloom, continue rocking. In 2020, the group plans to release their first album of all-new songs in nearly 20 years, along with a live CD/DVD, Hard Rock Live: Cleveland 2014.

Dharma (real name: Donald Brian Roeser), the man who wrote "(Don't Fear) The Reaper," spoke to Songfacts about the aforementioned SNL skit, the stories behind several BÖC classics, and some gems you might have overlooked from the band's vast catalog.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): What were your literary references on "(Don't Fear) The Reaper"?

Buck Dharma: None specific. It was sort of inspired by a personal health scare - I thought I was going to maybe not live that long. I had been diagnosed with a heart condition, and your mind starts running away with you - especially when you're young-ish. So, that's why I wrote the story. It's imagining you can survive death in terms of your spirit. Your spirit will prevail.

Songfacts: So, obviously you were able to keep the heart condition in check.

Dharma: Yeah. I'm in my 70s now, so I guess I survived that scare. [Laughs] We're all going to die sometime, of course, but hopefully not tomorrow.

Songfacts: How do you feel about that song today?

Dharma: I'm glad it's survived and persevered. I'm very happy and proud to have done it.

Songfacts: What did you think of the SNL "More cowbell" skit?

Dharma: Hilarious. It's really funny. The band had no idea it was coming, either. It was quite a surprise and phenomenal in its endurance and the way it's worked its way into the culture. If the cowbell has been at all an annoyance for Blue Öyster Cult, it's got to be 10 times worse for Christopher Walken! So, I'm riding that horse in the direction it's going.

Songfacts: Concerning the recording of that song, do you remember when the cowbell was added in?

Dharma: That was one of the last overdubs we did. It was really the idea of the co-producer, David Lucas, who was a very renowned New York City jingle guy that we met at a party. He helped us with three of our records. In fact, our first record [Blue Öyster Cult, 1972] was recorded at his studio [the Warehouse]. And it was his idea to play the cowbell.

It's not actually very loud on the record - you tend to hear it louder on the radio with the radio compression. I've never met Will Ferrell, but if I did, I'd ask him where he got the notion to get that skit idea to begin with, because it's really kind of outside.

Early on, the Blue Öyster Cult operation included some rock critics, notably Crawdaddy! writers Sandy Pearlman and Richard Meltzer. Pearlman was their manager and producer; Meltzer often contributed lyrics. Another rock journalist who helped with lyrics was Patti Smith, who dated band member Allen Lanier. Like Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, Smith was a music writer before emerging as one of the most vital and influential musicians in rock. Her BÖC credits include "Fire Of Unknown Origin," "The Revenge Of Vera Gemini," "Debbie Denise" and "Shooting Shark," a mysterious tale of a magic man with no mentions of shootings or sharks.
Songfacts: What's going on in the song "Shooting Shark"?

Dharma: Patti Smith wrote that lyric. I can't speak for Patti - I don't know. I think it could have been autobiographical, but I can't speak to it. I found that lyric probably four or five years after it had been submitted to us. Patti used to write and we would sometimes just take her poetry books, take writing out of there and set it to music.

Songfacts: What's the story behind "I Love The Night"?

Dharma: That's one of the several songs about vampires that we've written over the years. The idea is, Let's paint vampires in an attractive and romantic light, which I think is one of the aspects of the vampire legend that is attractive.

Blue Öyster Cult: Eric Bloom, Richie Castellano, Jules Radino, Buck Dharma, Kasim Sulton

Songfacts: What do you remember about writing "Burnin' for You"?

Dharma: "Burnin' for You" is a Richard Meltzer lyric that probably has the most sincere sentiment from my view. I wrote the music to that, because I thought I could do a good job... and I guess I did.

Songfacts: What about the filming of the song's video?

Dharma: It was fun. We did "Burnin' for You" and "Joan Crawford" in the same day. That was the first video we ever made, so it was kind of exciting to be out in Hollywood doing that kind of thing. It was totally exhausting - it was about a 20-hour day.

In addition to interviewing Buck's bandmate, Eric Bloom, a few years back for Songfacts, I also previously chatted with him for one of my earlier books, MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Video, and he discussed the story behind both videos in detail:

"We made ['Burnin' for You'] in the storm drains of LA. If anyone has seen the movie about giant ants, called Them!, with James Whitmore - it was filmed in the same place. I can't remember the name of the director, but we had the same video guys do two or three of our videos. We came out to LA, the script was sent on over to us, we approved, and we went out to the location. I think we were there a good 12 straight hours. We had a bunch of extras, and pyro - because we burned a car. And that was all done as 'on the cheap' as possible, and with low production values and bad editing. But we had fun doing it, because it was new to us."

"I think we did the 'Joan Crawford' video earlier in the day - on location at some house that was rented. Then straight from there, we had to do the 'Burnin' for You' video at night. Some scenes were filmed and edited elsewhere - like the actor driving the car. Some of that was filmed at a different time. We thought [the car on fire scene] was very Hollywood, very cool. They had to have a Hollywood film/pyro guy there, who was licensed to burn shit up. He had propane tanks, and he had to have a hulk of a car to burn. It was fun - it was a little taste of Hollywood for us."
Songfacts: What's the most misinterpreted Blue Öyster Cult song?

Dharma: It could be "(Don't Fear) The Reaper." It's not about suicide, although people kind of get that from the Romeo and Juliet reference. But BÖC's lyrics have always been... not obtuse, but deep. They're certainly open to interpretation, and everybody seems to have their own thoughts about what stuff means. We purposely let people do that - draw their own conclusions from the lyric. So, I don't think anything is grossly misunderstood, no.

What do you get from a song? When I hear a song, I like to think what I think about it. I'll give you an example. Tasmin Archer's "Sleeping Satellite," which I always enjoyed as a kind of a love song... and then I came to find out that it's about the Apollo missions to the moon! [Yep. That's true.] Once I found that out, I don't think I enjoyed the song as much.

Buck and Bloom in Bob Rivers' garage, where they recorded some Twisted Tunes
Songfacts: BÖC has also used very uncommon song titles over the years - "She's As Beautiful As A Foot," for example.

Dharma: Yeah, that was a Richard Meltzer lyric. I'm imagining its intent was to make sort of a snarky, goof of a song. But actually, a foot can be beautiful.

Songfacts: What's the hidden gem in the BÖC catalog?

Dharma: Personally of my songs, I like "Don't Turn Your Back," which was written as a submission to the Heavy Metal movie. They wound up using "Veteran Of The Psychic Wars," which is a great song, but we all wrote songs to submit to that soundtrack, and that's the one that I wrote, and I really like that song. I don't hear it too often, but when I hear it, I say, "Man, that's a good song."

Songfacts: I think "Then Came The Last Days Of May" is a hidden gem.

Dharma: Yeah. That was a true story about some Long Island kids that were dealing pot in the early '70s. In those days, for middle class/collegiate-type people to get involved in drug sales was pretty unusual. It was an awful story - they went out to Tucson, Arizona, met up with some crooks, and got killed. The aspect of "good kids gone bad" was a big part of that.

December 27, 2019

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photos (1, 2): Brad Shaffer

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Comments: 2

  • Shawn from Maryland@Tim from 18944 Yeah. So is "Everybody lie on the floor and keep calm" at the beginning of The KLF's "Last Train to Trancentral" (video version).
    But back to Soft White... I mean Blue Oyster Cult ;) Over the holidays, I was on a long car trip thinking about "40 thousand men and women every day". Do that many people actually die each day? If that's true, and the Earth's population is growing, that would mean there would be, at least 40,001 births each day.
    BOC's video for Shooting Shark will leave you saying, "What the f did I just watch?" :)
    I'm a Sole Survivor and a Veteran of the Psychic Wars! Yes, I'm a fan of BOC. :)
  • Tim from 18944don't fear the reaper behind the last words of Jim Jones is truly creepy.
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