Singer/songwriter/guitarist Joe Bouchard was an essential part of Blue Öyster Cult, the quintet from Long Island that, along with Alice Cooper, Flamin’ Groovies and the Dictators, kept the rock & roll flames alive before the punks started their bonfires. Composer of some classic BOC songs (“Nosferatu” and “Hot Rails to Hell,” among others), Bouchard was there during the band’s best years, 1970-1986. He has since pursued a teaching and solo musical career but also makes music with a power trio, Blue Coupe, featuring Dennis Dunaway (ex-of the Alice Cooper Band) and brother Albert (also ex-member of BOC). Anthony Petkovich talks with Joe Bouchard about his years with the band, his solo recordings and his new work.
“Blue Oyster Cult,” wrote Roy Trakin in a 1980 issue of New York Rocker, “helped spearhead a New York revival (back in the early ‘70s) that eventually spawned Kiss, The New York Dolls, and The Dictators, let alone Patti Smith, Television, and The Ramones.”
Wow! Pretty audacious statement, considering that several of those mentioned were highly influential in the U.S. (and subsequent U.K.) punk-rock explosion. Trakin’s comment, nonetheless, points out that, whether you liked them on not, Blue Öyster Cult (BOC) were a rock force with which to be reckoned back in the 1970s.
And while the Saturday Night Live sketch in 2000 that comically recreated the recording of BOC’s 1976 hit “Don’t Fear the Reaper” has become legendary in its satire of the long-haired, bell-bottomed “dinosaur” band—in which fictional, tin-eared music producer The Bruce Dickinson (played by Christopher Walken) obsessively insists on “more cowbell” in “Reaper”—BOC was a hugely talented hard-rock-barely-bordering-on-heavy-metal band, graced with topnotch musicianship, superb vocal arrangements, and fantastical off-the-wall lyrics; all of which the SNL skit successfully introduced to a whole new generation of young listeners.
Going back a bit, however…
After BOC had existed for several years (originating in the Stony Brook area of Long Island in 1967; first as Soft White Underbelly, then Stalk Forrest Group, before settling on Blue Öyster Cult), Columbia Records, the Cult’s label for 13 albums, initially marketed them as “America’s answer to British heavy metal group Black Sabbath” (even though BOC were never really heavy metal); with the classic Cult line-up, from 1970 to 1981, including Eric Bloom (vocals, “stun” guitar), Donald Roeser (lead/rhythm guitars, vocals), Allen Lanier (piano, organ, synthesizers, second-lead guitar), and brothers Albert Bouchard (drums, vocals) & Joe Bouchard (bass, vocals, guitar, keyboards) powerfully holding down the vastly underrated rhythm section.
Aside from their skillfully structured songs, grounded by catchy guitar riffs and blazing solos by Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, the five-piece group also flaunted bizarre lyrics covering such shadowy themes as dark conspiracies and extraterrestrial takeover. Some examples: producer Sandy Pearlman’s foundation-laying “Transmaniacon MC”—the first song on the first, eponymous, BOC album from 1972—concerned bikers, indoctrinated by space aliens, manipulating the violence at the Rolling Stones’ 1969 Altamont free concert, thus ending the hippie era; and co-producer Murray Krugman’s equally post-Altamont-flavored, dynamically guitar-crunching “This Ain’t the Summer of Love”.
Other recurring, nocturnally-tinged BOC topics have included vampirism (“I Love the Night”, “Nosferatu”), Hell (“Fallen Angel”, “Hot Rails to Hell”), intergalactic travel leading to madness (“Sole Survivor”, “Monsters”), teen rebellion/anarchy (the anthemic “Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll”), murder (“Then Came the Last Days of May”, “Morning Final”, “Deadline”, “Veins,”), and, of course, life after death (“Reaper”).
In fact, a number of those great tunes were pumped out by bassist/vocalist Joe Bouchard, the unofficial George Harrison of BOC; that is, just like the “quiet Beatle” (though Harrison was never really that quiet), Bouchard was usually allocated one song per album. Some of Bouchard’s more popular tunes (most of which he sang) include the guitar-layered “Hot Rails to Hell”; the haunting ballad “Astronomy”, music co-written with brother Albert, with macabre lyrics from Pearlman (“The clock strikes twelve and moondrops burst out at you from their hiding place/Like acid and oil on a madman’s face/His reason tends to fly away”); and two of the best songs from the group’s seminal 1977 album, Spectres, “Celestial the Queen” and “Nosferatu”, the latter bloodsucking epic being one of BOC’s best-ever offerings, powerfully climaxing with a head-spinning Roeser guitar interlude.
The fate of BOC’s classic line-up? The only members from that distinctive Mach still in the band are Donald Roeser and Eric Bloom; with Albert Bouchard departing in 1981, eventually forming the Brain Surgeons; Allen Lanier retiring in 2006 and, sadly, passing in 2013; with Joe, after a 16-year run with BOC, departing in 1986.
Over the past decade, however, Joe Bouchard—after working a number of ‘civilian’ jobs—has performed and composed with the power-trio Blue Coupe (featuring brother Albert on drums; former Alice Cooper alumnus Dennis Dunaway on bass; and Joe himself on guitar/keyboards; they all share vocals). Their latest album was the 2019 release Eleven Even. Bouchard has also put out several solo albums jam-packed with BOC-reminiscent rock & roll ditties, including “Travelin’ Freak Show” (from Jukebox in my Head), “Is He the Wolfman” (The Power of Music), and “Hallow’s Grave” (vocals by the “Godfather of Shock Rock” Alice Cooper, on Blue Coupe’s Million Miles More album).
I spoke with Bouchard about his solo work, Blue Coupe collaborations—including an hilarious homage to “Don’t Fear the Reaper” entitled (you guessed it) “More Cowbell”—and, naturally, his 16 crucial years with the legendary Cult.
PKM: Where did the whole BOC “five guitar” thing come from, where all five band members are playing guitar at the same time on stage?—including your brother, drummer Albert Bouchard.
Joe Bouchard: That came from James Brown. (laughs) We had a saying, “If you’re playing a show, you have to have something that’s insanely crazy for the audience.” And James Brown had the cape. Did you ever see the cape thing that he’d do? Well, when he did that, the place would go nuts. So we’d say in rehearsal, “Okay, what are we going to do that’s as good as the cape?” (laughs)
When we first started, we’d do a triple drum solo where Eric (Bloom), Donald (Roeser), and Albert would all get on the drums—and it would be just crazy. Then we said, “Wait a minute, we’ve done this enough.” I mean, what can you do with a drum solo that hasn’t been done before? You can do it like Tommy Lee, I suppose, and put your drum set on a roller coaster. (laughs)
So we said, “Wait a minute. Albert plays guitar. Let’s have Albert come up to the front of the stage with a guitar, and we’ll all play guitar for like four minutes with (the) five of us standing at the front of the stage. And after we finished, we came back and played the finale, which was “Born to be Wild” or something like that. But the five-guitar thing was a pretty good effect, and we thought, ‘Okay, we’ve finally got something that’s as good as the cape.’ (laughs) Something which was unique… for us!
James Brown had the cape. Did you ever see the cape thing that he’d do? Well, when he did that, the place would go nuts. So we’d say in rehearsal, “Okay, what are we going to do that’s as good as the cape?”
PKM: From the beginning of Blue Öyster Cult, you’ve written songs, like other BOC members, with horror and sci-fi themes. Was that something you fell into as a songwriter, or was it something that you guys planned as “America’s answer to Black Sabbath”?
Joe Bouchard: I thought that if we were doing heavier music, then we needed heavier themes. Eric (Bloom) is probably the biggest science fiction fan that I know. He just loves all of that stuff. So the stranger it could be, the more he’d like it. And Donald (Roeser) is a big Stephen King fan. A lot of his compositions have that sort of Stephen King vibe to ‘em. And I’ve had great luck with vampire songs. “Nosferatu”!
PKM: One of the very best! BOC’s manager/mentor/co-producer Sandy Pearlman, of course, wrote many of the sci-fi, conspiratorial lyrics for the group’s early songs. And in your solo album, Playin History (2018), “Renaissance Man” is a rocker which seems like an homage to Pearlman.
Joe Bouchard: That’s absolutely correct. I wanted to write a song about Sandy… (who) had just passed away [note: Pearlman died on July 26, 2016, at age 72, from pneumonia due to complications from a stroke]. He was responsible for there being a band called Blue Öyster Cult because he was our manager and guided us. Sandy came up with a concept, invented the name Blue Öyster Cult, was always thinking ahead, and wanted us to do music which was forward-thinking, not retro. What can I say? A brilliant guy. And a great guy, too. Fun to work with in the studio. So I wanted to do a (tribute) to Sandy, who always had a plan.
PKM: The words of “Renaissance Man” focus on topics like “the rise of a superpower”, “apocalyptic fantasies”, “mysterious scheme(s) carried on by aliens throughout the centuries” and other weird concepts which Pearlman regularly explored in his own particular lyrics for BOC.
Joe Bouchard: Yes. It’s related to Sandy’s Imaginos project(/poems). And I didn’t know until after I’d been out of the band for a decade or more that the original idea of Blue Öyster Cult… I mean, Blue Öyster Cult, according to Sandy, were aliens from outer space who came down to change the course of history at junctures in the historical timeline. Sandy studied history and military hardware, and he developed this sort of historical mythology which sort of guided us through the years. And, of course, there were a lot of times where Sandy said, “You guys just do your own thing” and he wasn’t gonna touch the music. “You guys are what you are.” But there was still a lot of guidance, too, and it just came together all at once. And this guy was a Renaissance Man.
PKM: I like how the tempo changes at the end of “Renaissance Man”, suddenly getting faster—and harder.
Joe Bouchard: Yeah—and the double lead guitars, which was really a nod to what Allen (Lanier) and Donald did back in the early days.
PKM: From where—or whom—did the double-lead-guitar attack come?
Joe Bouchard: We saw the Allman Brothers play when Duane Allman was in the band, and it blew our minds. All of a sudden, our arrangements had double-leads in ‘em. So that’s a nod to Sandy, the Allman Brothers, Allen, and Donald.
PKM: Is it urban legend or did Sandy Pearlman really have a large stack of his lyrics/poems in his living room?
And I didn’t know until after I’d been out of the band for a decade or more that the original idea of Blue Öyster Cult… I mean, Blue Öyster Cult, according to Sandy, were aliens from outer space who came down to change the course of history at junctures in the historical timeline.
Joe Bouchard: Yeah. There would be a pile sitting on Sandy’s piano, and they’d sit there for months. Then, when somebody (in BOC) was in the mood, they’d look some over and put it back on the pile. And when the pressure was on to write songs for a new album, those lyrics got scarfed up pretty fast. (laughs)
PKM: Why do you think “Astronomy” (from 1974’s Secret Treaties) has become one of the band’s most beloved songs? Even Metallica has done a version of it.
Joe Bouchard: I think “Astronomy” has a nice balance. It’s lyrical but also has some heaviness, which is nice. Albert added the connecting material—da-da-da/dat-dat-DAH, da-da-da/dat-dat-DAH—that kind of thing, and the stop in the song. The up-tempo feel is another one of his ideas, so I gave him half music credit because the arrangement is so good. It just worked, and I can’t say exactly why. But I still love that song and enjoy playing it to this day.
“Astronomy” – Blue Öyster Cult, live, 1976
PKM: Let’s talk about your BOC collaborations with the late Helen Wheels (a.k.a. Helen Robbins).
Joe Bouchard: She was Albert’s first girlfriend when he moved to New York; a really talented person, who was also a competitive bodybuilder, even though she was tiny. Helen wrote poetry, made costumes for our stage shows, was multi-talented… I tell ya, I wish she were still around [note: Robbins died in 2000 at age 50] because my whole mindset about songwriting has improved, and I’d just love to collaborate more with her now.
But in those days, Albert would say, “I’m working on some other things, and I don’t have time for these—so here!” and he’d hand me some of Helen’s lyrics. Then, around the time of the Spectres album, when we had a little time off, Helen sent me the words to “Nosferatu” and “Celestial the Queen”, which were both written really fast, on the piano mostly. “Nosferatu” is just an epic. I really love that track.
And then later on, Helen sent me “Light Years of Love” which I knew had to eventually be on a Blue Öyster Cult album.
PKM: And you play that outstanding classical guitar solo on “Light Years of Love”, appearing on arguably the best post-Albert BOC album, The Revolution by Night (1983).
Joe Bouchard: Well, in “Light Years”, I thought the lead guitar should start with a classical guitar, then morph into screaming electric guitar. So I play the first part of the lead on classical guitar, and Donald comes in and plays the end of the lead (on electric guitar). That was a lotta fun. A nice collaboration.
PKM: Spectres was definitely a high point for BOC. You’ve also expressed your great fondness for it.
Joe Bouchard: Oh, the whole album! “I Love the Night”… my God that is so good! Actually, I’ve got some performances coming up, and I’ve been working on “R U Ready 2 Rock” and really enjoying it. Also, of course, “Godzilla”. As we know, Godzilla always comes back. (laughs) That’s another good tune from Spectres.
PKM: The synthesizer solo on “Celestial the Queen” is reminiscent of the synth on Bowie’s “Suffragette City”…
Joe Bouchard: That’s Allen (Lanier) playing the solo. I think I played the piano on that song; Allen did an organ part; then I had him add a synthesizer solo. And on “Celestial the Queen” I also played a regular six-string acoustic and two 12-string guitars—and they weren’t even my guitars. They were just sitting around in the studio. But the 12-string guitar on “Celestial the Queen” gave it this big sort of strummy sound.
PKM: In “Nosferatu,” do you play the main rhythm guitar?
Joe Bouchard: No, that’s Buck. But that’s me on the melotron. There was a really old melotron at the Record Plant, and it was so much fun just to be able to get those big string sounds.
PKM: From reading the excellent biography Agents of Fortune: The Blue Oyster Cult Story by Martin Popoff, one gets the impression that you’d typically mediate and remedy most frictions arising within the band.
Joe Bouchard: There’d be times where one guy would be really adamant about his way of doing a song. Then another guy would be really adamant about doing it his own way. So I’d say, “Wait a minute. There’s gotta be a third way. Let’s work on the third way of getting this problem done.” And that worked out quite a bit. It was just a matter of keeping everybody calm and working it out.
PKM: On the first three albums, Eric Bloom is listed as playing “stun guitar”. Is that credit just a fanciful term for rhythm guitar?
Joe Bouchard: Well, that would be a reference to a distortion device which Eric had on his guitar. And because Eric’s big into sci-fi—and, of course, Star Trek—he called it the “stun guitar”. (laughs) You can hear it (on the first album) on the original version of “I’m on the Lamb, But I Ain’t No Sheep” where the guitar comes in and goes “donn!-donn!-donn!-donn!-donn!-donn! That was the song which eventually (became) “The Red and the Black” on the second album (Tyranny and Mutation, 1973). We were in the studio and Eric started playing this thing, and I think that maybe he hit a button by mistake, and it just filled up the speakers, and he said, “Ah! That’s great!” And that was the beginning of stun guitar. (laughs)
PKM: Your solo album Playin’ History has the song “52 Agents of Fortune” (note: “Agents of fortune” is a Sandy Pearlman line from the song “E.T.I., Extra Terrestrial Intelligence” on BOC’s 1976 Agents of Fortune album), and it’s not just about 52 cards in the deck, nor Fate itself, but an overview of your own personal life and musical career.
“52 Agents of Fortune” – Joe Bouchard, from the Playin’ History album:
Joe Bouchard: Yeah. “52 Agents of Fortune” is a true story. I was 10 when my dad said “Happy Birthday!” and gave me this beat-up guitar, kinda like Willie Nelson’s Trigger. It had a hole in it, and my father had to take the neck off and reset it because the strings were so high up. But I loved that guitar. I was just completely enthralled. And that’s all part of “52 Agents of Fortune”.
I was going to write a song that was more about casino gambling, but then I changed it into more of my own history and the idea that when you pick up a guitar and join a band expecting success, you might as well buy lottery tickets. There’s not much chance of success. But with BOC, we beat the odds. People are still talking about the music. It’s a beautiful thing.
PKM: So tell us about growing up in Clayton, New York—and where exactly it is!
Joe Bouchard: It’s in northern New York, near the Canadian border. A beautiful little town. I think there are about 2,000 people in the whole place. But it expands in the summertime to 10,000 people because it’s a resort area. As far as my start as a musician, when I was 10 years old, I’d play in the streets in front of my uncle’s house for tips from the vacationers.
PKM: Were you playing the guitar your father gave you?
Joe Bouchard: Trumpet, actually. Our little group had two trumpets and a drum. (laughs) Eventually we got the guitars. This was in the very early ‘60s. Mostly I learned from my uncle, who was a jazz guitarist. I’d go over to my cousin’s house, and my uncle would be playing, and it was like a big social scene at his house. He’d bring all his jazz friends over, and my cousin, my brother (Albert), and I sort of adopted this notion that music was what we did as a socializing thing.
And we eventually formed a band that was very successful all through high school called The Regal Tones.
PKM: What kind of music did you play?
Joe Bouchard: Songs like “Do You Wanna Dance”, “Walk Don’t Run” by The Ventures, “Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison… We did a lot of Beatles, too. It was originally two guitars, bass, drums, and saxophone. They were great musicians. I learned a lot from them—my bass style in particular. I was originally a guitar player not a bassist, and we had a very good bass player in The Regal Tones named Ed (Bazinet). In fact, I still conjure up Ed’s approach to the bass as I’m playing my own bass parts—even to this day.
PKM: Tell us about the Facebook photo of you from 1968 which shows you holding a trumpet.
Joe Bouchard: That was when I was in college. I basically had a lounge band, The Joe Bouchard Quartet, and we’d back up comedians in nightclubs. And this one comedian whom we’d back up was kinda like Don Rickles (laughs), but he had to have background music when he was doing his schtick. It was very funny. Those days were just insane. But, yeah, I played trumpet, some guitar, and we just started out as this sorta soft-rock/jazz band.
Then in the middle of the summer, the club where we were playing changed their name, changed their whole thing, and all of a sudden we became a hard-rock band. So that was a schizophrenic summer. We initially played six nights a week in nightclubs as a soft-rock/jazz band, then we changed to a hard-rock band and played The Reef Club, and at that point we became The Grim Reefers.
PKM: You seemed to be foreshadowing your future musical breakthrough.
Joe Bouchard: Yeah, about eight years ahead of “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”
PKM: But you were also formally trained in music, correct?
Joe Bouchard: Yeah. My degree is in classical piano, which was my major instrument. But I was never really good enough. When I got to college, I had no idea what I was doin’, and played rock-and-roll piano. I was trained in the school of Jerry Lee Lewis. But most of my peers in college had been studying hardcore classical music for 10 or 12 years, and I was just a hack. But I enjoyed it and wound up getting a music-education degree.
PKM: From what I’ve read, you were following BOC’s progress before you became a full-on member. And your brother Albert, the drummer, called you at one point to join the band to fill in the recently vacated bassist’s position.
Joe Bouchard: That’s correct. I started college in ’66, and they started (Soft White Underbelly) in 1967. So, for my sophomore year, I spent all of my vacations with the band, down on Long Island, because college vacations were longer than I was used to. I had nothing to do, so I’d go to New York and hang out with the guys, and we’d jam on the music, and go to clubs in the city. We went to The Scene—where Soft White Underbelly played quite a few times—and saw a couple of bands at the time.
They continued as Soft White Underbelly, and I’d go to the record store at college every week and ask, “Where’s the Soft White Underbelly record?” because I knew they were on Elecktra. Of course, The Doors were Elecktra’s biggest band, but they were putting out other things like Earth Opera and different artists—but no Soft White Underbelly. I’d heard the rough mixes and said, “This is amazing stuff!” But it never came out.
Eventually I found out that there were disputes with the record company, which eventually dropped them from the label which was the week… that I joined the band! I just got there when they received a telegram from Jac Holtzman at Elecktra. “You guys are no longer on the label.” I was so pissed! I said to the guys, “You know… gimme a chance!”
The band had already changed their name to Stalk Forest Group at that point, and I said, “Let’s just go back to the drawing board, start practicing, and get some new songs out. We gotta play some gigs and tighten up the show.” And that’s what we did, for about a year. We also did some demos with a guy we met at a party named David Lucas, who helped us with a lot of our most crucial records.
David had a jingle studio in New York City and said, “Well, I’m not doing anything on the weekend, so c’mon in, and we’ll record some demos, and see what you guys can do.” So we went in and did some demos.
Then Sandy Pearlman, our manager, took (David) around to his friends in the record business. There were some Columbia Records people, some people from Atlantic… I don’t know if we ever went back to Elecktra. (laughs). We had a couple of people who were sort of interested but not really crazy about us.
Eventually, David Lucas said to us, “C’mon back in, we’ll do another set of demos.” So, after the second set of demos, everybody started getting excited. We made our sound a little heavier, going for that Led Zeppelin/Black Sabbath sound. And Sandy said, “This is gonna be the coming thing, and if you do this, then they can’t deny you.” Well, you can always be denied. But Sandy exuded a lot of positivity, and when we did something really good, he knew it. And he would make sure that we knew it.
I remember learning “Cities on Flame (with Rock and Roll)” and Donald working out the riff, and Albert had some ideas about the thing, which sort of evolved from a different song, but that song put us on the map with our first album. It was quite a nice tune. Still is.
Sandy said, “This is gonna be the coming thing, and if you do this, then they can’t deny you.” Well, you can always be denied.
PKM: What happened with Elecktra? Why did they deny you?
Joe Bouchard: Well, it was about personalities, really. The bass player (Andrew Winters) whom I replaced had a run-in with the art director (at Elecktra). Then he had a clash with other people at Elecktra. But Elecktra still said, “Okay, we’ll give you another chance,” and they got Don Gallucci to come in and produce the band. Gallucci was the organ player in the Kingsmen and played on “Louie, Louie.” [Note: Gallucci also produced Elecktra albums like The Stooges’ Fun House in 1970.] So the band is rehearsing in the basement—this is second-hand information, by the way, because I wasn’t there—and they’re talking about things they wanted to do in the studio, and Gallucci is taking notes. Then this same bass player says, “I gotta go to my job at the bakery.” And he splits. And Don was saying, “What a jerk! I come all the way from California to hear this band, and this guy’s gotta go to his job at the bakery. I know everybody’s gotta eat. But…” Shortly after that, the band was dropped.
PKM: How did Murray Krugman (Sandy Pearlman’s co-producer on the first eight BOC albums) enter the picture?
Joe Bouchard: Murray was a record company guy and was definitely pushing for us to be America’s Black Sabbath. I think he was looking at things more from the business side and could help us make some connections in the record label (sector). So we did some auditions for Clive Davis, the head of Columbia at the time, and got signed from there. Murray and Sandy, working with us in the studio, produced several of the early records which people still love to this day. And Murray did make a lot of musical suggestions; gotta give him credit.
PKM: Let’s talk a bit about the Alice Cooper Band connection with BOC.
Joe Bouchard: We met early on. During our first BOC tour, we got signed to Columbia, were ready to take on the world, and they put us on a tour with The Byrds, which was definitely the wrong tour to be on, because it was the Easy Rider era of The Byrds, and (their audiences) didn’t want to hear heavy metal. They wanted to hear… Byrds songs! Also, we were kinda green as far as doing shows. So we took a couple of months off, rehearsed every day for two months at full volume in the living room where we were living, and tightened up our show.
But the main thing was when we got to open some shows for the Alice Cooper Band—it was a revelation. It was like, ‘Wow! If they can do this, then we can do something.’ It gave us a lot of confidence to really put on a good show. Also, Alice Cooper had a lot of weird concepts in their songs—and it didn’t stop them from becoming #1.
We got signed to Columbia, were ready to take on the world, and they put us on a tour with The Byrds, which was definitely the wrong tour to be on, because it was the Easy Rider era of The Byrds, and (their audiences) didn’t want to hear heavy metal. They wanted to hear… Byrds songs!
PKM: “Hot Rails to Hell”, for which you wrote both music and lyrics on Tyranny and Mutation, is one of the classic BOC songs. Tell us how it developed.
Joe Bouchard: I went to New York… we were so poor. “How poor were you?” We were so poor that we would park the car in Queens and then get on a subway to get to Manhattan so we wouldn’t have to (pay to) park the car in New York. Even if it only cost us $5 to park, we couldn’t afford the $5. But we could afford subway fare. I think it was 35 cents. Bill Gawlik—the artist who did the first two BOC album covers—said, “I want to go see a jazz show,” so he and I went to New York to hear some live jazz.
So we’re coming back on the subway to get our car and drive back to Long Island, and I see (the number) 1277 on this old subway car. I said, “Oh my God! I have to remember that number. It’s haunting me somehow!” So I wrote it down in a notebook, and a few days later we had this tragedy with our agent, Joe King, and he was involved with some shady characters… something to do with gambling… and he was murdered in Long Island while we were at a gig in upstate New York. And, I mean, he lived with us in our house.
So I just sort of threw this thing together, “1277 Express to Heaven…” I don’t think I spent more than, oh, a half hour writing the song.
We were so poor that we would park the car in Queens and then get on a subway to get to Manhattan so we wouldn’t have to (pay to) park the car in New York. Even if it only cost us $5 to park, we couldn’t afford the $5. But we could afford subway fare.
PKM: Those monster guitar licks in “Hot Rails”, are they yours?
Joe Bouchard: Yeah, a lot of ‘em. Buck (Dharma) added some, as well.
PKM: One of the true highlights on side two of Agents of Fortune is your song “Morning Final”; a melancholic but rocking piece which also deals with urban murder, this time committed in a New York subway.
Joe Bouchard: Right. “Morning Final” came a little later. I was staying with Patti Smith [note: Patti Smith also contributed lyrics to several songs on early BOC albums, as did Richard Meltzer] and Allen Lanier in the city down on 14th Street. They had this apartment right next to the Chelsea Hotel. I was down there for some reason and was reading the newspaper—the morning final version of that day’s news. And there was a story about a murder in the subway; you know, you read these things all of the time. But then I looked at it and realized that, oh, this murder happened 100 yards from where I’m sitting! So I was like, “Oh my God!” And at that time I was living out in the suburbs. I had a nice baby grand piano, and that song was pretty much written at that piano. (Starts singing first line of “Morning Final”) “Casting his shadow, in the city streets…” Pretty much taken from the newspaper account of this tragedy in the subway; that’s what “Morning Final” was.
PKM: Do you play that marvelous thumping bass on “True Confessions”?—the only song which Allen Lanier sang for BOC.
Joe Bouchard: Yes. That’s a real rock-and-roll bass. I play all of the bass on the Agents of Fortune album except for “Morning Final” because I played piano on that song, with Allen playing bass on it. I think he does a great job. He plays a looser style than I would, but I love the feel of it. And then it splices right into the next song, which is “Tenderloin”, with me playing the bass and Allen playing the synthesizer. It’s an extremely cool transition. It’s, actually, a tape edit, but it really makes it magical at that moment. I just love listening to the two different styles of bass butted up right together like that. I think that was Murray’s idea to put the sound of the subway train arriving in the station at the end of “Morning Final”, and it’s really haunting.
PKM: Were Pearlman and Krugman both in the studio together when you were making these iconic albums?
Joe Bouchard: Usually. (Engineer) David Lucas helped us on our first record. And what had happened is, we were getting ready to do our fifth album (Agents of Fortune); and since our fourth one was our first live LP (1975’s On Your Feet or On Your Knees), it gave us a more time to think about songs for our next album. We hadn’t had a hit yet, so we all brought in our demos on cassette tapes, and we’d play them in hotels and listen to what everybody else had. And Donald had his little tape, and he puts on this song called “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, and my jaw dropped. ‘Holy mackerel,” I thought. ‘That’s really good!’
And when we were on tour in Europe during the fall of 1975, we’d have these after-show get-togethers in hotels all through Europe, and we’d bring people from CBS in to listen to what we were doing and play our demos. We played that “Reaper” demo, and it was like, wow, this is a sea change. It was like nothing they’d ever heard before. They were excited. So I’m thinking to myself, ‘(We’re) over in Europe, we gotta get some extra help on this song and for our next album in general.’ So I sent David Lucas a postcard from Europe saying, “We’re gonna go into the studio. Can you find some time to help us with our album?” And he did.
And “Don’t Fear the Reaper”… David Lucas was the one who said, “Albert, get out there and play the cowbell.” (laughs)
PKM: So Lucas suggested the cowbell, but on the actual album, on the actual song, it’s Albert playing the cowbell.
Joe Bouchard: Several people have taken credit for the cowbell, but I was there, sitting in the control room. David Lucas said, “Albert, go out there and play a cowbell.” Because… to be honest, Eric Bloom is an excellent percussionist. And he usually played the shakers and stuff, and he’s very good at that. But I remember Albert playing the cowbell, and I was kinda nervous thinkin’, ‘Ohhhh, I don’t know if it’s gonna be tight enough.’ But it was a perfect performance.
PKM: The cowbell, however, wasn’t on the demo by Donald Roeser (who wrote both words and music to “Reaper”).
Several people have taken credit for the cowbell, but I was there, sitting in the control room. David Lucas said, “Albert, go out there and play a cowbell.”
Joe Bouchard: No, it wasn’t on the demo. And it wasn’t done live, either. In the SNL comedy sketch, it’s done live with the band in the studio. But in actuality, it was done as a last-minute thing. We were thinking, ‘What else do we need on this song before going to final mix?’ And we tried a flugelhorn, which was awful. I think there was this kinda fast bongo part, and everybody said “No.” But then the cowbell… somehow it worked!
When they mixed it for the album, it wasn’t very loud, but later on, in the CD age, when they did the re-mastering of “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, the cowbell was much more prominent. So that sort of kicked that whole thing off. For better or worse, (the SNL skit) did introduce the band to a whole different generation who’d probably never have heard of us if it weren’t for that comedy bit.
I loved the sketch—and everybody in the band loved it, too. I mean, it can be a little tiring, because you don’t want people to just know the band for that cowbell thing, but it is part of popular culture. And it’s really huge.
For better or worse, (the SNL skit) did introduce the band to a whole different generation who’d probably never have heard of us if it weren’t for that comedy bit.
PKM: What did you think of the Blue Öyster Cult reference in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)?
Joe Bouchard: Oh, that was great. That’s a classic movie. When I was teaching music, my students would say, “Hey! You’re mentioned in that movie!” That was cool.
PKM: What was the one-Joe-Bouchard-song-per-album thing all about? Albert, of course, wrote a lot of songs.
Joe Bouchard: Albert always had a lot of ideas and came to the band with a lotta songs. And then, of course, when Donald wrote “The Reaper”, we said “We gotta have more hits,” so his songwriting sort of moved to the forefront. Yeah, it was a tough, competitive thing. There were a few things I wrote that I thought were really good, and yet they’d get taken off the album. At that time I was really disappointed…And I’d get discouraged and not write. I thought, ‘Aw, you know, this doesn’t happen to anybody else.’ But you do read about George Harrison. Same deal, you know. “Lennon and McCartney ganged up on me” or “George Martin didn’t give me enough credit.” Blah-blah-blah. So I started to think, ‘I’m not the only one who ends up in this situation.’ (laughs) But I don’t have any major regrets about that.
PKM: Tell us why you left Blue Öyster Cult in 1986.
Joe Bouchard: We spent a lotta money doing an album called Club Ninja (1986), which was mixed twice: There was an American mix and a European mix. And, I mean, we were spending money hand over fist! Finally, when I heard both mixes, I said, “This is terrible. This is not for me.” We sort of lost our creative path. Also, I wanted to do other things, and I kinda felt a trapped.
Besides, it was music from the ‘80s, which is not really my favorite decade. I’m more of a ‘70s guy. Unashamed, unashamed. In the ‘80s, things just got out of control with electronic drums, digital reverbs, and stuff like that, and everybody was emulating the hair bands. So even now, I’m much more comfortable with the domination of hip hop and pop music and the current music scene than I was with music back in the ‘80s.
But a lot of people have asked me, “How could you do that? You were a big rock star, then you decided you wanted to do something else?!” Anyhow, after I left, I spent some time teaching in a private school.
It was music from the ‘80s, which is not really my favorite decade. I’m more of a ‘70s guy. Unashamed, unashamed. In the ‘80s, things just got out of control with electronic drums, digital reverbs, and stuff like that, and everybody was emulating the hair bands.
PKM: What did you teach?
Joe Bouchard: Music for dyslexic students. Then I worked in a publishing company and learned about the book business. I wrote some educational books… Just got a check today for one of my new books: Teach Yourself to Play Rock Keyboards. That’s my latest title on Alfred Publishing. They sell a DVD version of the Rock Guitar book that I wrote so that you can play tracks and then play along with the tracks.
PKM: Moving to your work with Blue Coupe, on Million Miles More (2013), that’s Alice Cooper singing lead vocals on “Hallow’s Grave”, right?
Joe Bouchard: Yeah! I’m blown away! What happened is…Dennis (Dunaway) asked Alice to do it, and when I’d finished the vocal on “Hallow’s Grave”, I was all set to put it to bed and mix it, but Dennis said (in secretive whisper), “Alice is gonna sing it.” And I was, “Oh my God! This is so good!” And he did a tremendous job. Some of the parts are like really high notes, and Alice nailed ‘em really well.
One of the reasons I love doing stuff with Dennis (in Blue Coupe) is that I loved those Alice Cooper songs. So not only do I get to do Blue Öyster Cult songs (live) but some of the greatest Alice Cooper songs. It’s a thrill every time we do “School’s Out”, “Eighteen”, and some of the ones that Dennis wrote like “Black Juju” and “Under My Wheels”. Fabulous songs!
PKM: Dunaway wrote “More Cowbell (Gotta Fever)”, also for Million Miles More…I would’ve thought either you or Albert would have written that one since, in essence, it’s about “Don’t Fear the Reaper”.
Joe Bouchard: No, that was Dennis. Talk about a guy with a sense of humor! That was a lotta fun, recorded live (in Hollywood) on New Year’s Eve (2012).
PKM: In terms of your solo work, do you play all of the instruments on the albums for control or because it’s cost effective?
Joe Bouchard: A little bit of both. The tools that you have in today’s world are really good. And occasionally I’ll say, ‘Well, I should get a drummer to play on this song.” But then I think (laughs), ‘It would delay the album by about a month and cost a lot of money.’ But I do like playing the parts myself. I’m usually developing the music parts at the same time that I’m developing the songs. For example, I might start a song on the piano, and then when I get to the bridge, I go and grab the guitar, and then when I get to the ending I might go back to the piano, so it’s a lot of mix and match. And I think it gives me the best options. I also like the challenge of playing all of the parts.
I loved those Alice Cooper songs. So not only do I get to do Blue Öyster Cult songs (live) but some of the greatest Alice Cooper songs. It’s a thrill every time we do “School’s Out”, “Eighteen”, and some of the ones that Dennis wrote like “Black Juju” and “Under My Wheels”.
PKM: Is “Shadows on the Streets of New York” (from 2009’s Jukebox in My Head) about the people you knew in New York who’ve died over the years?
Joe Bouchard: Yeah… Helen Wheels… all of the New York people… I lost Billy Hilfiger, my guitarist in The X Brothers, who had a brain tumor. Very sad. Sometimes in your songs you have to write about people you know.
PKM: What are some of the pros and cons of changes in the music industry since you started with BOC back in 1970?
Joe Bouchard: The way you make records now, it’s too bad that it’s not like the old way, where you all had to be in one room. But in today’s music industry, and I don’t care who you are, everybody is pretty much doing their own work. Back in the days of big-time major labels like Columbia Records, you had engineers, roadies, promo people, guys who were covering newspapers… Everything was done for you. But now? You’re on your own.
Joe Bouchard’s official website:
Special thanks to Barbara Vetter, Martin Popoff, Marc Capolupo, and Derek Johnston.
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