Blue Oyster Cult’s “Reaper” writer says death is on everybody’s mind

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, FEB. 10, 2000

By Steve Newton

Ever wonder why classic-rock stations often play the hell out of a ’70s band’s old hits, but won’t even touch its current material, no matter how strong it is? I have. I’m especially curious about why local FM station CFMI Rock 101 totally ignored the latest Blue Oyster Cult CD, Heaven Forbid. Not only are there several choice tunes present, the overall feel of the album is strikingly reminiscent of the band’s ’70s heyday. The shimmering “X-Ray Eyes” sounds like an outtake from 1979’s Mirrors album, the eerie “Harvest Moon” brings to mind 1977’s Spectres, and the menacing “See You in Black” harks back to the metal mayhem of 1973’s Tyranny and Mutation.

Holy smokes, I’m feeling 16 again!

Considering how keenly Heaven Forbid reflects the music of the flared jeans ’n’ 8-tracks era CFMI purports to specialize in, you’d figure the station would give these struggling dinosaurs a second shot at roaming the airwaves—and possibly the charts. But when the Straight contacts CFMI program director Ross Winters, he admits that he hasn’t even heard Heaven Forbid. He does claim, however, that his station isn’t averse to playing the current music of classic-rock mainstays. He points to the new Steely Dan single, “Cousin Dupree”, which was immediately added to the CFMI play list.

“Certainly we listen to new music by ’70s artists,” he says, “but generally we do rely on the older stuff, and that’s only because that’s what the audience wants to hear.”

So how do programmers like Winters conclude that listeners prefer a band’s old material when they won’t even introduce them to its new stuff? It’s a vicious circle, of course, and one that Blue Oyster Cult guitarist-vocalist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser knows only too well. From a rehearsal hall on Long Island, the creator of the beautifully dreadful “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” contends that it’s a station’s advertising agenda rather than the ears of its programmers that decides things.

“It’s a terrible trend, the way radio is so demographically divided into markets,” he complains. “We get plenty of exposure on classic stations, but they’re not really interested in what you do new, so it’s hard for us. But that’s the reality of the business.”

Roeser sounds resigned to the fact that only die-hard BOC fans get to hear the group’s current music. From a financial standpoint, he probably doesn’t have to worry much about sales; he could just sit back and let the royalties roll in from heavy airplay of “Reaper” and his other Cult creations, like “Godzilla” and “Burnin’ for You”.

But while Blue Oyster Cult’s arena-packing days are long past, Roeser is still a hard-working and productive musician who, like most artists, appreciates acknowledgment of what he’s doing today. He’s certainly proud of Heaven Forbid, his group’s first album in 10 years, and the only one he produced himself. It prominently features the talents of lyricist John Shirley, a sci-fi/horror author and screenwriter whose film credits include The Crow.

“We traditionally have used, not so much outside lyricists, but lyricists that were in our circle,” notes Roeser. “You know, Sandy Pearlman was the prime lyricist in the band’s early days, and Richard Meltzer. We’ve always looked for other people whose work we admire, and we work with them.”

Apart from the live, acoustic rendition of keyboardist-guitarist Allen Lanier’s “In Thee”, Roeser had a hand in writing every tune on Heaven Forbid, a handful of which will be heard—along with the inevitable golden oldies—at the Rage next Thursday (February 17). There’s a good chance that one of the new offerings will be “Live for Me”, a compelling Shirley/Roeser composition about a young man killed by a drunk driver whose spirit cries out to those he loved, exhorting them to live life to the fullest.

The “Reaper” writer contends that tunes about death have a way of hitting home with most folks. “It’s on everybody’s mind,” says the 52-year-old rocker with a chuckle. “We’re all gonna die sooner or later. That song was actually inspired by the health problem of a friend of ours, who is actually okay now. So the story is fanciful, but it comes from a real place.”

Despite the best efforts of the local reps at BMG Music Canada—which distributes Blue Oyster Cult’s latest recording—CFMI chose not to play “Live for Me” when it was released as a single. The band’s long-time Vancouver fans can only hope that the station—which is proudly “presenting” Thursday’s gig—will be more accommodating when the next BOC album comes its way. Roeser says they’ve been writing and rehearsing material for it over the past month.

“The new record’s gonna be great,” he proclaims. “We’ve heard enough of it now to be confident about its quality. Now that we’ve done Heaven Forbid people know that we’re around again, and I think we’ve got a lot of momentum based on that record.”

No thanks to you-know-who.

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