There’s more to Blue Oyster Cult than “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” (more cowbell) and there’s more to drummer Albert Bouchard than Blue Oyster Cult. It’s been thirty-four years since he exited the band and yet it is still a big part of his life. He has good memories of his years in the band he helped form back in 1967 as the Soft White Underbelly; memories that he enjoys sharing, all while he is busy making new memories with his trio Blue Coupe, a project he records and tours with alongside his brother Joe and original Alice Cooper bass man Dennis Dunaway. “Oh yeah, I love to talk,” Bouchard said with a laugh as he was stuck in traffic trying to get through New York City last week. “My dad, when I became a teacher, he said, ‘What are you doing? You’re one of the best drummers out there now and you’re going to become a teacher?’ Then he thinks for a minute and he goes, ‘Well, teachers like to talk a lot and you like to talk a lot. You’ll probably be a good teacher.’” (laughs)
“It’s rush hour on a Friday and they tell me I’ve got fifty more minutes to get over the George Washington Bridge,” Bouchard explained when I called him for our interview. Bouchard is headed back towards the old stomping grounds of his youth to play a festival with Blue Coupe near Thousand Islands, New York. A lot has happened since those heady days of banging on the drums in a barn with Joe, a few local boys and a couple of burros whose barn the guys had taken over to play rock & roll. “It was a lot of fun,” remembered Bouchard, “and every time I go up there, people talk about it. It’s like that was the highlight of their teenage years was the barn dances.” He recorded eight studio albums with BOC, plus one that started out as a solo album, Imaginos, but was released under the BOC moniker instead; he was in the Brain Surgeons; released a solo album, Incantation, in 2014; has been a teacher for twenty-five years; and is an integral member of Blue Coupe, who released their first album in 2010.
His wilder days may be behind him but his sense of fun still lives just beneath the surface. He laughs easily and, like his bandmate Dunaway, remembers lots of stories, a few which he shares with us in this exclusive interview.
A lot of people may not know this about you but you’ve been a teacher for many years now.
I’ve been at it for twenty-eight years. I wasn’t a teacher right away. I had to get my college degree as I had dropped out of school after just a couple of years. I worked first as a teacher’s aide for three years while I got my degree so I’ve been teaching for twenty-five. Actually, not really, because I was an assistant principal for six years and that’s a whole other story (laughs). It seemed like a good idea at the time and I was really good at it but the lesson there is, just cause you’re good at something doesn’t mean you have to do it (laughs). I could retire but I really enjoy it. I really like working with young people and teaching them about, in some cases, the roots of what they like. They all know who Chuck Berry is but they don’t know anybody who ever played in his band. So I have all these stories of people that I’ve met and in some cases worked with and I like telling them stories and I teach them how to play an instrument, which is kind of cool too.
You’re currently in Blue Coupe with your brother Joe, who was also in Blue Oyster Cult with you, and Dennis Dunaway. For those who have never seen you guys play, what can we expect from a Blue Coupe show?
Well, what we do is a mixture of Blue Oyster Cult and Alice Cooper songs as well as we recorded two records of original stuff with just the three of us. So we do some of those tunes too. This year we’ve been adding some more interesting Alice Cooper and Blue Oyster Cult tracks that we didn’t play before. You know, you can only play so many songs in a night and between Blue Oyster Cult and Alice Cooper, there are just so many great songs that you just can’t do them all. But there are some that we have to play: “Don’t Fear The Reaper” and “School’s Out,” the two biggest songs that our former groups had, and we’ll almost always play “Eighteen.” Then a song like “Burnin’ For You,” which is sort of Blue Oyster Cult’s second biggest song, and we’ll play “Cities On Flame” and “Godzilla,” “Under My Wheels” and “Black JuJu.” We vary it up but will also do like oddball versions of “Ballad Of Dwight Fry,” for instance, and an acoustic version of “Career Of Evil.” Just stuff you wouldn’t expect. We’re not trying to make fun of it or anything but we try and put a different slant on it, you know, and do it our own way. We have a lot of fun at what we’re doing. You could almost say it’s a hobby band but then we probably make more money than a lot of full-time bands (laughs). But we’ve already accomplished what we dreamt of when we were in high school so we just do it because it’s fun.
It must be because you could probably sit back in the lounge chair from now on.
Yes, we do it because it’s fun and because we can. We’re still all in pretty good shape. There might be something that I can’t do that I used to do, like I used to be able to hit a high D, which is right up there in falsetto, kind of a lower soprano range, but I can’t really hit a high D anymore. I get up to a B and I go, “Okay, I made it to a B. Yay!” (laughs) But aside from that, I think that overall my vocals are much more in tune, I have more expression, and they’re just easier to listen to (laughs). As far as drumming, I think I can do just about anything that I ever could do. The same with Dennis on the bass and Dennis’s singing is better than ever. And on occasion we have these two sisters who sing with us, Tish and Snooky. They were in a famous punk group, a CBGBs group called the Sick Fucks. Somehow they never broke out of the local scene. I don’t know why but maybe it’s because you couldn’t print their name (laughs).
How do you guys write together? Do you do it the modern way by sending files through email?
Yeah, we don’t live in proximity to each other. I see Dennis quite a bit. We get together outside of the band. And Joe and I usually talk on the phone a lot. But a lot of the songwriting, we’ll send ideas to each other and then make comments. What will happen is we’ll make a little demo at home and then we’ll send it to the other two guys. Then they will do a demo of that same song and send it back. Then somebody else will do a demo of the song. So we’ll try out all different kinds of approaches to a song. One song on the last record, a song called “Hallow’s Grave,” we had Alice Cooper singing on it and we had Buck Dharma, the lead guitar player from Blue Oyster Cult, playing guitar on another. So it actually is completing a full circle and really does sound like a complete mashup of Blue Oyster Cult and Alice Cooper.
What was Blue Oyster Cult like when you guys first started out?
When Blue Oyster Cult put out our first record we had been like a kind of jamband, somewhere between Cream and Grateful Dead, jamming and going into all different ridiculous areas where in a song the tempo would vary, the key would vary, go all over the place, sort of like a Grateful Dead song; although it would have trans-like elements and would also have like the more bluesier, high-powered fills like in Cream. Then we met this guy who worked for Columbia Records and he was a Product Manager but he wanted to be an A&R guy. So he said, “What we need is Columbia’s answer to Black Sabbath.” That was our assignment: Can you sound like Columbia’s answer to Black Sabbath. So that’s kind of where we started with our first record. It’s not a bad record and it certainly proves that we could work with that kind of darker Sabbath sound. But when we tried to tour on that record, it was a little weird cause we really didn’t know how to look or what to do. I mean, we had all these people telling us, “You should do this, you should do that, you should do all these other things.”
Then we went to see Alice Cooper. I think it was like in January of 1972 in Passaic, New Jersey, and they just blew our minds. They were on the Killer tour at that point and it was incredible. What was really great about it was they were so tight and had such a look and it was different from anybody else. You couldn’t really tell who was their influence, you know. How did they come up with this? It was just mind-blowing to us. So we determined that we were going to do the same thing. If it looked like something somebody else did, we didn’t do it. We were going to be our own person, our own band, our own personalities. And that really changed the direction of the band.
Yes. About a month later after we seen them play we had an audition. We played for them in Massachusetts and their management, Joe Greenberg and Shep Gordon, they liked our manager, Sandy Pearlman, and they were like, “Yeah, I think this could work.” So then we got another audition in South Carolina at some festival where the Alice Cooper band watched us to see if the band approved us and they liked it a lot. We did this crazy thing where everybody came out to play drums and they were like, “That’s insane!” Then the singer got behind the drums and started playing and then we all switched instruments for the end of the song. It was really funny.
Did you click with Dennis at that time?
No, Dennis was a little shy, I guess. I thought he was amazing but I did not get to know him. We partied with them a lot. The first person I ever talked to from Alice Cooper was Glen Buxton. Then the second person was Neal Smith. Those two guys I used to hang out mostly with and of course they were the two guys who were the hardest partiers. They were very, very easy to hang out with. If you wanted to have a drink or something, they would keep you laughing. And then eventually Alice. He was a little more quiet than Glen and Neal. And Michael Bruce, we played a couple of gigs with him a couple of weeks ago where he joined us onstage and that was probably the most I had ever talked to him. We had several lengthy conversations about different stuff and that was nice.
What is a memory that stands out about that particular tour with Alice Cooper?
There was one thing that we all remember. It was like the first night that we really partied with those guys. I think it was Raleigh, North Carolina, or someplace like that, down south, and we had a hotel across town. It was like a Travelodge or something and they were staying at the Holiday Inn. So we went to their place to party with them. At that time, we only had two roadies and we all traveled in like a station wagon and we had purchased like a twenty-foot box truck, like a delivery truck that you see. So the two roadies went in this box truck. We were all there with Alice Cooper, the band and the roadies, and Buck Dharma, the guitar player, said, “Hey guys, I want to go back to the hotel. I don’t want to stay here.” They said, “Okay, take the truck.” So he leaves the party and we’re all hanging out there, having a good time, not getting too crazy, and all of a sudden the whole building shakes and we were like, “Earthquake!” And then someone says, “No, your guy just hit the awning of the hotel.” (laughs) You know how they have the awning where you go and unload your bags? He tried to go under that thing with the truck (laughs). He of course hit the awning and it was pretty sturdy cause the awning was still there but the whole building shook. It was crazy. We were on like the fourth floor or something. So that was one of the clearest memories.
What do you think is the biggest thing that is missing from concerts today compared to the ones from the seventies?
Bad sound (laughs). You know, I haven’t been to a concert in ages where the sound wasn’t really, really good and I can remember seeing The Who and you couldn’t hear what the heck Keith Moon was doing. He looked great and sticks were flying all over the place and he’s shaking his head and jumping up and down. He was a tremendous drummer but you couldn’t really hear what he was doing. I saw Cream at the Café Au Go Go, which was a very small venue, so the sound was pretty good there. You could hear vocals and I was actually sitting about ten feet away from Jack Bruce, who did most of the vocals that night, and he was tremendous. I remember seeing Jimi Hendrix and you couldn’t hear what Mitch Mitchell was playing at all. The drums were almost inaudible. But he was a light player, not a heavy hitter or anything. So that is one thing that is missing.
I really don’t have much complaint about concerts. Live music these days is still pretty exciting. I think the recorded music, what’s popular these days, so much of it is computer-based or sample-based and it just doesn’t sound like a real band anymore. And to me, that makes it a little boring. It’s consistent, yes, and I guess your ear likes to hear consistency; and all the vocals are in tune but they do sound robotic or something. So there is all of that, which I don’t like that much.
You know, I work at a high school, at least for a couple more years, and in the process I get to hear what they like and a lot of their music, I don’t know, I think it’s not very substantial. When I first heard rap, I thought it was fantastic. I’m not like one of these rock people that hates rap or rap is crap and all that. I like rap, I like a lot of it; early rap especially I thought was fantastic because it seemed like these guys had a message, like Bob Dylan on steroids. It was great. This is what music is supposed to be. But nowadays you get a lot of misogynistic lyrics where all it is is about the money and the guns and the hos and I don’t know, it’s just nothing to it. It seems like rap has gone the way of rock & roll sadly. Rap is dead, unfortunately, I think.
But who knows, you still got people that are doing it like this guy Common. He is an older fella and he’s keeping the faith and he played with John Legend. The kids feel like, “Oh yeah, he’s cool but he’s old. We like French Montana and all these other guys.” I can’t even remember cause I hate these guys so much cause it’s all describing the house where you keep your money and your drugs so it’s all about the drug dealer life and that kind of glorification of that. You know, there’s always been the “I fought the law” kind of thing in rock music and popular music but I just don’t like it. It seems like it’s made this bizarre turn where instead of being a message thing it’s just all the same thing all the time.
Yeah, that’s the problem. I love Chuck D, I love Public Enemy; Nas of course is still great but he doesn’t really do that much anymore. I love all the older rappers. I think they’re great and I still listen to it. The new stuff? I don’t know. I’m sad that it’s not very good. But then pop music in general is not. But there’s the girls. You’ve got Taylor Swift. She’s good, I give her that. She’s a bright light on a bleak landscape. You’ve got Katy Perry, she’s good too. I like her, nothing wrong with that. I like Sia, the one who you can’t ever see her face (laughs). There’s some talent there.
But what about in rock & roll?
Well, they’re still selling guitars and stuff. It seems to be more like a little niche, you know, rather than a big movement like it used to be. But I saw Muse. They’re kind of a modern rock but that show was freaking amazing, the last tour they did in the United States. They had the lasers, oh my God, it was just incredible. An excellent show on a par with anything I had ever seen. I saw The Who a couple times in the past years, wonderful, great shows. I saw Eric Clapton twice in the last three or four years and both times it was great, although the time before this last time I thought he, himself, was pretty boring. But he had Jeff Beck on the show and Jeff Beck was just amazing. He played so beautifully, he made me cry. I swear to God, tears were just coming out of my face. It was like hugging my heart. That’s how it felt.
I heard you didn’t really like Led Zeppelin when you first saw them.
Oh yes, that’s true (laughs). I thought they were terrible. I liked Jimmy Page but I thought that the singer was just unlistenable. He just screeched all the time, this high-pitched screech. It was terrible. But I have to say that by the last time I saw them, I really liked Robert Plant. I thought he was amazing. He had really grown as a singer. There was a lot of texture and just different emotions. He was really very good. And of course John Bonham was amazing too. Oddly, the weak link at that time, the last time I saw them, was Jimmy Page, who had sort of a thin guitar tone and didn’t do that much. It seemed like it was Plant, Bonham and John Paul Jones doing all the work. It was weird.
What year was this?
I think this was about a year before Bonham died and it was in Seattle. I happened to be in Seattle. Had a day off. But that was a group that really didn’t have much theatrics or anything like that. It was not much show. It was just four guys up there making really great music. I think with Blue Coupe, we don’t really have a lot of tricks. We do a few things, I put on the Godzilla head when we do “Godzilla,” but our secret weapon is Dennis Dunaway. He is the master of the absurd. He will do just crazy things onstage that you don’t expect. He’s so cool.
Well, on the first one we were trying on this identity of being a more dark, more ominous, heavier and more focused than we had been. I would say that was one of the things. But also when we did that first record we had a whole different way of writing songs and rehearsing them. Nobody made demos except me really. I was the most experienced songwriter in the band because I had started writing songs when I was like thirteen or fourteen, but although I was the most experienced songwriter, everybody was starting to write songs. There was a lot of collaboration because someone would bring in an idea for a song to rehearsal and would play it and we would do it as good as we could and then somebody else might say, “Well hey, I got an idea for that song. What if we did this for a chorus?” So then you had that kind of mixing up of ideas and if it worked then we would use it.
By the last record, everybody had like multi-track studios in their houses so there was less collaboration. We’d still play a bit. We did it that way for a while and then in 1975 when we started working on what would become Agents Of Fortune, the album with “Don’t Fear The Reaper,” everybody got these four-track recorders and people would bring a song in and it had all the parts, it was almost completely arranged. If it worked at all, we would go for it, just do it the way the person wrote it. Once we had a hit by doing it that way, then we were like, “Oh, that’s what we should do, bring in full songs. It’s easy, more efficient. Maybe it’s not so good to try and collaborate on everything all the time.” So then we switched it up and everybody would bring in finished demos or maybe two people would get together and write a song and then everybody else would say okay.
Then people started lobbying for their songs and if you didn’t get your song in then you’d get bummed out, all these bad feelings. I mean, not so much for me. I didn’t care because I always got my songs in there, maybe because of my more forceful personality or because I wrote about ten times more songs than anybody else. But for some reason I always was well represented on each record. But other people would get upset if their song didn’t get in. But we kept on that track even though we really didn’t have another hit after “Reaper” for a while. After we had that hit, it was like, every song had to be a hit. That was the criteria. It’s got to be that beacon that touches people in middle America and all this stuff. We were really thinking about what our audience wanted to hear, what was going to get on the radio and all this other stuff, and that was the other thing.
We did this record called Mirrors where there was almost no collaboration at all, on arrangements or anything else. That record had a minor hit with a song called “In Thee,” but the fans, the critics hated it, even the record company hated it. They all thought it was underwhelming and I came to this decision that, you know what, maybe this isn’t the way to do it. Maybe what made us great in the first place was all that collaboration. So I convinced them all that we had to go back to writing songs the way we did in a more collaborative way, go back to trying to be unique, having a unique perspective over whether or not it was commercial.
We also got a new producer, somebody who had a track record of hit records. He produced a bunch of Fleetwood Mac records and Deep Purple and a lot of bands that had hits but every track on the record was strong. And that’s what we wanted, that kind of producer to help us make the tracks strong and make the catalog strong rather than going for quick hits. So we got Martin Birch and Cultösaurus Erectus was the record, the first one he produced, and of course not surprising to us, he was no good. We didn’t think it was a hit, we didn’t care if it was a hit, we didn’t even want a hit. As a matter of fact, Buck Dharma had brought “Burnin’ For You” to us and we thought it was too commercial and it wasn’t going to fit on this record. So we rejected that song for that record. Then we made another record with Martin Birch, Fire Of Unknown Origin, and Dharma brought the song back and he had changed the arrangement, it had a more heavier rock sound and we were like, “Oh yeah, we got to do this now.” I kind of felt like it was a hit but that wasn’t the main thing. It was going to fit on the main record.
That album, though, was maybe not as much collaboration as Cultösaurus but it was a lot of collaboration. Then I wasn’t in the group for a while and they made a couple records without me and then the very last record I did with them, Imaginos, I wasn’t even in the room with them. It started out as a solo record for me and Columbia fought putting it out cause they didn’t know how to promote it until Sandy Pearlman said, “What if we put it out as a Blue Oyster Cult record?” and they said, “That’s great, that’ll work. Then we don’t need a single.” But that was a whole different thing. I wrote that, most of that, all by myself, although there are a couple of songs, one that Joe wrote and another one that Allen Lanier wrote. Allen’s song never made it to the final record. But Joe’s was “In The Presence Of Another World,” which is a great song.
Fire Of Unknown Origin was actually supposed to be the soundtrack for the Heavy Metal movie, correct?
Yeah, I knew these guys who had a comic book called Heavy Metal and they were going to do a movie. I was a big comic book freak, especially underground and pretty obscure comics, so we decided we were going to make a record like the soundtrack to Heavy Metal. We wrote every song, and of course “Burnin’ For You,” we can do this now, and by the time we had it mixed we were like, oh man, if this is not a hit I don’t know what is. It’s the most commercial thing we’ve done since “Reaper.” So we were pretty confident it would be a hit. Then the Heavy Metal people were like, “Well, we only want ‘Burnin’ For You’ and ‘Veteran Of The Psychic Wars.’” And we said, “You know what, you either take them all or you can just have ‘Veteran.’” And they said, “Okay, we’ll take ‘Veteran.’” They were trying to sell soundtrack records for that movie and I think the movie didn’t really do that great at the time. I think right now it’s a cult favorite. People love that movie but at the time it didn’t do so well in the theater. But the soundtrack sold several million so that paid for the movie.
What can you tell us about the song “Godzilla.”
Well, there’s something that most people don’t know which is that it started with Patti Smith, the songwriter/poet. She had written this poem, and I don’t know what the title of the poem is. It might have been “Godzilla” but she had put God and then Zilla and it was this whole poem. Dharma had called her up and said, “Hey Patti, I love that poem. I’d like to make a song of ‘Godzilla.’ Would you help me write it?” And she goes, “Oh yeah. I can’t do anything on it now but I’m going out on the road tomorrow and when I get back we’ll write it.” Of course, by the time she got back he had already written it all by himself. But it actually was almost a Patti Smith song.
What about “The Red & The Black.”
That song went back to the Soft White Underbelly days and I had a dream and the song was playing in my dream. I don’t know how I came to remember it but it was called “I Saw You” and what was on my mind back then was I was about to get drafted. I had to go for my physical and I really didn’t want to go. At that point I had just lost one of my best friends in Vietnam and I was very angry about it. It felt like the whole thing was stupid and I was involved with a group called the Yippies in Manhattan that protested the war. So anyway, this was really on my mind. The song originally was about the draft board and how they were looking at my files. I had filed for conscientious objection status on the basis that I didn’t have beliefs that it was right; on a religious basis I did not believe it was right. And I went before the draft board and it turned out one of the guys on the draft board was my neighbor! This guy is the father of one of my friends and he’s like, “I know you, you’re Roman Catholic, you can’t be a conscientious objector. You have to be a Quaker or something like that.” I go, “I’m sorry, I believe that I should not fight in this war. I don’t believe in that and I think it’s morally wrong.” And he was like, “Well, your application is denied.”
So that’s what happened and then I had this dream about them going through my files, seeing who I was and telling me I couldn’t be a conscientious objector. So I wrote this song and the Soft White Underbelly was playing this song from time to time. I’d sing it and stuff and when we made the first Blue Oyster Cult record, we were trying to make things a little bit more mysterious, trying to create this Blue Oyster Cult identity, and Sandy Pearlman said, “Listen, I like it, I like that song, but I think the lyrics are just not mysterious enough. It’s too obvious it’s about the draft. What about if we make it like, okay, now you’re going to flee to Canada to get out of the draft?” I’m like, “Okay, I still might do that.” (laughs) “I may become a draft dodger, who knows.” So he rewrote it to “The Red & The Black” lyrics that we have now. He called it “I’m On The Lamb But I Ain’t No Sheep.”
We played that in the clubs in 1970 and of course most of the stuff that we were doing in the clubs we recorded for that first Blue Oyster Cult record in 1971. We went out on the road and we were playing the song, and before we recorded it, there was a guy and he was kind of a booking agent and he used to say, “Hey you guys, you should make the whole song that last bass lick. I really like that bass part and it’s really great.” So when we went to play it live, we felt like the song sort of laid there until we got to the ending when the bass part came in. We said, “What if we made the whole thing the bass part? What if we made the guitar and the bass play the same thing? We’ll change up the chorus a little bit, make the chorus go up instead of down and we’ll make it like, you know, a blues standard, like going down to Louisiana, but like a very upbeat version.
We wanted a song that could be a great opening tune, cause we noticed that Alice Cooper, when they started their show, their opening song was great. They did “Be My Lover” but they took the introduction from a different song, I think it was “Public Animal,” because the introduction was so exciting that they liked it. So we said we wanted a really exciting song to open the set with so we’re going to change this around to be more exciting and we put a new introduction on it, because we played with Mahavishnu and they started with just a flurry of noise, like this big fanfare; it was almost like a Stockhausen kind of crazy thing happening and you’re like, “What! What!” (laughs) That’s how we got the intro and then we went into the down in Louisiana kind of thing. And of course when we went to make the second record, we weren’t even thinking that we’d record it. We’d just recorded it on the first record but they were like, “No, no, you’ve got to do that new version on there but we’ll change the title. We’ll call it ‘The Red & The Black.’” So we did the rerecording and of course it became very popular after that; actually one of my most popular songs and had lots of covers starting with The Minutemen. So that’s how that song came about.
When you recorded Agents Of Fortune, what song did you think was going to be the hit single, because there are other good songs on that record besides “Reaper.”
Well, I thought this song I had written with Patti Smith was going to be a hit called “Sally,” and it didn’t even make the record for some reason. Actually what happened was, Buck Dharma had called me up one night in 1975 and he said, “Hey, I got this guitar riff I just wrote and I think it’s great. I really love it. Do you want to hear it?” And I said sure. So he played it for me and I said, “Wow, yeah, that is a great riff. It sounds a little bit like this riff I’m working on.” And I played him the “Sally” riff and he was like, “Oh yeah, yeah, it’s got the same changes but yours is in B and mine is in A. I can’t wait to hear what it comes out like.” I said, “Same here. Well, I’ll see you next week,” cause we had a week off and we were about to go out to Seattle to play some gigs out in Washington state and Portland. We get to the airport and I’ve got my little Sony Walkman, or whatever it was, and said, “Do you got a demo?” And I put it on and I was like, “Holy cow, this is fantastic. I didn’t know you were going to do this to the vocals. That’s great.” And I go, “Here’s mine.” And he listens and he goes, “Yeah, yeah, that’s cool too.”
His was like only a minute long, just a germ of an idea, and mine was like four minutes long. So he gave me my own copy and we get to the hotel in Portland and my girlfriend comes down from Seattle, my girlfriend at the time, and my girlfriend comes in and I say, “Hey, want to hear Don’s new song?” [Buck Dharma’s real name is Donald Roeser] She said, “Yeah, let me hear it.” So I played it for her and she started crying! I said, “What’s the matter?” And she goes, “Does this mean we’re breaking up?” And I said, “No, this is Donald’s song. This is not my song! (laughs) We’re not breaking up, no.” So I knew that Donald had some powerful stuff there and knew this was going to be a hit. So there was no other one really. But yeah, there was a lot of good stuff on there too, “Sinful Love” and “Morning Final.” I never thought that “Summer Of Love” would be a hit. But it did get in a movie and been covered a few times.
“Tattoo Vampire” is great and there’s been a bunch of covers on that, most notably Smashing Pumpkins and White Zombie. That’s a great song, although the version that is on the record came out a lot better than my original demo. Sometimes people make a demo and you go, “Oh my, we just couldn’t get the demo …” Like “Sinful Love.” I had made a demo with Helen Wheels, my co-writer, and Ross The Boss from the Dictators. The three of us got together and made this demo and it was just killer, it was great, and then when Blue Oyster Cult did it, it came out kind of, I don’t know, a little stiff, shall we say. It didn’t have that punk attitude that I wanted it to have. Years later, I listened to the original demo and was thinking, “I changed the beat a little bit, Allen didn’t do his magic on that one and we changed the phrasing on the background vocals.” I see the little things that I didn’t notice that we had changed, not that it mattered. But “Tattoo Vampire” sounded like a Chuck Berry song. It was really kind of tame compared to the final version, which is like a roar. That had just the opposite effect where the demo was okay, kind of interesting and nice, but the final version was a monstrous kind of mix, really excellent.
We don’t do that one much anymore [in Blue Coupe]. I think maybe next year we’ll do more BOC stuff. This year it’s more about Dennis and his book and really the emphasis is on the Alice Cooper songs. I don’t mind, I really don’t mind playing them. I love those songs. Most of what we’re playing I got to see him play it live and am still good friends with those guys. I was just hanging out with Neal Smith last night, talking about how I arranged for him to get some drums from Ludwig for free. He still remembers that (laughs).
Speaking of drums, out of all the songs you have played in your career, which one would you say wore you out or took the most energy out of you to play?
Oh wow, I would have to say probably the live version of “Kick Out The Jams.” That was always a pretty strenuous one. And we didn’t play it like the MC5, all nice and groovy. We just played it like an amphetamine junkie, like rrrrrrrrrrrr (laughs). And I did a lot of double bass drumming on that. The other thing is, we play it now and it’s just not the same. I play it the same tempo and the same parts but the biggest difference is I don’t smoke anymore. I don’t smoke and I stay in shape. I work out, I run every other day so I’m really trying to stay vital as long as I can and I think that something like my stamina is probably better than it was back then just because of smoking.
But yeah, it’s never quite as grueling in the studio because there are always breaks, you always stop and listen to the thing. I’ve gotten blisters on my fingers. In the studio it’s more of a leisurely pace. Blue Coupe was doing these gigs this year in bookstores and stuff and that’s like a whole other level of leisurely. Usually there is a little bit of talking and a lot of music but the bookstore, there is a lot of talking and a little bit of music (laughs). And a lot of signing of autographs. I don’t mind it a bit but it’s weird. I’m so used to coming off a gig and I am soaked to the bone. I can wring out my underwear I’m so soaked. And I don’t even break a sweat at these things. It’s all air conditioned, you don’t have to play that loud (laughs). A lot of talking.
We had a little bit of an issue with “Reaper” because Buck Dharma never really liked to sing it that loud, and I think one of the appeals of the song actually is because it is sort of an almost ghostly vocal on there. But he couldn’t even get any sound out at all in the original key. So he wanted to play it in the key of B, B minor instead of A minor, and still does play it in B minor. What he ended up doing was he had a guitar when I was in the band that was tuned to B; so the whole guitar was tuned up two and a half steps, a whole step, and the tension on the strings was considerably tighter and it changed the sound a bit. I never really liked that so much. With Blue Coupe, of course, Joe and I have a wider range than Don and so we just play it in the original key. But that was an issue.
I would say that the song that we struggled to reproduce live was “I Love The Night.” That was a bit of a difficult song because it’s slow, it’s very airy and spacey and sustained notes in the vocal, lots of harmonies. So we didn’t really play that song that much when I was in the band. Having said that, I just saw Blue Oyster Cult, the current version of the band which has Kasim Sultan of Utopia on the bass; Richie Castellano, the Band Geek pod cast star – he’s been with Blue Oyster Cult about twelve years or something – on guitar and keyboards; and Jules Radino on drums; and of course Eric Bloom and Buck Dharma. And they played it and it sounded fantastic. Now of course, Kasim Sultan is an awesome singer. He was great in Utopia. He did most of the lead vocals, or him and Todd Rundgren, and Richie Castellano has got a great voice too, a really good singer, great all-around musician. So they definitely pulled it off. Maybe if we had worked a little harder we could have done that too. But back then it was like we tried it out and we were on to the next record. Even by the time Spectres came out, we had a lot of songs that people expected us to play. We had to play “Summer Of Love” all the time, which I don’t know, that was one I didn’t feel like came out that great live. It’s just never as tough as it seemed like it should be.
Another song that we tried to play that was difficult was “Fireworks,” just because there were so many different guitar parts. It was very elaborate. Also back then, the other thing is, and this could have been the smoking thing or it could have been just not having confidence or whatever, but I sang a lot of the songs and I couldn’t sing and play them at the same time. I mean, background parts has always been easy for me to do but lead vocals at that time were difficult. I did “Cities On Flame” but I had been doing that for so long that the drumming part of it was like automatic. I never have to think about what I’m doing. Well, usually I don’t (laughs). Except that moment when I screw it up, “How did I do that? What just happened?” (laughs) So a lot of my vocals were difficult to translate live at that time. I sang the lead on a song called “Dominance & Submission” and I just couldn’t get it when it came to doing it live. I just could not get that song right and do it with the right kind of vibe. So the solution was for Eric to sing it and he did a great job, although he did his own version. Some of the things he did better than I did and some of the things he didn’t do as well. But it was just his interpretation so it was fine. At least we got to do the song (laughs).
When you did your solo record, finally, how satisfying was that for you?
It was very satisfying. I was inspired by my brothers Joe and Jim, who have both done several solo records, and especially Joe was really helpful to me. People had been asking, “When are you going to make a solo record?” or I’d put out a demo on MySpace or something and people would say, “Oh I love that. When are you going to put that out?” And I’d be like, “Well …” And I went through all these phases. When I was first teaching at the school, I felt like I really needed to become a better piano player. I’d taken lessons as a child, but I didn’t really feel I’d gotten as much out of it as I could have, as much as my brother did, for instance. So I went back and took piano lessons and one of the first things I said to my teacher was, “I want to learn how to play some Duke Ellington songs.” And he taught me about half a dozen of them and the main thing was that I started hearing how these Jazz chords are constructed and how the voicing can make a big difference. You can take this one chord and voice it four different ways and it sounds like four different chords. So I started writing some Jazz songs. I think I maybe did a half a dozen, probably not even that many, and they came out really good but then I kind of didn’t have any more ideas. It just dried up.
Then a few years later I got an idea to do like an EDM/trans/dance/electronica kind of album. I wrote a couple of songs and I was like, “That’s pretty cool,” and then I started doing some of my old Blue Oyster Cult songs in that style and it was interesting. But once again, I got probably six or seven or maybe as many as eight songs into it and I just ran out of ideas and kind of lost interest in that.
Then I heard Mumford & Sons and was like, wow, I really like that. I bought the album and was playing it a lot and was like, I wonder if I can write a song like that? I took one of my friend David Roter’s songs and I tried to do it with that Mumford & Sons treatment where it’s very dramatic, starts out with a guitar and voice, and when it comes to the chorus all of a sudden all of these other instruments come in and the one voice turns into twelve and there’s not really drums but there’s some sort of percussion going on. So I did a version of this guy’s song and I was like, wow, okay, I like that. So I did a Blue Oyster Cult song and it came out kind of good. Then, I tried a John Cook song. That’s good. Then I did a Helen Wheels song and that one didn’t come out so good.
I ended up with about eight songs that I really liked and then I kind of got stuck. I guess it was the fall of the year before last and I started working on some new songs and I think I had about a half dozen that I had little germs of; not really a full song but I started working on those and thought it was coming out pretty good. Then I got this idea that I would love to do a mariachi song about a Mexican who is at the end of his rope, he can’t make any money, he’s working for the rich person and they are not giving him any money, so he comes to the United States and he gets lost in the desert and he’s dying of starvation and exposure and then somehow he makes it to the United States. And that was going to be it, his journey to the United States and how he has to go through all this hassle to get here. I had a friend in Texas, a pen pal I’ve known since, I don’t know, 1977, and she’s a professor at a college down there, in the art department. I knew she had volunteered at a mission which helped illegal immigrants to get citizenship, get them settled in the country, make sure they weren’t getting exploited by bosses and things like that, making sure they have health care and all that stuff. So I knew that she knew some of these people and probably had stories. So I wrote to her and said, “Could you help me write this song?” and she said sure.
So we wrote this song and it took weeks. I was trying to get her lyrics to fit into what I had. Eventually it came out pretty good, I think, but it didn’t make it on my record. Then I wrote probably another nine songs and then with her I wrote nineteen songs. So I had almost forty songs. But she sent me three songs and one was called “Ghosts,” which of course made it onto the record. One of my students wanted to know how to play a song called “Bella’s Theme,” which is on the first Twilight movie. So I was learning that piece and I was like, wow, you can make something dissonant sound really pretty at the same time. I never realized that. So I took that same tonality and I wrote “Ghosts.” Then I took another song she had written called “Notes On Voyeurism,” which eventually turned into “Voyeur Part 1,” and that one made the record.
Once I realized that I might not be going out and touring with this solo act, I said, well, how can I get people to be aware of my solo record? And I started making these YouTube videos for the songs. I think I’ve made about eight of them and each time I put one out I sell more records. And I have been having a lot of fun with it. I think each time they get a little bit better. But right now I’m taking a break from that. It’s summertime and we’ve been playing every other day for the last week and a half, I guess. So I haven’t had a whole lot of time off.
Are you working on any more music?
I still have a lot of songs that I just need to work on. While we were doing this [his solo record], we had played a benefit for a charity called Frankie’s Friends [www.frankiesfriends.org], this thing for animals, and it was around Christmastime and Tish and Snooky were singing with us and after the show Snooky said, “I’ve always wanted to have a Christmas record.” And I said, “Oh yeah, I really love those Christmas records. We should do that.” So I am working on a Christmas record. I don’t know if it’s going to be done for this year for Christmas but I have five songs from Kathy, one song from Andy Shernoff and five more that I wrote by myself so far.
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
The first rock star, and he wasn’t really a rock star, he was a famous musician and his name was King Curtis. He was a sax player and he played with Aretha Franklin and I knew him from before he played with Aretha. He put out a bunch of instrumentals and on my high school senior trip we went to New York City. We went to a rock revue show in Times Square and of course the backing band was King Curtis and he was fantastic. Then I went away to college and that winter there was a concert that was supposed to be like the Shirelles and these others and King Curtis. The day before the show there was this huge snowstorm, the airports were closed and everything. The day of the show, King Curtis shows up with like four other guys and they did the whole show. They played all the Shirelles songs, King Curtis sang all the vocals, he played guitar, he did everything. He was fantastic. Unfortunately, what I didn’t know was that at that time he had a guy in his band named Jimi Hendrix but Jimi didn’t make the trip cause they couldn’t fit everybody in the car. He was the new guy so he had to stay back. But I went backstage and talked to him and told him how great he was and he said, “Thank you very much. Do you go to school here?” “Yeah, I’m going to be an engineer. I saw you in New York City in that revue and I bought Soul Serenade and I love that ‘Soul Twist’ and I’m so glad that you played it tonight.” And he was like, “Yeah, yeah, our drummer really likes that.” (laughs)
That was the first guy. The second guy was Little Richard and Little Richard just totally freaked me out. I was nineteen and in Chicago, it was the summer of 1967. I saw him on the street and I ran up to him and I said, “Little Richard, Little Richard, hi, I’m such a big fan. I love your voice, I love your songs, I have all your records. You’re fantastic.” (laughs) And he goes, “Thank you, thank you, Sir. What are you doing here?” And I said, “I’m waiting for my friends.” “You know, I’ve got some Acapulco Gold up in my hotel room. Maybe you’d like to come up and have some with me.” I’m like, uh-oh, oh no, I didn’t know he was like that. “Really, thank you, Sir, but I have to wait for my friends. I can’t, but thank you very much.” (laughs) And now of course I say to myself, what a wimp, man, I should have just gone up and seen what happened. That would have been a better story (laughs)