I started this piece about twelve years ago, when I was living on the north shore of Long Island. I was researching the effect the landscape has on artists, and had long been a fan of Blue Oyster Cult, who once lived and worked in the same area I was then living. I set out to track down the roots of my favorite song of theirs, Astronomy, which was said to have been influenced by a walk on a Long Island beach.
Members and former members of the band were helpful in pointing out locations to check out, as well as telling me the story of the writing the music of the song. But for the lyrics, I’d need to contact their ex-manager, Sandy Pearlman who had written them.
He was hard to run down and the idea was put on the shelf as life got weird. Recently I came across some old interviews he’d given, and found the story I was writing had changed, as I found myself sucked into Pearlman’s world once more, as his lyrics had sucked me in several decades earlier.
In the beginning, BOC had a communal way of creating their art, which encompassed not just the music but their image as well. Outsiders provided color to the music the band created, by offering lyrics, artwork or even wardrobe and ideas defining their image.
In many cases, these various shades fit with Long Island’s reputation of being inundated with the gothic, the supernatural and just plain weird. Whether that was a fluke, subconscious or a direct inspiration of place and time, the band with and without Pearlman’s influence, recorded some of the most startlingly original and gothic music ever recorded or performed.
How rock and roll took me from Robin Hood to pot smoking goth kid
I was a weird kid. I grew up watching horror films, like a lot of kids my age. It was the age of Hammer horror … Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, Barbara Shelley, Ingrid Pitt and many others. The classic Universal horror films of the 1930s were always running on TV, along with the wonderfully cheesy science fiction of the fifties and early sixties. I read the horror magazines as well, which got me into reading short stories from the classic gothic horror authors.
This was the sixties and early seventies and we still played army, just like kids had for centuries. Like Tom Sawyer in the book by Mark Twain, we played Robin Hood and King Arthur as well.
It wasn’t Mayberry, but it wasn’t far off.
Two or three years later it’s the mid seventies and we’re smoking dope, stealing liquor and listening to hard rock music, trying to get laid. Those years packed a lot of changes, but a part of me was still that imaginative kid. I still wandered in the woods, but now it was Tolkien rather than Robin Hood, and the soundtrack to that was Rush, a bit of Wishbone Ash and of course Tull.
Meanwhile horror had only grown more horrific. By the early seventies horror films were more violent, more sexual. Rock and roll which was now an obsession had grown harder as well. I lived in the middle of nowhere so there was little in the way of live music, so anything I knew about bands came from the music magazines, which replaced the horror film magazines I had read as a kid.
I loved Alice Cooper and Kiss, but with them it was obviously show business. You knew Gene Simmons wasn’t the god of thunder, and it was already known when Alice wasn’t plastered he was a damned nice guy, fond of golf.
Black Sabbath was a different matter. If you had any belief in those old horror films, and let’s be honest – at fifteen or sixteen years of age a lot of us did – then it was easy to believe they sold their souls, or had a curse put down on them. But lyrically, they didn’t reflect much of that. Most of their songs were little more than blues.
One afternoon, debating the merits of Kiss with a friend, he suggested I try Blue Oyster Cult. I’d never even seen a photo of the band, just the ads for their albums. They were menacing, with a vague Nazi feel and hints of S&M. At the time I was busy trying to lose my virginity, so I couldn’t yet see the advanced appeal of dominance and submission. My only real knowledge of it came from when I was about ten and a friend of mine showed me the leather studded paddle his dad used on his mom when she was bad, and the leather outfits they wore when they did it. That sort of put me off the topic.
The Nazi angle is hard to grasp now, where there is a zero tolerance for that sort of thing. But in the late sixties and mid seventies, it popped up a lot. Even Keith Moon of the Who was known to don a Nazi uniform on occasion. Nazis were featured in everything from comedies to soft core porn drive in films, and of course the more sensational men’s magazines which often gave had an S&M bent. There was more nuance to people’s attractions and repulsions than there are now, and you could get away with things that would never fly now.
AS A KID, I was into the Civil War, which also had more nuances in how it was perceived. I drew pictures – uniforms, guns, battles, maps. I studied the war, as countless little boys did in those days. Later on I met a friend who did the same with World War II, and especially loved drawing German uniforms and weapons. Let’s face it, when it came to looking menacing, the Germans had better wardrobe stylists.
BLUE OYSTER CULT’S IMAGE was designed to be menacing and it worked on me. I avoided them. Then I heard Don’t Fear The Reaper and bought the album.
There it was in technicolor. Ghostly figures appearing behind the window curtains, motiveless murder, vampires, extra terrestrials, men in black, junkies, prostitutes, all to heavy rock beats and macabre melodies. It was cinematic and my kind of cinema. A bit too young to have experienced The Doors, for the first time I found music tailor made to fit my weird side.
My own esoteric reading had grown deeper and when I explored their back catalog I found clues that we’d walked down the same paths. Hints of secret societies, astrology and astronomy, tarot cards, alchemy … all these things that appealed to those of us who could still remember the chills we got from films when we were still young enough to believe, and who pursued those chills at least as far as the school library.
Listening to their music you’d catch related threads, ideas that kept popping up, names repeated, a vague code that seemed to be bubbling below the surface. It made you listen, to work out the problem like you would reading a Sherlock Holmes story. That’s one of the keys to really loving a song. You need to know the words. It has to get inside your head.
In a 1974 interview, Blue Oyster Cult’s manager, Sandy Pearlman speaking of their early albums said “the function of art in general and the reason these records are the way they are and say the things specifically is that you should provide people with transcendental models, so they’ll find themselves reaching out to realms of imagination they wouldn’t have ever dreamed of, and maybe some of that can seep over into the conduct of their lives.”
As time went on they released more music, but that connected feeling I’d get when I was younger seemed to be receding. The new stuff didn’t seem to have the code. They still made great music, covered a lot of the same topics and still do, but they seemed to have lost something along the way. Now the songs stood on their own, which gave more variety, but lost that feeling of cohesiveness.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, From New York City …”
Despite that famous introduction, most of Blue Oyster Cult were Long Island boys. Guys from Long Island in the seventies were considered hicks by those in New York City. Two of the members came from upstate New York, almost Canada and that was even worse. While they might have lacked in style and flair, they were already amazing musicians.
What eventually became the band coalesced around Stony Brook University in the late sixties. Stony Brook is on the north shore of Long Island, the more genteel coast along Long Island Sound. The coast is still sprinkled with old estates, the famed Gold Coast. By the time you get further east, around Stony Brook, the mansions thin out and the history shines through.
Route 25a skirts the north coast from Queens, through Stony Brook and on east almost to Riverhead, where Long Island splits into two forks. By the time you hit Stony Brook, part of the three villages that also includes the Setaukets and Head of the Harbor, the area takes on a distinctly New England feel. Architectural styles range from first period homes, to colonial, to Cape Cod an all the way up to the present day. The ghosts here stretch back to the native American era and there are many, as well as urban legends which have sprung up like wildfire in the internet era.
It’s appropriate that this is the area that Blue Oyster Cult germinated. They were a regular opening act for concerts at Stony Brook University, for bands like The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. They played biker bars, sweet sixteen parties, nudist colonies – any place that would have them. Their style was best described at the time as psychedelia, similar to the acid rock of the west coast but with more of a New York bite. Under names like The Soft White Underbelly and The Stalk-Forrest Group, they teetered on the cusp of a record deal for a few years before things clicked.
Their co-manager, Murray Krugman was the one who finally brainstormed on the idea that sold to Columbia records, to market the band as America’s answer to Black Sabbath, which the label gobbled up.
Which meant the group had to shift on their axis to a new style of music, heavier and with macabre flavors, and needed lyrics to go with it. They handled the music with ease, taking various styles of music and weaving them into something new. It had the melodic sense of gothic horror soundtracks with the cool razor slice of hard rock. Their other manager, Sandy Pearlman coined the phrase heavy metal to describe their sound. On the surface it’s from the lyrics of Steppenwolf’s Born to Be Wild, a song often covered by the band live through the years, but Pearlman seems to have ascribed deeper meanings to the phrase, linking it with the tenets of alchemy.
Pearlman, Krugman and Richard Meltzer had been in the band’s orbit since the early days of Stony Brook, helping to secure gigs. Having found the sound, they looked for lyrics and several of their friends and girlfriends offered inputl. Apparently there were several talented writers hanging out, including Pearlman and Meltzer, and a pre-fame Patti Smith.
The birth of Blue Oyster Cult
“It was in summer `67 and I walked into Stony Brook University. Some of the, uh, weirder students were jamming and, wow, they were incredible.” Sandy Pearlman
Sandy Pearlman’s dad owned a pharmacy in Smithtown, near Stony Brook, where Sandy had gone to university on a a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in the History of Ideas. Later, as a music producer the Billboard Producer Directory described him as the “Hunter Thompson of rock, a gonzo producer of searing intellect and vast vision.” In addition to working with BOC, he went on to produce an album with The Clash, managed Black Sabbath and The Dictators, as well as other groups in the eighties.
Pearlman also collected relics from the Nazi era, studied their political and military strategies, and was also well versed in all things occult, metaphysical and mystical.
Joe Bouchard, original BOC bassist recalled “Richard and Sandy Pearlman went to college and they were the smart guys in the class. They basically founded Blue Oyster Cult. They were around before BOC back when it was Soft White Underbelly. … I think they both would have liked to be performers but when it came down to it, they left the performing to the guys and just came up with the lyrics.”
PEARLMAN’S VISION found willing hands and voices in the members of Blue Oyster Cult, who at the time were just looking to make a living playing music. It was Pearlman who came up with the name, guided the band into developing their image in the early days, and dropped off a manilla envelope full of poems he’d written while in college. Contained within those poems was the code that gave their first three albums the illusion of cohesion.
The first three Blue Oyster Cult albums hold together as a triptych, growing more cohesive with each release. Their third album, Secret Treaties was the pinnacle of that, an album sometimes called the prototype for hard rock. Five of the eight songs had lyrics, pulled like tarot cards from that manilla envelope of Pearlman’s, and the ones chosen held together well enough to form an underground current that makes the other lyrics on that album, as well as earlier songs give the illusion of a concept.
Workshop of the Telescopes … the spinning gears inside the mind of Sandy Pearlman
The song Workshop of the Telescopes from their first album touched on some of Pearlman’s main themes. Pearlman was quoted in the book Agents of Fortune by Martin Popoff, “Well, that song incorporates every single one of the alchemical themes. Silverfish Imperetrix is this alchemical creature of sort of like the salamander. There are these signature concepts and creatures in alchemy, embodiments of certain alchemical principals, for example the principal of transformation, which is embodied in several of these alchemical creatures, one being a salamander, which reduces everything to ash. Jung adopted this kind of analytical grid. He thought everything had to be reduced to negrito, the black state, the burnt-out state, to an ash, before it could flourish again in a new and improved, enhanced, more evolved partaking of a higher archival state or form. So Silverfish Imperetrix is a kind of alchemical creature that I thought up, as an embodiment of an alchemical format, or alchemical and transformational principles. So once you have received the wisdom of the Imperial Silverfish, your vision then is pretty much perfect, and you can see through the lives, not only the lives of appearance, but also through the lives of social structure and political formatting. So you can see through the lives of doctors and their wives. It becomes clear once you know exactly what it’s about.”
Pearlman had a deep interest in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. Also speaking in the book, Pearlman reflects that “I also, as it turns out, not knowing it until I read some biography of Lovecraft, grew up in Lovecraft country, Arkham and Dunwich. … My family had a lot of property up there. … I would walk around there, like at night, and it always seemed kind of strange to me; this place seemed weird. I read Sprague DeCamp’s biography of Lovecraft and realised, well, it felt weird for a reason.”
Even his home in Smithtown, Long Island, living with his parents had to have a bit of a Lovecraft feel. In addition to all the stories of haunted houses in the area, Kings Park Psychiatric Center was a few minutes down the road, one of the oldest and largest asylums in the country, now a county park and in a state of decay.
On the symbol for Blue Oyster Cult
Their first album cover, designed by a classmate of Pearlman’s at Stony Brook University, Bill Gawlik, featured an architectural pen and ink drawing in black and white. Above it was the symbol which immediately became the logo for BOC. It’s a derivative of the astrological symbol for Saturn, the alchemical symbol for lead and also associated with the Greek god Kronos as well as the Greek symbol for chaos.
It’s possible that Pearlman had given the symbol to Gawlik to incorporate in the graphic. But it’s also likely that Pearlman simply recognized its power, knew a good thing when he saw it and molded the band’s image around it.
Former Blue Oyster Cult bass player Joe Bouchard remembers the process of the logo’s creation. Quoted by Martin Popoff, Bouchard recalls ‘He spent a lot of time on it, several weeks, and he had pasted it on the wall in our living room. He would stare at it for hours and hours, and he was so concerned about getting the curve of the logo just right. I remember him debating how that should go for a long time. I remember him actually working on the album cover in our living room for weeks on end. It seemed like he was really obsessed with getting the logo just right.”
In that symbol is one of the keys that made BOC such an enigma. It’s instantly familiar, but when you look closer you see it varies from what you’re used to. It can mean one of several things, there is no right or wrong answer. The symbol, like Pearlman’s lyrics were universal enough that the listener could read their own story into it. If you wanted to search for historical or occult references outside of the albums, you’d find them. But you never found a black and white answer to the questions their image and music posed.
With their second album, Tyranny and Mutation, and in particular their third, Secret Treaties, these references became a bit more clear. But unlike the album covers for these first three albums which were essentially black and white, the lyrics were colored with various shades of grey, so the listeners imagination and curiosity were kicked into gear.
The energy source Pearlman dreamt of using to bring his concepts to life was heavy metal. In addition to being the most aggressive music around at the time, it attracted the kinds of people disillusioned with the mundane reality of life, people with intense natures. And the music provided a cathartic release to those who heard it, especially live.
Rock concert as fascist rally?
Comparison’s between rock concerts and Nazi rallies were around before BOC. Jim Morrison of the Doors noticed it and is believed to have used some of the same techniques when performing. It’s also said that Mick Jagger got a lot of stage moves from Hitler films, which may or may not be true.
The similarities were certainly picked up by Pearlman. One of Pearlman’s fascinations was sociology, and he seemed to have little qualms about following the study of the mind down dark alleys, and he used the band as a tool for his experiments.
Some of Pearlman’s ideas backfired. He used their symbol on banners which hung on either side of the stage in their early shows, resembling the banners Hitler used in his rallies. Some of their early publicity also played on a Nazi/Fascism connection.
The Nazi idea backfired on him, a lot of negative press ensued and the band eventually rejected it. Not the least because several of the band, and Pearlman himself came with Jewish heritage, and they got tired of the negative publicity associating them with Nazis. By the time of Secret Treaties, Pearlman had an illustration on the front cover with the band around a Messerschmitt Me 262, and a song on the album dedicated to the World War II German fighter plane and its pilot.
Allen Lanier, the late keyboardist and sometimes guitarist of the group said the Nazi connection was “a metaphor for negative imagery. Rock ‘n’ roll lives off of false imagery. We’ve dropped all that simply because it wasn’t amusing anymore. It was just an in-joke that had run its course.”
Eric Bloom stated in The NME in 1975 “Well I gotta admit we don’t write no love songs. There’s too many of them. Everybody is doing love songs. I mean we like ’em, I sing them to my girlfriend! But they’ve been overdone. We like to go beyond emotional realms. Almost into the state of space-age shock, ya know? Some of the real sickies may take them to heart, I suppose they should. I mean there’s a primal paranoia in the air and we’re aware of it so we do and can’t help but reflect it in our work.”
Pearlman took it further “We mine the vein created by Nazi artists. The Doors, did that, The Velvet Underground certainly did and it’ll be done again. We’re more obsessed with the technology of the matter. We utilise the symbols in alchemy like lead, the most debased metal. Saturn and the Greek symbol also have the same chaotic associations. It`s become a swastika substitute, not as old but old enough to have a venerable history.“
Pearlman saw music, heavy metal music in particular as a way to usher in a musical fascism, an experiment in mind control essentially. He didn’t want the band to simply have fans. He wanted rabid fans.
Speaking of the early albums he said “It’s the vocabulary with which to communicate with a very large audience. A lot of the songs were by me – and they had very specific intentions. And even if the guys in the band don’t want to talk about the intentions – which some of them are very reluctant to talk about. Heavy metal was the best vocab with which to communicate the intentions of these songs. Most of the songs, or many of the songs, or at least a plurality, I guess, through Agents of Fortune, up until then, half the songs or more were written by me, and I was the producer, and this vocabulary was a great musical vocab with which to project and communicate the intentions of the lyrics.“
Pearlman in addition to writing the advertising copy, also was ghostwriter for some of the articles on the band. Recalls journalist and early songwriter for the group, Richard Meltzer, Pearlman urged him “to write whole reams of laudatory copy, which he dictated. Standing at my shoulder and checking every word.”
Keyboardist/guitarist Allen Lanier added “Sandy was great at that shit. He turned us into BÖC Inc. And who cared? It was a great idea. Sandy was way ahead of that game.”
Richard Meltzer, interviewed in 1982 said “Watching them was like looking at this chess game where everything was a total calculation … At first they were very reluctant to sing. The lyrics didn’t really take hold of their total identity until they took responsibility for singing them. The way they are to this day is an expression of Pearlman, Pearlman’s whole riff that life is an illusion.”
Blue Oyster Cult was thrust upon the world as a heavier successor to the Velvet Underground and other dark groups of that era. Tim Sommar, writing in The Observer puts it this way, “BÖC are mostly pure Needle Park-era NYC, and they play with the desperation of an early ’70s street junkie who has just happily sold his girlfriend into prostitution for a Les Paul and a pile of Silhouettes 45s.”
From the middle of nowhere to Long Island … living in Blue Oyster Cult country
It’s 2008 and I’ve been living on Long Island for a few years now. I’m a budding landscape photographer, this website is only about a year old and I’ve become obsessed with the ways the landscape of an area influences its artists. At some point I’ve heard the story that the Blue Oyster Cult song Astronomy was written on a beach alongside Long Island Sound, so I decide to dig into it deeper.
At the time I knew little about Pearlman’s influence, and by luck, I get to ask some of the band members their recollections. I find out that the songs for Secret Treaties were written in a house on Eaton’s Neck, a curved piece of land jutting out into Long Island Sound. I come across a photo of the band on a little beach, and in the distance are four tall smoke stacks which look very familiar. Using Google maps it’s easy to triangulate where it was taken, which was of course on a beach at Eaton’s Neck, maybe a fifteen minute drive away from where I was living.
Like Blue Oyster Cult, I’m a north shore boy now too. I live a couple blocks off Route 25a in the rich white ghetto of Huntington Village. Most of my income goes towards rent … $1,000 a month for a one room basement garage converted into an apartment. But I love the north shore.
Five minutes west of here is Cold Spring Harbor, a whaling village that still carries some of the feel it must have had in the 19th century. A few minutes west of there is Oyster Bay, where some of the richest people in the country built vast estates. They stretch all along the coast to Glen Cove, where an entire village was flattened so that the owner of the estate adjacent could have an undisturbed view to Long Island Sound. Further west towards the city there is Great Neck and Sands Point, where F. Scott Fitzgerald began to write the Great Gatsby, and where Blue Oyster Cult once had a band house.
Eric Bloom, vocalist, sometimes keyboardist and originator of stun guitar told me “The Great Neck band house was 5 Terrace Drive in Thomaston. We also had a band house at Vanderbilt Pkwy in Dix Hills, where we had a press party, played live for the NY rock press and BOC broke off that event. “
Dix Hills is across from West Hills, in the center of Long Island. Behind West Hills is Sweet Hollow Road, the closest you’ll find to a country road in the more populated parts of Long Island. Near there is Mt. Misery Road and I’m familiar with the area, having written about the many urban legends of the place already.
What got me interested in the neighborhood was a coworker of mine had told me how in the early to mid seventies, Sweet Hollow Road and Mt. Misery were the go to places to smoke a joint. It’s been my experience that places like that are ripe with folklore, later developing into urban legends. One night they got there to find police and military had closed the road. It went on for two or three nights, and the rumor was that something had happened which involved UFOs. He’s the only person I’ve ever heard mention this event, but it’s from that time that many of the urban legends sprung up. A cursory Google search of Mt. Misery is bound to turn up multiple sightings of UFOs, men in black, the mothman as well as the ubiquitous devil worshipers which tend to be associated with any urban wooded area.
So it’s appropriate that BOC came together, and perhaps got their break in the midst of what is often considered to be the most actively supernatural areas of Long Island. Taking it a step further, the lead guitarist, Donald Roeser, a.k.a. Buck Dharma lived in Melville, the terminus of Sweet Hollow Road. It was when he was living there that he wrote the song that truly broke the band, Don’t Fear the Reaper, which appeared on their fourth album. Also on that album is E.T.I., written by Roeser and Sandy Pearlman about the time the area is thought to have been shut down because of extraterrestrial activity. The song contains references to men in black as well as UFOs and one has to wonder if they heard the same stories, or the urban legends came from the song?
BUT TODAY IT’S EATON’S NECK which is my destination. Route 25a feels a lot like where I grew up in the midwest. Old trees line the highway, at times forming a canopy overhead. Northport lies just off the highway, and it looks enough like home that it was stand in for a small Indiana town, much like the one I once lived in, for the film In and Out.
What’s more, I find that feeling I once got driving the country roads of the midwest under the influence of BOC and god only knows what else, is easily replicated in the area where the music has its roots.
Passing through Northport and onto Eaton’s Neck, I’m reminded of Eric Bloom’s warning. He had gotten a ticket for speeding along that stretch of road, and told me to watch for the cop who sits beside the Eaton’s Neck sign. I tell myself that was over thirty years ago but slow down all the same. And it’s a good thing, as sure enough, there he sat, waiting for speeders.
What you don’t see looking off into Long Island Sound from Eaton’s Neck is the mass of rocks beneath the surface of the water which goes on for quite some distance. These rocks made this stretch of the sound highly treacherous, with over 200 shipwreck’s off the shore of Eaton’s Neck.
The original inhabitants were native Americans, who sold Eaton’s Neck to the British who established one of six royal manor houses there. It remained a home for the wealthy, and for a time around the twentieth century a tourist destination. Steamers from New York City would bring tourists to Eaton’s Neck to visit Locust Grove, a popular picnic area. That enterprise went up in flames, literally, when a steamer, The General Slocum caught fire on its way to Locust Grove, with the deaths of over a thousand souls.
The atmosphere of Eaton’s Neck was haunted long before Blue Oyster Cult found their way there.
Over the years many prominent people visited or lived on Eaton’s Neck, from Theodore Roosevelt, to playwright Eugene O’Neill and Marlene Dietrich, so the new band in town barely raised an eyebrow. As I’d read that Astronomy had connections to the beach near the house, my hunch was that this was the same beach in the Newsday photo. There was only one beach that looked likely to have that view of the stacks, so I made for it.
Those used to Atlantic ocean beaches scoff when they see Long Island beaches along the sound. Often it feels more like a lake than the sea, and this beach was no exception. Rather than looking out over miles of open water, it lies directly across from Northport. It was already dusk when I got there, and there was no mistaken this was where the photo was taken. Very little had changed in the last thirty odd years. Lights were coming on in Northport, twinkling and reflecting in the harbor and it’s a magical view as the hills turn black, peppered with light, and the smell of the ocean rose in the night air.
I made my way to the car and back to Route 25a, and lost myself in Secret Treaties beneath a canopy of trees
From Imaginos to Astronomy
It turns out there really was a code written into early Blue Oyster Cult lyrics. Those of us who noticed it had it stuck in our craw. But Pearlman was like a lot of mad poets, eager to get their work into your head, but reluctant to explain it to you. In most cases you find there is no simple truth, no black and white story. In Pearlman’s case it was a concept and code which was always evolving.
In the book on the band, Agents of Fortune, Joe Bouchard, former drummer, sometimes singer/arranger of the group says of Pearlman, “you know, everything that you’ve heard is probably what I’ve heard, probably through the same sources, places like the internet. I get out there and say, ‘Oh, this where that came from!’ He would never tell us what his sources were. Never! He would just say, ‘Oh, it’s just something I thought up.’ Now everybody is sort of like figuring the puzzle out. He’s a pretty crafty guy. He knew his place. He had to protect his sources because someone else would go and rip him off.”
From the same book, Pearlman is quoted as saying “Things that shaped the whole philosophy of the band was first of all, the entire young scientist atmosphere of the early 1970s. … So there was the entire sort of can-do science fair attitude. Then whatever was the current, hot, leading edge research of the time of the early ’70s was really important. On top of that you can overlay a tremendous amount of reading in original alchemical source texts. Then you can add on top of that an entire education in the history of ideas, a degree in philosophy and sociology. And then you can add on top of that a life-long fascination with H.P. Lovecraft and other writers of that ilk, although I don’t think there’s anybody nearly close to Lovecraft. So those are probably the main sources. I can remember pretty closely where all the things from Workshop of the Telescope came from. They came from the various pits that I’ve just referenced for you.“
He concludes, “Such a philosophy, presumably, could only be set to the musical form and formula known as heavy metal.”
The code in the lyrics comes from a book of poetry he’d written in college, The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos, A Bedtime Story for the Children of the Damned.
Pearlman describes it as a ”combination of horror story and fairy tale, an interpretation of history – an explanation for the onset of World War I, or a revelation of the occult origins of it.”
Imaginos even gave Blue Oyster Cult their name. According to Joe Bouchard, bassist and vocalist on the song originally title Blue Oyster Cult, later renamed The Subhuman, “the true story is that Sandy wrote a poem that was part of the Imaginos song cycle. I guess he wrote it back when he was going to graduate school, Brown University. He had dreamt up this whole Imaginos thing, and that was one of the songs.”
The literary equivalent of Imaginos most often tossed about is Lovecraft and the Necronomicon, or Robert W. Chambers‘ The King In Yellow. Both books are fictional, but play roles in the author’s work, rather like Shakespeare’s use of having a play within a play. Or Poe’s poem A Dream Within A Dream. In the case of Imaginos, it’s buried one layer deeper so you never know that Imaginos as a cycle exists, you simply feel the connections.
Pearlman even quoted a book on the cover of Secret Treaties which never existed … “The Origins of a World War’, spoke in terms of secret treaties, drawn up between the Ambassadors from Plutonia and Desdinova the foreign minister. These treaties founded a secret science from the stars. Astronomy. The career of evil.”
Piecing the story together from early Blue Oyster Cult records is impossible. And what’s more seductive than a mystery you just can’t solve?
FOR ME, THE PINNACLE OF BLUE OYSTER CULT WAS THE SONG ASTRONOMY. Everyone has their favorites, and that’s the one which hooked me the deepest. The music carries the mood – it was my favorite before I ever understood the words. And the words are quite likely the best Pearlman ever composed … invocative, esoteric and opaque.Clock strikes twelve and moon drops burst Out at you from their hiding place Like acid and oil on a madman’s face His reasons tend to fly away Like lesser birds on the four winds Like silver scrapes in May Now the sands become a crust And most of you have gone away Come Susy dear, let’s take a walk Just out there upon the beach I know you’ll soon be married And you want to know where the winds come from Well it’s never said at all On the map that Carrie reads Behind the clock back there you know At the four winds bar Four winds at the four winds bar Two doors locked and windows barred One door let to take you in The other one just mirrors it In hellish glare and inference The other one’s a duplicate The queenly flux, eternal light Or the light that never warms Yes the light, that never, never warms The clock strikes twelve and moon drops burst Out at you from their hiding place Miss Carrie nurse and Suzy dear Would find themselves at the four winds bar It’s the nexus of the crisis The origin of storms Just the place to hopelessly Encounter time and then came me Call me Desdenova, eternal light These gravely digs of mine Will surely prove a sight And don’t forget my dog, fixed and consequent
I’m not alone in this, as evidence by researching the song on the internet. Even Metallica did a cover of it. How it fits into the Imaginos tale is well documented, but for me, it’s best left a song. By the time the story of Imaginos was known, most of us had already invented different stories in our mind.
According to Buck Dharma, “Secret Treaties is really like the culmination of the first three records which sort of link conceptually in my mind. Secret Treaties is Sandy Pearlman’s concept of what the band was and us really feeling our way creating what it was.”
Astronomy, like most of Secret Treaties, their third album, was written and rehearsed at the house on Eaton’s Neck. Eric Bloom says “This is my personal favorite. We had a band house in Eatons Neck, New York.” He went on to tell me “that little beach was a 5 min walk from the house. I wrote ME-262’s music on the piano in that house. I wrote “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” on the same piano. I was the only resident of the house … everyone else lived in a different area, Donald in Melville as I recall. Most of the songs from Secret Treaties were written in that house. It was a 10 month rental, someone’s summer house. It had propane gas for heating and cooking.”
Joe Bouchard, who wrote the music to Astronomy tells the story, “Sandy gave me those lyrics. The line ‘The clock strikes twelve’ was not the opening line of the poem; it was in the middle. I knew that line had to be the start of the song because it is such a magical hour. We had a house that was on the beach and I went out for a walk. As I was walking along the beach, I had this idea for a melody. The song came pretty fast. I brought it back and we were rehearsing in the living room of the house that we had rented. I told the guys that I had this song and I started playing it for them. Albert said, “Let me work on that overnight.” The next day he came back with an arrangement. A lot of the connecting riffs in “Astronomy” are Albert’s while I wrote the music and Sandy wrote the lyrics. It was a really good collaboration.
At the time, Pearlman describes the song “Desdinova is a student at Braun University in Providence who lives there to be close to Lovecraft. He’s a Frankenstein figure who achieves through research what Imaginos understood instinctively, he forms the axiom … It’s New Year’s Eve and Desdinova walks into the Four Winds Bar. He plays this game with two girls which has to be completed in the six hours from midnight to dawn cos he can’t stand the light. It’s so sort of … corrosive. There’s a parallel with the rose which is similarly overfulfilled, a symbol of over-ripeness and decadence. The dog is Susy’s familiar and the carrier of starry wisdom from the actual dogstar. Lovecraft had this term ‘starry wisdom cult’ which was so apt I had to use it.”
There’s a theory that the lyrics began as a story about a woman’s first lesbian experience, on the beach at Port Jefferson nearby, which bears no resemblance to the story Pearlman tells of the song. But I can’t help but wonder if there might be some truth to it, that before it got the Imaginos treatment, it was a germ of an idea which in Pearlman’s oven of a mind was recooked into something more as time went on. As I’ve said, Pearlman didn’t seem to deal in black and white, and what’s below the surface was just as interesting to him as what lay on top. Who knows how many layers the lyrics, as well as his other poems contained.
And in that you find his genius, the ability to stir the imagination, to guide it on trips to unknown places, where the listener fills in the blanks to make the story personal. Just as the members of Blue Oyster Cult took his ideas and colored them with their own personalities and talents, the listener adds to it, creating something unique.
The verb occult means to block from view, and it strikes me that this word is the perfect description for Blue Oyster Cult’s earliest music. There are stories inside them, ideas and concept that we’re blocked from seeing directly, but can still see the traces of them obliquely. There is so much going on there, disguised by the most incredible music, swinging from a cacophonous roar to delicate melody and harmony, that it creates an atmosphere which guitarist/vocalist Buck Dharma describes as “cinematic.”
Which is pretty heady stuff for a heavy metal band.
Blue Oyster Cult comes into their own and finds hits there
Pearlman had hoped to persuade the members of Blue Oyster Cult into doing Imaginos as a concept album as early as 1972, but the band balked, instead just picking bits and pieces of the story for individual songs. But as time went on, the band grew more confident in their own ideas and songwriting skills and seemed to feel stifled fitting into the niche that Pearlman wanted to push them into. Plus there were financial advantages to coming into their own. As Pearlman put it, “They had realized the potential delight of publishing income, and were no longer interested in being the mouthpiece for my musings on the backstory of the creation of the universe.”
Pearlman and others still provided lyrics, but the band started to wrestle back control of their music, their sound and their image. The members of BOC had always contributed lyrics, but with Agents of Fortune they upped their game. Donald Roeser brought in a piece he’d written, music and lyrics which became a staple of gothic rock, Don’t Fear The Reaper. Whilst it might have broken the mold that Pearlman had poured them into, it was still related to the earlier themes and he certainly appreciated the fame and money that came with being listed as producer on a hit, mainstream record. After all, it was this kind of fame and influence he wanted the band, and himself to have all along.
Agents of Fortune is a great album, more nuanced, more varied in its styles and sound, but no less creepy, and to me, more gothic in a more elegant package. It was like the switch from black and white horror films to color.
By the time of their next album, Specters, the old code seemed to have been lost. Rather than the album sounding like a unified, cinematic piece, the songs and those that came later were self contained.
I didn’t mind, as I loved that album as well as many of the others that followed. But after that, Blue Oyster Cult was rather hit and miss. The illusion Pearlman had woven around them was dis-spelled. When you’re looking for clues about how an album tells a story, you forgive the weaker songs because they’re still essential. When each song is a self contained movie, it’s easy to skip the ones you don’t like.
They were a rock and roll band now, cranking out hits and putting on a show. Albeit an amazing show. Which is where they started actually. Don’t get me wrong, they still carry an air of mystery and their lyrics are far from sunny. Their music still drips menace and the macabre, but more than anything else, you get the sense that they’re just another band, entertaining their audience because it’s what they love to do.
Eventually the band came down to Eric Bloom and Buck Dharma (Donald Roeser), plus hired musicians. Live they’re perhaps tighter than ever, and certainly more consistent, showing that age is no detriment when it comes to metal. But it’s hard to look menacing when you’re in your seventies, and the image has faded a bit. They hearken back to an earlier time, more so than brought time forward with them.
What made their early image believable is they didn’t really look the part of rock stars. Eric Bloom came closest, but they seemed like regular people, like the guy next door. And we all know how little we know about him till he goes off the rails one day.
In 1988, Pearlman teamed up with Al Bouchard who was no longer with the band, to put together the definitive version of the Imaginos album. Nightmares ensued, the record company dropped the project and only agreed to pick it back up when Pearlman offered to bring in Buck Dharma and Eric Bloom to finish it up, and call it a Blue Oyster Cult record. It worked, but it’s not a Blue Oyster Cult record. Even though Bouchard had a major part in the shaping of Blue Oyster Cult’s music, what he learned, and what the band learned is the individual colors brought by each member of the core group were essential to recreating the old feel. Combined, those colors created Blue Oyster Cult. The music is still good no matter what the lineup, but it’s not the same.
And let’s face it, Blue Oyster Cult was the only band who could have made that album, but the time for that was in the mid seventies.
There are those who say that Imaginos is the best album Blue Oyster Cult ever made, even if it wasn’t made by the band in any real sense. Pearlman’s nightmare was finally in the open and on display, though still impenetrable, and so open to interpretation that it’s still debated online to this day just what the fuck he was talking about.
But for me, it’s a second rate Lovecraft story when exposed to the light. The best way to hear Pearlman’s vision is through those early albums, just visible between the cracks for those who dared look.
A Long Island night in southern Illinois
It’s several years later, I’m gone from Long Island and back in the midwest, living in the middle of nowhere again. A half hour or so from here, another small town, Herrin, Illinois has a little music festival, and the headliner the last night is Blue Oyster Cult. So of course I’m there.
It’s the kind of location I pictured when I first heard their music. A strange old town after dark, clinging to the past, with gothic buildings still lining Main Street, strange, unholy acts taking place behind the windows of the upper floor. And here is Blue Oyster Cult, painting Astronomy onto the starry night sky.
Sandy Pearlman’s mad concept was still finding fresh ears to corrupt, with the same voices he chose to express them. It may have been the middle of nowhere, but Blue Oyster Cult played the show like it was Madison Square Garden, because it’s a canon of work they believe in. That’s kept them doing what they love their entire adult lives.
And I’m amazed at their ability to bring these songs to life, over and over and over, how they took other people’s words and set them to music, and in the process made them their own. But most of all, I get that same feeling I had as a teenager, stoned at night on country roads, or wandering across Long Island looking for the source, and I realize, all these places fit the music. Because it’s music that found its way inside me, a mingling of their imaginations opening my own. This was Pearlman’s goal in the early seventies, and Blue Oyster Cult was the vehicle he chose and molded to make it happen.
Almost fifty years on now, it still does.