One of the greatest shams that happened in the last few decades is the de-fanging of rock & roll: a genre that once inspired nervousness in parents, rebellion in teens, and a fresh musical landscape to explore all of our mottled nature in its various fun, dumb, fearful, violent, lusty, and occasionally shadowy glories. The payola-in-Clear-Channel-clothing has only compounded the gentrification. Yet, despite all that lying amongst a regurgitated landscape where nostalgia is a hot commodity, there is a wildflower growing through the cracked pavement. Somehow, hope is still alive
Ladies, gents, & all in-between, I present to you Blue Oyster Cult.
This is a band whose core in the form of Buck Dharma and Eric Bloom, has been persevering, playing, and creating since the late 1960s. The surrounding band members have changed since then, but the current line-up of Jules Radino (drums), Danny Miranda (bass), and Richie Castellano (guitar, keyboard, vox), who have all been playing in BOC for years now, are all equally mighty. This is no Budweiser Ultra-past-times-boomer trip going-through-the-motions act, but a true blue BAND. Classic rock radio is such a nefarious and anemic creature that treats truly great artists like they only ever recorded one or two songs. We’re better than this and artists deserve more than just being relegated to such middle-aged-buffalo-wing-selling obviousness.
Blue Oyster Cult most definitely deserves better, since this is a band that has crafted a body of work that combines great musicianship, shadowy storytelling, the rough-hewn realities of day-to-day life, working-class-boogie, and the amorphous dark fog of the unknown. Do they rock? Absolutely but they have always been a much more layered creature and if you give their discography a chance, you’ll get entrance to musical worlds that go beyond the radio hits. This is a band that has always used rock & roll to paint a picture in ways that no other band did or even does. They are in that category of game-changers whose touch is still unparalleled despite having a notable influence on many bands past and present. (Ghost, I’m looking at you.)
Blue Oyster Cult is a band that has some deep roots for me. As a small child, I would hear talk linking them with outlaw biker gangs and the occult, which is the darkest and sweetest of candy combinations. In other words, don’t bring that enticing concoction to your Great Aunt’s 90th Birthday unless she is utterly fantastic and is up for horrifying the other nursing home residents about the times she got “tagged” by a couple of Hell’s Angels. The visual image of the band from their 1970s era only lent to this with Bloom looking like a badass biker complete with a scruffy beard and taut presence, while Dharma was dressed head to toe in white, appearing on the dapper side of sinister. Behind them, you had Alan Lanier, the bone-thin poet, and both Albert and Joe Bouchard, who mutually looked like real blue-class rockers who could line you up with some good quality LSD.
As I grew older and fully got into the band’s discography, I was soon hooked. This is a band that satisfies on so many different levels. If one wants to simply view them as the band that did “Godzilla” or was (inaccurately) spoofed on Saturday Night Live, well, that’s on them and certainly not the band. (Though “Godzilla” is still fantastic.) They are also tied to an important friendship I had during my 20s and early 30s between my late friend Scott and myself. BOC was one of the early things we bonded over, including him offering to send me random merch from Eric Bloom’s old website. (Eric Bloom dot com coffee mugs? Why did I turn him down? Oh well. Regrets are for chumps and boy howdy, was I a chump!) When he and his roommate had to relocate from New Orleans to Mississippi after Katrina, we would often talk on the phone late at night. At that point, he was working at a convenience store and would listen to their 1977 album Spectres on his walks home. The image of Scott strolling after dark after his evening shift in small-town, summertime Mississippi while listening to “I Love the Night” has stayed with me ever since. (Especially since that was the song he would often name check when talking about his walks home.) I miss my friend but with art and heart, death is merely transitory.
Recently, Chuck (aka my far better half), alerted me to the fact that BOC was going to be playing in our neck of the woods and soon! I felt a mix of excitement, nerves, and fear. We’re all living in a Covid world and trying to navigate such waters in the American South has been a bit like playing the most harrowing and brain-dented version of Frogger. On top of that, while I had no doubt that the band would be great, I was worried about the crowd. No one wants to see their heroes get hollered at by a bunch of Coors-lite-wastrels yelling out “Godzilla” or “Don’t Fear the Reaper” every five minutes. But Chuck was so excited and hell, it had been WAY too long since we had seen any live music and what is life made for but living? So, tickets were purchased and we waited until that hallowed day of April 2nd.
Tickets in hand and the thrilling reality of what we were going to witness starting to finally feel truly tangible, we arrived at the venue. Given the standing room only situation, we got there early and were happy to see some devoted fans milling around, including one guy wearing a tee shirt for their much-maligned Club Ninja album. (Spoiler, it’s not that bad and far from BOC’s equivalent, to say, something like Kiss’ Hot in the Shade.) Thirty bucks and two light beers and teeny-tiny-shots of Crown Royal later, we waited by the barricade separating the General Admission pleebs from the VIP-folks. The loudspeakers piped in the usual fair of 1970s and 80s Classic Rock, though hearing Accept’s “Balls to the Wall” was especially nice after suffering through MOR-era REO Speedwagon. (No, “Ridin' the Storm Out” for our hardy souls.) The crowd was surprisingly a little mixed, including your older couples, as well as a few in their 20s and 30s. There was one young metalhead longhaired kid with a leather vest to die for and his pretty and pretty intensely disinterested-looking girlfriend in front of us.
Suddenly, the lights dim and the excitement rushes to near heights! But could it be our boys? It was still early, but there had been no opening act announced.
Well, it turns out, the Devil makes you wait before God will reward you.
I’m not going to name this one-man act to protect the guilty but to call that hour of music punishing is like describing being sexually harassed by a fire-wielding clown as being mildly unsettling. Before I go further, let me preface with the fact that I have mad respect for live performers. It takes true gumption to get out there in front of people, strangers no less, and do your craft, whether it’s an open mike night or a grand stage. If you have the heart for what you’re doing, you instantly have my attention, even if it’s not my particular bag. But, to quote George Clinton, if you fake the funk, your nose will grow like Pinocchio’s, and holy shit, the funk was so faked. Whatever the classic rock cover artist equivalent is to a jaded stripper shaking her cha-chas in your face while she would rather be anywhere else but in your presence, this was it. It was a classic rock radio jukebox live and direct from Hell. Molly Hatchet? Check. Jackson Browne? Jesus, check check. Maybe 38 Special? I think at one point, I was in the fetal position praying for my lords and saviors Blue Oyster Cult to arrive and free us all from this torment. It was hateful. Worst of all, homeboy had the temerity to refer to BOC as playing “old music.” That’s funny since their “old” stuff still enraptures listeners years later and their newest album, 2020’s The Symbol Remains, is incredible and fully displays the very much active spark this mighty band still has. What has this cretin done other than the rape the classics in ways the drunkest karaoke sorority girl could only dream of?
To quote William Howard Taft, some folks just oughta be dick slapped and hard.
Enough about that atrocity, let’s get to the divinity!
Epochal instrumental music, almost Jean-Michel Jarre-esque, began playing as the band came on stage. It was so fitting, especially after the soul-pissing anguish we had endured beforehand, that the five men of BOC would arrive like rock and roll seraphim ready to usher us to Paradiso. By this time, it was a packed house, which was surreal after two years of Pandemic living, but also wonderful that this righteous band got such a sweet turnout. Despite my fears, the crowd vibe was overall awesome, complete with that ideal live show feeling of unified energy and excitement. And only one jackass drunkenly shouted for “Godzilla” prematurely.
The setlist was as close to perfection as one can get without going into the 3+hour mark. It was a pitch-perfect mix of the well-known hits with some deeper cuts (ie. “Harvest Moon” off of 1998’s Heaven Forbid) and a few choice tracks from The Symbol Remains. They even played one of my personal big favorites that I never thought I would ever hear live with “The Golden Age of Leather,” which was beyond awesome. Seeing the crowd react positively to the new material made my heart sloppy-happy, especially because The Symbol Remains is one of the band’s best, a fact that stood tall and proud at the show. Getting to hear Richie Castellano not only shred but sing lead on “Tainted Blood” (continuing the band’s phantasmagorical history of songs about vampires) was pristinely cherry. In a band full of aces and stars, Castellano is absolutely the cat to watch out for. He is the kind of multi-talented that is so glimmering that it’s humbling. That’s not to say anyone else is slouching, cause the steady thunder and backbeat from Radino on drums and Miranda on bass was a joy to see. And of course, Buck Dharma and Eric Bloom are both legends and still showing everyone else how it is done.
Because, maybe just maybe, karma does exist, we were blessed with an encore that was tremendous to the extent of getting to hear one of the greatest tracks from The Symbol Remains, with “The Alchemist.” Eric Bloom, complete with a leather-bound mystical tome and brown hooded robe, came out and crooned this ominous story involving traitorous kings, bloody human foibles, and mystical revenge. In other words, it’s both a perfect BOC song and a perfect Eric Bloom song. (In a band with a history of great singers, Bloom always handles the darker tunes the best.) Oh and the songwriter of “The Alchemist?” Richie Castellano. Good night, man. Calm down and leave some glory for us mere mortals.
These bringers of rich, murky narratives and exquisitely executed rock & roll soon descended off the stage. We were sore. We were exhausted. We were vibrating with all that gnarled-up happy adrenaline you get when you have been in the actual physical space and presence of fantastically pure art-making. Talk about lucky! When creatives do what they innately do for the love and the compulsion, it’s a benefaction from the highest order, which is exactly what we got that very special, sweaty, and exalted night.
Time is something that is eternally running away from us, with our weak little hands only able to grip it for so long. Because of that, there is no better moment and space to indulge in what makes your life better and richer. We’re lucky cause we are here and even luckier that we can support artists like Blue Oyster Cult who could phone it in and get the same paycheck but instead give us something that makes that slippery substance that is our lives more enjoyable, enigmatic, and fascinating. When a band can open so many doors in your imagination, then you know they are something special, which is exactly what Blue Oyster Cult is. Past, present, and future.