During the hard rock decade of the ’70s, Long Island’s Blue Oyster Cult proffered a decidedly different approach to loud, guitar-based music. The combo’s dark ruminations garnered it a controversial reputation for its lyrics and logos, and its signature song, the 1976 mega-hit “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” is exemplary; some listeners interpreted the tune as advocating suicide.
Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser’s lightning-fast fretboard histrionics were an integral part of BOC’s sound. Controversies or not, the riffs and licks Buck and his bandmates played were permanently implanted into the minds of many fans and aspiring guitarists. As his band was preparing for a Summer ’98 tour, he discussed the history of what has been called “the world’s brainiest heavy metal band,” and the guitars he’s used along the way.
Vintage Guitar: According to the Vanilla Fudge’s Tim Bogert, there was a Long Island scene in the mid ’60s that included bands like the Vagrants, the Young Rascals and the Hassles, among others. Do you remember those bands, and what was going on there?
Sure. They were club bands, but we got started on campus, so we were more of a college band instead of a bar band. We played bars, but that came along later. I used to see all the bands you mentioned.
Tell me about some of your earlier instruments and experiences, “pre-BOC.”
Buck Dharma: I got involved with rock and roll in the surf era, and I was a drummer in my first band, which was in high school. I was playing street basketball, and I broke my wrist, and while I had the cast on I started fooling around with a Stella acoustic my brother had gotten for Christmas. By the time my wrist healed, I’d decided to become a guitar player.
I knew another drummer, so I got a guitar, which was a Premier jazz box with two pickups. It looked sort of silly on me, because I’m kind of short (chuckles), and this guitar had no cutaway. I started off as a lead guitar player right off the bat, playing on the high E string. I’m totally self-taught on guitar; everything I’ve learned, I figured out off of records.
I also had one of the first Hagstrom guitars imported to America. It was some kind of prototype; it didn’t have the same hardware or binding on the neck that the subsequent ones did. It was a very good, cheap Fender copy.
The band that became Blue Oyster Cult didn’t form until you were in college. What type of sound were you going for?
Where we were coming from when we were in college was the incredibly rich English pop of that period. We were doing a lot of Animals songs, but we got into blues, big-time; we were blown away by the Blues Project. We were in college in upstate New York; almost in Canada, and we used to make an eight-hour drive to New York City at least once a month to see bands like Paul Butterfield, and the Blues Project, who were basically New York white guys playing the blues. We said, “Hey, we can do that!”
Did Danny Kalb influence your playing?
Big-time; his speed was blazing. After seeing Kalb, I went into an intense woodshed period – I would play all day long, learning his licks. Once I learned his stuff, I could play very fast in general, so he was a very big influence on my playing and in the evolution of my technique.
You’re one player whose stage name and real name have been public knowledge for some time. What’s the significance of “Buck Dharma?” Or is it a corporate secret?
Not really; we all considered pseudonyms when we were starting out, and in those days it was probably more important to have a flashy name. I liked mine, so I hung on to it, but in retrospect it’s turned out to be a pain in the ass. I like Buck, but my wife still calls me Don (chuckles).
Once the band had a record deal, some of the imagery its music created might have been considered controversial, but I had a feeling back then it was part marketing hype, as well. The details about the band’s logo are noted on a web page I checked out, but I’ll let you tell your version of how that symbol became the logo.
That logo was created by the graphic artist who did our first two album covers; it really doesn’t exist anywhere else, but there are some similar historical antecedents behind it. Supposedly, it looks like the Greek symbol for chaos, and an alchemical symbol for lead. Whether these things are true, I can’t tell you. But the real poop on it is that it was created by a graphic artist, and when we saw it, we said, “That’s our logo.”
I read at one point that some groups were trying to apply some kind of Nazi symbolism to the logo, and the Jewish Defense League was planning on protesting at some of your concerts.
Yeah, and it was totally ridiculous; like looking for devils behind trees. BOC has always had a historical and intellectual bent as far as what we’ve been doing, but we’ve never pandered to devil worship or any of that stuff. We deal with themes of good and evil in our tunes, but we don’t take a position. The idea that we have an agenda, political or otherwise, was always silly. If we talked about the dark side of humanity, we just laid it out there and said, “Here it is.”
The cover art for your third album, Secret Treaties, wouldn’t have dissuaded the aforementioned Nazi hunters, because it was a sketch of the band standing in front of an ME-262 (the world’s first operational jetfighter, built and deployed by the Germans during World War II).
A lot of people were really upset about that, and I don’t know why. What Secret Treaties deals with is the fact that while World War II was going on, there were actually a lot of back-door deals between the Axis countries and the Allies; commerce did not stop. The album was an allusion to that: the war was not what it seemed.
To give you a little more background, we had been signed by Clive Davis to Columbia, and if you remember, Columbia came out of the ’50s and into the ’60s as a pretty stodgy label; Mitch Miller was the A&R guy.
I think we were signed by Davis fairly early in his tenure, but I never felt the company knew how to sell us; they didn’t know what to do with us. I always thought we were sort of an embarrassment to them. I think Aerosmith was probably the same type of band for Columbia; the company was probably more comfortable with artists like Springsteen, who had more of a straight-ahead image.
In the ’70s, you often dressed in white onstage and played white guitars, as well.
I had a Gibson SG which started out as a cherry-finish Standard; they never made a white two-pickup SG, but they’d made the three-pickup models in white with gold hardware. I had this one refinished. I also played a white Strat at one time; I still have it.
Later on, you were seen playing a single-cutaway Les Paul in a Tobacco Sunburst finish.
That was a Deluxe; I bought that new around ’73. It was just one of things where you go into a music store, pick something up, and really like it. I just used it on the band’s latest record.
When the band used to play “ME-262” in concert, there was one part where the drummer would step out front with the rest of the players, and he’d play guitar as well, so there were four guitarists and a bass player. Is that still the case?
We don’t do the five guitars like we did in the classic era. Albert [Bouchard], the original drummer, was the only drummer we’ve had who could play guitar.
And the live album that “ME-262” is found on, On Your Feet or On Your Knees, sounded a bit murky, production-wise, but Some Enchanted Evening and Extraterrestrial Live made up for it in spades.
I’ll tell you what’s good on On Your Feet, and that’s “Then Came the Last Days of May.” One of the reasons I like that is because it was mixed by Jack Douglas, who had done the Aerosmith records of that era. He was always a favorite of mine.
It’s funny; I have very little objective perspective on our records, because usually by the time you get finished making them, you don’t want to hear them for a long time. Then you’ll hear them on the radio or at somebody’s house, and you’ll remember how good they were. I don’t know how other artists are, but I rarely sit and listen to my records once they’re done. You already know every nuance and microsecond of it.
Are there any particular cover songs BOC has done that you like? There’s “Born to Be Wild,” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” “Kick Out the Jams.” I’ll ask about “Roadhouse Blues” in a minute.
I like most of them. The weirdest one we probably ever tried was a studio version of “Born to Be Wild.” My philosophy about covers, in general, is that if you can’t bring something new to the party, you really shouldn’t try to cover a song, but that didn’t stop us from being foolhardy enough to try to cover “Kick Out the Jams” (laughs).
“Roadhouse Blues” was recorded in concert with Robby Krieger sitting in.
Yeah; we’ve done “Roadhouse” with both Robby and Ray Manzarek at different times. The Doors were a big influence on us. They weren’t like the San Francisco bands, who were big influences as well – The Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Steve Miller; the Doors were out of L.A., and were doing music that was very “dark” in a conceptual manner, and they were very song-oriented as well. So it was a big thrill to do “Roadhouse” with those guys.
One might assume the inspiration for “Godzilla” was that you were a fan of the old Japanese monster movies.
Yeah, definitely. I wrote the riff for that song in a Hyatt Hotel in Dallas; the riff made me think of Godzilla, and I wrote the first verse right off the top of my head, then I labored for several more weeks to come up with more lyrics. I thought the music and the groove were reminiscent of that first Godzilla movie that Raymond Burr was in.
That song has always gone over well in concert, and I presume it’s still a staple.
Right; it’s one of three tunes we have to play every night. The others are “Burnin’ For You” and “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” They wouldn’t let us out of the hall if we didn’t play those (chuckles).
In the mid to late ’70s, wasn’t BOC one of the pioneers of laser light shows in concerts? As I recall, Eric Bloom had some kind of glove-like device he would point at a mirror ball to disperse the laser beams.
He had a fiberoptic cable that went to a lens strapped to his wrist, so when he pointed it at the mirror ball, the laser would appear right from his hand. It was a stunning effect.
But at one time, wasn’t there some controversy about whether or not such effects might cause eye damage?
Yeah, let me set the record straight: we never hurt anybody with that laser show. However, the government flipped out when they realized what was going on; they didn’t like the idea that rock and rollers had all of this “power,” so they made us invent a lot of failsafes and interlocks for the equipment. OSHA actually followed us around on tour for three months! After that, they even clamped down on our “scan” effect, which was a laser cone that was also stunning, but there’s no danger as long as the laser is scanning. You see that effect in movies now, but you can’t see it at live concerts anymore. Anyone who saw one of our laser shows back then saw something that isn’t done at concerts now.
Speaking of Bloom, what exactly is the stun guitar he was credited with playing?
(chuckles) We made up stun guitar to describe some of the fuzz parts Eric did. In fact, there’s a stun guitar part on the new record!
“Reaper” might have made some folks think of BOC as a proverbial one-hit wonder, but there were other songs that got a nominal amount of airplay, at least on the AOR format. There was the aforementioned “Godzilla,” “Burnin’ For You,” and later fare like “Dancin’ in the Ruins”
Well, we really weren’t a pop band, and we still aren’t. I don’t know what kind of band we might be called, but when I think of Blue Oyster Cult, I don’t think of mass market.
“In Thee” was a bit of a departure in that it had acoustic guitars, a lot of vocal harmony, and a romantic theme.
That song was written by Allen Lanier, and it’s probably his finest tune. It’s got a resonance and beauty to it. We just put a new version that was a live and “unplugged” recording on the new album, which is how we’ve doing that song live lately. We thought the song deserved a little more exposure, so we put it on an album again.
On the original version, I used a Martin D-35, and the electric was a custom-made guitar called a Vulcan.
I haven’t asked about amps.
We’ve probably used what everybody else has used over the years. When we started buying equipment, we got Acoustic 260s, which the Doors used, and they were terrible amps for the kind of music we were doing (laughs). They had no distortion or overdrive at all. From there, we got Marshalls, which you can’t go wrong with, of course. The problem was, if we were opening a three-act show, we’d be right on the “lip” of the stage, and the Marshalls could deafen you. After that, we used Music Man amps for a while, then some Boogie Mark II heads, which were also great.
In the studio, I’ve been using smaller combo amps lately; a Vox AC-30, Fender Supers. The studio where we recorded Heaven Forbid has a great collection of vintage amplifiers. I also used a Boogie Mark II head through a 4 X 12.
Having had your biggest hit before the advent of MTV – and I know BOC has done videos – how do you feel about their relevance?
We’ve done six or seven over the years, and I don’t know if they have any effect at all. It’s nice to see yourself on television, but obviously, they weren’t a factor in our popularity to begin with, because those were pre-video times. I think they help certain new bands get exposed, but it seems like you see so little of the spectrum of music on television. The bad thing about videos is they’re very expensive; you can make a record for what a video costs, and is it worth the money as a promotional tool? I’d probably say no.
When the video age came along, I think several bad things happened: I think it killed southern rock almost entirely. It ruined the careers of a lot of people who weren’t that great-looking, but it made the careers of some very pretty people who didn’t have a lot of talent. It also allowed certain acts that were cognizant of the visual medium to get noticed, but whether that’s a good thing, I’m not sure.
How was your solo album, Flat Out, supposed to differ from a Blue Oyster Cult album?
The material on Flat Out was, in general, more pop-oriented and more romantically-themed; more personal. I had quite a few songs that just weren’t suitable for BOC.
Heaven Forbid‘s release is pending as we’re recording this.
It’s our first record of new stuff since ’88; it’s got 11 tunes and is a great album, if I do say so myself (chuckles).
You’ve got an offshoot venture called the Buck Dharma Band, and that group recently did a benefit in Atlanta. Details?
I like the trio format; the musicians in the band are Danny Miranda, who’s also the bass player for BOC, and John Mocelli, who drums for Meat Loaf; he was also in BOC at one time. And my wife sings.
We got a call from a fan who picked up on a newspaper article about a kid in an Atlanta suburb who had an inoperable brain tumor, and he was using “Godzilla” to visualize fighting his illness. He underwent an experimental drug protocol, came out of it, and kind of vanquished the disease. We went down there and did a benefit concert to help with his expenses. He’s a great kid, and we had a great time. The concert was videotaped, and copies of it are also available as part of the benefit.
You’re using a Steinberger in concert for the most part these days.
It’s my all-purpose axe. I got turned on to Steinbergers when they made the bolt-on, wood-body model; the all-plastic one was too sterile for me, tone-wise. The neck profile suits me perfectly, and of course, they don’t warp. They’re very consistent from instrument to instrument.
You noted earlier that you used the Tobacco Sunburst Les Paul Deluxe on Heaven Forbid. Are any other instruments that you might have part of a collection, or do you use most of them in the studio?
I’ve had very few valuable instruments. I had a ’57 Strat, but my philosophy is that if I don’t really use certain guitars, it hardly seems worth owning them. There are a couple of guitars I’d like to have; I’d like to get a Gretsch Tennessean or some other Chet Atkins-type guitars, because I don’t have one of those now. I wouldn’t mind having a Rickenbacker, but I’ve got a couple of Strats, and a custom SG-style guitar that was made by a fan in Pittsburgh. I played “The Reaper” live with that one for many years.
Do you anticipate having to do extensive touring to promote the new album?
We’re committed to a six to eight-week tour this summer; we’ll be in sheds with other bands from our era, like Motorhead and Iron Maiden. So we’ll probably be working more than we did last year, but we don’t feel like touring as hard as we did when we were coming up.
Other future plans?
I want to do a Buck Dharma Band record, and there will undoubtedly be a follow-up to Heaven Forbid.
While Buck Dharma has a rep as a rapid-fire riffmeister, his insights into Blue Oyster Cult’s history, its songs, and the guitars he’s used aver that he’s paid attention to his experiences over the decades. Of course, his guitar prowess is also quite eloquent…but it’s also a lot faster.
Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser. Photo courtesy of Buck Dharma.
This interview originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’98 issue.