Buck Dharma

Steinbergers and stilts
Steinbergers and stilts

In the hyped-up worlds of entertainment and professional sports, most so-called “comebacks” usually aren’t. Often, veterans stay in the public eye (or attempt to) much longer than they should, subjecting themselves to detraction or ridicule.

But what if a legendary guitar-based aggregation is producing modern albums that are just as listenable as the combo’s “classic” records from decades ago? Such is the case for Blue Oyster Cult, which stormed into the hard rock limelight in the early ’70s. The Long Island-based quintet’s original material had a tongue-in-cheek morbidness and wry sense of humor, and the music was aided considerably by the fretwork of guitarist/vocalist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser.

As happens to many rock bands, BOC ended up playing smaller venues, and didn’t record a new album for over a decade.

When Dharma conversed with VG in August ’98, Heaven Forbid was set for release, and Dharma was proud of the results (he was the album’s producer). That album was followed by 2001’s Curse of the Hidden Mirror (both on CMC International), and the music contained in BOC’s first album of the new century sounds as vital as its efforts in the ’70s and ’80s.

“We did pretty well with critics and fans alike,” said Dharma of Heaven Forbid. “‘Harvest Moon’ was the most popular track on radio, and we’d play it live. In fact, we just played it last weekend.”

The cover concept of Heaven Forbid illustrated the band’s penchant for parlaying its public persona/stereotype. It’s a painting by Rob Prior that incorporates the illustration of a screaming female from the ad campaign for the original Psycho (1960) with a monstrous-looking male that appears to be missing half of his face (“We call him ‘the melting man'” Dharma said with a chuckle). Sharp-eyed fans looking for the band’s distinctive “inverted hook” logo will have found it reflected in his one good eyeball.

Other tracks on Heaven Forbid included the lead-off tune, “See You in Black” (which also garnered some airplay), a potentially controversial, but listenable, song that addresses spousal abuse, and “X-Ray Eyes,” a paean to the classic 1963 sci-fi movie, X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes (starring Ray Milland). The lyrics for that song, and numerous other modern-day Blue Oyster Cult tunes, were contributed by science fiction writer John Shirley, who wrote the screenplay for The Crow. According to Dharma, it’s not the first time a sci-fi scribe has collaborated with BOC members – legendary British writer Michael Moorcock worked with vocalist/guitarist Eric Bloom in earlier times.

“X-Ray Eyes” features some very potent acoustic riffs performed on “… a Washburn electric/acoustic that was recorded with both the piezo and a microphone,” said Dharma. He relied on his Steinberger electrics for the bulk of Heaven Forbid.

The band did over 100 dates in ’98 in support of that album, including performances in France, Germany, and Scandinavia.

2001’s Curse of the Hidden Mirror was foremost on Dharma’s mind, for good reason. If the two modern albums are the initial offerings of a so-called “second wind,” the second modern recording represents a fine “sophomore” effort.

“This album was done with (drummer) Bobby Rondinelli and (bassist) Danny Miranda,” was Dharma’s initial response when asked to differentiate between the ’98 and ’01 releases. “They’ve been the stable band personnel for the last five years or so. This was really Bobby’s first record, although he played on ‘Live for Me’ on the last one. It’s a good snapshot of who BOC is.”

Dharma used Steinbergers once again on Curse, but noted, “I played a lot of guitars on that record. I used my tobacco sunburst Les Paul Deluxe that I’ve had since the ’70s, a DeArmond Bluesbird, a Martin 000-1, which is one of my fave acoustics, and others.”

As for amps, the guitarist noted: “The record was tracked largely with a Pod through an audiophile tube amp and various speaker cabinets – everything from a 4×12 to a single 12″ with an open back. All of the leads were done with a Boogie Mark II, Groove Tube Amps, and a Fender Bassman. Another amp that was surprising was a Crate; we got a good sound out of it.”

Once again, a listener’s interest is hooked by the album’s lead-off track, “Dance on Stilts,” but intriguing sounds, tones, and riffs can be found throughout Curse. Guitar tremolo has seen a resurgence in modern recordings, and “Showtime” has such a sound; the effect was designed as part of the arrangement for that tune. When asked about the Duane Eddy-ish riff that sounds a lot like the James Bond movie theme in “The Old Gods Return,” Dharma laughed and said, “I just love playing those kinds of lines on heavy strings!”

The new album was the first Blue Oyster Cult effort to be completely digitally recorded, and Dharma waxed eloquent when discussing his producer role (Eric Bloom is credited as associate producer).

“After about 15 years of digital recorders, they’ve gotten to a point where their resolution is satisfactory, to me. So we used that technology all the way through. We offset the ‘clinical reality’ of digital with an all-tube console, and we used a lot of tube outboard gear, so there was plenty of old-school stuff in addition to the high-resolution digital hardware. I think you can pretty much get the sound you want to get nowadays. It used to sound harsher, flatter, and obnoxious.”

Some of the songs on Curse had their genesis years ago.

“‘Here Comes That Feeling’ was a song I’d written in the early ’80s; same thing for ‘Stone of Love.’ I had pretty much forgotten about them until I was looking through my tapes. ‘Showtime’ is a tune Eric had written about that time, or maybe a little later, that was set aside and forgotten.

“When we were looking for tunes for the new album, we pulled a lot of them out and said, ‘How about this one?’ And we were able to arrange them for today’s band. In the cases of the songs I sang, they followed fairly close to the arrangements I had in mind, but Blue Oyster Cult had never done them. The same for Eric’s song, but the last demo of that song was done with a mandolin and an acoustic guitar, so the arrangement on the record was quite a bit different. We did quite a bit of rehearsal for this record, so the tunes were all arranged by and for the current band.”

Another propensity for the band is to introduce new songs (even newly-arranged versions of demos from the vaults) in concert, prior to recording them. According to Buck, such a policy “…really helps us get immediate feedback as far as what’s flying and what’s not. We always get a good reaction, but we get to hone the performance of the song, and in doing that, you actually straighten out some kinks in the arrangement.”

The liner notes in Curse include an “In Memoriam” listing of three names: Ricky Browning was the young boy from Atlanta who was battling cancer using BOC’s “Godzilla” as a motivational song. Buck’s solo band played a benefit in Atlanta (and Ricky helped out on percussion), but the youngster crossed the way shortly after Dharma’s first interview in VG. “Mondo,” the second person noted, was a motorcyclist fan of BOC’s from the West Coast. The third name is racing legend Dale Earnhardt. While it may seem a paradox for a band from Long Island to be citing stock car racing, Buck averred. “We’re all into NASCAR, especially Eric. Dale was his friend, and (Earnhardt’s death) was fresh in our minds when those notes were written.”

While Heaven Forbid and Curse of the Hidden Mirror are both modern recordings, there’s no mistaking the classic Blue Oyster Cult songwriting and sound that permeate both albums. The band has stuck to its creative guns, and according to Buck Dharma, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We can’t chase trends,” he concurred. “I think we’d sound silly if we tried to do that. We know what we know, and we know what we like, and hopefully the same goes for our fans. We’re not pushing N’Sync off the charts, and wouldn’t try to.”

Asked about “classic rock” and the veteran bands that play it, the guitarist said, “I’m finally becoming comfortable with that term. For awhile, it seemed like it meant that you weren’t really a player in the current business. But it doesn’t bother me anymore, and I’m comfortable calling Blue Oyster Cult a ‘classic rock’ band.”

The new album has meant that the band, which tours extensively during the summer, added new songs to its repertoire, but the “big three,” “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” “Godzilla,” and “Burnin’ for You” are still the crowd pleasers. The band plays a lot of weekend festivals, citing Atlanta’s Midtown Music-Fest as an example of an event that “…was a great show for us.

“We play four songs from the new record,” he detailed. “Depending on how long we play at some of those shows, we play an hour; at others, maybe 110 minutes. We’re expected to play our hits, of course, and we try to represent the history of the band from the first record up to Curse.”

One recent controversy involved Buck’s band and other musicians. Following the events of September 11, news reports cited a major radio station conglomerate as having issued a suggested ban list (for lack of a better term) of songs that could possibly have been considered insensitive if heard by grieving family members of victims and others. “Burnin’ For You” was on the list, but curiously, other B.O.C. tunes such as “Cities on Flame” and “Don’t Fear the Reaper” weren’t.

“I was upset when I saw that list,” Dharma said. “I thought it was the most asinine thing I’d ever seen, and when it was denied by the Clear Channel (Communications) management, the thought occurred to me that it was a hoax. As a hoax, it was pretty funny.”

The legendary guitarist is proud of BOC’s modern albums, which are intended to sound like classic BOC material recorded with state-of-the-art gear.

“We meant to do that,” Dharma said, quoting Pee Wee Herman. “And I’m prideful about our modern recordings, because I think a lot of bands don’t make very good records. I think that’s the public’s perception, too. I’d like for people to know that we’re making great records that I think compare to anything we’ve ever done.”

Our final inquiry concerned a bizarre incident, timing-wise, that occurred during one of the weekend festivals BOC played in ’01. The local newspaper’s report noted that one of the more ironic occurrences of the event happened when BOC launched into “Don’t Fear the Reaper” at the stroke of midnight.

“Those things just happen,” Buck Dharma responded with a laugh. “Synchronicity!”

This article originally appeared in VG‘s April ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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