Sunday, July 01, 2018

An open letter to Buck Dharma! (Plus a Stalk Forrest Group plug).

(NOTE: APPARENTLY THIS PIECE HAS PISSED SOME PEOPLE OFF! Look, I'm kinda glib in writing it, I admit. I was amusing myself, I was still a bit high from smokin' up the night before, and I felt playful and relaxed... and, um, I do kinda like the sound of my own voice a bit too much, maybe. I meant NO DISRESPECT. This is a band I utterly love. If you don't have a sense of humour, though, or are particularly thin-skinned, just skip it.)

Hey, Buck Dharma!

(In my mind, that should be read to the tune of "Hey, Bo Diddley..." Just a coincidence, though, right, that you have a B and a D in your stage name, with a one syllable first name and a two syllable second, just like Bo Diddley...? I smoked a little pot last night, since my wife is away, so forgive the odd thought...)

(...Actually, another thing I have always wondered about your name, maybe a little less weirdly - maybe because I'm a language teacher - is whether it is meant as a verb phrase. If "Dharma" is the "principle of cosmic order," as Google just told me - or "the virtuous way of living" as Wikipedia says, then to "Buck" Dharma would be sort of like calling yourself Dodge Virtue, or something like that, no?)

(...shit I just realized that the way I'm writing this so far with these weirdly parenthesized preambles is totally influenced by Richard Meltzer and YOU HAVE COLLABORATED WITH RICHARD MELTZER... wouldn't it be weird if Meltzer helped come up with your name?  Did he? How did you come to the handle "Buck Dharma," anyhow?)

Do you mind being called Buck Dharma? I could call you Donald Roeser if you prefer. I think - because I was listening to the BÖC when I was very young - that you were the first musician I encountered who had a stage name, or at least a stage name that I knew was a stage name, and it used to confuse the hell out of me, because both your names would appear on Blue Öyster Cult records, so I had no idea which you preferred. It's not like early DOA records identified Joey Shithead as "Joey 'Shithead' Keithley." But as far as I can see, it's always "Buck Dharma/ Donald Roeser," right there on the cover. I mean, I have no idea if the Stalk Forrest Group vinyl, sitting beside me as I type, is an accurate repro of what the Elektra cover was supposed to look like but even back then you're "Buck Dharma, AKA Donald Roeser." Why use both names? Why did you not just go by Buck Dharma? It suggests something a little "Multiple Personality Disorder," you know? You've signed records as "Buck Dharma," after all, but from the very start, there's this seeming lack of commitment to your stage name! (Or a weird need to assert your real name as well). 

By the way, DOES Buck Dharma have a different personality from Donald Roeser, the way Vincent Furnier has said Alice Cooper does? Is interviewing Donald Roeser a different thing from interviewing Buck Dharma? Does your family call you "Donald" or "Buck?" 

In any event, I have tons of questions, and not just about your name. There aren't many people out there in rock who I want to interview anymore. I have next to no rep and no meaningful income as a music journalist at the moment, am just doing this for fun (though there are still magazines that publish me, including a nice glossy one in Germany who would be a totally worthy home for an interview). It's just really a privilege to have talked to some of my favourite musicians, you know? When I'm 86, if I make it that far, I'll be looking at the guy in the bed next to me in the hospital and I'll blurt out, "I shook Lemmy Kilmister's hand" and he'll go "who?" and we'll be off to the races. From Gary Floyd to Eugene Chadbourne, from Peter Stampfel to Chris Desjardins, I've had the enormous privilege of meeting and interacting with dozens of the musicians whose art and music have sustained me through my life. There probably aren't that many interviews IN me anymore, but if I honestly ask myself, who do I still want to interview, there actually aren't many people left. In terms of musical heroes and living legends who I still could get really EXCITED about the prospect of talking to, people who I am going to feel NERVOUS getting on the phone with because "Ohmigod I'm going to talk to _____," there is only one person who really excites me as a possible subject for an interview. It's YOU, Buck, it's YOU! 

Or, I mean, "It's YOU, Mr. Roeser, it's you!"

No offense to Jesse Python, eh? (Much respect to him, it's just that I'm interested in particular in the songwriting element, and you've written such amazing songs... and decorated them with such batshit-crazy, entertaining-as-fuck guitar solos, to boot...). 

Some of the questions I have in mind, if you want a sneak preview...

1. The Blue Öyster Cult have been "On Tour Forever," but there hasn't been a new album in a really long time. I think all your fans and critics agree that the last one, Curse of the Hidden Mirror, saw the BÖC in a really great place, back in 2001, finding your voice after a streak of albums that were not so well-received and for which got you very little attention (some of which are actually really good, but I'll get to that later). I wonder why it has been so long to follow up that record? Are you writing songs all the while? Do you have a huge amount of material tucked away for the right time, the right opportunity? It's the 50th anniversary in a few years; it would be AMAZING to have a new Blue Öyster Cult album. I really, really, really, actually BELIEVE that the Blue Öyster Cult have a great record left in them - that you could easily do something vastly more entertaining, say, than the Black Sabbath "comeback" album of a couple years ago, which managed to be "not bad" for an hour and a half, but never seemed inspired or exciting - but I also suspect that you may have some obstacles, both inwardly and outwardly, to making it happen, at least in the way it SHOULD happen, after such a long time out of the studio...

2. I haven't seen you live since the Fire of Unknown Origin days and I don't really like watching live clips on Youtube, so I have no idea what seeing you in concert really looks like these days. It strikes me, though, that the only way, given the audience who likely comes to your shows, that you can do what you do - tour endlessly without a new record - would be to go through the "hits" of your catalogue, OVER and OVER and OVER again. I can't see you having a choice - it would be like if Steppenwolf tried to get by without "Born to Be Wild," in the absence of an album that anyone has heard since 1975 (actually Steppenwolf probably have it worse than you, but no matter). You can't not play "Don't Fear the Reaper," say, not without a legion of fans supporting a new album of fresh material that they actually know and love. And man do I wonder if that gets to be a chore. A local musician and I - Rodney DeCroo - talked about that phenomenon awhile ago, about there being two types of musicians out there, the ones who WANT to play the crowdpleasers and the ones who really, really get tired of their own songs and put certain ones away for years, but there's also a third type, the least enviable type of all, of musicians who, if they want to make a living, HAVE NO CHOICE but to play their hits, over and over again, whether they're bored of them or not (which must be kind of soul-crushing and inimical to keeping the creative spark alive, making your passion into your dayjob; it's one of the "inward obstacles" I wonder if you would have to surmount, in order to get the fire burning properly for a trip to the studio...).   

And just so you understand - if it isn't already clear - I'm that oddball in the audience who actually doesn't WANT you to play "Don't Fear the Reaper," unless you actually really enjoy doing it. If you ever come back to Vancouver, you'll know it's me in the audience if you hear shouts for "The Old Gods Return" and other songs next to no one else in the house even knows. I'm really happy to see that there are a few things like "The Vigil" on your setlists lately (and puzzled about the persistence of "Shooting Shark," which seems neither a song for weirdos like me, NOR a song for the mainstream fans, so I presume you play it because YOU like it; I'd like to know more about that, because it's a song of yours I never really understood). 

It's not that I don't LOVE your hits, of course. I have questions about "Don't Fear the Reaper" too (and whether "The Last Days of May" also involves a suicide pact, and if so, why you have written more than one song about suicide pacts; that's a weird theme to gravitate towards, isn't it?). Or, like, did you have to pay money up front to Toho Studios to do "Godzilla," or did they get litigious, or...? (Do you guys still tour with a mechanical Godzilla head? If not, what happened to it? It would be really fun to know where that ended up - if it's tucked safely in Eric's garage for safekeeping, for instance, to be dusted off for some future date, or maybe got sold to some insane Japanese fan, or...?). 

Personally, I would be more excited to see a Stalk Forrest Group concert, or hear a set completely comprised of NON-hits: a show only of Blue Öyster Cult songs that only rabid fans know! "Fuck you, we're not doing 'Godzilla' tonight, this one is called 'She's as Beautiful as a Foot!'" I just saw Robert Plant the other day and am super-glad he didn't go anywhere near "Stairway to Heaven," though he did do a few Zep songs... He seems to be in a pretty good place, re: keeping the spark alive, actually, has been putting out some fantastic albums, having shrugged off the shackles of his past. I would wish the same for you, in fact, presuming that was a) something you wanted and b) that you had a new album that actually put the band BACK IN THE SPOTLIGHT where it belongs....

3. And then there's the case of those albums that no one paid much attention to, that (sorry) "losing streak" that the band was on from 1983, when your last real "hits" were, until Curse of the Hidden Mirror in 2001 (also technically a loser, I guess, since no one paid it much mind among the masses, but a great and creative record, as those who have heard it know). I haven't heard Club Ninja in decades; I am only just discovering that Imaginos - which didn't work for me at all at the time - is actually pretty interesting, ambitious, and worthy of notice; and then there's the one that interests me most at present, Heaven Forbid... 

It took me a long time to get with that record, actually. I don't know if other people had the same bad reaction that I did, initially, to the attempt the band made, in "See You in Black," which kicks off the album, to sound like a contemporary metal act, but the one time I tried to listen to the album, I turned it off before I even finished that song so I could get my face out of the wince it went into; I never even made track two, that day, just knew I wasn't going to buy the record, and put it back on the shelf. I've come around, as I say - not just to the album, but to that song, too, which is JUST FINE - but at the time, I was positively embarrassed. Mark Prindle's record review site totally captures how I felt, though it was maybe even more complicated for me in that I was kind of anti-metal back then. It sounds, as Prindle says, like you're trying to show the world that you can "keep up with the young'uns," kinda like Alice did with Constrictor (which I also wanted nothing to do with). It smacks of desperation or maybe bad advice, like the label was insisting you try to sound "tough" and "contemporary," which is poison to those of us who are stuck in the worship of Secret Treaties, who thought the band was already way AHEAD of anyone else, back in 1973, and who don't WANT the band to "progress," leastways into cliche'd flavour-of-the-month tripe - which, like I say, is how I felt about the song THEN... 

It's a shame I HAD that reaction, back then, of course, because it turns out that Heaven Forbid has some really, really fine songcraft (like "Real World," which is amazing). I've completely gotten over my old objections to the album, and love even the more "metal" moments (like "Power Underneath Despair," a great little revenge anthem).  Your leads are still great, and it seems to me that you're emerging more and more as the center of the band, the lead vocalist and songwriter. I think I'd pick it as the under-appreciated underdog gem in your catalogue, actually. I can rationalize and understand WHY the band might have been unsure how to present itself, back in 1998, fifteen years after it had last had a hit, and in a very unusual place, commanding a certain respect but also finding itself in a landscape very much unlike the one it came up in. I wonder if the relative lack of attention the album received was hurtful, and if, say, you have pride or fondness for it now? (Or if you have another "underdog favourite" of the band's last few records...?). 

4. There's lots more I could ask. What's with the UFO fascination? What the fuck is "The Vigil" actually about? It seems to mix religious imagery with UFO imagery and I'd like to know where that comes from...? Where does the science fiction geekdom come from in the band? Are you still in touch with (or working with) John Shirley? With all these songs co-written with writers (Michael Moorcock, too, say), do you you have them write out lyrics and then put them to music, or do you write music and then ask them to come up with lyrical ideas, or...?  Meltzer has said some kinda unkind things publicly about the BÖC; did you ever bury the hatchet? I wonder if you have any Allen Lanier stories? I want to know about the Flat Out solo record, and about whether the band is actually into motorcycles and car racing and stuff like that? (Because it seems bikers are part of your fan base, which I assume informs why "Transmaniacon MC" remains on the set...).

More than any of all that, I still want to know what a horn swooped bungo pony is, or what it means to have ones "diz" busted, because... you know, I don't think I even want to say what that phrase makes me think of. (Especially if I have to commit to having my "diz" busted SEVEN TIMES by people who are screaming. It sounds very unpleasant!). Is the band actually INTERESTED in occultism? (I always wondered if there was a hidden injunction in the band's name to "Be Occult," eh?). If we do this for Germany - my editor is interested - I'd be really curious to know how performing "ME 262" feels over there, and if you've ever gotten flak for it (never mind Slayer, you guys were writing songs about Nazis in the 1970's!). I WOULD LOVE TO TALK TO YOU, BUCK (Mr. Roeser). And I really really hope you have a new Blue Öyster Cult record coming out sometime soon, that I could help with the promotion of. (Assuming I don't take 20 years to come around to loving it).

Much respect, Buck! Thanks for all the great music, for being SO creative and weird and for continuing to slug it out. COME BACK TO VANCOUVER sometime. I'll come to the show, and I'll fight Steve Newton for the right to interview you! 

(Or maybe we can BOTH interview you.. because the Newt understands, too!). 



PS: If any of my readers have Buck's ear or email address, direct this to him, okay?

PPS: Parties interested in the above should note that the Stalk Forrest Group LP - recorded by the BÖC core and then unreleased for decades, long before they became the BÖC - has been reissued on vinyl and can be ordered in at local stores (Audiopile might even be stocking it). It's wacky, weird, and great, eccentric sorta-psych-rock with a folk element on some tracks, and even WACKIER guitar leads from Buck Dharma than you get on BÖC albums. It is even MORE singular and untimely than the first few BÖC albums, standing wayyy out from it's zeitgeist, with very little in common with the cliche of psychedelic rock of the day (tho' it still kinda fits the category), NOR much in common with either heavy metal as it would come to be known NOR the eventual BÖC sound... It does have a prototype version of "I'm on the Lamb But I Ain't No Sheep," which would eventually mutate into "The Red and the Black," but it also contains a ton of songs ("What is Quicksand") that have no obvious relation to anything the band would become, or anything else in the world then, since, or ever. It's real fun, in short, and really worth a listen! 

PPPS: If there are any doubts I am serious in the above, note that I actually Googled the band name, cut an O with an umlaut and pasted it individually to each instance of the band's name in this article, then cleared formatting for it so that it was the same size and font as all the other "O's" in the article. I really need to get a keyboard that has an "umlaut" function. Or figure out how to make my computer add it without my doing this. Or retire from writing about rock music. Or something. 

Here's what the O looks like BEFORE I cleared the formatting: Ö.

PPPPS: Oh, jeez, it is worse than I thought. I looked up "Seven Screaming Diz-Busters" and found this quote from Eric Bloom: "I think Richard Meltzer and Sandy Pearlman came up with a term, that was sort of like an inside joke to them and used it in the lyric of that song. To them, the diz was the groove at the top of the penis."

To be honest, I was "around back" for this, but I want my diz busted even LESS now. 

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