Friday, July 26, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: on track... Blue Öyster Cult every album every song, by Jacob Holm Lupo

[Note: written quickly and amply distracted, without adequate proofreading! Forgive me my imperfections, okay?]

I noticed the above book mentioned on the Blue Öyster Cult homepage, got excited, and eventually ordered it. It's going to take me awhile to really get around to reviewing it, below, but let me give you a hint where it's going: now that I have the book in front of me, and have read a few sections, I'm less excited by it than I was when I ordered it, and kinda bummed that this is the case.

Let me say, the desire to read it in the first place relates to the thought that I might someday write about the Blue Öyster Cult. This may not happen, because of several contingencies, from limited freetime to a sense of journalistic responsibility, which makes the project seem somewhat daunting. Part of the trouble is that the Blue Öyster Cult have already been written about a-plenty. For blogpieces like this, it is less of a big deal, but if I were going to actually talk to the band, I feel like I should at least read Martin Popoff's book about them (I have not, as yet, tho' am currently expecting it in my mailbox). I want to ask them questions that either a) they aren't sick of ("who is Susie?" Actually, I might ask that regardless) or b) the answers to which are not so widely known ("how was "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" recorded, for example, is one I would give a pass on asking, great as that song is, because there's plenty of information out there, even the original demo). It's all a lot of work, prepping for a "real" interview, y'know - even if there's a whole lot I don't really care to talk to the band about; what I'm interested in mostly is specific details about specific songs that I've wondered about since I was a kid, which just might be the sort of thing that they haven't been over-asked about, anyhow.

For example, take the Albert Bouchard composition "Monsters," maybe the hardest rocking, most entertaining track on Cultosaurus Erectus, with unexpectedly jazzy inserts and some of their hookiest-ever guitar riffs. As strong as the music is, for me, for this song, it's the lyrics that are the main draw: the story, as I read it, involves a group of bad guys and one bad girl who take off from earth in a rocketship. One of them, Joe, falls in love with the girl - but this doesn't play out so well, since the rest of the guys, maybe jealous of him, decide to "have her" - whether or not she consents is unclear, but there seems at least the possibility that this is a gang rape. As this is going on, Joe bursts into the room (having awoken "from a stupor," perhaps having been doped by his friends) and kills, not the other guys, but the girl, presumably because he blames her more than his friends.

There's a dozen things I'd like to know about this song. It relates to songs like "Transmaniacon MC," sung from the point of view of an imaginary evil biker gang, who represent the evil energies that emerged out of the Altamont concert, in that it is told from the point of view of the bad guys - and the very worst of the bad guys, the (presumed) rapists in the song. So where does the band's romanticization of criminals come from? Was there an actual story that this song was inspired by? Is it a rape, or an orgy, that Joe interrupts? Is there any non-coincidental aspect to the brother of the author of the song being also named Joe? If that makes the band the bad guys, who is - or was - Pasha? Is the band taking the point of view of the bad guys to criticize them - the song does describe the characters as "monsters," or at the very least as having monsters in their minds - but what about the band's apparent attraction to these characters?

It's all over "This Ain't the Summer of Love," too, which suggests a strong antipathy to the more naive or utopian elements of hippie culture, even if there's an interesting contradiction between that and the band's origins, with the Soft White Underbelly and the Stalk-Forrest Group, both of which are more heavily tinged to acid rock and psych-folk, with the latter even getting compared by some people to early Grateful Dead. Of course, that fits with the whole trajectory of what emerged from the 1960's culture, with music getting darker and heavier, but does the science fiction/ futuristic element of "Monsters" suggest that the band thinks that these things cannot ever be improved? Do they have a fairly dark vision of humanity's future - a world of overcrowding, pollution and starvation, with humanity, having learned nothing, only (like the characters in this song) setting off to new worlds to spread their evil further afield?

Now, that's all stuff I might ask Albert Bouchard, if I had his ear, except he's only one of the band's songwriters (and isn't even a regular member of the band anymore, to my understanding, though I gather he's continued to appear with them now and then over the years). So already we're talking about doing two, not one, interviews, which increases my workload and makes my deciding to make the time to do this less likely. And the questions I have for other members, like Buck Dharma, say, are equally involved. For example, in "The Last Days of May," I want to know exactly who the different characters are in the song. There's actually a helpful quote on Wikipedia that describes the story that inspired the song, about two of the songwriter's schoolmates, who were killed in a drug deal gone bad, with Buck taking the details from a newspaper account:
Three Stony Brook students went to Tuscon, Arizona, to buy some bulk marijuana for resale. I don’t know how they got whatever contact they had, but it was two brothers – scions from one of the better-to-do families in Tuscon. They never intended to sell them any pot. They just wanted to rip 'em off and shoot 'em, which they did. They took them out to the desert and shot them. It was three guys, and one managed to survive and get back to the highway... [taken, I believe, from this article]. 
There is some confusion among interpreters of this song out there (even I had things wrong about it, it seems). I've read people say that the song is about betrayal - that one of the three boys kills his friends and takes the money. Even without knowing Buck's explanation for the tune, above, people who read the song this way are failing to do the math. There are "three good buddies" going to make the deal. When the murder in the song takes place, it is "three boys' blood" that is spilled (no mention is made in describing the act that one of the boys apparently lived, which complicates things a little, but it doesn't take a math degree to sort this out). It is therefore someone else in the car who commits the crime. It makes sense there would be two guys in the front seat, as Buck's story confirms, since the killer has to "turn" to kill the three boys, presumably in the back seat. If one of the boys had been in the front seat, no turning would happen. So clearly, these people are connected to the drug deal, telling the boys they'll take them to the sellers but instead killing them and pocketing the drug money for themselves.

So who is the singer of the song, exactly? Is it one of the killers, or could it be the survivor, or could it be Buck himself, reading the story and having feelings about it, as he switches to a first person narration of someone who is about to leave town, inviting another to come along - since "they say the west is nice this time of year." There's some really evocative possibilities in these images, if you pay attention to them and let your mind go with it a bit. At one point, having learned in an English Lit class that "the west" - where the sun sets - is sometimes a symbol in literature of death - I wondered if the singer was inviting the listener to die with him [which I kind of take as being the subtle, creepy subtext of "(Don't Fear) the Reaper]," but that seems less than likely now; it seems more likely there's just a desire on the part of a criminal, either the killer of the boys or his accomplice, to leave town, maybe (like in "Pancho and Lefty" by Townes van Zandt) with the money he's gotten from his bad deed ("where he got the bread to go, there ain't nobody knows"). It would be interesting to note if Buck sees this as a metaphor for colonialism, for the settlement of the west - if he feels that, maybe, we could expand the narrative outwards a bit to connect it to how the west was "won" by hustlers and murderers and criminals fleeing justice, kind of Deadwood-like.

That reading depends on one particular version of the song, mind you, where the singer is the killer; I don't think it's possible to know that, since the last verse is so ambiguous, but that's part of the beauty of the song: by being a bit fuzzy on this detail, we are forced to contemplate all the possibilities. And so once again, we have to contemplate a pretty dark vision of humanity here, a song that could possibly be sung by a murderer, about a crime he profited from, but who is less filled with remorse or anguish over what he's done, so much as he is filled with a desire to get away, forget it, put it behind him, and have a nice life somewhere else. (I guess the guitar solos are kind of mournful, but maybe they're more about mourning that life goes on, regardless and indifferent, rather than that this crime has taken place...?).

Meanwhile, if the point of view is that of the survivor of the crime, the idea of suicide could emerge as a manifestation of survivor's guilt... "the others are already there" seems to take in the dead....

I could go on. There's five or ten other Blue Öyster Cult songs whose lyrics I'd love to try to go into such detail with with their authors, to find out where the inspirations come from, to clarify exactly who does what, in these stories, and why, and to see what sort of worldview emerges. It's consistently one, I suspect, where death and crime and horror lurk all the time, only semi-acknowledged, at the fringes of life, where people do awful things, but we're left to our own devices to imagine exactly WHAT these awful things were; where people may have a bad conscience about their actions, may even consider themselves "monsters," but carry on no less. All of that - the psychology and philosophy behind these stories - is in fact even more interesting than the whole Imaginos mythos that I explored a few posts back, though obviously there are points of intersection (like, obviously, the fact that this rather dark worldview isn't all that dissimilar from Lovecraft's - or, in terms of identifying with the bad guys, that "ME 262" identifies with a WWII Luftwaffe fighter pilot, flying as a mission over England to drop bombs. That song improbably is one of the most celebratory and boogie-ing of BÖC tunes, practically revelling in its tale in what should be understood as an act of carefree transgression. I can barely begin to fit in my head how the song works as a commentary on rock'n'roll itself; plus it is even more complicated by singer Eric Bloom being Jewish...)

Anyhow, with all these questions and not much likelihood that I'm going to write about the band outside a few pieces like this, I was excited to see, mentioned on the official Blue Öyster Cult page, that there was a book, on track... Blue Öyster Cult every album, every song, by Jacob Holm Lupo (the capitalization is a bit odd there but I'm following the cover of the book). Maybe Lupo would have done his homework and get into such questions for me? The book purports to be a blow-by-blow of the circumstances under which the recordings were made, what happens musically, and what the lyrics are about...

Now, I have not read the entire book, and I've enjoyed some of what I've read. The author gives an interesting introduction, gives information I did not know about the album's backstories, and peppers the book with quotes, often from rock magazines but sometimes from his own interviews, about the albums. There is stuff I still look forward to reading in the book, especially what I gather will be a fairly lengthy treatment of Imaginos; Holm-Lupo does know the Cult's backstory quite well, so realizes just how important Pearlman's Soft Doctrines are (which I myself didn't until fairly recently, I confess). Some of what I've already shown myself to be interested in may in fact be treated in passages I have not read. But - who can blame me? My pattern of reading so far has seen me flipping from song to song, in pursuits of the answers to the questions I have asked, rather than working from cover to cover.

... And that's why I can't really give the book the enthusiastic review I'd hoped to give. Understand: this isn't a review copy I was sent. I didn't sleaze my way into a copy, since I didn't know for sure what would come of it; I just bought the book, because it sounded interesting and a nice consolation prize for not interviewing the band. (It's also a fun way to whet my appetite for seeing them live again, come August 18th at Ambleside). I paid about $30 Cdn to get it mailed to me. I was not objective; I was invested, and thus really wanted to enjoy it.

This frees me to be honest and say, sadly, I don't think the book is going to be very useful to me. It does do, it seems, a good job of giving a backstory to the recording sessions; it also does a fine job describing the music. But lyrically - I've read the stories behind ten or so songs now, hoping that some of the sorts of interests I mention above would be addressed, and every single time I am disappointed. "Monsters" is maybe the worst cop-out yet: after a stellar description of the musicianship, Holm-Lupo writes of the story that "it's not exactly clear what the narrative is, but space travel is a definite element" (p.77).

As for "The Last Days of May," he only notes the idea that one person kills two others, without really delving into any of the theories above, and again apparently failing to do the math.

I mean, I could go on. I know nothing more about "ETI" or "ME 262" than I did before I read his sections on them, for example. "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" gets a bit into the romanticism of the song - the belief that love can transcend death, which is pleasant to contemplate, and backed by a quote from Buck - but doesn't touch on that creepy undercurrent at all, of who is singing this song to whom, and why? (I believe Stephen King has written about the possibility the song deals with a man seducing a woman into a suicide pact, which is always where I've gone with it; no mention of that concept occurs in the section on that song, though).

There is probably still a lot of good to be had from reading the book, if you're more interested in backstory and music than lyrics. Holm-Lupo (himself a musician, I gather, his own band being Norwegian prog act White Willow) excels at describing the composition, recording, structure and style of the songs, and does so at a  level I would find very difficult or impossible to approach. But that's just not what I bought the book for; I can hear the music myself, and am not as interested in having it described for me, even though I'm impressed at the facility which he does this. I'm just personally more interested in songs as acts of meaning-making, storytelling, and so forth - still have inside me the 13 year old kid who was reading Milton by day in high school and rock lyric sheets at home at night, who still has questions burning in him.

All of which means, I guess, that how much you'll value the book depends more on where you're coming at it from. If you want to read about Donald Roeser's guitar solos, there's some nice language here. There's also an extended consideration of albums either deemed failures (Club Ninja, Imaginos) and a welcome, respectful, and at times very enthusiastic treatment of the band's two previous studio albums, which badly need to be reissued and heard again, Heaven Forbid and Curse of the Hidden Mirror.  I think he undervalues a couple songs, but whatever. I do believe Holm-Lupo has been, as the blurb says, "Norway's no. 1 Blue Öyster Cult fan." I just would encourage him to maybe dig a bit deeper into his treatment of the lyrics in the future...?

Anyhow, it will keep me busy til the Popoff arrives, and I'm going to be glad to have not one but TWO books by this band on my shelf...

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