Of cowbells, Öysters and metal: Joe Bouchard on life as an ‘American Rocker’
It’s not an elephant in the room. It’s a cowbell over the phone lines.
As in: Has any other band or entertainer in history been so better-or-worse associated with an otherwise bland object in the fashion of Blue Öyster Cult and a cowbell?
The reference, of course, dates to 2000 and the “More Cowbell” skit on “Saturday Night Live.” It starred Christopher Walken and Will Farrell in a bit that reimagined the recording session when Blue Öyster Cult was laying down tracks for their eternal hit “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” — and how a cowbell came to be part of the song.
Last week, Joe Bouchard, a co-founder of Blue Öyster Cult who played bass, sang and composed with the band for 11 studio albums before going solo, called to talk about his Joe Bouchard Band and their date Wednesday at The Kate in Old Saybrook.
Was it rude to not ask Bouchard about cowbells? It seemed lazy to not do so — but would it be even lazier TO bring it up? Would the mention of the cowbell skit cause the musician to roll his eyes or display obvious annoyance? Was there ANY aspect of a “cowbell” that Bouchard hasn’t been queried about?
Well, yes. But, for a moment, anyway, Bouchard wanted to discuss … eating. Turned out, he was in New Orleans as a featured guest at a convention for independent record store owners.
“Oh my God, the food down here!” Bouchard said. “We’ve been here three days and have already gone to a lot of the traditional great restaurants. Antoine’s. Arnaud’s. Beignets and coffee at Café du Monde, of course.
“Blue Öyster Cult played down here a lot. Nine times at the Warehouse. Lakefront Arena. The Superdome once on a bill with Van Halen, Boston and Heart.” He laughed. “Some guy named Sammy Hagar opened that show. But, back in the touring days, we didn’t have the time or money to eat like this.”
Speaking with Bouchard is like hanging out with a favorite uncle — one who is always in a good mood and who, it turns out, has incredible stories because, ah, he was in one of the greatest metal/hard rock bands ever. Plus, he’s local. Sort of. Though Bouchard grew up on Long Island — BÖC is famously associated with Stony Brook — he and his ex-wife decided to move to Connecticut since 1975; he’s since lived in Stamford, Weston, Kent and, since 2013, Killingworth -- a community he says he loves.
In his anecdotal way, Bouchard said he was thoroughly enjoying interaction with the indie record stores folks. “These are the guys would sell our records when they were teens because they worked in the little record shops and knew what was cool. They were intense Blue Öyster Cult fans before a lot of people knew who we were. We’d go from town to town and these fans would be there. They made it happen — and I don’t ever forget that.
“Now? They own the stores and a lot of them are here in New Orleans. It seems like we’ve taken 500 selfies, and I hope in some way it helps all the mom-and-pop record stores. They do it because they love it — and how great is that?”
Bouchard’s latest album, “American Rocker,” was released last year and thematically completes a trilogy of solo recordings that includes “Playin’ History” (2017) and “Strange Legends” (2020). The three offer a collection of songs that echo iconic BÖC songs Bouchard wrote or co-wrote — “Astronomy,” “Hot Rails to Hell,” “When the War Comes,” “Fallen Angel” and “Celestial the Queen” — and simultaneously showcase his always evolving melodic vision in ways that offer reflections on a lifetime’s experiences and wisdom.
“American Rocker” in particular seems to have an autumnal tone of fond reflection. There’s the anthemic “In the Golden Age” with its “you never forget how lucky you are” BÖC tour reminiscences. Or the enigmatic “Suzy,” a shadowy persona who made repeated appearances over the course of the Cult catalog and pops up in “Hey There Suzy Dear.” It’s not a coincidence that the lyric “Come Suzy dear let’s take a walk / Just out there upon the beach” is found in BÖC’s “Astronomy,” the powerfully haunting and dynamic closing tune on “Secret Treaties,” one of the best rock albums ever.
“American Rocker” also includes Bouchard’s excellent “Deadly Kisses,” with its yearning piano arpeggio and a story line that, once again, suggests the timeless presence of “Astronomy” in the musician’s head. If not a big radio hit, “Astronomy” is nonetheless legendary among fans and musicians.
In 1998, Metallica recorded a version of “Astronomy” on their “Garage Inc” album. Along with SNL’s cowbell skit, those were fortuitous happenings that renewed interest in BÖC for older fans and introduced them to new listeners, as well.
While Blue Öyster Cult still exists with mainstay vocalist/guitarists Eric Bloom and Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser — about whom Bouchard speaks fondly — it’s a shame younger folks can’t experience the classic lineup live (which also included the late Allen Lanier on keys and guitar and Bouchard’s brother Albert on drums). At the time, the band was legendary for crushing headliners until they became the main stars on a bill.
“That was an interesting time,” Bouchard remembered. “We sort of surveyed all the competition and made some observations. There were a lot of great bands making really great records, but often they just couldn’t pull off the material live. We worked really hard to sound like our albums, and I think that made a big difference in performance.”
Metal for the brainiacs among us
It’s also true that, in addition to “Reaper,” Blue Öyster Cult had several modest hits like “Burnin’ For You,” “Godzilla,” “Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll” and “The Revolution by Night (Take Me Away).” There are additional fan favorites such as “I Love the Night,’ “Shooting Shark,” “ME-262” and “Flaming Telepaths” – all of which typified a distinctively intellectual approach to song structure and arcane, conceptual lyrics, many of the latter being supplied by poets and rock critics like Patti Smith, Richard Meltzer, Sandy Pearlman and Helen Wheels.
Bouchard was asked if perhaps Blue Öyster Cult was too brainy for broader acceptance? They’re still, sadly, not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“Well, we prided ourselves on the intellectual aspect of it,” Bouchard said. “What we wrote and played wasn’t typical metal. It went beyond that in some complex directions. I think we were called ‘thinking man’s metal.”
But Bouchard suggested another reason why the band didn’t reach an even larger audience that might’ve paved the way into the Hall.
Bouchard laughed again and said, “I think we were too short. Seriously. We weren’t those tall, skinny rock stars. We’d play shows and just overwhelm people – the other bands AND the fans. Then we’d walk off stage and people would say, ‘Oh my God, those guys are short!’ And we were, but it was something we ultimately bonded over.”
Hopefully, height won’t be an issue at Wednesday’s Kate show. Bouchard has a top-tier band that includes guitarist Joan Levy Hepburn, drummer Mickey Curry and bassist Bobby MacDougall. Fans will hear a curated set list of solo Bouchard material and BÖC selections, as well, he said, as a few surprises.
As the conversation came to a close, out of nowhere, a question occurred to the journalist – a sort of reverse-engineering approach to a weary cowbell topic.
Bouchard was asked to think back to the first time he ever heard “Reaper,” which was written and sung by Roeser. Was it on the original demo tape?
“No! You’re right. There was no cowbell on Don’s demo!” Bouchard sounded triumphant. “In fact, there was almost no cowbell on the recorded version, period.”
One more track
He explained that they were pretty much finished recording the studio version of the song, which everyone in the band instinctively felt would be a hit. They were using 24-track equipment, and all except one of the tracks had been used.
“They fill up pretty quickly,” Bouchard said. “Each drum was mic’d separately and there are multiple vocal tracks and guitar parts, too.
“But there was the one unused track. Don said he wanted some percussion, something subtle in the background. We were all in the control room and I can still hear, in my head, producer David Lucas say to our drummer, ‘Albert, go play cowbell – just a straight four-on-the-floor beat.’
“I wasn’t sure, I was thinking, ‘I don’t know. This is perfect already. Let’s not screw this up.’ But Al went out there and nailed it in one take.
“And you know what? It worked.”
Who: Joe Bouchard Band
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, 300 Main St., Old Saybrook
How much: $38
For more information: thekate.org, (860) 510-0473
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