Albert Bouchard, Interview – ‘Re Imaginos’ and Blue Oyster Cult Memories

2020-10-27

Interview: Albert Bouchard talks about his upcoming "Re Imaginos" release, the state of rock music and that infamous cowbell in "(Don't Fear) The Reaper."

Albert Bouchard – Story by Anne Erickson, courtesy photo

Albert Bouchard joins Anne Erickson to talk about his upcoming “Re Imaginos” release, the state of rock music and that infamous cowbell in “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” in this in-depth interview

Albert Bouchard rose to rock ‘n’ roll stardom as a founding member of Blue Oyster Cult. His playing helped make so many Blue Oyster Cult songs the most successful of their era, including tracks off the band’s creative and powerful 1988 release, “Imaginos.”

Now, Bouchard is reimaging the songs on “Re Imaginos” with a new collection, out Nov. 6, via his brother Joe Bouchard’s new imprint label, RockHeart Records and Deko Entertainment (ADA/Warner Music Group). The album was originally intended to be a solo release for Bouchard, so it seems appropriate that he’s bringing his personal spin to the collection.

Bouchard sat down with Anne Erickson of Audio Ink Radio to talk about “Re Imaginos,” his memories from Blue Oyster Cult’s early days, the state of rock music and, of course, cowbell. Read the interview below, and watch the full chat via the YouTube player.

Anne Erickson: Hi, Albert, it’s great to see you today. How are you doing this upside down year?

Albert Bouchard: I’m doing okay. It’s nice to be on your show here, so I’m happy about that.

It’s great to have you on. It’s very exciting that you have a new release on the way, “Re Imaginos,” out on Nov. 6. Tell me about the concept behind this album and how you’re reimagining the 1988 Blue Öyster Cult release, “Imaginos.”

So, the concept for why I’m doing it– let’s start at the end and work backwards. How I got inspired to do this was really thinking about my friend, Sandy Pearlman, and kind of the last conversations that I had with him in the hospital before he passed and saying that I was going to make sure that people didn’t forget about this record and all of that. Then, getting a lot of email messages and Facebook and all this stuff, people saying, “Oh, you know, you should remix your original demos put it out, because there were songs that were left off.” I had actually asked the Blue Oyster Cult guys if I could go in and remix those songs that were left off and add it to the box set a few years ago, in 2016, and they said, “Oh no, we can’t find the tapes,” and all of this stuff.

So, I thought, one of the things about it was that the record had never been played live. That was a pet peeve with me, that they never went out and played the songs. I wasn’t in the group at the time. So, they didn’t even really know how to play the songs. I mean, they’re not that complicated, but, it would have required them learning it. So, I thought, well, I’m going to learn how to play these songs live with just me and a guitar– just the most basic way of doing it, and just bring it down to the basics. So, I was doing that and doing some live streaming on YouTube and Facebook, too…

My friend David (Hirschberg) and I tried that, and the thing is that the fan reaction was very intense. So, I was like, maybe we should just record them over again, like this, with just a guitar and a bass and a bunch of singing. So, we started doing that, and of course we got about maybe three or four songs done, and then there was a quarantine. So, so we couldn’t get together as a group. We actually had four people in the beginning. We had David, Justin Robinson on drums and Mookie Thomas on keyboards. So, there was bass, drums, guitar and keyboard. But, then they couldn’t come, because Mookie got bronchitis oddly right before the thing happened, so she couldn’t make it. Then Justin, his job got busy, so his time was very limited. Then, of course, there was a quarantine. So, I kind of carried on with what we’d done and brought those songs, more or less, to fruition. Then, when it finally eased up, I brought David back, and he sang all the background vocals and played all the bass parts. I had a rhythm guitar that he played on “Astronomy,” from the very first demo that we did of it, and I loved how he just hit that one chord just right.

I used his guitar on the intro to “Astronomy,” and I played all the other guitars. So, as I was doing it, I was saying to myself, well, I’m not really doing this to launch my solo career. I have a solo career. I’ve done a lot of different things. I’ve played on all kinds of records. I think somebody told me that I’ve played on 68 records so far in my life that have been released. So, starting in ’68 with Tom Paxton and doing his folk record. So, I don’t need to do that, but what I wanted to do was I wanted to pay tribute to the genius of Sandy Pearlman, because he really was the smartest guy I ever knew in my life, and he was a good friend. He would give me money if I needed money. If I needed to go somewhere and I didn’t have a car, he would let me take his car. He gave me clothing. He literally gave me the jacket off his back one winter. He took it off and gave it to me and said, “You know, you need this more than I do. I’ve got a million jackets at home.” Because he came from money. His parents were pretty wealthy, and he never seemed to ever have to worry about money. But, he took care of me. He was a great mentor and a great guy. So, this record is my tribute to him.

Is it true that the original “Imaginos” was going to be a solo record for you?

Yes, that’s correct. And it was weird, because it was a time when the record business all of a sudden started changing, and it’s still to this day kind of retained that aesthetic where… We were in the middle of making this concept record, you could say. It’s a concept album where it’s telling a story. All the stories relate to each other. They intertwine nicely. And, that’s what I’m thinking about– Genesis, “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,” or “Dark Side of the Moon,” or any of these great records that we loved. In the middle of it. We’re in the studio, and we’re recording, and the executives from Columbia Records– my friend Paul who came brought the head of the label at the time, and he gets out of the car, this guy, and he says, “I don’t want to hear anything but the single. What’s the single?” And I’m like, the single? Nobody told me we were supposed to have a single. What do you mean? So, it’s the same thing as it is right now. I got this deal with Deco Records, which is a distributed by , uh, Warner’s ADA, and my brother’s imprint label, Rockheart Records, and Deco said to me, “What’s the single?”

I don’t know the single! Every song is different. Every song is weird. There’s nothing that sounds like a single to me. Nothing is screaming single. I said, “Well, ‘Black Telescope’ is the shortest song.” That’s the only song that’s under four minutes. Actually, the only song under five minutes, too. I think. Well, I think “Gil Blanco County” is four minutes and 50 something seconds, but that’s a really a weird song. It’s totally not a single. You want something that kind of pumps people up a little bit. So, I thought “Black Telescope” might be good for that. The second single is totally not a single. It’s going to be…”Blue Oyster Cult,” which is the first song that was ever written in this song cycle, before “Workshop at the Telescopes,” which was the original “Black Telescope,” which was on Blue Oyster Cult’s first record. I changed the title to “Black Telescope,” because it’s just seemed like you kept singing “Black Telescope.” It seems much easier to say “Black Telescope.” It sounds interesting. What could it be? Is it sexually suggestive, or, you know? I think it was on purpose. It was perfectly suggestive, with the doctors and the wives. I thought, at the time, that Sandy had written it about– when we had the band house in Great Neck, New York, across the street was this big mansion. This doctor lived there with his very beautiful wife, so we would always speculate. Are they smooching? (Laughs) You know, are they, whatever. I think Sandy, that’s how the doctors and their wives got in there.

I believe Sandy was kind of making fun of us for being interested in this couple that lived across the street. But, it’s more about that whole “Imaginos” aesthetic of being able to see with your mind, and how much more accurate that could be then than what you actually see with your own eyes. And, really also talking about the properties of light, because the “Imaginos” story, the essence of the “Imaginos” story is that “Imaginos” was as a character that could be an alien from outer space, or it could be a regular human with just some special qualities. He imagined it could be– Desdinova is really a female name… it sounds funny to say that, yeah, he could be female, but anyway, it could be a man or a woman. It could be a fish. It could be a bird. It could be a bug. It could be a space alien. That’s part of the aesthetic. But, this being goes into the jungle of Mexico and discovers a mirror that’s been buried. Maybe there was an archeological dig, and they find this mirror. Of course, Imaginos takes the mirror, steals it and brings it back to England to present to his granddaughter for her birthday. Of course, the granddaughter loves the mirror, but then it turns out that the mirror starts causing chaos in people’s lives.

Now, this does not happen in this record. This is what happens in the next record. So, originally “Imaginos” was not only was this supposed to be my solo record, but it was supposed to be the first of three records. It was going to be three records, and “Imaginos” was going to be the first one. Then, the next one was going to be “Bombs Over Germany.” The third one was going to be the “Mutant Reformation.” So, the first one sort of sets the scene of these characters. Every song is like an, “I.” “I’m the one you warned me of.” “I’ve lived upon the edge of chance.” I guess the third song is more of a descriptive, third person talking about the character, but a lot of the songs are in the first person, and that’s on purpose. So, as he is expositing his character and you can expect from “Imaginos.” So, the next one is going to be where things go sideways…

Looking back on your time in Blue Oyster Cult, it was such a cool period in music history, and the rock world was so exciting. What really stands out to you about that period in rock history?

You know, I don’t think I really appreciated it at the time. I just thought, this is how it is. This is how Alice Cooper does it, and this is how Aerosmith does it, and this is how we all do it. It was a rock ‘n’ roll bubble. I mean, I guess, if you’re young, if you’re a K’pop band or you’re one of these, Greta Van Fleet, these young people that are making good music, they probably have the girls lining up, like they used to for us or Aerosmith. Oh, Lord, we played a gig once with Al Green. The hotel was just swarming with girls. It was crazy, crazy, crazy. He was already a big star then, and it was like a motel. There was no indoor hallway. Everything is the outside. So, it was like a pretty basic thing. But, it was a great time for music. It was a great time for selling records. Now, if you sold a million copies of a record, that would be phenomenal. I think somebody told me that you only need 750 records to chart, per week. So, I’m hoping that I can do that.

What are your thoughts on the state of rock ‘n’ roll today? Do you think it’s in a good place?

I think people are still making great music, and you do have your Billie Eilish, who’s made a great, great record in her bedroom, essentially. Occasionally, you’ll have somebody like that, but there’s so many people that do music like that, that never had that kind of success. And, I’m not exactly sure what it is she has that puts her above some of the other people that I know that do this kind of stuff. Maybe it’s because she has a little bit of a team with her brother, so she’s not really doing it all by herself. Or, maybe it’s the support of her family. I’m not sure. I don’t really know. I know that Taylor Swift definitely had supportive of family when she was getting started. So, she was not alone, either. I think that you do need a team. It helps. Most of my records that I put out since not being in Blue Oyster Cult have not had a record company. So, it just happened that when we were making “Eleven Even,” we were approached by this guy who I’ve known for many years since The Brain Surgeons, my band before Blue Coupe. He wanted to manage us. Dennis Dunaway was like, “Well, I’m still signed with Shep Gordon, I really can’t sign with another manager. I have a manager.” I said, “Well, why isn’t Shep getting us gigs?” (Laughs)

So, eventually what happened was Joe and I signed with Jeff Keller and The Artery Foundation, and he hooked us up with Deco Records, and they got us hooked up with the publicity and Chip and all of those people. So, all of a sudden, it’s like, this is the 15th interview I’ve done in a week. So, it’s kind of funny, because I say, well, they’ve got me scheduled for the next three or four weeks. So, I was like, I’m going to be saying the same thing over and over, but, you know, every single one has been different. Every single one.

And this is the best one.

Yes! (Laughs) This is the best, and this is definitely the most attractive host.

(Laughs) Okay, well, thank you! I’ll take it. I want to get your thoughts on Eddie van Halen and his passing.

It’s sad. I had heard that he had some medical issues. I never knew him. I never met him. We never toured with Van Halen. Well, that’s not right. We did. We played two shows in the South. I can’t remember. One was in Texas at the Astrodome. The other was I think somewhere down South, in Alabama or something. But, it was two huge, indoor shows, and the bill was a REO Speedwagon opened, Blue Oyster Cult followed, then Van Halen, and then Heart followed.

REO Speedwagon, Blue Oyster Cult, Van Halen and Heart would be an awesome bill.

It was a great show, even though REO was on the bill. (Laughs) We’ve known them a long time, so we’ve been playing with them for years. But, that was the first time I had ever seen them live. I saw them, subsequently, a few times, where I was just went to their show. But, that time when I saw them, I was like, “I want to get this guy, you know, Diamond Dave. I want him to sing on ‘Imaginos.’ He should be one of the singers. He should play one of the characters, maybe the Sea Captain or something.” I thought he would be great at that. But, you know, who knows. Maybe the next record I can get him to do it. Sandy Pearlman was like, “Him? You sing better than him!” (Laughs) I said, I know, but you know, I just like his whole thing. I always did. I like his whole persona and stage presence. It’s all great. It’s really great. I think he’s a great rock ‘n’ roll character.

So, as far as Eddie, I think it’s tragic that he’s passed. It’s nice that he has a son who’s carrying on his tradition and his band mates. I had thought that there was some bad blood between him and Michael Anthony, but it seems like that wasn’t really ever the case that. Anthony was playing with Sammy, and he was fine letting Wolfgang play the bass. I also thought it was very, very nice that Wolfgang got to play with his dad for a while. I think it was a great move that he took his son or his son took him out on the road- I think it was more like that, but, whatever. He was playing right up until the end, so God bless him. He had a good life, and he’ll be sorely missed.

I have to ask, did you ever think that the cowbell on “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” would become such a phenomenon in pop culture?

I didn’t even think that– I knew we had a hit with “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” but I didn’t even think that would be around for, what is it now, 1976 to the 2020s… 44 years later that it will still be relevant. That you’d still be hearing it in a brand new product, like a movie or a game or anything like that. So, the cowbell. When I heard about this, I was like, how could he even hear it? It’s so down there in the mix, and it doesn’t even sound like– it sounds like a wood block or something! How did he even know that it was a cowbell? I mean, this cowbell was– I remember when David Lucas, who was the actual producer who asked me to play the cowbell. I remember saying, “Cowbell, really? It’s going to mess everything up. It’s just going to be too distracting.” Here we’ve got this wonderful love song, you know, with the hypnotic guitar part and the smooth vocals, and not like a usual Blue Oyster Cult song.

And he’s like, “Well, make it a little more Blue Oyster Cult. We’ll put a cowbell in it!” So, I did it, and I said, “David, this is too much.” He said, “Oh, wrap some tape around it.” I said, “Okay.” So, I played it, and he goes, “Yeah, that’s it! That’s it!” I’m like, I don’t know. What do you think, Don? And Don is like, “It’s still kind of loud.” So, I said, “I’ll play it with a timpani mallet,” because I had one of my stick bags. So, I took that out, and I play it, and Dan goes, “That’s it! That’s it!” … So, that’s what it was! I couldn’t even imagine how he could know that that sound was a cowbell or even hear that sound, because when they’re mixing, I’m like– Shelly Yakus was the mixer. I’m like, “Shelly, can you turn it down a little bit?” He’s like, “It’s barely audible now.” I said, “Okay, that’s good!” (Laughs)

It was amazing. I mean, that just shows you the brilliance of Will Farrell. I had heard that they’d run that song in practice, that skit, rather, and it didn’t go over. They had an audience there, but they didn’t seem to respond to it. So, right before they did it, Will Farrell borrowed one of the girls’ blouses, and it didn’t fit him at all. And, that was it. That was it. It was like, all of a sudden, everybody couldn’t stop laughing.

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