Thanks to comedian Will Ferrell, former Blue Öyster Cult drummer Albert Bouchard’s liberal use of cowbell on the band’s FM staple, “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” might be what goes down in the music history books as his defining rock and roll moment. But Blue Öyster Cult is much more than the butt of a joke or a couple of tunes in the classic rock canon, and Bouchard’s imagination stretches well beyond the percussive stroke of genius that propels one of their biggest hits.*
Hardcore BÖC enthusiasts have long been aware of a collection of scripts and poems written by collaborator/manager Sandy Pearlman over fifty years back, entitled The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos—a secret history of the two World Wars. Think of it like a battling good-and-evil story that merges historical facts and far-flung fiction with gothic imagery, horror, elements of fairytale, and Lovecraft-inspired sci-fi.
For those that don’t know, Pearlman wrote or co-wrote many BÖC songs and often served as a co-producer on their albums. Blue Öyster Cult had utilized fragments of Pearlman’s Imaginos storyline for songs scattered throughout their first four albums, but they lacked context, so those tracks carried an added layer of mystery that intrigued listeners looking to decipher meaning from the band’s music. The song “Blue Öyster Cult”—which could be considered their defining moment—appears on the Imaginos album, which finally surfaced in 1988.
But by the time of its release, Imaginos had gone through multiple unplanned revisions. Originally begun seven years prior in 1981, the recording and release of the ambitious concept album were fraught with complications.
In the first place, it was Bouchard who’d championed the idea of developing a rock opera around Pearlman’s storyline, but he’d been officially fired from BÖC in 1981. He then planned to release the project under his name, having inked a solo deal with CBS/Columbia. But by 1984 it was clear that the label was no longer interested. Given that they owned the existing recordings, Imaginos was then reconfigured—without Bouchard’s input—as a Blue Öyster Cult album, which eventually saw the light of day four years later. In the interim, BÖC had disbanded and reformed. By that time, Aldo Nova, Joe Satriani, and The Doors’ Robby Kreiger had all played on the album and Bouchard’s lead vocals had been completely removed.
Even after all the revisions, and despite a fair amount of critical accolades, Imaginos didn’t sell particularly well. But BÖC fans knew that it had been planned as a trilogy and, in the nearly thirty-five years since its release, they’ve continually clamored for the rest of the story to materialize.
Now Bouchard is seeing it all the way through. He recorded a mostly acoustic version of Imaginos, entitled Re-Imaginos, and released it in November 2020. Then, in October of 2021, Imaginos II: Bombs Over Germany was released, featuring Buck Dharma and Eric Bloom from BÖC. Bouchard has since begun writing the third installment—the working title is Imaginos III: Mutant Reformation—which he hopes to release in 2023. And on Saturday, January 15 at the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River, he will perform Imaginos for the first time, in its entirety, along with selections from Imaginos II and some BÖC favorites. Paul Bielatowicz, of Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy will open the show with an abridged version of his Nosferatu score. Purchase tickets HERE.
To say it’s been a journey doesn’t really capture the winding path that Bouchard has walked to get to this point. He recently spoke with us at length from his Manhattan apartment about the process of coming full circle with this creative labor of love.
Limelight Magazine: What about this story holds so much fascination for you?
Albert Bouchard: It’s just a classic story. Maybe it’s a bit like Homer’s The Odyssey. It focuses on this person who travels through space and time and certain things happen to him and other things he makes happen and… all that kind of stuff. The original Imaginos is his origin story. And then the second episode, this last one I just put together, is where all the bad stuff starts happening. It’s the dark Empire Strikes Back part of the story.
LM: Was Star Wars inspiring?
AB: I first started visualizing the story as a whole when I was watching Star Wars, so, yes, definitely. I was also reading a book by Joseph Campbell… something about the gods and how these various myths just seem to continue playing out and how, as stories and reflections of our own experiences, they just never get old. Rather, they just keep getting retold but dressed in slightly different clothing. When I talked to Sandy about it back then he said that’s exactly right, that Campbell truly understood the value of myths in our culture. So, at that point, we started thinking beyond just this song and that song and began looking at the larger picture and how to deliver this story, musically, as a bigger piece.
LM: Was expanding it into a trilogy something that you’d discussed with Sandy from the beginning, further elaborating on his original writings, or was that an idea that came later?
AB: From what I remember, that aspect of it didn’t come together until towards the end of the time I was with BÖC. But Sandy’s original writing was epic, so it was never a story that could be easily condensed.
I’ve always found with doing this stuff that you can’t hold anything that sacred. You might find a better twist of a word or phrase that improves a song, so it’s best not to get too attached to doing something a certain way. Because when you’re talking about songs, you’re talking about rhythm and melody at the same time as you’re talking about the actual words, and you have to balance all of that out. Sandy’s writing didn’t always loan itself well to song structures because he was wordy. Wordy songs can get tricky. Originally, “The Siege and Investiture of Baron von Frankenstein’s Castle at Weisseria” was very long with lots of additional parts. Some of it was very good, but some of it was… just embarrassing. So I kept working on it. I thought the first version I did was pretty good—had a lot of nice little guitar licks in there— but Sandy said he didn’t like it. So then I redid it, and this time it was really awful. But at least I’d gotten the words to better sync with the music. That made it clearer to Sandy said we should break it into two songs, so it became “Siege and Investiture…” and “The Girl That Love Made Blind,” so that rather than forcing it to work as a suite, one was more of a ballad and the other was a heavier, angrier piece. Just scarier. More menacing.
LM: Do you think Sandy Pearlman would be happy with what you’ve done with Re-Imaginos, Bombs Over Germany, and the third installation that you’re working on? Is this true to the form he thought the story would take?
AB: I think he’d be okay with it, yes. I remember somebody in the press saying, when the original Imaginos came out, “Sandy Perlman is doing all the interviews… who wants to interview the manager?,” not grasping his contribution to the band. But he was our fifth Beatle, you know? Especially in the beginning, he was there all the time. And always with ideas and suggestions for how to make things better. And, of course, this story was his original idea.
When I was working on the first record back in the early 80s, Sandy and I were very excited. We felt as if we were doing something that hadn’t been done in rock music. The music itself seemed almost indescribable, and we had the gut feeling that it was quite good. I had a lot of great players on it who could do just about anything I asked them. So it was very intoxicating. And at the time we thought, okay, so we’ll put this out, and if it hits, I have my solo contract, we can keep going. So, we began writing songs for part two right away, but there were schedules to work around. Blue Öyster Cult and Foghat were using the same studio, so I had to take time off recording the original tracks because I couldn’t get in there and everyone had other projects they were contributing to… we couldn’t just do it all at once. During those breaks, Sandy and I worked on writing for part two and conceptualizing part three, but no songs got written for the third part at that time.
LM: Would you credit Sandy with setting the sort of ominous, mysterious tone that runs through so much of BÖC’s output?
AB: Yes, I would. He didn’t like to fill in all the blanks. So there would always be plenty of space for you to imagine what we’re talking about. He loved that. He never wanted to be nailed down to any specific meaning on any specific thing. He just enjoyed having a sort of poetic attitude about what BÖC was doing, what each song meant, what each song might suggest. He was trying to create something different. I’ll say this—we were heavily influenced by the original Alice Cooper band. But not so much their theatricality, even though that was great, but more their musical style. Initially, it was very hard to pin down what they were. I think people kind of bemoan Alice Cooper’s show now because he’s kind of taken on that heavy metal mantle with the four guitar attack, but the original Alice Cooper would do some very unusual stuff. It was as if they felt like they could do anything and get away with it, and we admired that.
LM: So, What made this the right time to get this done?
AB: This has always been something I wanted to do, but in 1987, I began working in a public school. I would play on weekends or sometimes tour with a band during vacations, but I decided to put my time into that career. I’d planned to retire at 70 to get in a good ten years of rock and roll. I’m going to be 75 in a couple of months, so time is limited for me to do the things that I want to do. And this is one of the main things that I wanted to do. In 2015, Sandy had an accident and he was in a coma. The music writer Robert Duncan was checking in on him at the hospital and sending out email updates about his prognosis. I wrote back to Robert and said I want to go and see him because I had all these things I wanted to talk to him about, one of them being about finishing this trilogy idea. We had songs that we’d started to write and never finished. I wanted his input. Fans were saying I should do my own version, asking if it’ll ever get finished, and I would always say I’d have to have Sandy Pearlman help me because it was his idea. I couldn’t just go and do it without him. I wouldn’t even think of it, really, just out of respect for my friend. He eventually came out of the coma, I went to the hospital and told him that he had to get better because I wanted to complete the trilogy. And then, in the end, he didn’t make it. He never really regained his faculties. He was conscious and could hear what people were saying. He could communicate by moving his left index finger or that kind of thing, but he really couldn’t have a conversation. He could just acknowledge if he understood or not.
LM: It must have been challenging to deal with what happened to the original Imaginos album since this was your solo project with Sandy, and then it was released as a BÖC album that you’d lost creative control over. There are a lot of stories about various betrayals on the parts of both the band and the label. How did you feel at the time?
AB: Well, you know, emotions can cloud our perception of things. So when the record finally came out, I was very unhappy. I felt like the mixes weren’t good. What I’d heard when we cut the basic tracks was so much better, but it was six years since I’d cut those tracks and it’d been worked on, on and off, for those six years. Everything was on tape at that time, and every time you play the tape, it deteriorates a little. So there was that problem. They replaced my vocals, which I wasn’t thrilled about, but I have to admit that the vocals were largely an improvement. Donald Roeser’s—you know, Buck Dharma—versions of my vocals were excellent. Much better than I could do. For the most part. Eric Bloom did a great job… at least as good as I did, if not better. And Joseph Cerisano, thank God they used some of his stuff. I heard this rumor that Columbia didn’t like the vocals and that’s why they weren’t behind the record. But you’ve got to figure it was Al Teller and Donnie Lenner running the show at that point… anybody who knows what was going on at Columbia in those days knows those guys didn’t have a clue. Al Teller was an accountant and Donnie was his buddy. So, what does that tell you? Clive Davis was gone. Bruce Lundvall was gone. All the people with ears for music were all gone. And the people that’d signed me to the solo deal were all gone. All we had were these accountant guys, and they had no interest in music. Then they brought in Tommy Mottola to keep it from becoming a total disaster. At the time, I was extremely angry with the record company, that they wouldn’t put it out as my record, that they would only put it out as Blue Öyster Cult, you know, and Blue Öyster Cult… they did the best they could do under the circumstances.
LM: Have you been able to reconcile all that upset?
AB: For the most part, yes. What was even more mind-blowing was that the label led me to believe that, since my solo project had been folded into a Blue Öyster Cult project, I would be back in the band when they toured Greece in 1987, just before Imaginos came out. And then the band informed me that they had never agreed to that and that they’d hired other people for those gigs. They said they had no idea the label had made any such promises to me. I was really angry about that, too, but they didn’t know anything about the conversation I’d had, so I couldn’t blame them.
That was the same year I’d gotten the job at the school, but working in a school hadn’t changed me yet. Becoming a teacher is a very solitary kind of thing, in a way, because it’s just you and the kids in your classroom, and nobody’s going to help you. You have to just sort it out on your own. On the other hand, working in education, you’re always examining your practice. And you invite other teachers to give you feedback. The amount of meetings that get scheduled is extremely annoying, but over time, it changed me for the better. I became able to separate my ego and look at the process rather than the product. I think that has made me a better person—much more responsible and much more patient. As a teacher, you have to be extremely patient, and you have to be able to present things in more than one way. And believe it or not, this has helped me deal with what happened back then.
LM: There was some debt to the label, too, right?
AB: Yes. I was three-quarters of a million dollars in debt to Columbia, which is why the band thought by not letting me back in they were doing me a favor… I wouldn’t have gotten any royalties for years, you know? We’ve talked about it since then. BÖC basically absorbed my debt for the solo recordings. I guess you could say that ‘Reaper’ started paying for Imaginos. So how can I complain about that?
LM: When you think about performing this work, is it daunting? Who’s in the band you’ve assembled?
AB: Not daunting to me, no, I could go into a club tomorrow and play the whole thing! I’ve set up a group of six, including myself. I’m going to be playing mostly acoustic guitar… or maybe an electric guitar that sounds like an acoustic. It’s a hybrid of the two guitars that are the backbone of all the Imaginos songs. It was just a concept in my mind, but I explained it to my luthier and he said he could do it, so we’ll see. Supposedly, I’m getting it this week. But the main, lead guitar player is going to be Mike Fornatele, who I met at a party hosted by May Pang, John Lennon’s ex-girlfriend. She has three parties every year and he’s always there, so that’s how we originally met. Then I did a gig with him and my brother backing up Mark Lindsay from Paul Revere and the Raiders. My brother, Joe Bouchard, is playing keyboards, trumpet, and flute. Cyzon Griffin will be on drums, this amazingly talented 26-year-old guy that I met when he was busking in Central Park. He reminds me of Larnell Lewis from Snarky Puppy. David Hirschberg, who’s on all the new Imaginos material, will play bass. And then we have Dana McCoy, who played ukulele and keyboards and sang on some of these songs, and hopefully, she’ll be joining us. We’ve been rehearsing!
The Narrows Center is located at 16 Anawan Street in Fall River. Tickets are $38 advance and $43 day of show.
*Actually, the cowbell was producer David Lucas’s idea, but it was Bouchard who decided to use a timpani mallet to beat the bell, thus producing an unusual tone on the final track.