It is one of the most popular songs of all time about death, that most somber of topics. Yet it is now also a reminder of one of the funniest five minutes or so ever achieved on television. Such is the duality of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” Blue Oyster Cult’s riveting treatise on the potential of an afterlife.
At the time of its composition, Blue Oyster Cult had been treading the fine line between hard rock and prog rock for close to a decade, achieving a cult (no pun intended) following and rising album sales, even as the possibility of a hit single seemed like a long shot. That’s when Buck Dharma, the band’s founder and one of its chief songwriters, endured what turned out to be one of the most fortuitous health scares in rock history.
“I wrote it because I was feeling mortal,” Dharma (born Donald Roeser) tells American Songwriter. “I had just been diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia. It turned out to be not life-threatening at all, but it certainly got me thinking about it. I just thought about, is there life after death? Could lovers somehow reunite across the realm of living and dying? Is there something else out there, and can you come back?”
The track Dharma began to compose for BOC’s 1976 album Agents of Fortune turned out to be an epic suite of sorts built around the narrator’s reassurances to his beloved that death is not the end. “Seasons don’t fear the reaper,” Dharma sings. “Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain.” He doesn’t skimp on the hard facts: “40,000 men and women every day,” Dharma sings, which is actually a modest estimation of the actual amount of average worldwide daily deaths.
Mesmerizing instrumental passages break up the story, which is what Dharma had in mind from the start. “My original demo is essentially the song,” he says. “That’s one of the tracks on the extended version of Agents of Fortune; you can hear it. It’s longer and there’s stuff that was edited out of the original demo. But the band certainly brought their urgency and energy to the finished recording.” (BOC, at the time of Agents of Fortune, consisted of Dharma, Eric Bloom, Allen Lanier, Joe Bouchard and Albert Bouchard.)
In the final verse, Dharma managed to coax some uplift out of this dark tale, thanks to a suspenseful finish: “(And she had no fear) and she ran to him/(Then she started to fly) they looked backward and said goodbye/(She had become like they are) she had taken his hand.”
“I wrote it intentionally as a story, but I was kind of wishing that it was so at the same time,” Dharma says of the song’s message.
Blue Oyster Cult’s recording of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” proved too dynamic for radio to ignore, giving the band its first ever hit single (No. 12 on Billboard) and opening them up to a much larger audience. As the band’s popularity grew, the song’s status as a rock classic was solidified.
And then a funny thing — a very, very funny thing — happened on April 8, 2000, when the cast of Saturday Night Live unleashed the “More Cowbell” sketch on the world. It reimagined the recording of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” with Will Ferrell as a somewhat overzealous percussionist and Christopher Walken as the producer bizarrely egging him on.
“I didn’t know it was coming,” Dharma remembers. “I wasn’t watching it live, but I got phone calls when it was on like, ‘Turn this on now.’ And I saw the tail end of it. I managed it to see the whole thing when somebody taped it or something.” The sketch was almost immediately hailed as one of the best in the show’s history, propelling “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” to a rejuvenated spot in the zeitgeist.
To the band’s everlasting credit, they embraced the sketch right from the start. “I must have watched it 35 times already, and it’s still funny to me,” Dharma says. “In the case of Saturday Night Live, they sort of savaged some of the artists that they did sketches on. I thought they treated us pretty kind. We’ve long since made our peace with the humor of the cowbell sketch. I’m just glad it didn’t kill the original meaning of the song, which it didn’t. So it’s all good.”
It’s somehow fitting that this song about cheating death seems to have found eternal life, at least in relative terms to other hit songs that have long since been forgotten. And Dharma, for one, doesn’t mind at all that “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” keeps captivating new fans some 45 years on since it was written and recorded.
“I think when you write any song, you’re trying just as hard, whether it’s a hit or not,” Dharma muses modestly. “It would be great if I had five more of those. I’m just grateful to have one.”
Photo Credit Don Hunstein