Blue Öyster Cult co-founder Albert Bouchard moved on to an inspiring second act as a teacher after his arena rock days. Now he has retooled his musical magnum opus with Re Imaginos
Interview and overview by Eric Sandberg
The history of Imaginos is lengthy and twisty, both as a narrative concept and a recording project. Lyrically, Imaginos was the brainchild of the late poet and manager/co-producer of Blue Öyster Cult, Sandy Pearlman. Listeners got their first inklings of the myth as early as the band's debut album with "Before The Kiss, A Redcap," which introduces the character of Susie, the arcane "Workshop Of The Telescopes" and the album's final track "Redeemed."
These lyrics came from a lyric folder sitting in the band's communal home which also included material from Richard Meltzer, Dave Roter, Helen Wheels and Patti Smith. More Pearlman lyrics surfaced on their follow up Tyranny And Mutation and by BÖC's third album Secret Treaties the as yet unnamed mythos took center stage with the songs "Astronomy," "ME 262" and even the Patti Smith penned lyric for their first single "Career Of Evil" which fit the narrative nicely.
The idea that these songs formed a larger tapestry was hinted at by a footnote, presumably from some massive historical tome, that appears on the album's inner sleeve.
"Rossignol's curious, albeit simply titled book, the Origins of a World War, spoke in terms of secret treaties, drawn up between the Ambassadors from Plutonia and Desdinova the foreign minister. These treaties founded a secret science from the stars. Astronomy, the career of evil."
Band members Albert Bouchard, his brother Joe, Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser and Eric Bloom all had a hand in setting these lyrics to some intense music. By their breakthrough fourth album only one Pearlman lyric made the cut with "E.T.I (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)" and this intriguing mythos went on the back burner in the quest for another hit to match the massive success of Dharma's "Don't Fear The Reaper."
BÖC L to R: Allen Lanier, Eric Bloom, Albert Bouchard, Joe Bouchard, Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser
After a few more albums with different producers, and varying degrees of success, the band was at a crossroads. Buck Dharma, who is not a prolific songwriter, but has a radio friendly voice and a knack for writing hooks, wanted to persevere in pursuit of the next big one, while Albert Bouchard, the band's most credited composer, wanted to return to Blue Öyster Cult's roots by reviving Pearlman's myth for which there were many more unused lyrics set to paper.
This and other disagreements, now long forgiven and forgotten, led to Albert Bouchard's exit from the band. With Pearlman's guidance and encouragement Bouchard began composing and recording Imaginos, the first of three correspondent albums meant to launch his solo career.
As Imaginos [featuring an array of talented musicians and singers including Aldo Nova, Jack Rigg, Joe Satriani, Robbie Krieger, Kenny Aaronson and many others] was just about complete, irony stepped in. Blue Öyster Cult owed Columbia Records one more album, but with Albert gone, followed one album later by Joe Bouchard and Allen Lanier, the band didn't have any songs. The outside writers employed for much of their prior album Club Ninja didn't have a feel for the band's mystique, which had now largely evaporated anyway. Pearlman, managing both Blue Öyster Cult and Albert Bouchard, saw a solution.
After all of the hard work put in by Albert along with his project director and co-arranger Tom Morrongiello, Pearlman convinced Albert to allow a truncated version of the album to become what, for a time, would be the final "Blue Öyster Cult" album.
To make it kosher, Eric Bloom and Buck Dharma's voices replaced the original singers on a few songs. All the founding members of Blue Öyster Cult are afforded front and center credit for the album but this information is dubious. The guitars are definitely not Buck Dharma and there are at least three other unfamiliar voices singing lead. Joe Bouchard says he played some keyboards on the project but doesn't believe any of his work appears on the final album, though Albert is sure he hears Joe singing backup on a couple of tracks.
It is by far the band's heaviest effort. Albert's familiar compositional style, and Pearlman's brooding, mysterious lyrics give the album a strong air of Cult-ness going some ways toward restoring the band's original mystique. The question remains — why did Albert agree to this? The answer is simple and a tale as old as the music business.
"Sandy lied to me!"
Albert tells me over Zoom from his Airstream trailer outside his home somewhere in New York State. "He told me that part of the deal was that I was back in the band." As Blue Öyster Cult prepared to embark on a European tour Albert called Buck Dharma to hash out some details only to discover that Buck had no idea about what Pearlman had promised Albert. For years after that Blue Öyster Cult was a sore subject. He moved on, forming The Brain Surgeons and largely ignoring his musical past.
"We only played our new material on stage and didn't play any Blue Öyster Cult stuff."
Albert also decided to return to college and finish the degree he had abandoned to become a professional musician. He worked as a teacher's aid at Reynold's West Side High School in Manhattan, a unique learning environment for students who have trouble fitting in at their previous schools. As he continued his own education, Albert became a full-fledged music teacher, eventually working his way up to Vice Principal.
"I got the Vice Principal job because I was the only person in the school everybody liked." Albert earned his Masters Degree and even filled in as acting Principal of the school for a time.
"I had just completed a $20,000 Principal licensing program when the new Principal informed me that she wanted to bring her friend over from another school, that had shut down, to be the Vice Principal. I was mad about spending the money on the principal's licence but I realized quickly that it was actually great to be the full time music teacher."
As a teacher, Albert inspired countless students while mostly funding the school's music program out of his own pocket. He retired from teaching in 2016. That same year he was honored at the White House as one of the "Great Educators" by the National Association of Music Educators.
"I got to meet President Obama at the White House and even performed on Fox News with some of my more talented students."
One of Albert's "more talented" students, guitarist RJ Ronquilo, has gone on to have quite the career — boasting 100,000 subscribers on his YouTube page and playing with Santana, Judith Hill [The Blossoms, 20 Feet From Stardom] and the band Chelsea Smiles with Danzig's Karl Rosqvist.
The teacher watches one of his students perform.
Albert led a dual life throughout this period, continuing to record and perform with The Brain Surgeons, The Bouchard Brothers, Blue Coupe [featuring Joe Bouchard, Alice Cooper's Dennis Dunaway and Albert on drums], and also writing and recording his first proper solo album, Incantations in 2014.
"It's a challenge being in a band with a big star," Albert says of Blue Coupe with only a slightly detectable amount of cheek. "Dennis is always in demand and running off on world tours with Alice, but we're just now signing a new record deal."
A year after retiring from teaching, Albert released his second solo album Surrealist, but something else had been brewing over the years. Albert's relationship with Buck Dharma ["Don"] and Eric Bloom, the two remaining founding members of Blue Öyster Cult, had tentatively begun to thaw.
"I started going to their shows whenever they played around New York. After a while I said to Don, 'I'm here, you guys leave a pass for me, the audience knows I'm here, maybe you should acknowledge that.' At first Don would tell me, 'we're not quite ready for that yet."
Relations continued to improve until the seemingly impossible happened in 2012. To celebrate Blue Öyster Cult's 40th anniversary, The band released a CD box set containing their entire Columbia catalog, remastered. The release was kicked off with a one off live concert reuniting all five original members on stage for the first time since since the Cultösaurus Erectus tour of 1980-81.
Sadly, ultra cool founding keyboardist/guitarist Alan Lanier, who was rarely seen without a cigarette dangling from his lower lip, passed away ten months later. At the urging of Albert, the band and invited friends staged a tribute show for Allen in 2016 where they performed all of the songs Lanier wrote for the band.
"I was the one who kept telling them that we had to do this before too much time had passed," Albert says.
The renewed relationship between Albert and his old band continued to blossom as, later that year, Blue Öyster Cult performed a 40th anniversary live television broadcast of their breakthrough album Agents of Fortune accompanied by a mini-tour that hit New York, Los Angeles, London and Dublin. Albert had written and sung a significant chunk of the album so he was invited to guest on vocals and guitar on his songs and, of course, he couldn't resist playing a mean cowbell on "Don't Fear The Reaper." Albert also participated in a taped interview along with Buck Dharma and Eric Bloom which can be seen on the subsequent Blu-ray release of the show.
Albert even makes a cameo appearance on the lead track from BÖC's first new studio album since 2001 The Symbol Remains [released last week]. Albert sings backing vocals, and can be seen hammering on a cowbell in the video for "That Was Me." All of this goodwill led Albert to start reconsidering the Imaginos material.
"I started pulling those songs out one by one and working up fresh arrangements for them. My approach has been to recapture the vibe of Love's Forever Changes, an album no one gets tired of hearing. The songs are anchored by me playing a Taylor 8-string baritone acoustic that my brother Jim [folk musician Jim Bouchard] introduced me to. The album's got piano, trumpet [played by Joe Bouchard with a tone worthy of Herb Alpert] and violin but also has a healthy dose of electric guitar on the solos."
The exceptionally tasty electric guitar work comes courtesy of old friends Ross "The Boss" Friedman [founding guitarist of the Dictators and Manowar], Jack Rigg and others.
The resulting album Re Imaginos is quieter than the original album but no less powerful than its predecessor. The baritone guitar gives the basic tracks plenty of heft and the arrangements are rich and satisfying. Albert Bouchard has crafted an album worthy of it's inspiration Forever Changes. He's never had a top 40 voice, but his singing was an integral part of many great Blue Öyster Cult songs and his voice has only deepened and taken on more character with age. Albert's confidence and expressiveness as a singer gets stronger as each song unfurls.
Albert alters the original running order of the album and adds three songs "The Girl That Love Made Blind," "Gil Blanco County," which dates back to BÖC precursor Stalk-Forrest Group's unreleased Elektra Records album, and the first video "Black Telescope," a percolating rework of "Workshop of the Telescopes" from the first BÖC album. All three of these new additions are highlights among an album of highlights. The gorgeous "The Girl That Love Made Blind" also doubles as a fresh new Christmas song you can listen to during the holidays in place of "Wonderful Christmastime."
Albert also put a lot of thought into his new version of the title track which he admits was the weakest song on the original Imaginos album. "I think this new version works much better." This writer agrees.
Artful DIY video for Black Telescope, lead track from Re Imaginos
So what is Imaginos all about? I really have no idea. The songs that have surfaced thus far allude to an epic saga that spans continents, eternity, the stars, the sea, dreams and the power of imagination. Lengthy speculative treatises have been written about Imaginos by fans with too much time on their hands but Albert summed it up for me with one sentence.
"There's this black mirror discovered by the Spaniards, whose power exerts an influence on world events throughout the centuries."
I for one don't need to understand the whole story. The combination of compelling music and evocative poetry serves to fuel my own imagination quite nicely. Albert explains that he would like to be able to complete the original proposed trilogy of albums.
"The title of part two is Bombs Over Germany and part three is The Mutant Reformation. "Redeemed" will be the final song of the trilogy. It really all depends on how well this first album does."
Albert guest performing on stage with Blue Öyster Cult. Photo by R.J. Carroll
As a side note, they say never meet your heroes, because they'll disappointment you. My interview with Albert Bouchard was the first I've done on Zoom where I was virtually face to face with one of my heroes. Albert Bouchard is the warmest, most honest, humble, intelligent, thoughtful and friendliest rock star I've ever spoken with. he gave me nearly three times the usual allotted time for an interview and even whipped out a badly out of tune guitar to show me how to play one of his solo songs that I was interested in learning. Even though I was probably a gushing fanboy at times he made me feel like an old friend. This quality is clearly part of what made him such an excellent teacher.
Re Imaginos is released November 6, 2020 see pre-order information below.
1) I Am the One You Warned Me Of
2) Del Rio's Song
3) In the Presence of Another World
4) The Siege and Investiture of Baron Von Frankenstein's Castle at Weisseria
5) The Girl That Love Made Blind
8) Gil Blanco County
9) Blue Öyster Cult
10) Black Telescope
11) Magna of Illusion
12) Les Invisibles
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