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Buck Dharma sounds like the name of a chopper-riding, soap opera bad boy.
In real life, it describes a longtime guitarist and songwriter for Blue Öyster Cult.
Buck Dharma’s real name is Donald Brian Roeser. Donald Brian Roeser doesn’t sound like the name of a chopper-riding, soap opera bad boy — not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Dharma said the stage name was devised at a time when the band that would one day be called Blue Öyster Cult was known (not widely) as Soft White Underbelly.
Sandy Pearlman, the band’s Svengali, briefly thought it made sense for everyone in the band to come up with a pseudonym for himself.
Buck Dharma is the only one that stuck.
Dharma doesn’t recall the precise origin of the name. “I just liked the idea of being Buck Dharma,” he said in a phone interview with Whatzup. “I liked to use my real name, too, so the kids I went to high school with knew I was in a rock band.”
Unusual from the start
Blue Öyster Cult was unusual from the start. It didn’t have a lead singer for one thing. Four out of its five members took turns on lead vocals. Everybody wrote songs.
Pearlman wanted Blue Öyster Cult to be “America’s Black Sabbath,” but the songs the band was writing didn’t conform to that vision.
“We admired Black Sabbath,” Dharma said. “But I never thought we sounded like them.”
An early Dharma composition, “Then Came the Last Days of May,” sounds to this reporter’s ears like it was written by someone who admired The Grateful Dead.
“It was one of the first songs I wrote and you’re right about the Grateful Dead,” he said. “They were a big influence on me personally as well as the band, I think.”
The band’s first big hit came off its fourth studio album, Agents of Fortune. It was another Dharma composition called “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper.”
Dharma said “Reaper” was the first song he wrote with the help of a four-track recorder.
He knew the song was good, he just didn’t know how good.
“I was thinking it was FM radio good,” he said. “At the time, all the pop hits were on AM and the album cuts were on FM. That’s where I thought it was going to sit. So, I was surprised when it started to climb the pop charts.”
The hit changed the band’s fortunes, but there were new pressures that went along with the new perks.
“It got us into arenas. We got lasers and stuff,” he said laughing. “After ‘The Reaper’ was a hit, there was this pressure to make more. I don’t think we’ve ever really come to grips with it. We had a couple more singles (“Godzilla,” “Burnin’ For You”), but we always thought of ourselves as more of an underground album band.
“We were just writing for our own amusement and edification rather than trying to chase a pop market as so many people did and still do,” Dharma said.
We need more ‘Reaper’
“Reaper” enjoyed an improbable return to pop cultural prominence in the spring of 2000 when Saturday Night Live aired a skit, written by cast member Will Farrell, about the recording of the song.
As most people know, the skit concerns a fictional producer’s obsession with the cowbell.
When he heard about the sketch, Dharma said he worried that it would be a savage satirical attack on the band.
“They had just done a sketch about Neil Diamond that was brutal,” he said.
As it turned out, the skit’s tone and aims were significantly goofier.
The man who played the cowbell-obsessed producer, Christopher Walken, told Farrell that the popularity of the skit ruined his life, according to a recent interview with the latter.
Asked if it ruined his life as well, Dharma replied, “Whether it is annoying or not annoying for us to have to deal with, it’s way worse for Chris.”
Dharma said he can think of three or four popular songs where the cowbell is featured more prominently than it is in “Reaper.”
“But that’s the idea, right?” he said. “Maybe ‘The Reaper’ needed more cowbell.”
It’s remarkable, Dharam said, that the sketch is as funny today as it was almost 20 years ago.
New Album coming soon
The music business has changed quite a bit since Blue Öyster Cult got involved in it. Yet, at a time when it makes little financial sense for a classic rock band to release an album of new material, Blue Öyster Cult is preparing to do just that.
Dharma said the current incarnation of the band had never been recorded, so it was time to rectify that situation.
“We’re excited about it,” he said. “It’s gonna be good. My worry was that it was going to be judged against the legacy stuff. You don’t want to make a crappy record. So, we were pretty focused on that: trying to make sure it fits in with the continuum of the rest of our work.”
Many artists of Dharma’s vintage and prestige react negatively when journalists ask them about retirement.
But Dharma said the end of the band is in sight.
“I think the heavy touring days are already over,” he said. “We have worked about 70 shows a year. That’s probably going to be cut back in the future. The light’s on at the end of the tunnel. We’ve done this for a long time. And the thing is, I still love to play and sing. As long as I can do it, I’m gonna want to do it.
“But, I mean, we don’t really have to work,” Dharma said. “We do it because we like it. We like it when people clap.”