Imaginos, Sandy Pearlman, Blue Oyster Cult, and Me
Blue Oyster Cult — Imaginos — Columbia Records, FC 40618, 1988
[Once again this is a post written for the minds.com Vinyl Collector group that got big and needed its own space. And again, I’ll post the text here and the link there — ed.]
Imaginos is one of my favorite records, imperfect though it undoubtedly is. It is a last-ditch relic, a hint of what might have been, the surviving remnant of a “lost masterpiece” whose full grandeur must be built in the mind from extant decoded remnants, like ruins of a Mithraic temple or a Sumerian god half-crumbled to dust. In a perfect world we’d have the complete edifice to gape at. Instead all we have is this make-shift, much-compromised, fallen capstone, a capstone that its creator, doing the best he could, set atop his own unstable architecture, and that now sits awkwardly in the sand where it fell. Which is grand enough.
I have a kinda wild and crazy minor personal connection to this record and its aforementioned creator (another “what might have been” tale, in a way) that I’ll note below, if you’ll bear with me to the end. First, though, the story of the album, which is pretty good as “rock procedurals” go, and a big part of what makes the record so interesting.
Blue Oyster Cult is credited as the Imaginos artist, and it is technically the eleventh BOC studio album, but it’s actually quite a bit more complicated than that. The convoluted, troubled, and confusing history and character of this release defy easy summary or explication.
In concept, the roots of the project can be followed back at least as far as the early 1970s, when BOC drummer Albert Bouchard and producer/manager/poet/auteur Sandy Pearlman began to collaborate on songs based directly on the text of Pearlman’s legendary, elusive, confounding (and never published) work, *The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos.
Often described as a collection of “poems, notes, and scripts”, this apparently voluminous material has been mined for lyrics and concepts for songs on BOC albums from the beginning. These elements appear, amongst the contributions of band members and other writers such as fellow Stony Brook University weirdo Richard Meltzer and rock and roll poet Patti Smith, as scattered, cryptic clues to an intriguing hidden underlying mythos. Even on the later albums, in which the Pearlman writing credits become sparse and then more or less disappear, they cast a shadow, having shaped the band’s distinctive aesthetic from the beginning and arguably exerting a continuing sway, much as the band members may have wished, as apparently they increasingly did, to shake it off.
I get the impression that these bits found their way into the recorded oeuvre rather haphazardly with not much of a cohesive overall plan. But it is largely through them that Blue Oyster Cult derives its unique, and to me quite compelling, qualities of mystery, complexity, and strangeness, as well as an intellectual and literary heft (or the impression thereof) quite uncommon in the rock bands of that, or any, era. (Indeed, zooming out, I sometimes have the feeling that Blue Oyster Cult is in essence a gigantic art project, of which the rock and roll band is merely an important constituent part, the other elements hovering as yet unrevealed, being readied for some future exhibition. Or: it’s just a plain old rock band frosted with occasional too-clever-by-half overblown adolescent esoterica, any significance of which is incidental and largely projected on the material by wishful thinking fans with too much time on their hands. The cynic and the idealist battle within me here, as in many situations.)
Part of the magic is, it seems to me, bound up in the scattered, cryptic quality of these fragments. You sense the greater story is there, somewhere, but you only catch glimpses of it. It is left to the listener to harvest the clues and speculate on how they might fit into the puzzle, which is destined to remain mostly dark and incomplete.
Yet, the initial Imaginos songwriting project begun with A. Bouchard appears to have been intended as a direct, comprehensive, linear dramatization, in concept album or rock opera form, of the overarching tale, which is a kind of paranoid Gothic Lovecraftian historical alien conspiracy saga. Possibly this was Pearlman’s frustrated-because-impractical plan all along.
In any case, the plan was indeed grand: a trilogy of double albums, telling a tale stretching from the mists of time and space through the ancient world and the colonization of the Americas and on to the 19th Century, and culminating in the commencement of World War I. It was a massive, slow-developing project, but, according to wikipedia anyway, all the songs were completed by 1977, and some were even demo’d during the Spectres sessions. The band was, however, by this time seeking to distance itself from Pearlman, and A. Bouchard was the only band member advocate of the project, which never got off the ground before Bouchard was fired from the group in 1981.
Nevertheless, recording for the Imaginos project, now framed as a Bouchard solo album — and still to be a trilogy of double LPs, hard as it is to believe that Columbia Records agreed to fund such a thing — began in 1982, in the same studio complex where Blue Oyster Cult was recording the Revolution by Night album with new drummer Rick Downey and producer Bruce Fairbairn. Which must have been awkward. While members of BOC contributed incidental bits as guests, the actual band doing the basic tracks was all different people apart from A. Bouchard (playing guitar instead of drums), and much of the recording seems to have been a piecemeal concoction of parts from a vast array of contributors, with Sandy Pearlman directing, a Cecil B. DeMille to his cast of thousands, or at least dozens. No one knows just how many. A great number of them are reputedly uncredited and will be forever unknown; and subsequent re-recording and replacement of tracks means that even the credited contributions may not be present in the extant version. The resulting recording, comprising ninety minutes of music over thirteen tracks (the first of the three “acts”) was, of course, rejected and shelved by Columbia, in 1984.
A couple of years later, in 1986, Pearlman successfully re-pitched the project to the label as a “new” Blue Oyster Cult album, though the group was in fact broken up at the time, and was given a budget to remix and add remedial overdubs and lead vocals (replacing those of Bouchard) from BOC members Eric Bloom and Buck Dharma. (He added a whole lot more in fact, including guitar by Joe Satriani and Blind Illusion’s Marc Biedermann, as well as tracks from an array of session players; though, oddly enough, demo audition tracks by a couple of different singers hired back in 1982 to appease record company objections to Bouchard’s vocals were reportedly kept in some of the mixes — it is often hard to tell who’s who in the extant dense mix, so who knows?) Buck and Bloom are said to have agreed without enthusiasm to contribute their parts as a last favor to an old comrade, a sort of salute before the final disaffiliation and ride into the sunset. This was all done at Hyde Street in San Francisco, Studio C.
The credits on the jacket of the record that came out in 1988 rather misleadingly listed the five original BOC members as the personnel, with additional, though nowhere near complete, musician credits on the inner sleeve. Albert Bouchard’s credit reads “guitar, percussion, vocals,” dissembling on the matter of who played the drums, and indeed on the matter of whether he was actually in or out of the band’s line-up. He is also credited as “associate producer.”
Needless to say, the 1988 released record is only distantly related to the 1984 recording, and is even more distant from the original conception. Apart from the ‘86-’88 revamps, deletions, and additions, record company meddling in even this compromised iteration severely truncated the program, and put what remained out of order. Perhaps ironically, then, the scattered, frustrating, out-of-focus quality of the mythos I have appreciated above persists even here. The putative elucidation simply adds a further level of confusion; the dense block of liner notes (promisingly titled “The Background”) reveals more in one clump than ever before but doesn’t clear up a whole lot. You’re still looking at, and listening to, a mystery. Maybe that’s fitting. It’s certainly part of why I like it so much. I always prefer a mythos that cannot be contained.
Shortly after release, Bouchard, who had been excluded from the project post-’84, sued Pearlman and BOC. The record flopped. The label sued the band to recover the budgets for the various recordings, re-recordings, and mixes. Columbia/CBS, now acquired by SONY, summarily dropped Blue Oyster Cult, which was to record no new material for a decade. Imaginos killed the beast. A rather apocalyptic finale, you might say.
Sandy Pearlman involved himself in various academic, recording, and music business enterprises, but nothing further of the *Soft Doctrines of Imaginos was destined to be released or revealed.
Do I wish it had been recorded ca. 1974, in the BOC/Pearlman golden age (of leather) and released as a massive Blue Oyster Cult six LP set with an accompanying deluxe, goatskin-bound gilt-edged talismanic book containing the “poems, notes, and scripts,” with an explanatory introduction by the author? Of course I do. But, in this reality, Imaginos, the much-redacted 1988 recension, is all we’ve got. And I’m glad we have it. It is the “heaviest” of the records in the corpus; it is mysterious, atmospheric, moody, otherworldly, sounding sort of like a BOC record, but somewhat unfamiliar and alien at the same time. It sounds like it comes from a different place, literally and metaphorically, almost as though it were a corrupted, fragmentary, warped transmission from an alternate reality in which the line of history happened to draw itself such that that 1974 great work had in fact come to pass. Those who say it’s a bit of a mess are not wrong. It is not without flaws. It’s got those ’80s “big drums” I tend to hate, and parts of it certainly have an off-kilter awkward quality. But it remains amazing music that continually impacts and surprises, despite its troubled history and compromised final form. I just listened to it five times back to back today.
So: I have mentioned that the Imaginos remixing and overdubs were done at Hyde Street, Studio C, 1986 through 1988. Just by happenstance, my dumb little band was recording our second dumb little album in Hyde Street Studio D, ca. 1987, when I was just a baby. At the time I was largely uninformed about and unappreciative of the “real” Blue Oyster Cult, that is the BOC beyond the hits, the true genius BOC that I recognize and venerate now. But, good little punk rocker that I was, I knew of Sandy Pearlman as the guy who produced the best sounding (and my favorite) Clash album. In fact, when I was in high school, a couple of buddies and I, having heard that guitars for what was to be the second Clash album were being recorded in San Francisco, made a bumbling pilgrimage to the Automatt to see if we could manage to… I don’t know, bump into Mick Jones and say “yay punk rock” or something. I’m sure he’d have really enjoyed that. What happened was, we stood around awkwardly for awhile on the street, no Mick Jones or Sandy Pearlman in sight, then went sheepishly back home.
Had I encountered Sandy Pearlman on that day, I might have recognized by sight the weird old guy who, nine years later, in the wee hours of a Hyde Street morning when I was just kind of wandering around the place, beckoned me into a side room to have a little chat. He was really friendly, asked what I was up to, said “crazy” when I told him my band’s name.
We were mixing at that time and I was in a kind of crazed, zombified condition. As always, we had bitten off more than we could chew, we were running out of time and the whole thing seemed hopeless… anyway, the subject of mixing and running out of time and biting off more than you can chew, and of hopelessness, came up. He told me about the song he was working on. “I’ve been working on this mix for five years,” he said, which blew my mind. He pushed play and the creaky two inch tape machine lurched into motion. It was, I realize now, a track from what was to be released as Imaginos, had to be. I remember it sounding utterly insane to me. I wish to God I could identify which song but I had no context, no foundation for the memory of the sounds to cling to and it slipped away. Later, after the album had been released, I noted, to self, that I’d met the guy while he was mixing “the one with the Cliff House cover” and how about that, but I never bothered to listen to the record. I had my mind on other things.
It was much later that I developed my belated love for Blue Oyster Cult, and worked my way, bit by bit, through the rock and roll, its weird art, and its elusive mysteries, finally arriving at Imaginos, stunned to reflect that I had in fact witnessed something of the construction, just a small corner, of the mythos’s flawed capstone. Given the history I now know, it’s still astonishing and feels vastly significant, like having inadvertently walked through the Lincoln-Douglas debates, or buying a cup of coffee for a rumpled bum only to learn later: “…and the name of that man was… Vincent van Gogh…” If only my BOC awakening had occurred a few years earlier. I’d have had soooo many questions to ask him! Instead of just nodding awkwardly and not knowing what to say, unwitting in the presence of greatness. Well, I was a different Dr Frank then. (Though the nodding awkwardly and not knowing what to say remain consistent.)
Sandy Pearlman died in 2016. He was a great artist, obscure and veiled though much of the art may be. The compleat *Soft Doctrines of Imaginos (a Bedtime Story for the Children of the Damned) will, most likely, never be revealed. I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around it for years. I have to say that Imaginos scholarship has improved greatly since the last time I looked into it: the wikipedia Imaginos page features a lot more detail about the mythos and story than I thought it possible to glean and is worth checking out if you’re interested. It kind of makes my head hurt, to be honest, and I’m not sure it helps. There is a rather thin-sounding file on the internet called “The Albert Bouchard Imaginos demo tape”, apparently some version of the thirteen track 1984 recording with Bouchard’s original vocals intact. Again, it’s interesting but I’m not sure it helps. We’ll never get to the bottom of it, never.