Friday, June 5, 2015

Hippies vs. Punks: Blue Öyster Cult's Agents of Fortune (1976)

If my week hadn't been derailed by an illness that I picked up, I suspect, when I went to a new barber Tuesday evening after work my intention was to devote the weekly Friday morning Hippies vs. Punks post to  Blue Öyster Cult's Agents of Fortune, the band's breakthrough platinum album released in May of 1976 that featured the Billboard 100 smash hit "(Don't Fear) The Reaper," written and sung by the BÖC lead guitarist Buck Dharma.

Wednesday on my way into work I started feeling lousy. Then, after about 90 minutes at the office, I had to throw in the towel. It felt like I had the flu coming on. But the hard part was just beginning -- getting home on the bus and the train. Both were packed with riders. I was alternating between chills and fever. I thought I was going to pass out. The thought crossed my mind just to slump in my seat in a comatose state and have the transit security deal with me. That is how awful I felt. But I made it home by noon. I promptly crawled into bed like a wounded animal into a burrow. I stayed there until eight o'clock the next morning. My entire body ached, including my head; plus, my heart rate was off. I wondered if I was going into some sort of toxic shock.

The only thing that I could conclude was that I caught a bug when I went to a new barber, a young Vietnamese guy. He did an excellent job buzzing my head with electric shears. But I bet there was some sort of virus lingering on the cutting cape that he draped over me. And just to confirm that I am not being hysterical a friend emailed me the following yesterday:
[S]omething must be going around. A friend ended up in ER on Tues. morning with really weird symptoms and the only thing the Dr. could tell her was there were 5 people in the ER that very morning with the same symptoms and they think it is some kind of a new virus. [My daughter] has been fighting what she feels is the flu, fever, chills, body aches etc. since last Saturday.....we have had the girls off and on this week so she can rest.
Which got me thinking about germ warfare and the MERS outbreak in South Korea. I know my physical tolerances well. I recently completed four races in five weeks. The last, the Bay to Breakers, I pushed myself to the limit. Not that I ran these runs at a blistering pace, but I did show up and do my best. So I know what I am dealing with, what strength levels I can tap; that, and having been vegan since last year, I know my system is clean. All I can say is that it felt like I had been poisoned, that someone poisoned me, and that there was something alien that had been introduced into my system.

This doesn't mean that the virus I picked up wasn't naturally occurring. But I thought about the story that was revisited post-9/11 of how the U.S. Army dispersed bacteria in cities like San Francsico and New York in order to simulate germ warfare on the general populous. Then there was a quote I read a long time ago from a Fred Hoyle interview in Scientific American where he said HIV was too tricky to be natural and was likely man-made. Why couldn't MERS have a human fingerprint?

In any event, I have been meaning to devote some attention to Blue Öyster Cult since seeing the documentary One Track Heart (2013) about Yoga rock star Krishna Das. The film creates the impression that Jeffrey Kagel, a.k.a., Krishna Das, before traveling to India in 1970 and studying with Neem Karoli Baba, was to be the next lead vocalist for the band that would become Blue Öyster Cult. Presumably, this would be after lead vocalist Les Braunstein, of BÖC precursor Soft White Underbelly, quit while the group was recording material in the studio for a debut record on the Elektra label. In actuality, Kagel claims in print to have been lead singer prior to the band even being called Soft White Underbelly.

I cannot find anything about Kagel mentioned in the "History" section of BÖC's authoritative web site. Also, it makes no sense that Kagel would be approached prior to his life-altering trip to India about being the band's lead vocalist because Eric Bloom had already assumed that role. Maybe the timelines are a little mixed up. Maybe in a panic after Braunstein quit in early 1969, someone in the band called Kagel inquiring as to his availability; and this became, for dramatic purposes, "the night before I was to leave for India." Or maybe Kagel is engaging in the kind of demented auto-hagiography Moby was found guilty of in American Hardcore (2006) when he claims to have fronted Flipper briefly.

The connection -- between Ram Dass-influenced kirtan singer Krishna Dass and heavy metal sex, drugs and rock'n'rollers Blue Öyster Cult -- intrigued me. "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" was ubiquitous in the last half of the 1970s. If you were in junior high school at the time, as I was, it was ambient.

For instance, "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" was in the franchise-creating 1978 John Carpenter film, Halloween. When my father and I saw it in a San Jose movie theater during its initial release, young men in the audience barked uncontrollably at the screen, "Gut her! Gut the bitch!" as a wounded Jamie Lee Curtis was stalked by the knife-wielding Michael Myers. My father was upset, nauseated; he turned to confront the young men, but I grabbed his arm and pleaded with him not to say anything. He turned backed toward the screen, grumbling, "House of illusion."

So how do you get from a Hippie Hindu sensibility to sadism, misogyny and a teenagers-having-sex snuff film?

The fact is the Blue Öyster Cult has better Punk credentials than most bands that emerged from the Age of Aquarius. Rock-critic sophisticate and Minutemen hero Richard Meltzer was a BÖC lyricist, as was Punk progenitor Patti Smith. Smith co-wrote and sings on "The Revenge of Vera Gemini," the final track on side one of Agents of Fortune. The Minutemen covered BÖC's "The Red & the Black" on their final studio album, 3-Way Tie (For Last) (1985):

If one watches the concert video of a show BÖC did in Maryland at the end of 1976, a time when Agents of Fortune is making its run up the charts, one realizes that the band is primarily a prog rock outfit with a nod here and there to what would come to be more commonly known as "heavy metal." Eric Bloom even treats the audience to a monologue devoted to the wonders of American exceptionalism, imploring them to go home after the show and write a letter to incoming president Jimmy Carter demanding that he decriminalize dope.

The Hippies were a confused bunch in 1976. Still wedded to fantasies of exceptionalism and a belief in the ballot box (at least a few states, forty years later, have proven that belief on the money when it comes to dope), they were a splintering mass of longhairs in Angels Flight disco attire, speculating about "E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)" -- the cut after "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" on Agents of Fortune -- while swapping lyrics with Punks and pouring on the fusion guitar licks.

No better example of the Hippies in 1976 -- the year all those seminal UK Punk bands form -- is Blue Öyster Cult's Agents of Fortune. The whole second side of the album is inscrutable to me. Maybe if I hadn't been zapped by a virus on Wednesday I would have figured it out.


  1. Nice piece. Thank you! Check out this article form the NYT which sheds some light on the connection.

  2. Thanks. I hyperlink to the citation you mention in the line "In actuality, Kagel claims in print to have been lead singer prior to the band even being called Soft White Underbelly." But, as I go on to say in the next paragraph, "I cannot find anything about Kagel mentioned in the 'History' section of BÖC's authoritative web site."