David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 178: Blue Oyster Cult (Death Valley Nights)

August 28, 2022

Today's entry is an incredible pop song on an incredibly crafted pop album, mostly remembered for its thunderous homage to Godzilla.  Sure, "Godzilla" will take many of us back to D&D games in our parents' basements (air guitar being a 1 or better on a 20-sided die), but Spectres had so many hidden gems: "I Love The Night, "Fireworks," "Going Through The Motions," "Nosferatu," and "Death Valley Nights," especially.

Blue Öyster Cult was coming off of the success of "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" and Agents of Fortune with Spectres, and yet no singles even penetrated radio. Perhaps there was some identity crisis, as if us fans didn't really know how to singularly identify with BÖC. The band name itself started the obfuscation, three words with no real connection (and the mysterious umlaut*), strung together. 4 of the 5 band members each had a lead vocal on the album, all five had co-song writing credits, but never with another band member. The lyrics, as they often had been for their albums before the Reaper success, were usually written by someone close to the band, Sandy Pearlman, Ian Hunter, Helen Wheels (honestly!), Bruce Abbot, and Richard Meltzer, rock critic and writer. It was as if a small cult was behind the album. Sure, all 4 Queen guys eventually wrote hits, but the band's identity was Freddie (iconic frontman), while BÖC's lead identity was Eric Bloom, hidden behind his sunglasses and beard. Did these guys even want to be pop stars?

Well, those hidden gems suggested they longed for that. "Death Valley Nights" seems a particularly lost cause.

Meltzer provided the lyrics for Albert Bouchard, BÖC drummer, to accompany with music for "Death Valley Nights." If the song had been Buck Dharma's, lead guitarist and writer/singer of "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" (and for the later BÖC hit "Burnin' For You"), maybe it would have been a hit (Dharma, with his pencil-mustache, seemed the best fit for spotlit front man). However, that is not how this cult worked.

Instead, it is the guy partially hidden by the massive drum kit that delivers the song. Meltzer's figure of speech of taking the lowest point of elevation in the United States as the epitome for the lows of a failed relationship bursts through the melodic soft tinkering of piano and guitars during the verses:

Bleached by the sun and scorned by the moon/

If I make it 'til tomorrow morn I'm leaving/

'tween the horror of space and the terror of time/

My heart in crystal, down the line I'm screaming.

Meltzer's landscape is brutal, his future of time and space frightening, setting up the kind of song we all anticipated from a band that had previously delivered "Hot Rails To Hell," "Career Of Evil," and "Harvester of Eyes."  As such, while the chorus and hook brings the full band into a frenzy, we sense the urgency of Meltzer's SOS (or maybe SÖS):

What I need is a kiss from you babe/

Before its hangover time/

What I need is some love from you babe

Before the stampede arrives.

As the chorus fades back to the softer instrumentation of the verses, wizards, paladins, dwarfs and elves all over the subterranean world of suburbia are pausing and asking each other, "Is this a love song? A love song by the Cult? I thought they said this ain't the summer of love?"

Within seconds we stopped caring, because while Bouchard's vocals carry an urgency, his drumming powers the frenzy. In the instrumental break between the chorus (2nd time) and the chorus (3rd time), Dharma's guitar licks suggest the possibility of ecstasy, but the drums are those stampeding horses (or shots of migraine pain) telling us the narrator's time is running short.

As the song fades out through the repeating "what I need . . . is Death Valley nights," the song stampedes, drums, piano and guitar all pushing us towards the inevitable end of the song, in some ways more painful than the end of the narrator's romance.

At some point in the 1980s, I read (and became enamored by) Frank Norris' McTeague, the 1899 American naturalist masterpiece about a brutish dentist whose pathetic arc of an adult life ends with him handcuffed to the dead body of his once-best-friend killed in their ridiculous frenzy of greed in the middle of Death Valley. I can't help but think of McTeague bleached by the sun and scorned by the moon. I wonder if Meltzer had read McTeague and brought my future favorite book to one of my favorite songs ever. I like to think so. Allow me to believe in such providence. After all, many a less-notable cult has formed over lesser signs of predestination.

*Curse this website for not allowing me to put umlauts in my headers.

Blue Oyster Cult. "Death Valley Nights." Spectres. Columbia, 1971. Link here.

Day 177: Young The Giant "God Made Man"

Day 179: The Jayhawks "Gonna Be A Darkness"

See complete list here.